I recently taught a course on race and inequality at a Midwestern university where it can be difficult to connect the content to a mostly homogenous group of students, and maintain their receptiveness to new ideas and perspectives. When asked, few of these students are willing or able to identify themselves as potential contributors to the racial stereotypes that lead to inequalities. Often, students say others behave in racist ways, including parents and grandparents, but that they, themselves, do not.
I aim—in a non-threatening manner—to cultivate racial consciousness, and help them realize how we all may contribute to racial inequality. I do this by combining difficult academic material with students’ real-life experiences, and by subtly teaching them that stereotypes exist in many forms and are at times unconsciously applied.
As a light-skinned Latino, I commonly hear, “You don’t look Latino,” or “I never would’ve guessed you’re Latino.” Rather than becoming frustrated with these comments, I created a lesson designed to challenge students’ understanding of “what Latinos look like.” I use the lesson as a powerful starting point on the topic of race in society.
Race and Stereotypes
The idea that race is socially constructed is well documented within sociology. Still, we often struggle to help students make sense of the underlying concept of social construction. Sociologist Howard Winant, in the Annual Review of Sociology, defines race as, “a concept that signifies and symbolizes sociopolitical conflicts and interests in reference to different types of human bodies. Although the concept of race appeals to biologically based human characteristics (phenotypes), selection of human features for purposes of racial signification is always, and necessarily, a social and historical process.” Other scientific fields also have discredited the concept of race as a biological fact. Nonetheless, despite evidence that race is nothing but an idea, people tend to view race as a meaningful way to define, separate, and predict the actions of other people.
Once racial stereotypes are embedded—by parents, teachers, peers, and the media—they often influence a person’s judgment and actions, including “who is [considered] wealthy, intelligent [or] welfare-dependent, criminal,” concluded University of Connecticut sociologist Shayla Nunnally in a 2009 study of college students’ stereotypes published in the Journal of Black Studies. This process is not always direct and can be, “...subtle, in some cases operating without the conscious awareness that a racial stereotypes has been invoked,” agreed sociologists Lincoln Quillian and Devon Pager, who wrote about the role of stereotyping in evaluations of neighborhood safety for the American Journal of Sociology.
For Latinos, the “typical” image is best summarized by Arlene Davila in her book Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People, where she quotes a casting director who describes the “typical” Latino: “You know what they want when they ask you for models; it’s unspoken. What they want is the long straight hair, olive skin, just enough oliveness to the skin to make them not ambiguous. To make them [Latino].”
Debunking Stereotypes in Students
To encourage comfortable dialogue with students, this interactive lesson starts with a purposeful focus on a non-race oriented topic: boxing. We talk about people’s perceptions of the sport, and the money made, and I begin a PowerPoint presentation. On the first slide, titled “The Next Big Thing,” the first bullet point shows a boxer’s professional record at 45 wins and one loss. I share that this is an impressive record for any professional boxer regardless of age or experience. The second bullet is titled “Pictures of a Future Star.” Here, I display three pictures: The first is of a shirtless young man posing in the boxing ring, gloves held up, during training. He is in great physical shape. His face is freckled, his hair and eyebrows are bright red, and his eyes are brown.
Once the class has seen the three pictures, I reveal the final bullet. It reads: “How can we promote him to maximize his earning potential as a boxing super star?” Often, after some initial hesitation, students become eager to share their ideas on promotional tactics. “Call him the ‘Irish Grenade’ because of his knockout power,” or “Call him the ‘White Hope’ because so many champion boxers today are minorities,” they have suggested. After students share various perspectives, I show them a YouTube clip (watch it here: http://bit.ly/10SWaOe) showing the boxer speaking Spanish. Typically, students will indicate they are confused. Why is the red-haired, seemingly white boxer speaking fluent Spanish?
I stop the video, and display the final PowerPoint slide, which reveals the boxer’s biography. Students learn that he is Latino—born and raised in the Mexican state of Jalisco, like his parents. Following this revelation I display the final bullet point, and read it aloud: “So? What do Latinos look like?” This is when I see some movement in students’ interpretations of at least one racial category. It’s the beginning of a long and arduous journey toward an improved understanding of stereotypes and the depth and strength of our thinking about the other.
The fact is, many students come to my class with the utmost confidence regarding their knowledge of what racial groups “look like” and how they behave. (Interestingly, students often fail to realize that others may think the same way about them.) These stereotypes and biases pose major challenges in the classroom, making it imperative for educators to develop alternative lessons that will deconstruct their taken-for-granted notions of reality.
Paul Hernandez, Ph.D., is the 2012 recipient of the NEA Reg Weaver Human and Civil Rights Award, and the author of The Pedagogy of Real Talk. Karla Loebick, a doctoral student in the Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education program through Michigan State University’s College of Education, helped Hernandez write this article.