Mervan Osborne’s recent post made a
great deal of sense to me. As a former
high school history and humanities teacher (independent and public schools) and
a member of the Education Department at Tufts, I found that race was a topic that,
in some way, shape, manner, or form I had to address with my students every
day. The term, as we all know, is
loaded. It carries with it a great deal
of baggage. Our students have generally
learned that it is a subject to avoid in public, because it can suddenly turn
But, as teachers, we can’t ignore
itfor all the reasons that Mervan noted.
So, how to address it? There
isn’t just one way or one safe way or one perfect way to do so. I will, however, offer some thoughts on
things that I have tried in order to raise the issue in a productive wayone
that fostered discussion and interest rather than falling into preaching or
What’s in my students’ heads? That’s what I need to know first. I often, therefore, try to “deteach”
initially. What are the pictures they
carry around with them? Where are they
coming from? I often ask the class to
draw a physicist as quickly as possible.
Usually, the drawings come out as a cross between Albert Einstein and
me. Only rarely will the physicist be a
woman. Indeed, only occasionally is any
image other than that of a bald white guy with a pencil protector in his pocket
very common. Why is that? We know intellectually that physicists come
in all shapes, sizes, and colors. But
our experience tends to push us toward a common, widely recognized image. We carry, even with all our content
knowledge, pictures in our mind, and these pictures have power. Right after World War II, Otto Klineberg
defined those pictures in our minds in an article on differences as
I often use this Garry Trudeau cartoon
I ask my students if they
think it is true. Invariably, they
do. Women tend to speak about it more
quickly. They are always making
calculations about safety and are allowed to say so. Although many men also make similar judgments, it usually takes
them a little longer to comment about the accuracy of the scene that Trudeau
His use of “risk” factors and “mitigating
factors” mocks the processes we go through.
These factors are, of course, all pre-judgments that we make. I’ve met many teachers who want to speak
about race in class, and some of them try to create a setting of openness by
declaring that there will be “no prejudices in this class.” That often results in no class at all. We have to recognize that we all carry
stuff. The point of looking at
Trudeau’s cartoon and then talking about our own mental processes in such
circumstances is that we have to recognize the differences between the facts of
a situation and our prejudices about them.
Our language itself is filled with
assumptions and judgments. High school
students often see the word “discrimination,” like the word “prejudice,” as a
“bad” word. Someone who is guilty of
discriminating is a racist.
Discrimination, of course, literally means the ability to tell
differences. Don’t we want our students
to know how to do that? Of course, we
do. If we teach about race, therefore,
we have to be able to define our words precisely. Words that we often use carelessly have to be clearly understood
when we use them in this context.
Equality is such a word. We talk about it as if we all agree about
what it means and what its implications are.
I often have enjoyed putting the famous words from the Declaration of
Independence on the board. “We hold
these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness….” Although students are rarely
asked to memorize these any more, the phrases are quite familiar. But they are less often discussed.
I ask my students where this comes
from. Often the results are mixed: the Declaration of Independence and the
Constitution are usually guessed. If
you ask how many are sure they know where this comes from and whether they
would bet on it, their degree of certainty will drop appreciably. This has taught me much, too. Few students actually know the difference
between those essential American documents.
When then asked whether they agree
with this, most say yes. If I press
them (and you can see that I love to do so), often a young woman can usually be
counted upon to question the “all men” section. I then ask them whether they believe that all people were created
equal. They often become
uncomfortable. They know that some
members of the class seem “smarter” than others. They realize that some are better athletes. What does equal mean? Equal how?
When? In what context?
I then often use the Kurt Vonnegut
short story, “Harrison Bergeron.”
Vonnegut’s story forces us to confront a futuristic society in which
everyone, except the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, is made
equal. Mental and physical handicaps
are used to slow down or weaken the strong and, therefore, enforce
equality. Is that a good society? A good idea? A bad society? A bad
idea? Would you want to live there? Why or why not?
What does that tell us about
society? What does that tell us about
equality? What does that tell us about
This story makes us
uncomfortable. It takes a concept that
we think we know and carries it to an extreme that worries us. When we no longer recognize our society,
does that help us understand our own?
There is a huge gulf between recognition and understanding.
I have now gone on for nearly a
thousand words and I haven’t really talked about starting a discussion of
race. Instead, I have asked students to
think about what they think they know, to look at a cartoon, and to define some
words that we will need. All these are
essential to help us talk about race intelligently and carefully. We’ll look at more stories, photos,
drawings, and primary source statements as we move along. But these early activities are, I think,
critical in setting the stage for the discussions that we need to continue all
year. All this initial work reminds me
of the last line of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s
Complaint. After Portnoy’s two
hundred and seventy-four pages of kvetching
(Yiddish for complaining), the last line of the novel reads, “So [said the
doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to
Cohen, Professor of Education, Tufts University