Monday, December 9, 2013

Being Atticus Finch: Teaching Students to Walk in Another's Skin

by Dan Bruno (@HSMatters)

When Othello suspects that Desdemona has been unfaithful, he says: "My name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face." Once again, the bard is ahead of his time; he has Othello use the language of a different race to identify his shame with his color. What would it be like to think of your own skin color as a metaphor for shame everyday?

This question also led to one of the most important psychological experiments of the 20th century: the Clark Doll Experiment. Kenneth and Mamie Clark did not intend to be the linchpin in the famous Brown v. Board of Education court case, but their ingenuity became just that. After seeing example after example of African-American child choose the white doll for the wrong reasons, the Warren court overturned the prior ruling of separate but equal and changed the face of 20th century America.
How does a privileged white kid understand living in a town where you used to be slaves? How does any privileged kid understand living in poverty?

Why my obsession with race? Our program, the Commonwealth Governor's School, has just begun our newest unit: an interdisciplinary study of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. We could just read the the text, but there are social issues, especially for my students, that need to be understood. How does a privileged white kid from the suburbs understand fearing Johns Hopkins University Hospital because the doctors there are white? How does a privileged white kid understand living in a town where you used to be slaves? How does any privileged kid understand living in poverty? With these questions in mind, I began to design how I would introduce students to the unit's ideas.

The first thing that came to mind was a website I first learned about in my sociology of education class at UVA. Project Implicit, a sociological project from Harvard, maintains a website where anyone can take an IAT (Implicit Attitude Test). According to the project's website, "The IAT asks you to pair two concepts (e.g., young and good, orelderly and good). The more closely associated the two concepts are, the easier it is to respond to them as a single unit. So, if young and good are strongly associated, it should be easier to respond faster when you are asked to give the same response (i.e. the 'E' or 'I' key) to these two. If elderly and good are not so strongly associated, it should be harder to respond fast when they are paired. This gives a measure of how strongly associated the two types of concepts are. The more associated, the more rapidly you should be able to respond." The time it takes to respond one way or the other reveals the switch from unconscious attitude to conscious choice. So, I might not want to associate the elderly with negativity, but it takes me longer to correct this unconscious attitude and hit the appropriate key.

I asked the students to take the IAT at the beginning of class and then to write their responses down on 3 x 5 note cards (leaving off their names). I collected these and read them aloud while another student kept a tally of the class's responses on the board. The results are posted here:
IAT Results for my class
(EA over AA is on the Left)
The IAT we took was on race. The outcome measured was how much the test taker preferred European-Americans (EA) over African-Americans(AA) (to get a really clear idea, I suggest you take the test at this link). I had the student serving as our scribe put an "S" on the left for strong preference of EA over AA, then an "M" for moderate preference, and L→0 for little to no preference. We mirrored the M and S on the right side, but these were for preference of AA over EA. If you look closely at the photo, you can see that the overwhelming majority of my students have a strong to moderate preference for EA over AA. In fact, 65 % of my class fell into this range. If you include the little to no preference students, the total rises to 83%; the other 17% fall into the right side.

What makes these percentages so important is that the percentage of non-African-to-African-Americans in the class falls out about the same: 87% non-African American; 13% African-American. These three students come from varied backgrounds and varied places. The only cultural similarity that they share is that they have darker skin tones than everyone else. Moreover, these three represent distinct variations on the skin color continuum: one mixed, one lighter, one very dark. When I opened the class period, none of the students believed they were about to come face-to-face with the cultural divisions that have lingered between us since before this country was founded, but they did. The difficulty of the lesson arises now. How do you help relieve the guilt that inevitably comes from modern cultural perspective? Every single non-African-American
student's head was bowed, their eyes diverted away from their darker peers.
I referenced examples of things I'd seen in my career: the rush to judgment and rejection of students of color in disciplinary matters; the habitual rewarding of or taking away of points in regards to students of color based solely on color and not merit; entire classrooms segregated by seating chart.

I dove first into the psychology. I put up for examples of racists Bob Ewell (we read To Kill a Mockingbird earlier in the year) and pre-conversion James Jarvis (from Cry, the Beloved Country) as examples of men who consciously acted upon their subconscious attitudes. The hatred made them racist in (and I introduce this term in process) overtly racist. What we are attempting to coax into the light is the notion of covert racism. I referenced examples of things I'd seen in my career: the rush to judgment and rejection of students of color in disciplinary matters; the habitual rewarding of or taking away of points in regards to students of color based solely on color and not merit; entire classrooms segregated by seating chart. Then, I hit them where they live--television. I asked them to stand inside the 7-11 near school, to browse the aisles looking for a quick snack as the smell of 24-hour coffee and 24-hour sausage invades their nostrils, to feel the shake of the bass as the lowered vehicle glides into a space, to consider their immediate reaction when four young black men get out of the car. Nearly everyone flinched. I admitted that subconsciously I also would hit the panic button, but then I ask them to think about every crime show they have seen on TV. I ask them to consider who plays the street thug. Who plays the informant? Who plays the violent and dangerous criminal? Most of the time, it is a black man or a group of black men. Even when the black man is just sitting in a frame placed on him by a white guy, we have to make that stop before reaching our lily white villain. These biases are programmed culturally; feeling them is not the student's fault.

Then, I bring it to Kenneth and Mamie Clark. I ask them to watch the heartbreaking video of young black boys and girls rejecting the doll that looks like them. And then I ask the class to consider why even with three black students, no one strongly preferred African-Americans to European-Americans. There are times in life where the silence is so loud it is nearly unbearable. The mute cacophony of the class was almost too much for each one of them to bear, so before the discomfort became too great, I brought it back to the text.

One of the spots in the text of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that catches me off guard is the part where Skloot discusses how the Lackses and their friends feared Hopkins. Could they imagine, I ask, feeling mistrust for an entire hospital based on the racial biases that were woven into the African-American cultural fabric as a means of survival? The responses are coming thick now. They have never felt it, but they can understand how an attitude can become rooted in the subconscious, worrying the conscious mind with the spectre of what may happen. Then, a discussion ensues that makes me proud to call these my students.
I even heard one of the African-American students say "that is how I feel everyday."

They made me proud because they owned the subconscious biases and spoke openly about race for probably the first time in many of their lives. I even heard one of the African-American students say "that is how I feel everyday."

As English teachers, we deal with a lot of topics surrounding hatred and racial bias. As Robert Frost might say, "Something there is that harps on racial conscience." So many of the novels, plays, and poems we teach are laden with the tension of centuries of racial misunderstanding, violence, and fear. Then again, so are the hallways of our schools. I encourage you to use the IAT; like Atticus suggests, it can force students to consider what life would be like wearing a different person's skin.

3 comments:

alii farrell said...

I LOVE the Harvard Implicit tests! Also, love to show The Angry Eye (Jane Elliot's updated experiment) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SpF3cwJ86A

I show the end first (about 3 minutes in) so that they can see the actual experiment without the explanation. Then I show the beginning of the video where she explains how & why she does it.

Dan Bruno said...

I agree. Elliot's experiment was something I experienced in grad school that really (forgive me) opened my eyes to what I knew I was seeing all along.

tonisjadine said...

As I was once one of "three African American" students in a class, I can't help but wonder how the Black students in your class felt during this lesson. While they are present in your narrative, I don't have a sense that the lesson was for them. How did they respond? When were they engaged and forthcoming? When were they annoyed or bored? I'm not suggesting that this lesson was inappropriate, just that when planning this sort of "let's talk about privilege and race" lesson, it seems that it's written without students of color in mind.