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January 12, 2022

Moving Beyond Stock Stories About Racism

Three classroom practices that can inspire your antiracist teaching practices and help students uncover concealed stories about racism.

Equity
Curriculum
Seider_February_EL_Image
Credit: NeONBRAND / Unsplash

There are several different types of stories about race and racism in the United States that educators teach in schools. Stock stories are well-known stories that seek to justify the status quo, paper over the effects of racism, or diminish the efforts of antiracists (Bell, 2010). For example, many students have heard the story about Rosa Parks refusing to  leave her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, because she was simply tired after a long day of work. This is a common stock story related to the Civil Rights movement.

Concealed stories are the stories hidden beneath stock stories that offer important truths about how race and racism shape life in the United States (Bell, 2010). The concealed story about Rosa Parks is that she was an experienced activist who recognized her arrest could propel the Civil Rights movement forward.

As researchers, we wanted to unpack the influence on students of these different stories. We conducted a four-year study involving five different northeastern high schools serving predominantly Black and Latinx students. These schools were all committed to engaging their students in learning to analyze, navigate, and challenge racism, but took very different approaches to this work (Seider & Graves, 2020). We spent more than 300 days in these high schools, observing classes, collecting data, and talking with students and teachers to learn more about how different approaches to antiracism education can influence young people’s beliefs and commitments. Along the way, we also observed how students in these high schools responded to different types of stories about race and racism in the United States.

During one school visit, we observed a U.S. history teacher at Espiritu High School (all students, teachers, and schools named in this article are pseudonyms) discuss the concealed story of Rosa Parks with her students, explaining how, following her arrest, Parks partnered with numerous other activists and attorneys to transform the Montgomery Black community’s outrage and indignation at her arrest into a successful boycott of the city’s segregated bus system.

Ignoring those aspects of Parks’s story and just saying she was “tired” in effect conceals the power of intentional and collective social action to challenge racism. But when these concealed stories are brought to light, as scholar Lee Ann Bell (2010) explains, they can become resistance stories that inspire, motivate, and inform students’ developing commitment to antiracism.

This example demonstrates the power of introducing students to a framework—stock stories vs. concealed stories vs. resistance stories—for interrogating their own learning about race and racism. While such frameworks are sometimes dismissed as merely abstract theories, scholar Bettina Love (2019) has observed that “theory helps explain our reality and our students’ realities…Theory does not solve issues—only action and solidarity can do that—but theory gives you language to fight [and] knowledge to stand on.” The students learning the concealed story about Rosa Parks went on to identify other stock stories they had been taught about Christopher Columbus, Thanksgiving, and the American Dream—stories they later discovered sought to downplay the effects of racism in the United States.

Across the schools participating in our study, we identified specific practices that educators use to investigate concealed stories about race and racism with their students, and, in so doing, turn those concealed stories into resistance stories that strengthened their students’ investment in equity and antiracism.

Culture Circles

One practice to investigate concealed stories that we uncovered in our study was the use of culture circles. Educators at Make the Road Academy begin lessons or units focused on oppression with this learning practice, which was developed by philosopher-educator Paulo Freire (1970) to position teachers not as truth tellers delivering information to their students, but as truth seekers working alongside their students. In so doing, Freire argued, students will learn to take charge of their own learning (see Souto-Manning, 2010 for more on culture circles).

At Make the Road Academy, teachers began the culture circles by sharing an artifact with their students that was related to the new unit—a photograph, text, video, song, advertisement, or piece of art that connected in some way to the social issue they were studying. Students then worked together in culture circles— small groups of five or six students— to respond to six prompts about the artifact:

Description: What do you see?

First analysis: What does it mean?

Real-life applications: How does this type of oppression affect real life?

Related problems: What are some of the related problems caused by this oppression?

Root causes: What are the root causes of these problems?

Actions: How can we take action to rectify these problems?

For example, at the start of a 9th grade earth science unit investigating natural disasters, Ms. Slater, a Black educator in her early twenties, shared with her students the opening minutes of Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans. The students viewed the film’s opening images of  the devastated city in stunned silence, but their silence shifted to sounds of disbelief and disapproval when the film shifted to footage of volunteers continuing to clean up and rebuild the  city three years after the hurricane.

