Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Intro Biological Anthropology Classes Should Talk About Racism

I've taught an Introduction to Biological Anthropology class for six years now, using three different textbooks. While all of them talk about human diversity, none of them discuss racism in the modern U.S. I think that should change. And if it doesn't, then more professors need to add their own section on racism, bias, and structural inequality to their classroom.

Many professors feel that the discussion of racism properly belongs in a Cultural Anthropology class, but Biological Anthropology is a popular science gen ed at many universities; this class may be the only shot we get to reach a large segment of our student body.

Human biodiversity is a core focus of Biological Anthropology, and some professors feel that racism and modern race relations are topics that stray too far from the biology. But our students experience human biodiversity through the lens of race. Their entire perception of biodiversity is seated within their cultural understanding of race, and while we try to teach them why the culturally-constructed category of race is not synonymous with discrete categories of variation, we should also teach them why the hell we care.

Universities can be radically different in their demographics, but college students by and large are more likely to be white and middle or upper class. Many of my Euro-American students tell me that they've never thought seriously about race, a sure sign that they've had limited exposure to the experiences of people of color in this country. Intro to Biological Anthropology is a chance to change that. I can't let the opportunity slip away.

Some professors shy away from these difficult conversations, concerned about student complaints, helicopter parents, accusations of indoctrinating students, or just the general fear that accompanies most conversations about race in this country. If you're wondering where to start, some teaching techniques that have worked well for me include:


  1. I begin the unit on race by showing this video of Jay Smooth on how to talk about (and listen to others talking about) race without freaking out.
  2. I use examples of how racial systems are created and perpetrated in order to uphold social and power structures at the same time as I'm explaining the difference between human biodiversity and race. Race isn't just a cultural construct, it's a power construct, and underlining that fact helps students understand the difference between the concepts of biodiversity and race, while at the same time teaching the importance of structural inequality and bias.
  3. I include at least one lecture on the history of the study of human biodiversity, showing students how racist cultural contexts shaped the science of human nature, and tying racist historical arguments into modern scientific racism. For example, I spend one lecture talking about the history of IQ tests. I demonstrate why the concept and implementation are flawed, and then show how interpretations of IQ were used by the political and social elites to create immigration policy, eugenics laws, and justify the poor treatment of people of color, women, the mentally ill, and individuals with lower socioeconomic status. After introducing students to the arguments of people like Henry Goddard and Francis Galton, I then introduce students to modern arguments along the same lines (like this, for example, or this, or even this), and ask them to apply class concepts to critique these arguments. This maintains a focus on important evolutionary and biological concepts such as the complexity of human diversity, heredity, and the role of the environment in gene expression, while equipping students with the weapons to combat misinformation in their daily lives.
  4. This year, I finished the segment on race with an in-class discussion on segregated housing, its historical roots, why it continues, and what long-term consequences result. I had students listen to House Rules, an NPR segment that discusses housing discrimination. This segment highlights both historical and contemporary racism, and since one focus of the story is on the heroic efforts of Republican politician George Romney (father of Mitt) to end racial segregation, the piece has the advantage of a certain political neutrality. (OK, nothing is politically neutral when it comes to race, but at least it's harder to argue that the story is a piece of leftist propaganda.) In class, the students discussed the story and reflected on what they had learned. This lesson strays farther from basic class concepts than the lesson on IQ, but you know what? In a country where black children can be shot with impunity because their skin color makes them "threatening", I'm not going to apologize for teaching about racism every chance I get.

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