- Teaching Race to Students Who Think the World Is Free:Aging and Race as Social Change
The time has finally come. In my composition class one day, I ask my students to write either "guilty" or "not guilty" after I put two letters on the board. After writing the letters "OJ"—referring to O. J. Simpson—I receive the responses I was expecting. Disgusted sighs, excited grunts, and muffled verdicts echo throughout the room as my students write with confidence and certainty. Then, having taken up their responses, I give them their assignment: to argue the opposite of their personal verdicts. While my students are both shocked and resistant, this activity benefits them in two ways. From a composition standpoint, they must consider opposing viewpoints in their writing, eventually leading them toward the skill of counterargument. Historically, my students have been reluctant to consider any opinion but their own, making their papers less about exploration and process and more about the positing of a personal belief that they believe to be their own but that is actually rooted in ideology influenced by their parents, religion, and popular culture. This assignment negates those forces by requiring my students to articulate an argument they might otherwise be lambasting. Second, and just as important, the activity encourages them to make connections between race, popular culture, and media. In this case, as Ishmael Reed (1997: 182) points out, "This early trial by leak, and the subsequent siding with the police and prosecution by the media, its pundits, and pro-prosecution commentariat, did much to influence the polls that saw the majority of whites convinced of Simpson's guilt long before evidence had been introduced and the defense had begun its arguments."
As expected, then, my students are furious at their newest project. If the topic were something that they did not have a particularly strong opinion or knowledge about, it would be easily, although only adequately, completed. Yet it is the specific topic—one less explosive than abortion but more controversial than general conversations about blacks in television—that allows us to enter into the discussion about race and popular culture that I am seeking.
I like to talk about race. So it is only natural that I have a strong desire to discuss race in my class, especially for its pedagogical use in questioning issues of white privilege and compelling my predominantly white class to [End Page 133] think beyond their own subject positions. Yet an unusual thing happened when I devoted an entire unit to how race shapes one's identity. My students are skeptical, even a black student, because they believe that MTV has shown the way to the promised land of racial healing. From this, I am led to realize the generational gap that separates us, my being born in the late, Black Power–dominated 1970s and entering puberty in the early 1990s when the rhetoric of Black Power returned versus their "Greed is good" 1980s when the celebration of The Cosby Show's success masked the roll back in many of the civil rights programs that had been gained at such a high cost. I contend therefore that part of the new difficulty in teaching race for social change, in addition to the American fear of the subject, is the generational difference between teacher and student. Unlike the 1960s and 1970s when students were adamant about "taking it to The Man" and visions of attack dogs being let loose on protesting African Americans danced across the television screen (or so it has been romanticized), the resurgence of conservatism has begun to manifest itself in my students' beliefs that the world is free and America is equal. As a result, the students who enter my classroom believe that instances of racist activity are isolated incidents, residue from a bygone era that no longer affects them or their thought processes. I hope to show that because of such naïveté, we must continue to discuss race in the classroom in an effort to look beyond the surface of what contemporary popular culture attempts to show us.
The Meeting: "Mom, There's a Black Man Teaching My Class!"