Teaching about race
DelColle is committed to learning about other cultures. An avid traveler, she is shown on a visit to Egypt.
Whether it is through controversies over racial profiling and immigration or a top grossing movie like “The Help,” we are exposed to issues of race discrimination and its legacy on a daily basis. Last year’s riots in London and the massacre in Norway show us that the U.S. is not alone in experiencing racial tensions.

Race is often portrayed as a matter in which blame is assigned and victimization occurs, and it tends to cause both parties to react in a defensive manner. That’s just one reason why many educators will discuss issues of race only while teaching units on slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. We do our students a disservice, however, when we fail to help them understand that race affects everything from what we learn in school to the images we see in the media, and it is not just a black and white issue. Shying away from the topic will not change the fact that the color of someone’s skin has and often still does provide leverage or prove to be an obstacle in our society. Race can be an uncomfortable topic for discussion, but acknowledging the issue may help us eliminate existing inequalities and become better citizens.

Last summer I attended an institute on Race in American History and Culture, sponsored by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities (NJCH) and led by Rutgers University history professor Dr. Clement Price. I was fortunate to join 22 dynamic educators from throughout the state who gathered at Richard Stockton College to engage in a week-long professional development opportunity. The institute involved some intense learning and dialogue on the history of race and its consequences for today. Moreover, I learned that my American history curriculum provides numerous opportunities to address race relations. And my colleagues who taught other subject areas realized that the issue could be discussed in their classrooms as well.

Teaching about race in history class and beyond

Teaching about raceAn opportunity to expand the discussion of race in a United States history class would arise when covering Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. This episode is usually presented as an uprising of Virginians against what they perceived to be Governor William Berkeley’s friendly policies toward Native Americans. But the rebellion is also a chance to demonstrate how, throughout our history, artificial designations of race have been constructed for use as a social control by many in positions of power to drive a wedge between ethnic and socioeconomic groups. When blacks and poor whites, who outnumbered the ruling elite, joined for the protest, the ruling class responded by tightening rules involving slavery. This is an important lesson as it demonstrates the connection between race and economics. I ask my students, “In this situation, who benefitted from ‘seeing’ race?” Laying this groundwork will help generate more robust discussions about race and related topics such as poverty and justice later on.

Introducing the practice of “redlining” also helps students understand the relationship between race and economics. Explaining that banks and other businesses denied services to people of color — and that this practice was supported by federal policies that began during the New Deal, will allow for a more robust discussion of 20th-century urban decay and racial segregation. The restrictive covenants and “block busting” in cities contributed to the huge gap between rich and poor since the accumulation of wealth since the growth of the suburbs in the 1950s.

One session in the summer seminar was on race in American art, and it made quite an impression on me and my colleagues. We discovered that another great way to begin the discussion of race and identity is through the arts and current events.

For example, paintings such as “Near Andersonville” by Winslow Homer and the sculptures “Taking the Oath” and “Drawing Rations” by John Rogers, both of which are housed at the Newark Museum, can lead to a discussion about the Civil War and the role of race. Other paintings such as “Aspiration” by Aaron Douglas give vision to the sentiments of writers like W.E.B. DuBois and the idea of searching for an identity. Artists such as Matteson Tompkins address the treatment of native Americans in “The Last of the Race,” which illustrates Indian removal and the concept of Manifest Destiny.

 Jeanne DelColle
DelColle is blogging about  her experiences as N.J. Teacher of the Year at NJTOYMsD.blogspot.com
Another way to approach the topic is by showing your students paintings by Thomas Cole and Robert S. Duncanson. They will likely conclude that both artists painted beautiful landscapes and that it’s impossible to tell which artist is black and which is white. When classroom discussions center on works of art, I find that two simple questions will lead to a rich conversation: “What is it?” and “Why did it get made?”

Those same questions can be applied to movies, television and music videos, which allow you to discuss race in a contemporary context.

Ask your students what they think of the April 2008 Vogue magazine cover featuring LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen. They may find the photo by Annie Liebovitz rather innocuous. Then show them a World War I propaganda poster featuring a giant ape, representing the beast that was Germany, holding on to a fainting blonde woman who is supposed to represent Lady Liberty. Now what do they think? Of course, it’s imperative that you provide your students with a historical context. Explain that at the time, blacks were represented as ape-like to emphasize that their nature was supposed to be savage, brutal, lacking control and overtly sexual. This fear of black men’s sexuality versus white women’s virtue coincided with the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915 and was the justification for many of the lynchings that occurred in the south later in the century.

