In Class Activities


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Why are murderers who kill Whites more likely to receive the death penalty than those who kill a person of color? What does this say about the role race plays in our societies valuation of life? These are the questions I raise with my students when we read a short excerpt about Victim Discounting out of Schaeffer’s Racial and Ethnic Groups*.

The excerpt tells students that even though Whites and African Americans commit roughly the same number of murders each year, African Americans represent 72% of all the defendants in death penalty cases. Compounding this inequity, of all the murder cases that faced the death penalty 79% of the victims were White even though Whites only represent approximately 50% of all those murdered each year. Put simply, Whites are less likely to face the death penalty for committing murder and when Whites are murdered their assailant is far more likely to receive the death penalty. Inversely, African Americans are more likely to be executed for killing another and less likely to have their assailants put to death.

After reading the excerpt I have my students brainstorm possible explanations for the inequity. Typical responses include, 1) the majority of police, lawyers, judges, and others in the legal justice system are White, 2) in most areas jury pools are predominately White, thereby increasing the likelihood that the jury will “see themselves” or a family member in the victim, 3) if juries are predominately White, they may have a harder time identifying with and subsequently sympathizing with defendants of color.

Be prepared for some victim blaming here too. Frequently students will say something like, “well if the murders Black people commit are more savage or heinous then that may explain why they are more likely to be put to death”. Questions like this can be quickly addressed by asking, “what is it about a Black person that makes you think they are more likely to use tactics that are more ‘savage’ or ‘heinous’?” Furthermore, you can ask, “what makes you confident that Whites are more likely to use ‘less savage’ or ‘heinous’ tactics?” It quickly becomes apparent that these assumptions are only based on stereotypes.

Here is a group activity that I developed for my students. I have my students explain in their own words victim discounting and the inequities the excerpts discuss. Lastly, I have the students debate the legitimacy of using the death penalty if it is being applied unequally. It is always interesting to hear the justifications for keeping the death penalty (for the record I’ve only taught in states that have the death penalty). Students often say that, “we need the death penalty” and that, “we just have to do a better job of applying it equally.” When I ask them to provide guidelines or new policies for how we can ensure a just application of the death penalty typically the classroom goes silent. So I conclude by asking, “Does your opinion on the abolishment of the death penalty change if we cannot find a fair way of applying the death penalty?” The answers are interesting every time.

If I had one disappointment with this excerpt it would be that it reinforces the false White/Black racial binary. Students frequently ask for information on murder and victimization for other racial ethnic groups. If you have some good sources be sure to share them.

*Note: This excerpt was removed from the latest edition of Schaeffer’s Racial and Ethnic Groups, which is a shame. Given that it is out of print and I have reprinted only a snippet of it, I think I am under the Fair Use shelter. Please don’t sue me, I love my family.

Excerpt from Schaeffer’s Racial and Ethnic Groups
Group Activity
Racial and Ethnic Groups (12th Edition)
More info from


It’s 7:45am. Driving to campus. I’m listening to the radio and my two year old daughter. Male voice streams into consciousness, “If she ____ing tries to leave again, I’m going to tie her to the bed and set the house on fire.” What? What did the radio just say? Female voice follows, “just going to stand there and watch me burn, thats okay because I like the way it hurts.” These are the lyrics to the number seven song on iTunes- Love The Way You Lie by Eminem Featuring Rihanna. It was the number one song in the United States from July 31st to September 4th. I shut off the radio and start signing Row Row Row Your Boat with my daughter.

I am certainly not the first to say that music and other cultural symbols prescribe gender roles and contribute to or justify, rationalize, or normalize misogyny/patriarchy. So if this isn’t breaking news in your world, I understand. However, I have a clever way of teaching this to students. Have your students deconstruct the gendered messages in the top ten best selling songs on iTunes for that day. Students love this activity because it is current, relevant to their lives, and they typically have a better understanding of pop culture than I do. The best part of this activity is that unless something dramatically changes in pop music, you can rest assured that there always will be explicit gendered messages regardless of when you do it. I have done this for years and the songs/lyrics have never let me down… or they’ve always let me down, so to speak.

