...teach and talk about race (2)

Published on The Flourishing Academic blog on Feb. 23, 2015

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel Americanah, she presents an American undergraduate classroom where the main character Ifemelu, a transplant from Nigeria, watches Roots. After the film ends, a “firm, female voice from the back of the class, with a non-American accent, [asks]  ‘Why was ‘nigger’ bleeped out?” (168). What ensues is a dialogue between a diverse body of students in the classroom, as Professor Moore, “a tiny, tentative woman with the emotionally malnourished look of someone who did not have friends,” begins to cower into a corner, as “a vague terror was freezing her features into a smirk-smile ” (169). Of course, Adichie creates the situation as both a tense and comical one. Yet, more importantly, Adichie highlights and critiques the professor’s role in this exchange, as Professor Moore is unwilling to release her authority to engage with her students and their experiences.  The first key to discussing race, and its intersections with class, gender, and environment in the undergraduate classroom, is to courageously speak and listen.

Stories, including yours and your students’ and what appears in news media, films, scientific reports, literature, among many other cultural texts, all play a powerful role in the construction and understanding of race. In order to talk about race, we as educators need to be able to courageously speak and listen to stories, but also model how to interpret those stories and how they can be used to empower or oppress. In “The Danger of a Single Story,” Adichie’s powerful TED talk (~ 19 minutes, please consider watching!), Adichie offers an incredibly useful paradigm that equips students to theorize and think critically about their experiences by situating them in larger conversations. Adichie’s paradigm also positions the professor in a place of learning, rather than authority, through stories. The medium of stories is a pivotal place to begin to speak, listen, and learn. I touch on a few of the quotes from her talk here, and elaborate on methods that I use in my classroom.


Adichie explains that her American roommate had “seen and heard different versions of the single story” regarding Africa, which led her to assume that Adichie could not cook on a stove and listened to “tribal music.” She follows up with humor, explaining that her roommate was surprised when she brought out Mariah Carey, yet she points to a larger issue of how stories that we consume shape and solidify assumptions about people. Moreover, this interaction emphasizes the need—no matter how awkward or painful—to address those assumptions and move forward to a deeper understanding. This insight is an incredibly useful way to get both students and professors thinking about how their lives are impacted by racial identity. Each of your students experienced a new place when they arrived at university, so the opportunity is ripe to push them to think about the single stories that they enacted or had to react to.


A huge obstacle that students face when discussing race in the classroom is that they don’t have the language. Adichie explains that “…the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes, is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Some students will not know what a stereotype is, or think they do but are confusing it with something else. The single story is in itself a stereotype based on one representation that is incomplete. To counter stereotypes and model cultural consciousness, offering students scaffolding is incredibly useful. For instance, the film Ethnic Notions traces black stereotypes both before and after slave emancipation to show how the “Uncle Tom” and “Mammy” stereotypes reinforced the notion that slaves were content in the slave system to reinforce and justify its existence, while “Jezebel” and “Zip Coon” stereotypes proliferated after emancipation to emphasize the social consequences of freeing blacks. These stereotypes highlight that race is highly contextual and constructed based on the historical moment, and calls students to see real world consequences of these stereotypes that continue to resonate in culture today. Defining terms is essential to creating students and citizens who can engage in meaningful conversations in the classroom and beyond. I’ve even had to define race versus racism in my classroom, so find out where your students are and meet them there.


How else can you get students to engage and critique the single story and understand how power operates? Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is an accessible and engaging text that moves students towards thinking critically about the single stories they encounter and consume in their lives so they can begin to think about the large systems that they operate within rather than feeling burdened or shy because of their personal identities. Focusing on white guilt won’t do anything for a discussion, rather opening students up to learning about cultural differences in addition to interrogating how others are treated differently because of race, class, or gender begins to make the theoretical connections and material consequences more clear. bell hooks, a renowned cultural critic celebrated for engaging with complex theories of class, race, and gender via popular culture, spells out the theoretical scaffolding of power with her term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchal forces” to understand how race, class, and gender intersect in regards to how power circulates.


Adichie also emphasizes, “it is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power.” The single story is a single representation of a people that has been historically exploited to disempower and stereotype. Those who have the political and financial strength to create and circulate the stories (think, Hollywood, government) have power over whose voices are heard. Regardless of discipline, historical contextualization is highly useful when discussing race since it is so engrained in historical systems of power. Katy L. Chiles’s Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America offers an incredibly fascinating perspective on the scientific and literary intersections of how the narrative surrounding race shifted from the 18th century understandings of race, when it was considered an exterior social symbol, to 19th century in America, where conceptions of racial interiority were perpetuated to uphold the system of slavery: this even carries into today (7-8).


Adichie offers another way for students to challenge the single story. Consider “how they are told, who tells them, when [are] they told, how many stories are told” to spell out how power operates. Push for you and your students to ask questions, not seek static answers. Release your authority and push for students to interrogate the representations in a literary text, commercial, historical document, or scientific report. Moreover, channel hooks and push beyond the limits of academic texts to popular culture. Be like a sponge and absorb everything so that you can push your students to think critically about the world they live in. For instance, last week I saw an article on colorism regarding Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose, where her parents wouldn’t attend the wedding because he was “too dark.” Also, you may recognize Adichie’s voice—Beyoncé samples her definition of feminist in her song “***Flawless” from her latest album, which begins to move beyond racial difference to other urgent issues regarding gender that connect everyone.

