By Olivia Davis
Today in class, we discussed the concept of race as defined by anthropologists.
I began our lesson with a review of the four fields of anthropology and tried to tie in some of the other topics that we’ve covered that are related to each of the fields. As expected, they read the four topics that I had written on the slide instead of coming up with answers on their own, but since we haven’t covered all of them in our lessons yet, I cut them some slack.
For this week’s lesson on race, I started with the definition of the concept that is most commonly understood in our society– as a category of people generally based on a geographic location, and that are sometimes identified by similar physical attributes such as skin color, height, or hair type/color. After letting that definition soak in for a moment, I asked the class what they thought “race” was and I received some interesting and unexpected answers.
One response was, “…language?”
Another, “…the kinds of clothes that they wear?”
As pleasantly surprised as I was by their young “anthropologist” answers, I couldn’t resist questioning my own understanding of how kids view racial differences and what experiences have led to each child’s own idiosyncratic understanding. Their method of using cultural and/or social similarities as “identifiers” for certain groups of people instead of physical traits made my description of ethnic groups much easier and it seemed to be well understood by the class.
After the lesson, we split into our groups and each was given 5 laminated sheets of paper with the titles: American Indian, Asian, Black, Hispanic/Latino, and White. There were four boxes drawn on each sheet. Each group was then given a stack of cards, each of which had the face of an individual on it and a number at the top of the picture. Each group was instructed to categorize each person by placing their picture card onto one of the “race sheets.” Some rules that we gave them were that there could only be four picture cards per sheet and that each card had to be used before we read out the “answers.”
Something that I found particularly interesting about this activity was the different methods that each student was using to sort the pictures into their “appropriate” place. This stuck out to me as I walked by one group, to make sure that everyone was on task, and I overheard someone say, “Oh look, he’s angry.. He’s got to be an Indian.” It’s fascinating to think that something like facial expression or, on a larger scale, human emotion could be a contributing factor in racial biases and categorization.
Another method that I saw being used (by one student in particular) was referencing the pictures from the activity to people that the student knew outside of the classroom (in this case, an uncle who, according to the student, identified himself as a Hispanic/Latino). The student that was using this method was quite shocked to find out that the individual he compared to his uncle actually identified as “White.”
In all honesty, this “matching game” of sorts was a set-up, but its intention to reiterate the main point of the lesson was well received. The instructors and I knew beforehand that they weren’t going to succeed at the game but it served as a way to show them that skin color, hair type, and facial features (all physical attributes) aren’t accurate ways of categorizing people because most physical traits are found in multiple regions around the world.
The students were shocked by some of the people that they sorted incorrectly as I read aloud the “race” with which each person from the cards personally identified. Most of the confused responses and comments from students had a tone that indicated a sense of shattered confidence in the ability to sort people by what one can see— which is exactly what the instructors wanted.
Overall, I think this lesson was a huge success considering the current sensitivity to racial issues within our own society. My only hope is that each of these students will now think twice about “lumping” people together based on superficial information and their new understanding of the anthropological approach to “race” will encourage them to ask more questions about the world around them.