Writing Your Way to a New Theory of Race and Racism
In this class, you will use reading and writing to challenge your assumptions around race, to investigate your relationship to race, and to design a new cognitive paradigm around race and racism. The overall goal of the class is to empower you to author your own anti-racist paradigm, as articulated in your critical reading of cultural objects and patterns and in your critical reading of self as a producer of knowledge and paradigm.
Project 1: Building Shared Purpose, Building Shared Vocabulary
The purpose of this project is to build a shared understanding of collective purpose and a shared vocabulary around race, racism, and anti-racism.
To build shared trust and purpose, you will engage in deep listening activities with each other, experiencing essential differences between listening to respond and listening to understand, listening and hearing, etc. You will articulate hopes and fears, read anonymously in the group, and will craft questions you have always needed and longed to ask about race but have felt afraid to ask.
To master vocabulary around race, racism, and anti-racism, groups of students will study assigned vocabulary words and create examples of each word. You will then be tested on your mastery of vocabulary and provide examples of each vocabulary word. Vocabulary will include: race, racism, racist, anti-racist, structuralism, prejudice, discrimination, intersectionality, etc.
To think critically about the vocabulary around race, racism, and anti-racist, students in groups will choose a racial epithet or word used contemporaneously around race and present on its etymology: Where does the word come from? How has it been used? Why is it used, for what rhetorical purpose?
To build observational skills around race, you will make observations about race in the classroom: What patterns do you observe? Anomalies? What hypotheses can you construct about the patterns you observe? What inferences can you make? What questions can you form based on what you observe?
Retain and master vocabulary
Make fine distinctions
Form excellent questions
Building on opening activities, you will write a collective essay as a class, in which you will articulate some of your history around race, racism, and anti-racism, your purposes, your hopes and fears, your goals, and your questions.
Project 2: Production of Race as a Construct and Its Uses
The purpose of this second project is to enable students to conceptualize race as a social and cultural construct by allowing you to investigate and articulate how your local context constructs race.
Students will read Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to be Colored Like Me,” and write in response to a series of prompts meant to enable you to visualize the way you have participated in the construct of race: What is your earliest memory of understanding you are the race you identify as? What is your earliest memory of understanding what race someone else was? What is your strongest or most provocative memory of understanding what race you or someone else was? When have you been confused about the race you identify as or identify someone else as?
Students will read Passing, Nella Larsen, and Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong, and will consider: How do texts make use of categories of race? How do they question and trouble those categories?
Students will look at series of edited photographs showing Barack Obama appearing on a continuum between darker and lighter skinned. When does Obama “become” black? When does he “become” white?
Students will watch “Eye of the Storm” and consider: What is the purpose of racial classifications? What do you hypothesize to be their origin? Why are the “useful”? What purpose do they really serve?
Students will document commonly held assumptions about race, their own and others. Students will then read biology about race and challenge those assumptions based on their shared understanding.
Connect and apply content to revise assumptions
Students will engage in dialogue about the material in this unit, then document that dialogue in video, text, or audio. In the dialogue, students will reflect on the material in the unit, identify and discuss the assumptions you held about race, and reflect on which assumptions have become challenged and which you continue to question.
“How It Feels to be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston
Passing, Nella Larsen
Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong
“Eye of the Storm,” WIlliam Peters
Articles on race in media
Articles on race in biology
Project 3: Critical Reasoning around Race
The purpose of this project is to develop students’ ability to reason critically about representations of race in media, particularly those representations that depend upon statistics.
Students will consider commonly held assumptions about race, their own and others. Students will then research and news articles about race in America - for instance, how many people of color are incarcerated, what are the demographics of colleges in America. Students would then practice statistical reasoning to critically analyze and deconstruct representations of race in popular media, based on research: Based on these numbers, what inferences do readers make? What fallacies exist in these inferences? What biases are embedded in the collection and representation of these statistics?
Students will consider maps of race in America: Where do white majority communities exist? Where do communities of color exist? Where does integration and segregation appear? Students will create and test hypotheses.