Finish the lesson by showing your students an image from the 1933 movie “King Kong.” In this beauty and the beast tale, Kong falls to his death from the Empire State Building after being wounded by military aircraft. Like many of the victims of lynchings, Kong’s death is blamed on his attraction for Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray). In fact, the movie closes with the line "No, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty that killed the Beast.”

In each case, the questions “What is it?” and “Why did it get made?” help students delve into the real story.

To engage or not to engage

In my 17 years of teaching, I have heard my fair share of ethnic slurs in hallways and the cafeteria and have seen the damage that stereotypes can cause in a classroom. During the NJCH institute, we discussed xenophobia and discrimination against more recent immigrants from South America and Asia. We learned that if handled skillfully, these occasions present teachable moments. But rather than engage in meaningful dialogue, too often teachers find themselves unable or unwilling to engage in discussion. Perhaps they fear they are missing a frame of reference or do not know how to tactfully deal with the situation. There is no doubt that it is easier to simply dismiss the comment or reprimand the students without opening a dialogue.

Unfortunately, ignoring racism doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, and it certainly doesn’t make it go away. Race and its legacy are always in the room, but the discussion of it has been largely silenced or relegated to history books. 

There is no doubt race is a sensitive topic, and in order to achieve deeper understanding and empathy, a non-threatening environment of trust and respect must be established in the classroom early in the year in a way that is non-threatening.         

I like to get my students involved with an activity called Vote With Your Feet. In each of the corners of the room is one of four signs that read “Strongly Agree,” “Agree” Somewhat,” “Disagree Somewhat” and “Strongly Disagree.” The whole class stands, and I read a statement such as “I believe that all people have an equal opportunity to succeed.” The students then have to move to the corner that applies to them. Once they are in their corners, someone from each corner justifies why he/she is there. The kids love the activity and it prompts great discussions, because when everyone participates, no one feels singled out.

It is best, however, not to wait until a racial issue pops up in order to have a discussion about it. By that time, people are already on the defensive. Racism needs to be discussed in a humanistic manner in relation to all subjects, and the students need to be involved in the discussion in a way that makes them feel safe.

  1. Be sure to set ground rules for the discussion. These work for my classroom:
  2. Respect. Think about what you say before you say it.
  3. Listen! Allow someone to finish a thought.
  4. No judgment. People need to feel safe to speak.
  5. Question. People need to be allowed to ask questions and not have others laugh at them.
  6. Remember. It is okay to agree to disagree. Not everyone thinks the same way you do.

Before there is any discussion on race, talk with your students about stereotypes in general. Ask what stereotypes apply to teenagers, children, adults, men, women, etc. Ask them if stereotypes apply to them.

If they start to feel emotional or defensive, ask them to think about why that is. Remind them that if they don’t like the bias in society, they should lead by example. Recognizing our own biases is the first step in making a conscious effort to change our thoughts and our behaviors. 

The triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true

Whether we like it or not, we live in a racialized society -- from the clothes we wear and the products we buy, to the neighborhoods we live in and the schools our children attend. According to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, New Jersey is the fifth most segregated state in the country for African Americans with 50.8 percent of black students in extremely segregated schools (where over 90 percent of the student body is minority), and the fourth most segregated state for Hispanics with 41.8 percent in extremely segregated schools. Still think we don’t need to talk about race? Perhaps the question should be: who benefits if we don’t talk about race?

Democracy is not a spectator sport and if the goal of education is to produce informed citizens and strengthen our democracy, then we all have a responsibility to participate in the discussion. An understanding of how racism has evolved and affected American history and culture may indeed help one to become a better citizen.

During a session on race and literature at the NJCH institute, I discovered a sentiment that sums up why I believe this topic is so critically important. W.E.B. Du Bois said it best in The Souls of Black Folk: “It is, then, the strife of all honorable men of the 20th century to see that in the future competition of races, the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and impudence and cruelty. To bring this hope to fruition, we are compelled daily to turn more and more to a conscientious study of the phenomena of race-contact,-- to a study frank and fair, and not falsified and colored by our wishes and fears.”

What was true then is equally true today. What better reason do we need?

As the current N.J. Teacher of the Year, Jeanne DelColle is on leave from her position of history teacher at the Burlington County Institute of Technology in Westampton. She has taught for 17 years. In 2010, she was selected as the N.J. Council for the Humanities Teacher of the Year. Contact Jeanne DelColle at jdelcolle@bcit.cc.