I asked my sixth-graders a loaded question at the beginning of my Holocaust unit. “What is race?” I hoped to help students comprehend the flaws in Nazi ideology regarding Jewish people and race science. When they stared blankly at me for a few moments before responding with answers that covered everything from nationality and religion to skin color, I knew my lesson plans for the day were about to change.
After writing all of their responses on the board, we discussed and eliminated items. We managed to whittle down the list of “races” to African-American, Asian, Caucasian and Latino—my students were sure that every person would fit into one of those categories. Even more disturbing, they were certain you could categorize people by simply looking at them. Which brought me to PBS and its online feature Race: The Power of an Illusion. We read and discussed Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Race, but my students still thought they knew what race was and that it was discernable solely on appearance, despite my telling them all people are members of the same race: the human race.
I flipped on my Smart Board and brought up the section called “Sorting People.” It provides photos of 20 people. The objective is to look at them and sort them into racial categories of American Indian, black, white, Hispanic and Asian. All 22 of my students were confident that they could complete this task with ease.
What happened next was both shocking and powerful. I allowed them to take turns coming to the Smart Board, and using their finger, drop and drag the people into the categories they thought they belonged. After all 20 people were placed, I had them sit and look for a few moments to determine if they felt any of the people were placed incorrectly. They made minimal changes, switching one person from American Indian to Asian, and another person just the opposite. At that point, my students were absolutely positive they had every single person placed in the correct racial category, based solely on looking at photos.
I clicked on the results, which highlighted the people who had been placed correctly. They correctly categorized only two out of 20 people and, ironically, those two were the ones they changed last minute. They did not correctly place a single white, black or Hispanic person. I let them sit for a minute studying the results. Then we went through each person’s biography to read and discuss how that person viewed his own racial identity. At the end of the lesson, I asked if anyone had any questions or comments. One boy in the back of the room raised his hand. He just had one comment to make: “I think if we can’t even find the people that are supposedly in the same category as ourselves, we have no business sorting people into any category.” I thought he had made an excellent point.
Spain is a middle school language arts teacher in New Jersey.