Dialogues about Race

Monday was Martin Luther King Day and in February we will celebrate Black History Month.  It is essential that we all recognize the contributions and rich history of Black Americans, but, with all the conflict and misunderstanding about race in our country, our conversations about race need to go beyond thinking of culture and race only in terms of holidays, heroes, and artifacts like food, music, and clothing.  James Banks calls teaching that embodies this limited perspective of culture “The Contributions Approach” and advocates instead for “The Transformative Approach” where education involves “the infusion of various perspectives, frames of reference, and content from various groups that will expand students’ understandings of the nature, development, and complexity of U.S. society.”   Issues of race are always complicated and there are seldom clear cutclear-cut answers; it is important that everyone, including educators, students, and school administrators, have the ability to think critically and have genuine discussions about this topic.

Below are some examples of current events that illustrate the complexity of talking about race in this country:

With the election of President Obama many people hoped to see improved understanding and dialogue about race around the country, but this last year has seen a decrease in that hopefulness as Obama has not addressed some of the controversial statements made about his race and racially inequality persists.

  1. Some say that Obama shouldn’t always be expected to represent and talk about race simply because he is Black, while others feel that he has a responsibility as our nation’s leader, and a Black man, to tackle the bigotry and oppression people of color face.  Which side of this debate do you lean towards and why?
  2. What impact (if any) do you feel having a Black man as president has had on our nation’s perceptions and attitudes about race?

On a related note, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has received a lot of press recently as comments he made about Obama during the recent presidential election have surfaced.  According to the book Game Change, Reid indicated that he believed Obama could win the election in part because he was “light skinned” and didn’t speak with a “Negro dialect.”  Reid publicly apologized, but debate about his remarks continues as some feel the apology isn’t enough and other’s feel that he was speaking the truth and has nothing to apologize for.

  1. Do you feel that Reid’s statements are racist? Why or why not?
  2. Are Reid’s comments worthy of so much debate?  What tensions and stereotypes underlie this controversy?

Schools often celebrate holidays by serving food somehow related to that day.  Just this week there has been a great deal of anger and disagreement over schools serving fried chicken and collard greens to celebrate Martin Luther King Day.   Opponents feel that this menu decision relies on stereotypes and glosses over a more meaningful celebration of this important man, a sentiment echoed by Paul Gorski in Taco Night.

  1. Do small things like menu choices that could be perceived as offensive not really matter in the face of bigger issues like the racial achievement gap and high rates of poverty in communities of color or do small injustices contribute to larger oppression?
  2. What are some ways schools can teach about Martin Luther King Jr. that go beyond “The Contributions Approach” to a “Transformative Approach”?

Below are some articles and resources on how to incorporate authentic dialogue about race into your work as educators: 
Color Lines
Talking Race
Their View--My View: A White Teacher's Quest to Understand His African-American Middle School Student's Perceptions of Racism
Every Month is Black History Month

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