Adichie meets her audience where we should meet our students: we all agree that everyone deserves dignity, which makes talking about race so incredibly urgent. She explains, “…the consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity…it emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” History again can offer an effective lens through which students can consider the linguistic consequences of defining racial difference. While it is important to expose students to specific cultural norms that they might not have had access to or never had to think about—this was true for hair culture and colorism while I taught Americanah—they also need to be aware of the power of language and narratives.

Just as Adichie explains how she experiences the consequences of the single story based on her American roommate’s assumptions about her, she self-consciously identifies where she also enacted the single story on others. Based on her consumption of American news, she made assumptions about Mexicans and immigration, but discovered that this single story was incorrect and incomplete when she arrived in Guadalajara. Based on her mother’s description of their house servant Fide, she assumed his life was horrible until she went to his house and discovered that his family were highly skilled artists. In this active self-reflection, Adichie offers an effective model for educators to facilitate dialogue rather than merely relay content to your students in the classroom. To fruitfully discuss race in your undergraduate classroom, don’t be a Professor Moore. Instead, “regain” in your classroom what Adichie refers to in her TED talk as “a kind of paradise” by cultivating the strength to courageously speak and listen.


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED. July 2009. Web. 19 February 2015.

—. Americanah. New York: Anchor Books, 2014. Print.

Chiles, Katy L. Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

Cultural Criticism and Transformation. bell hooks. Dir. Sut Jhally. Media Education Foundation, 1996. Film.

Ethnic Notions. Dir. Marlon Riggs. California Newsreel. 1987. Film.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” 1989. Web. 19 February 2015.


...be inspired

I recently had the privilege to attend my dear and fabulous friend Jill's dissertation defense. I first met Jill last fall at Duquesne's Writing Center. After quickly finding out that we both went to Chatham College for undergrad, we immediately clicked. It has been amazing learning about classroom civility and the creative ways that she engages with her students, which she brilliantly showcases in her communications doctoral work.

As the only graduate student in English at the event, I was immediately welcomed by her friends and colleagues into the community of her supporters. Sitting directly behind her father and daughter, externally nodding my head and smiling, internally cheering her on, I realized how much energy and time she invested in the project she is so passionate about, and that so much in her life built up to this moment. This experience reminded me to remember the village of family and friends that have raised me, be grateful for the opportunities I have, and most importantly, be inspired by the work that I'm doing-- a lesson that many doctoral students, at whatever point in the process, can embrace.


...teach and talk about race

Michele Norris is an alchemist. She transforms the stories and histories of those who experience and inflict the burden of racism, into the foundation of American individual experience and collective history. The atrocities of our past are not productive as rocks in our pockets that weigh us down, but are instead more productive when taken as pearls of wisdom that contribute to our national wealth. I went into her lecture, "Eavesdropping on America's Conversation on Race," at Carnegie Music Hall this past Wednesday, October 1, seeking strategies on how to more effectively engage discussions of race in the first year literature classroom. I left rejuvenated, teary-eyed from her family's personal stories, and my stomach sore from laughing so hard at some of the six word phrases submitted to her Race Card Project ("It won't matter to the aliens" and "Underneath we all taste like chicken").

As a graduate student who teaches texts from Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," to Morrison's Jazz, Tretheway's poetry, and Wilson's plays, I am invested in developing students' ability to think critically about systems of power and how they operate to privilege some, and disfranchise others. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk "The Danger of a Single Story" very much inflects the way I think about and teach literature through the lens of race, gender, and class, as stories regarding race wield the forces to oppress or empower. When I speak with my colleagues about the difficulty of teaching and talking about race to a class that is predominantly white, I always emphasize that it is more productive to talk about systems of power, and how women can perpetuate patriarchy, blacks can perpetuate white supremacy, and that capitalism is alive and well no matter what tax bracket you find yourself in.

Norris' insight helps me to further build upon the strategies that I already enact in my classroom. She emphasized that when she began having conversations with Americans around the country about their experiences and perceptions of race, making them comfortable allowed them to open up about topics that are seemingly difficult to discuss. While comfort food isn't in my classroom budget, providing students with the theoretical and historical framework of race allows them to enter into a conversation regardless of their identity position. Moreover, Norris emphasized the importance of considering all open and honest stories and experiences about race. All those who have experienced racism, those who have been privileged enough not to, and those who have inflicted racism upon others, bring the full texture of the racial fabric of America to the table.

Norris modeled another way to comfortably bring people into an earnest conversation about race: call and response. She asked the audience to respond to "post-racial," a term that proliferated in the American lexicon after the 2008 election of President Obama. Audience members responded with "Utopia," and other positive, although tongue-in-cheek responses, and finally ended with "denial." These exercises, from the six-word Race Card Project responses, to this call and response exercise, allow for a constellation of terms to shape a very productive and multi-faceted conversation on race in America, with no simple answers. Norris' ability to emphasize the value and wisdom, rather than burden, of our collective experiences shapes the way we can effectively teach and talk about race as students, teachers, and citizens.