Teaching Race: Provocation

From the Series: Teaching Race

Photo by John T. Bledsoe.

When I first started teaching undergraduates, I presented my “What is race?” lesson more often than any other. It made an appearance in nearly every course; I knew that my courses might be the only official encounter that students have with anthropology, and I see a critique of racial ideology and its roles in systems of inequality as one of the most important perspectives we offer.

Surprisingly little research has examined what actually happens in anthropology classrooms when we teach about race, but available evidence (e.g., Hunsecker 2015) suggests that my approach is not unusual.

I often started with a classic “think-pair-share” activity: I asked students to brainstorm a list of racial categories they typically use when referring to people and a list of characteristics they use to determine what race someone is. After a few minutes, they would share and discuss their lists with another student in the class. Of course, their lists were never the same; they had different numbers of categories, different names for them, and different ways of assigning people to them.

The activity would lead into a discussion of the many problems with dividing humans into discrete biological racial categories, as well as the sociocultural construction of those categories. We talked about the clinal nature of human biological variation and looked specifically at the continuum of skin color variation. We examined census categories from around the world to see how the number and names of racial groups, as well as the characteristics used to define them, change from place to place, and students would consider how their own classification in the United States may have shifted at various points in time. I took pains to emphasize that definitions of racial categories are culturally specific, as we compared hypodescent—the so-called one-drop rule—in the United States with racial categorization in Latin America. We generally concluded that race is not a helpful way of understanding human biological variation but that, as a cultural system, it has powerful effects on our lives.

The idea that confronting racism requires us to first dismantle understandings of race has a long history in anthropology (Benedict 1945; Montagu 1972) and is reflected in our pedagogy. In a survey of 233 anthropologists teaching introductory courses, Jennifer Hunsecker (2015) found that over 70 percent of faculty identify the idea of race as a cultural construction that is not biologically useful as central to the current anthropological understanding of race and among the most important points that introductory students should learn.

I don’t question the importance of this larger anthropological project, but I am less and less convinced about the usefulness of this approach in the classrooms where I teach. Certainly, students appreciate this perspective, as it tends to confirm views they already hold. Invariably, as they make their initial lists of categories, several students list only one race—the human race. Some assert that race doesn’t matter, and they are happy to learn from my class (although this is not my intent) that race isn’t “real.”

For these young students living in an ostensibly “postracial” America (Goldberg 2015), an anthropological critique of racial categories is an easy sell. But it can also be a dangerous one.

I am increasingly troubled as I see students interpret my attention to the historical context of the development of race (I focus on European colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the eugenics movement) as support for the notion that racism was primarily a problem of the past. I hear some students use the language of social construction to argue that racial data should no longer be collected on college applications or that scholarships targeting students of color are discriminatory. For other students, especially racialized minorities, this anthropological critique of race seems insignificant and unrelated to their lived experiences of bigotry and discrimination.

These issues can be harder to address in the classroom and are too often pushed to the side in favor of a critique of biological categories. Jennifer Hunsecker’s (2015) findings reveal that many fewer anthropology faculty (only about 11 percent) identify issues of race and power or antiracism as essential aspects of an anthropological perspective, and that much less time and attention is given to discussing racism in introductory classes.

On the one hand, our avoidance of these topic reflect deep inequities in the field and the ways in which anthropology remains white public space (Brodkin, Morgen, and Hutchinson 2011; see also Anderson 2014; Smedley and Hutchinson 2012). At the same time, teaching about racism involves different challenges than those posed by teaching about race. How do we respond to the emotional resonance and volatility of conversations around racism in the United States when it emerges in our classrooms? How do we address the often conflicting perspectives and concerns of racialized majority and minority students? Is it possible to teach about racism while maintaining a classroom that is receptive and feels safe for all students (and faculty)?

Like other faculty (e.g., Antrosio 2012), I am in the process of shifting my approach to teaching about race. My “What is race?” lesson, with its focus on social construction and flawed assumptions about biology, is no longer at the center of the discussion, but a prelude to more in-depth examinations of what race does and the brutal ways it justifies and maintains social inequality to the point of becoming embodied (Gravlee 2009).

But I cannot ignore the ways in which teaching about racism means confronting anger and pain, and I struggle to develop effective ways to do so. Our students are not blank slates; they come to our classes with socially structured backgrounds and lived experiences that affect their engagement with course topics. Understanding these perspectives and paying greater attention to the affective dimensions of pedagogy is essential as we work to develop effective ways of confronting racism and power through our teaching.


Anderson, Ryan. 2014. “Anthropology: It’s Still White Public Space—An Interview with Karen Brodkin.” Savage Minds, November 15.

Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Teaching Race Anthropologically—Course Resources.” Living Anthropologically, July 23.

Benedict, Ruth. 1945. Race: Science and Politics. New York: Viking.

Brodkin, Karen, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson. 2011. “Anthropology as White Public Space?American Anthropologist 113, no. 4: 545–56.

Goldberg, David Theo. 2015. Are We All Postracial Yet? Malden, Mass.: Polity.

Gravlee, Clarence C. 2009. “How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139, no. 1: 47–57.

Hunsecker, Jennifer Gilroy. 2015. “Teaching about Race in Introductory Anthropology Courses: An Ethnographic Study.” PhD dissertation, University of South Florida.

Montagu, Ashley. 1972. Statement on Race: An Annotated Elaboration and Exposition of the Four Statements on Race Issued by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smedley, Audrey, and Janis Faye Hutchinson, eds. 2012. Racism in the Academy: The New Millennium. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.