Why Teach Race?

We’ve launched a new series that we’ve titled “Department Dialogue.” This series offers our professors a platform they can use to discuss English-related topics that are of interest to both faculty and students alike. We continue the series with responses to the question: what is the place of race and racial issues in English Studies?


Eva Grouling Snider, Professional Writing:

I have several different exigencies for addressing race in my classrooms. First, in several of my classes, students conduct primary research and fieldwork. Thinking about diversity (including race, gender, sexuality, and other diversity axes) not only makes them more thoughtful when crafting survey and interview questions, but it also has a positive effect on my students’ participants. For a class that is first and foremost about language usage, thinking about the language we use to represent people and the
social effects of different kinds of language use is a natural fit.

I also teach visual design in several classes, and race is also an issue when it comes to visual design. Visual representations of non-white races are far too infrequent and far too coded with visual signifiers of racial stereotypes. I talk to my stuwocintech.jpgdents about finding and using photography that does more than just nod at being diverse. For instance, #WOCinTech recently released a series of stock photos of women of color working in tech-related fields. I tell my students that they should strive to use these kinds of images not as a novelty but as a default.

In both cases, I tell my students that it’s not about them. Their personal experiences, their positions on different diversity axes: of course they matter, but when you’re talking about communication, it’s the people on the other end that truly matter. I feel that every public communicator has a moral obligation to undercut racial prejudice and make people feel welcome and accepted, and that’s something I try to pass on to my students.

Kathryn Gardiner, Screenwriting:

With my English 310 – Introduction to Screenwriting students, I always take a day to discuss Hollywood’s history of “white washing” characters of color, or leaving them out of movies and television entirely. I start the discussion by taking a few minutes to let Dylan Marron’s “Every Single Word” channel on YouTube play. Marron set out to highlight the industry’s diversity problem by editing down films to only the moments wherein a person of color speaks. The entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, for example, becomes less than 45 seconds long (a few Maori actors played the Orcs). Letting the channel play, we end up seeing about 15 feature-length films in under 10 minutes. When asked what they observe, my students note that all the parts were service roles, either literally servants or servers within the story, or simply a function of the story delivering exposition. 

We also discuss the controversial casting of all white actors in films like “Exodus” and “Stonewall,” as well as the uproar that comes when a Black actor is considered for a historically white role, such as Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch, Idris Elba as James Bond, or Donald Glover as Spider-Man. 

While there’s occasionally some discomfort with the seriousness of the topic, the discussions always end up positive and meaningful with students engaging their own acknowledged biases, recognizing a lack of diversity in their favorite media, or positing how things might change. Hearing my students of color share how being invisible or underrepresented in media has impacted their lives and self-esteem has been especially powerful. Once the door is open, I’ve seen a hunger and eagerness to examine the topic. One entire class stayed 15 minutes past their class time to continue the discussion, and more than one student has thanked me after the session was over. 

I admit, I’m anxious every time I set out to teach this lesson plan, but it’s been incredibly rewarding, and I feel it’s a crucial topic to address with aspiring film writers. Movies and television have real-world impact. For better or worse, a fictionalized account of an historic event can supplant the actual event in the minds of the public, so it is terribly harmful when men and women of color are erased from their true heroic roles in those events. That we, as audiences, are rarely asked to empathize with the hopes, dreams, and lives of people of color has a tangible and dangerous effect on our culture. That dragons, magical rings, and wizarding schools are somehow less fantastical than a Black man as James Bond should concern us all.

I’ve not been teaching long, but already I’ve had former students return to tell me about a discussion they got into with friends regarding representation, or to ask me for a link to a video I showed so they can share it with someone else. They’re continuing the conversation, and just as importantly, they’re thinking about it as they write. That feels like a strong step in a good direction.

Angela Jackson-Brown, Creative Writing

Excerpt from “Teaching in a World Filled with Trayvon Martins”:

I try to Conference with all of my students in all of my classes near the beginning of the semester. I want to get to know them on a personal level, if possible. I always tell my Black male students I expect better than their best because they have a generation on their heels that will need their leadership and their counsel. But, don’t get me wrong. I also offer them my Mommy ears. Many of them are away from their Moms for the first time, so I often get treated like the surrogate mom. I don’t mind it. My prayer, always is, if I can’t be there for my sons, please allow there to be some other mama who can step up and offer them some motherly words of wisdom. So when these young men come to me, I listen to their fears, their concerns and their worries, because I know what it is like to be “one of the only Black students” at a predominantly White school. I know what it feels like to wonder, “Am I good enough?” or “Should I really be here?”

