My “first day” comments in a class about race

The link from pitse1eh reminded me that I said I’d post my “first day” comments that I emailed to her. This is a follow up to my earlier post on teaching about race.  These are my rough notes that I speak from, not a polished set piece, but they will give you the flavor of how I try to set the tone.  I tell the students I’m giving them the pep talk.

Introduce topic and me.
1.    Topic: social movements approach to ethnic groups.  Key is emphasis on politics and grassroots action.  Not economic studies of discrimination, although sometimes we’ll cite those.  Not lifestyle or cultural diversity, except as it comes into the political story.  Not music, dance, drama, food.  Instead matters of how you know who you are as a member of a larger group, what do you think that group is, how do you act together.  It will turn out that a central theme of ethnic history in America, maybe the central theme, is: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE AN AMERICAN?  Who is a  REAL American?

2.    I’ll be stressing that everybody has an ethnicity.  There is a tendency for “white” European-Americans whose ancestors migrated more than three generations ago to think they have no ethnicity, they are “just American.”  I’ll be showing you that you are just as ethnic as everybody else is.

3.    Me:  I am an expert on SM.  Still learning about ethnic history, the more I learn the more I realize how little I really know.  We will learn together.  I want to say the obvious: I am white and I know I’m white.  I know I cannot tell you from personal experience about being “minority.”  I do read lots of books written by Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and try to learn from their voices what they feel about their lives, and what they think about their situation and political ways of dealing with it.  So when I talk about what minorities think, that is where the information is coming from. I have learned a lot over the years from the students in this class who tell me what they think.

4.    Personal issues:  One thing I’ve learned is that all Americans have problems with race and ethnicity.  There is a real sense in which US is inherently racist, in a way that goes beyond the personal feelings of any particular individual.  I want to talk about these as structural, social problems rooted in history and the legacies of history.   We will try to talk about how these structures got set up through the past actions of people, and how they constrain our choices today.  We will talk about stereotypes and prejudice as consequences of these structures and constraints.

There’s a lot of talk lately about “white men” being picked on, feeling threatened, as the only group it is safe to trash.  I think it may help up front if we try to see that every group in America feels this way right now.  We all feel stereotyped and put down for what we are.  We are all wanting to be appreciated for our unique individuality, at the same time as we want to be able to be proud of our background and roots.

Let’s just say up front that we all have group similiarities and differences.  All the whites, blacks, asians, hispanics, native americans in this class; all the men and women, all the heterosexuals and the gays and lesbians in the class; all the Christians, Jews, believers in other religions, and those who do not believe in any religion all want to say to everybody else in the room: Some of us come from wealthy families, and some of us come from poor families; some of us work long hours to support ourselves in school, and some of us are supported by our families; some of us have parents who went to college, and some of us are the first in our family to go to college; some of us are ignorant and prejudiced, and some of us have a lot of experience working with other racial and ethnic groups.  Many of us come from multi-racial families.  Some of us are conservative, some of us are liberal, some of us are radical, and some of us don’t care about politics at all.  Everybody in this class wants to say: please do not assume you know about me from superficial things like my skin color or my accent or my gender.

5.    There’s a cartoon that used to be on an office door upstairs that captures another important theme.  It shows a group of whites sitting around a living room and one person saying: “Why can’t we all ignore our differences and just get along?”  The next panel is a group of blacks sitting around a living room with one person saying: “Why can’t we all accept our differences and just get along?”  Almost everybody really wants to get along.  But there are emphases about whether we get along by ignoring our differences, or by accepting them.  And if we accept them, how can we accept difference in a way that doesn’t mean we think less of our own culture?

6.    All term we’ll want to be talking about structure and agency.  The US is a very individualized culture, and we tend to think that everything is a matter of being a good person.  We tend to imagine that if you have a good character and the right values, you can automatically transcend your race, or your class background.  As a sociologist, it is my job to teach you how much what you do and what you believe is a product of the particular circumstances you have grown up in.  At the same time, I do not want to deny agency.  People can and do make choices.  What I will show you, however, is that most significant social change happens by way of collective agency. [Draw picture: society as constraints, you make individual choices within the circle of constraints.  But collective agency is how you challenge the size and shape of the circle.]

7.    I also want you to be able to get a sense of history, a sense of where things come from.  Do you remember the beating of Rodney King in 1992?  And the LA riots that followed?  The meaning of the KKK.  Where affirmative action comes from.  Need to understand how past actions created present structures, and how the conflicts today are located in the context of what has come before.  We can be proactive and create a new future, but only if we are willing to look honestly at what has come before us.
8. Encourage students to speak up when they disagree. Talk about how we all are likely to get upset about something. Classroom rule of civility and listening.  No personal attacks. Try to understand what the other person is saying. If you find something upsetting, try to explain why. Students are encouraged to write in their daily journal comments [which I read after every class] if they are upset or concerned about something that happened in class.

9. Introduce me. [[In a small class, I encourage all the students to do similar introductions about themselves.  I don’t always have time for this on the first day, but I do stick in stories about my experiences throughout the term.]]  A little about me. I grew up in Torrance, 3rd largest city in LA county.  No blacks at the time I was there (through 1967).  They were being kept out explicitly; there were sit-ins and civil rights marches for integration after I left.  Quite a few Mexican Americans & Japanese Americans in my school.   All spoke English, little ethnic consciousness that I was aware of.  Civil rights movement was in the South.  Watts riot 1965.  Grandparents in the riot area.  College: read lots of black literature.  Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X required reading.  Took other courses.  Anti war movements, black power, black separatism.  More riots.  Grad school in the south.  Saw separate black, white waiting rooms; the shadows from the old white/colored signs still on the doors.  Memories of segregation were very vivid in the early 1970s.  In the south, people knew race discrimination was real.  In the newly integrated school, kids tried to get to know each other.  Traditional black areas of southern cities.  Louisville during the anti-bussing riots.  Neighborhood groups: people trying to be nonracist in a polarized climate.  This city seemed very white when I moved here.  It was.  Listening to the coded racism of the White areas.  I’m your basic guilty liberal.  Privileged.  Educated.  Now working on racial disparities, involvement in mixed-race groups. Teaching this class. I’ve learned a lot, but there is still a lot I don’t know.  Every time I teach this class, I learn from the students.

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teaching about race (me too)

Belle just offered her great post on teaching about race posted both here at Scatterplot and on her own blog, responding to pitse1eh’s blog. Both got great comments and useful links. This made me want to dust off my own essay on the subject. The core of this is an article I originally published in Feminist Voices, a Madison newspaper, in January of 1998. I’ve revised this several times since, including some revisions for this blog forum.

It is something of a truism among sociologists that the hardest thing to teach our students is the idea of social structure. The US has an extremely individualist culture, and we tend to think of race problems as reducible to individual choices, either blaming poor people for poverty and the consequences of poverty, or blaming prejudiced people for not being accepting of difference. It is very hard to get past this, and understand why we are in structures that shape these behaviors and attitudes. Continue reading “teaching about race (me too)”