Ms. Slater handed out markers and flip chart paper, and the students broke off into their culture circles to consider the six prompts described above. Already highly familiar with this educational practice, each small group of students divided their flip chart paper into six boxes and got to work. According to Paulo Freire (1970), such culture circles can engage students in a “live and creative dialogue in which everyone knows some things and does not know others, in which we all seek together to know more” (p. 87). He believed that for students to begin to see themselves as civic and political actors, the teacher must be careful to coordinate the culture circles— rather than direct them—by presenting information and asking questions. 

While each of the culture circles applied the six prompts to When the Levees Broke, Ms. Slater moved around the room listening to the students’ dialogue and jumping in with her own questions and nudges. After 15 minutes, one group’s flip-chart paper read:

Description: Broken houses, Black people, clouds, people, trees, water, poverty

First Analysis: Government doesn’t help people in need; Government doesn’t help people without money; Citizens were emotionally and physically hurt; Government shows favoritism; Citizens needed living  necessities.

Real Life Applications: Government does not prepare states for emergencies; Do not depend on the government; Be safe not sorry; Previous storms; People die; People  losing their homes.

Related Problems: Hurricane Sandy; Education and lives are in jeopardy; People have no place to go; Government didn’t think New Orleans was important because of previous storms; Hurricane Irene.

Root Causes: Weather in New Orleans, Communities unprepared for storms; Discrimination against poor people and Black people; Government corruption.

Actions: Rebuild the community; Volunteer work; Protesting to the government; Be prepared; Build stronger houses; Depend more on ourselves; Do our own hurricane drills.

 

As can be seen here, Ms. Slater’s culture circles surfaced students’ recognition of the role that race and racism played in the United States’ response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. If the stock story about race in the United States is that our federal government treats all its citizens equally and without prejudice, the footage from When the Levees Broke—and ensuing discussions in the culture circles—pushed her students to reflect on the concealed story of our federal government treating some citizens’ emergencies with more urgency than others. In other words, the combination of a powerful artifact like When the Levees Broke and a pedagogical routine for reflecting on this artifact allowed the concealed story of Hurricane Katrina to emerge.

The discussion moved forward from there to the actions that students could take to challenge inequity and injustice. Investigating concealed stories such as Hurricane Katrina can turn them into resistance stories.

Co-Gen Groups

Teachers at Espiritu High School and Make the Road Academy led their students in questioning stock stories and uncovering concealed stories about racism, but it was students at Harriet Tubman High School who took the lead in interrogating the stories they were learning about race and racism. The African American literature course at Tubman High School was taught by Mr. Kamin, a white man and veteran educator who had enthusiastically developed the  course a year earlier for Tubman seniors. The majority of his students identified as Black.

Midway through their study of James Baldwin’s 1962 novel Another Country, a group of students requested an after-school meeting with Mr. Kamin to express some concerns about their learning. Baldwin’s novel portrays the racism experienced by African Americans in the United States in the 1950s as well as the complexity of interracial relationships during this time. When the students sat down with Mr. Kamin, they expressed two concerns.

When these concealed stories are brought to light, as scholar Lee Ann Bell (2010) explains, they can become resistance stories that inspire, motivate, and inform students’ developing commitment to antiracism.

First, they felt Mr. Kamin was dominating class discussions with his own analyses of the novel. The students’ second critique was that their teacher was guiding the class conversations to “optimistic outcomes.” In other words, they felt Mr.  Kamin was focusing the class’s discussions on Baldwin’s prescriptions for overcoming white supremacy rather than his descriptions of “Black suffering and Black pain and the experience of living under white supremacy.” The students saw Baldwin’s novel as illuminating painful truths about the Black experience in the United States, and they wanted more time and space to discuss these truths before shifting the conversation to how to challenge these inequities.

The students were echoing scholarship on culturally responsive instruction. In his book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too, scholar Christopher Emdin (2017) recommends that educators make time and space for “co-generative dialogues” that enlist students as co-developers of lessons and learning strategies  for their class. According to Emdin, these “co-gens” ideally take place during a lunch block or after school and allow students to take greater ownership over their own learning.

In reflecting on that meeting with his students, Mr. Kamin admitted that he’d been meaning all year to set up the kind of co-generative groups that Emdin talks about, but had failed to do so. Receiving all those critiques from his students had been difficult, but Mr. Kamin also recognized that his students had essentially taken the initiative to establish a co-generative dialogue for their class. He had the humility to see their initiative and engagement as  a “great opportunity” for feedback and collaboration.

