Tackling the Elephant in the Room

A Guide to Teaching Race after Charlottesville

The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville embodied the ongoing racist ideologies that have permeated the United States since its inception. As a biological anthropologist, I was simultaneously horrified and unsurprised by the events that unfolded. I reflected on what I, as an anthropologist, could do about it—now. I began to revise my fall syllabi: I pledged not only to develop thoughtful lessons but also to promote engaged discussion about human variation, diversity, and race both in and out of the classroom.

Focusing on topics of human diversity is crucial to realizing cultural shifts in how we, as humans, view these issues. Although discussing race can be uncomfortable for students and professors alike, it is no longer an option for us to remain neutral. As Desmond Tutu said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Indeed, it’s time to tackle the elephant.

“Black Lives Matter.” Ella/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Whether you consider yourself a seasoned expert or a novice, contributing to a dialogue that highlights different approaches and techniques will only strengthen our teaching of race. I use a two-pronged strategy that begins immediately at the start of the semester: 1) building trust and 2) engaged learning strategies.

Building Trust

Discussing race and racism requires trust, first and foremost. My goal is to develop and nurture a student-instructor relationship based on mutual trust, compassion, and respect throughout the semester, and it begins on the first day of class. I provide students with ground rules for discussion, which include confronting the idea, and not the person, and I ask students to finish this statement:  “I wish my professor knew…”  Students’ incredibly personal responses are stunning. In turn, I share what I wish they knew. This “first day” activity affirms that I value students’ lived experiences and fosters an atmosphere of respect and inclusion.

Throughout the semester I focus on the importance of self-reflection, challenging one’s bias, and addressing tension—sometimes with humor. Periodically providing students with a 5-minute self-reflective writing prompt at the end of class enables them to express any frustration, tension, and questions they may not feel comfortable voicing in class. I ask for at least one thing they learned in class that day, one question on the presented material, and an aspect of the topic they found personally or academically challenging. I always respond to their prompts. If their questions or concerns are urgent, I will email the student directly; otherwise, I provide my thoughts and comments on their paper and return them in the next class.

Engaged Learning Strategies for Introductory Courses

The ultimate goal for students is to understand that race exists culturally and socially, but not biologically; however, racism has tremendous biological impact. To do this, I have specific themes that I emphasize. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and I encourage you to comment with your own goals and themes to enrich the dialogue, and move the conversation forward.

  1. Prepare students for race discussions from the first day of class.

It’s not adequate to simply discuss race and ethnicity in passing and move onto the next power point slide. I deliberately plan course content weeks prior to any race discussions. This gives students a piece of the puzzle with each class so that when we tackle issues of race, we can pull information from previous weeks to form the big picture. Most textbooks follow a similar sequence of topics devoted to scientific inquiry, development of evolutionary theory, DNA, and heredity, so students are familiar with this standard sequence as a primer for discussing human variation in relation to the interplay between biological, environmental, and cultural factors.

  1. Intersect readings, lecture, and class activities to emphasize “big picture” themes, such as scientific inquiry, human variation, and social justice.

I typically assign textbook readings (I use Exploring Biological Anthropology, but plan to incorporate 50 Great Myths of Human Evolution this year) to introduce each topic. I follow with lecture, and end with an in-class activity or a homework assignment that compels students to engage with the material on a higher level. For example, I assign a short textbook reading to re-familiarize students with the process of scientific inquiry. I emphasize the scientific process in lecture while also acknowledging its limitations and potential biases. Students then deconstruct an article based on its methodology, strengths, and weaknesses.

I frame discussions of race within historical and current perspectives so that students grasp the influence that anthropologists have had on the concept—both good and bad—and how scientific inquiry has been used to discount early views.

Human variation is a theme that can be interwoven throughout many different topics and concepts, such as the categorization of humans within the Linnaean hierarchy, the Great Chain of Being, and the forces of evolution.  Issues surrounding social justice, such as the gendered inequality of scientific research, can and should be introduced with discussions of DNA basics and functions. I use the video, DNA: The Secret of Life, to help showcase the race to discover the double-helix structure of DNA. Students are shocked when they learn about Watson and Crick using Rosalind Franklin’s unpublished data without her knowledge, and the serious implications that had on her legacy. By the time we confront topics of race, students have already been exposed to how social and cultural factors have impacted biology specifically and science generally.

  1. Help students to deconstruct and then reconstruct their notions of race.

I frame discussions of race within historical and current perspectives so that students grasp the influence that anthropologists have had on the concept—both good and bad—and how scientific inquiry has been used to discount early views. Head shape is a great example, and one that works well for a laboratory activity. Students are always surprised when their cephalic index and the corresponding racial categorizations don’t measure up. This opens up discussions about cultural factors than can affect head shape, and the implications of environmental conditions, phenotypic plasticity, and adaptation.