To my fellow teachers (regardless of your ethnicity, social and economic level, gender, sexual orientation, etc.): These young men might enter your classroom looking angry, bored, hostile, etc. Don’t buy it. They are only wearing that mask in order to protect themselves. They are afraid you are going to “punk them,” “make fun of them,” and/or “shame them.” So, before you can GET them, they try to GET you. Therefore, I challenge you – reach out to these young men and let them know they can remove their masks in your classroom, because in your classroom, masks are not required.

Visit Angela’s blog to read the rest of this post.

Emily Rutter, Literature:

In America, race is always already shaping the discourse in our classrooms—whether we are confronting it head-on or dancing deftly around it. Our nation, despite claims in recent years of our post-racialness, remains thoroughly racialized. American literature is a particularly valuable entry point for discussing the ways in which we are all raced, for imaginative texts push us beyond our lived experiences and, importantly, our comfort zones. From Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, we learn “the definition of paradox: Black boys with beach houses,” and that being upper-class African American teenagers “could mess with your head sometimes” (71-72). Alternatively, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony tells us, “They blame us, the ones who look different. That way they don’t have to think about what has happened inside themselves” (92). These writers, among scores of others, illuminate the fallacies of race—what my English 491 students and I have been calling the “story” of race—but also the way it functions, granting unearned privilege to some and reinforcing disadvantage for others. Even when writers perpetuate facile assumptions about otherness, they present us with an opportunity to investigate why we find their representations problematic. In the process, we confront our own racial assumptions and, ideally, are able to move away from sweeping generalizations and toward the appreciation of individuals. Of course, we will not solve the racial prejudices and divisions that have plagued this nation for centuries within a single course, but talking about these issues in open, honest, and intentional ways is a necessary first step.

Debbie Mix, Literature:

I value teaching diverse literature because it’s powerful to read work by someone who looks like you and shares your experiences, and it’s important to read about experiences and cultures that are unlike your own.

Molly Ferguson, Literature:

The college classroom is one of the last places where genuine dialogue about race seems possible, and where transformation and self-reflection can happen for all of us. Living in a white, cis-gendered body, my privilege insulates me from bringing race up in the classroom, but my commitment to antiracism means that I need to start these conversations. My area of expertise in postcolonial studies often makes dialogue about race organic, but even when I teach British literature I guide students to listen for the voices that are not typically represented in the canon, and to ask why. For me the study of literature is all about learning empathy, so my students are well positioned to interrogate power relationships and to understand the impact of historical disadvantages. I am constantly evolving and progressing in my own awareness of racism, and my students are always teaching me through their vantage points.

Levi Todd, Undergraduate #bsuenglish Major and Founder of Reacting Out Loud:

As English students, a great deal of us will be entering positions where we initiate conversations, whether via advertising, PR, creative writing, academia, etc. Racial inequality is a topic that gets largely ignored in America, and it’s up to those in positions of power (hopefully our alumni) to amplify marginalized voices, and
be informed about the power dynamics based on race. If we are studying the role of words in our daily lives, it follows that we should study whose words are given more or less importance in our society, and what we can do to balance it.

ABT PosterLyn Jones, English Ed:

In light of these issues, four students in the Department of English studying English Education formed The Alliance of Black Teachers (A.B.T.) Club in 2015. Their mission was to connect students to peers, professionals, organizations, institutions, and resources that support Black students in the field of education and broaden the development, retention, and recruitment of Black teachers, as well as to provide a safe space for students to openly talk and share issues of race.

The A.B.T. encourages ALL students, faculty, and staff (Black and non-Black) to attend and join these club meetings. You can visit our blog post for Spring 2016 meeting info, and join the A.B.T. on Facebook.

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  1. Much of this discussion of race draws on the visual, but the spoken is also an important arena in which race and ethnicity are strongly marked. Rosina Lippi-Greene, in her English with an Accent, discusses the use of dialect and accent in Disney feature length cartoons, and shows how Disney has frequently used accent as a way of defining character. Heroes almost always speak American English with a Midwestern (Northern Midlands) accent. Villains frequently have a British or perhaps foreign accent. African-American and Southern speech are often used for humorous or otherwise stigmatized characters. The field of perceptual dialectology, developed by Dennis Preston, explores in some depth how we perceive accent and dialect. The judgments we make on the basis of accent and dialect are among the least critically examined judgments of all.

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