Following that first co-generative meeting with his students, Mr. Kamin not only began  to restrain his participation in class discussions, he also invited students to identify readings and topics they wanted to incorporate into the syllabus and lead discussions on. In essence, Mr. Kamin adjusted his teaching to position his students as knowledge holders with important roles to play  in deciding which stories about race and racism got told in class.

Theater of the Oppressed

Finally, we observed a theater class at Harriet Tubman High School in which students authored their own resistance stories. Tubman’s theater teacher, Ms. Calderón, included in her curriculum a unit on Theater of the Oppressed—a type of performance developed by Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal that explores how to respond to oppressive events and circumstances. Actors perform a short scene depicting a microaggression, stereotype, or experience with discrimination relevant to their own lives, then invite members of the audience to join the scene and improvise a response to the oppression. The same scene might be replayed several different times so that different audience members can volunteer to join the scene and collaborate with the actors to identify solutions to the oppression (see Snyder-Young, 2011 for more on using Theater of the Oppressed with youth).

After introducing her students to Theater of the Oppressed, Ms. Calderón divided her students into teams and asked them to develop their own scenes featuring a particular form of oppression or injustice that felt relevant to them. One of the groups focused on racial profiling, another developed a scene on body shaming, and a third featured misogyny in the workplace. Ultimately, these theater students performed their scenes for the entire Tubman community and, in keeping with the tenets  of Theater of the Oppressed, classmates in the audience could volunteer to enter each scene and try to disrupt the oppression taking place.

It is important to note that Theater of the Oppressed differs wholly from some of the problematic teaching practices that have gone viral on social media in recent years involving teachers instructing Black students to reenact particular aspects of enslavement or Jewish children to role play aspects of the Holocaust. Scholar Bree Picower (2021) terms these practices “racist reproductions” because they take on the façade of educating students about racism while actually re-creating racial hierarchies and racial trauma. In stark contrast, Theater of the Oppressed offers participating students agency in identifying forms of oppression they want to investigate in greater depth and developing tools and strategies for resisting that oppression. Teachers can also check in with students as they conceptualize, develop, and perform their scenes to ensure they are experiencing the process as empowering rather than triggering.

In the performance focused on racial profiling, for example, the scene featured a Muslim woman trying to pass through security at the airport, being pulled aside for additional surveillance, and being asked to remove her headscarf. Students in the audience who volunteered to enter the scene improvised a variety of responses to this profiling that ranged from requesting a more private setting for the additional search, to complaining to the TSA supervisor, to starting an online petition to challenge the practice. As one theater student, Allen, said of this scene: “It opens your eyes even more to not only the wrongs that go on in society, but also how you can use theater to portray those wrongs and find a solution.” In effect, the process of improvising responses to oppressive circumstances over and over again—and inviting different audience members to join the scene—allowed these students to author their own resistance stories that  felt authentic and truthful.

Uncovering the Concealed Stories

Our goal in sharing these educators’ practices was not for educators in other settings to adopt them wholesale. We recognize that schools and classrooms are such context-specific places that powerful practices in one setting might not be effective in another. However,      we do believe that illustrating strategies we’ve seen in action can catalyze educators’ thinking about the stock stories  about racism currently going unquestioned in their own textbooks or curriculum, as well as avenues that they and their students can take to bring concealed stories and resistance stories to light. In taking these steps, educators can simultaneously support their students’ engagement in their academic work and nurture their development into citizens committed to challenging inequity.

References

Bell, L. (2010). Storytelling for social justice: Connecting narrative and the arts in antiracist teaching. New York: Routledge.

Emdin, C. (2017). For white folks who teach in the hood… and the rest of y’all too. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London, UK: Continuum.

Love, B. (2019). We want to do more than survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Picower, B. (2021). Reading, writing, and racism: Disrupting whiteness in teacher education and in the classroom. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Seider, S., & Graves, D. (2020). Schooling for critical consciousness: Engaging Black and Latinx youth in analyzing, navigating, and challenging racial injustice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Snyder-Young, D. (2011). Rehearsals for revolution? Theatre of the Oppressed, dominant discourses, and democratic tensions. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied  Theatre and Performance, 16(1), 29-45.

Souto-Manning, M. (2010). Freire, teaching, and learning: Culture circles across contexts. New York: Peter Lang.

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