Discern premises and assumptions in media and statistical representations of race
Make and monitor inferences
Make and test hypotheses
Identify fallacies in reasoning
Make distinctions between predictive and descriptive function of statistics
Students will work in pairs to select an article in the media that employs statistics OR a map that represents race, then to present a critical analysis of that article or map.
Maps and articles in media
Project 4: The History of White Supremacy
The purpose of this unit is to understand how race has been used historically to support white supremacy in America.
Students will read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn through the lense of the following questions: How does the text construct whiteness and blackness? What values does it associate with each? How does the construct of whiteness depend upon the construct of blackness and vice versa?
Students will read excerpts from other historical treatments of race, including How the Irish Became White, The Wages of Whiteness, et al.
Students will consider how white supremacy employs a theory of race currently: Who is “white” in America? Who is “colored”? How do these notions interact and depend upon each other?
Discern rhetorical purpose of text
Sense implied meaning
Read for tone (irony)
Move from concrete to abstract, abstract to concrete
Connect between text, self, and world
Students will write a critical essay on race in one of the texts read in this unit: How does race get produced in the text and why? Who benefits from this formulation of race?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
How the Irish Became White, Michael Ignatiev
The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, David Roediger
Project 4: White Supremacy, the Contemporary Scene
The purpose of this project is to enable students to extend and apply your learning about the history of racism and white supremacy to contemporary America.
Students will practice these strategies as a group by applying deconstructive reading techniques to Darren Wilson’s testimony in the shooting of Michael Brown to see how his testimony - in how it represents Michael Brown in racist ways - subverts the claims it makes to his own innocence.
Students will consider one of the following issues in contemporary America and apply to that issue their current understanding of race, racism, and white supremacy:
The rhetoric of political correctness
The critique of affirmative action
The resistance to slavery reparations
The debate on immigration
The war on terror
Segregation in public schools
The nation’s response to Barack Obama
The election of Donald Trump
Blue Lives Matter movement
Apply content to novel problems
Make fine distinctions
Students in groups will present their topic, their research, and your findings on how white supremacy extends itself from history to present day.
Testimony by Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/11/25/us/darren-wilson-testimon...) and commentary by Ta-Nehisi Coates (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/11/barack-obama-fergus...)
Additional materials provided by students.
Project 5: Reading Racial Objects
The purpose of this unit is to extend your ability to read critically race by inviting you to consider a cultural object - a work of art, a piece of music, a video, a cultural event, a toy, an advertisement, etc. - through an anti-racist lense.
Students will bring in a cultural object that relates to race in some fashion. Class will perform short critical “practice” readings of the object and share with class: What details stand out to you? What patterns do you observe? Who produces the object, why, and for what audience/consumer? What assumptions does it make about race - how does it construct race? What races does the object empower/disempower and how?
Students will read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and consider how the text represents a model for the kind of criticism they are attempting to practice.
Students will view Dana Shutz’s painting Open Casket, read danez smith’s “Scene: Portrait of a Black Boy with Flowers”, and view Ken Gonzalez-Day’s “Erased Lynchings” series (http://kengonzalesday.com/erased-lynchings/): Who gets to represent race, racism, and its effects in America? Who does not? What are the aesthetic dimensions of these arguments? What are the ethical dimensions of these arguments?
Observe of detail, pattern, contradiction
Reason critically about producer of content and consumer
Students individually will select a cultural object and create a presentation of that object and their critical reading of that object.
Citizen, Claudia Rankine
Open Casket, Dana Shutz
danez smith’s “Scene: Portrait of a Black Boy with Flowers”
Ken Gonzalez-Day’s “Erased Lynchings” series
Project 6: Memoirs of Race
The purpose of this activity is to reground concepts of race, racism, and anti-racism as individual constructs and to ask students to reconnect to those concepts by constructing personal histories around race.