Another example is skin color, with students using Nina G. Jablonski and George Chaplin’s “Skin Deep to prepare for discussion. During lecture, I divide students up into small teams, provide them with approximately 15 photos of individuals with different skin tones, and have students categorize them. Rarely do any teams use the same categorization scheme.

To enrich student engagement, instructors can incorporate Henrietta Lacks in discussions of racial and gendered inequality in scientific research. Henrietta, an African American woman seeking treatment for cervical cancer in the early 1950s, was the unwitting source of the HeLa immortal cell line. Her cells were used and continue to be used in biomedical research without her knowledge or permission. It’s important to be cognizant of the classroom dynamics when discussing skin color, especially for minorities and people of color, as this is a trait that has not only shaped their lived experiences, but continues to be a social, cultural, and economic factor that has serious biological implications. Using those 5-minute writing prompts described above can be a beneficial outlet to express frustration.

Biological anthropologist Amelia Hubbard’s forthcoming article (to be published in September) focuses on a remarkable biocultural strategy for teaching race in an introductory course. It provides an in-depth strategy for preparing to teach, teaching, and unpacking and assessing students’ understanding of race and racism. This strategy is definitely one I will be incorporating during this academic year.

Engaged Learning Strategies for Advanced Courses

I wanted [students] to flex their newly developed paleoanthropological muscles and understand how they can use science to combat dangerous views on race.
My strategy for upper-levels course differs in difficulty level and emphasizes a more sophisticated breakdown of race that encompasses knowledge accumulated over the course of the semester. It also incorporates articles on race put forth by the alt-right. I tried this exercise after the 2016 election as my 300-level Human Evolution students were upset, despondent, and feeling vulnerable. I wanted them to flex their newly developed paleoanthropological muscles and understand how they can use science to combat dangerous views on race. I assigned “Race – Stalking the Wild Taboo,” an article that appeared in the alt-right journal Radix and co-authored by Richard Spencer. This article attempts to explain social and cultural disparities through biology. I tasked students with finding at least five ways the authors misconstrue human evolution, human variation, and science in general. This has been, by far, the most thought-provoking, engaged learning project I have ever assigned.

The students came to class absolutely fired up and ready to tackle this article. Many told me they were so outraged that they were texting their classmates for hours, engaging in thoughtful discussions with their family and friends, and going above and beyond the assignment’s required five fallacies. In fact, I received more positive feedback on this assignment, including in-person dialogue, emails, and course evaluations, than any other assignment of my career. It gave students an appropriate outlet to express their frustrations over the election, while also showing them how to apply their scientific education to the real world.

If we continue to be neutral in the face of racism, white nationalist rallies will continue, confederate statues will remain on their pedestals, and Nazi flags will fly high. It is urgent that we incorporate race and racism in our lesson plans. I cannot stress enough the lasting impression these lessons will leave on our students, our communities, and our nation. It takes a combination of trust and careful classroom planning, but tackling that elephant is well worth the effort.

Further readings

Brace, C.L. (2005). “Race” is a Four-Letter Word, the Genesis of the Concept. New York: Oxford University Press.

Edgar, H.J. & Hunley, K.L. (2009). Race reconciled?: How biological anthropologists view human variation. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139(1), 1-4.

Hartigan, J. (2006). Saying “socially constructed” is not enough. Anthropology News 47(2), 1-8.

Hubbard, A.R. (2017). Teaching race (bioculturally) matters: a visual approach for college biology courses. The American Biology Teacher 79(7), 516-524.

Hubbard, A.R. (2017). Testing common misconceptions about the nature of human racial variation. The American Biology Teacher 79(7), 538-543.

Lieberman, L. & Kirk, R.C. (2004). What should we teach about the concept of race? Anthropology and Education Quarterly 35(1), 137-145.

Mullings, L. (2005). Interrogating racism: Toward an antiracist anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 34, 667-693.

Ninivaggi, C. (2001). White teaching Whites about race: racial identity theory and White defensiveness in the classroom. SACC Notes 8(1), 14-32.

Reardon J, TallBear, K, 2012. Your DNA is our history: genomics, anthropology, and the construction of whiteness as property. Current Anthropology 53(S5):S233-S245.

Online resources

American Anthropological Association, 2016. Race: are we so different? http://www.understandingrace.org/home.html.

California Newsreel, 2003. Race – the power of an illusion. http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm.

Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2006. African American Lives. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aalives/2006/index.html.

Kristin L. Krueger is assistant professor of anthropology at Loyola University Chicago. She has published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and Journal of Human Evolution, among others. Her research interests include reconstructing dietary and behavioral strategies of late members of the genus Homo.

Cite as: Krueger, Kristin L. 2017. “Tackling the Elephant in the Room.” Anthropology News website, August 25, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.583

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