Unteaching Race, Ethnicity and Identity

By Imagining America | September 20, 2017

By Simeneh Betreyohannes Gebremariam, PhD Student in Sociocultural Anthropology, Afroamerican & African Studies and World Performance Studies at the University of Michigan, and a 2017-2018 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of intersectionality and public scholarship, important topics of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 12-14, 2017, in Davis, California.

As a graduate student in Anthropology, I have thought one of the most popular introductory courses that fulfill the requirement for the race and ethnicity course for all students of the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts. I consider my Graduate Student Instructor duties as part of my public engagement or public scholarship. Because it has been a tradition, I start my first class with a motto from one of the most prominent American anthropologists, Ruth Benedict, “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” In my first class, I repeatedly underscore this particular statement, and tell students that this is the answer I am looking for in our last class when asked: What is the most important thing you learn about anthropology? Unfortunately, over three-fourths of the students do not even remotely address this. I think this constitutes a failure at both public engagement and public scholarship. This is neither the time nor the place to carry out a detailed analysis as to why this is the case. But I think there is a valuable lesson to be learned here, especially in the post-2016 election era we live in, where reports on hate speech and the harassment of students of color have increased substantially. As they say, you cannot learn from your successes, but from your failure, and I am taking my (and/or my institution’s) mistakes as a learning opportunity.

In my opinion, in order to be successful in transforming the institutions and communities we inhabit, the question we should be asking is how can we unlearn and un-teach racism. The textbook should be significantly supplemented with teaching materials, such as audiovisual, outside of the classroom activities. We might also need to ask a somehow different set of questions, such as how does our society internalize racist and stereotyped assumptions/practices? How are minority group identities assigned and experienced? One example of this would be that instead of having to do a book report (analysis), students were required to attend at least two cultural events of (artistic/ethnic) or ethno-religious groups other than their own, preferably “those that require you to step outside your comfort zone.” In the case of my university, examples of such events are: a Native American Powwow, the NOIR Fashion Show, a trip to the Arab American National museum in Dearborn, a visit to a synagogue or mosque (with a friend who is a member), a visit to an international student cultural night, a visit to the Department of Afro-American and African Studies (DAAS) Gallery, Martin Luther King Day activities… etc.