Read excerpts from Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez and Go Tell It On a Mountain, James Baldwin: How do these writers write about race? How do they “discover” their race? How do they construct race in their memoirs? What assumptions do they make and what are they based upon?
Watch I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck.
Return to initial questions in the course:
What is your earliest memory of understanding you are the race you identify as? What is your earliest memory of understanding what race someone else was? What is your strongest or most provocative memory of understanding what race you or someone else was? When have you been confused about the race you identify as or identify someone else as?
Peer feedback: Help your peer understand how they construct race: What are their assumptions? What contradictions exist? What are the implications of how they have lived race that they are unaware of?
Recall in detail
Connect details to discern patterns
Move from concrete to abstract
Construct compelling anecdote
Students will write a 4 - 5 page memoir of race, in which you endeavor to understand how you construct race and why, based on personal experience. The “best” memoirs will make visible the cognitive, personal, and historical process by which students construct and experience race.
Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez
Go Tell It On a Mountain, James Baldwin
I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck
For the final project, students will read Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates and will write a letter to their (imagined) child. The premise is that race, racism, and anti-racism have to be passed down and taught. This project will document essential questions: How have you constructed race and why? How do you currently wish to construct race and why? What do you wish to pass down to their children about race and racism?
The course’s primary mechanisms will be reading and writing, understood not just as forms of thinking but of forms of acting: in the same way that John Berger understands demonstrations to be “rehearsals for revolution … of revolutionary awareness,” (“The Nature of Mass Demonstrations”) the course understands reading and writing as rehearsals for anti-racist action. The course assumes, too, that racism is designed and authored; literally, individuals create racist paradigms. Better reading and writing leads to better thinking around race; the essential intervention this syllabus suggests is that good design thinking creates good constructs around race.
An assumption the syllabus makes is that courses on race literature, history, and theory can fail to transform the attitudes of their students because they focus on content and not on skill; the related assumption is that racism is a catastrophic failure of cognitive and imaginative skills. To become anti-racist, you must gain critical thinking skills, develop the capacity to self-implicate, and understand how your imaginations produce racist constructs - and how they might not.
The syllabus above poses as a syllabus for a high school class, but really exists as a syllabus for fellow teachers to consider. So while the voice suggests that the document literally would serve as the syllabus for a class, the diction and theory reveal the document to be a work of fiction, intended for an audience other than the class.
Also, most syllabi have biases built into their design: biased toward content, they list the texts to be used in the course; biased toward compliance, they often describe the rules, regulations, and penalties that will govern the students’ experience in the course. This syllabus attempts to have different biases: toward skills, student experience, and transparent teaching practice. The clearer, more intentional, and more transparent the teaching, the more student-centered the learning.
This syllabus is designed for the context in which I teach: a white majority, elite private boarding school in suburban Westchester. The syllabus assumes a white majority enrollment in the course and a prevailing consciousness of the white majority, even though the course would be open to all students regardless of their racial identification. The course is not neutral: it posits that a white majority context is likely a white supremacist context and actively works to subvert that. This endeavor is particularly crucial in an elite boarding school, one of whose functions is to replicate and legitimize stratifications in class, race, gender, and sexuality groupings.
The course is constituted of a series of projects, in which students apply and demonstrate their learning in authentic ways; exercise meaningful choices in design and content; construct knowledge; and experience intrinsic motivation and satisfaction. The projects are carefully scaffolded, though, so that students develop skills which they extend, bundle, and grow more proficient in over time.
Tests have limited efficacy as tools for deep learning, but are occasionally useful to this course. As tests have been shown to increase short-term retention, tests in the course would help students develop a working familiarity with important vocabulary we would return to throughout the year.
One measure of success of the course is if students begin to have conversations about race in local, specific contexts - if they could name the thing that often goes unnamed: How race exists, is constructed, and operates in the very room they occupy. In this way, students would bring to bear race theory on their lived experience in the classroom, moving beyond the dual traps: defaulting to theory in the abstract; defaulting to the individual, confessional mode.