To start the activity I typically play the songs as students are coming into the classroom. When class starts I pass out a packet of all the songs lyrics and ask my students to, “think like a conflict theorist”. “Listen to these songs, look at their lyrics, and tell me how they portray women/femininity and men/masculinity.” I typically have the entire class work together to breakdown the first song and then let them work together on the rest.

Don’t do all the work. You’re sure to miss some things anyway.

Try as I might, I will certainly miss one aspect of a song that reinforces stereotypical gender roles. It is also a given, that I won’t get some innuendo or some pop culture reference. The beauty of this activity is that you empower your students to do the deconstruction work. They are certain to see something you didn’t and expose even more gendered messages. Students love that they are able to “do sociology” in a way that even their teacher can’t. I find it’s best to start the ball rolling and get out of their way.

Don’t be a fuddy duddy.

You should be careful when you do this activity with your students. If presented poorly they will think you are just a stereotypical older person who is out of touch with their reality (maybe there is an activity on ageism here). I find the best way of doing this activity is to provide them with the sociological tools and let them provide the critique. If your students think the take home message is “kids these days” or that people who like this music are bad people you will create a barrier and push your students away. If you let them do it themselves they will almost certainly make the same critiques you would make and you can strengthen the connection you have with each of them.

Analysis of this week’s top ten:

I wanted to provide you with a quick analysis of the top ten songs on iTunes as of Friday Sep. 10, 2010 to give you an example of what you could do in your classes. Below are the aspects of this weeks top ten that I would be sure to bring up in class. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I am sure that you and your students will find far more examples of gendered messages.

Love The Way You Lie by Eminem and Rihanna

I would dedicate the most time discussing this Eminem song because it is by far the most explicit in it’s gender stereotyping. The song tells the story of an abusive seemingly codependent relationship that graphically describes scenes of domestic violence. Be sure to watch the music video as it is highly graphic and surely controversial. Here is the video (apologies for the forced commercial):

Note: This video is extremely disturbing and will undoubtedly offend or upset some students. You should preface any public viewing with a warning to your students. I have seen this video on MTV at 8am in the morning, but we must be aware that for some of our students this isn’t just a video. This may be a scene they have lived.

Now you’re getting f___ing sick

Of looking at ’em

You swore you’ve never hit ’em

Never do nothing to hurt ’em

Now you’re in each other’s face

Spewing venom

And these words

When you spit ’em

You push pull each other’s hair

Scratch, claw, bit ’em

Throw ’em down

Pin ’em

So lost in the moments

When you’re in ’em

It’s the rage that took over

It controls you both

The video clearly sexualizes domestic violence. Pleasure and violence were presented as though they are inextricably linked. Most disturbing is the a part of the video that seemed to depict a rape scene. See the still image below:

I imagine my class would be divided on whether or not the song was sympathetic or not toward men who commit domestic battery. One interpretation of the song could be as a long apology to a victimized partner, while others may see the song as a half hearted apology given that Eminem frequently follows his apologies with lyrics describing further abuse. The quote below is by far the most damning evidence to the latter:

Next time I’m pissed

I’ll aim my fist

At the dry wall

Next time

There will be no next time

I apologize

Even though I know it’s lies

I’m tired of the games

I just want her back

I know I’m a liar

If she ever tries to f___ing leave again

I’mma tie her to the bed

And set the house on fire

Rihanna’s chorus where she says she, “likes the way it hurts” and, “loves the way you lie” is controversial to say the least. She is perpetuating the submissive woman archetype and presents the female figure in the song as complicit to the domestic abuse. I would be sure to ask my students to imagine that they are an abusive partner. How would they hear these lyrics? Would it justify their violent behavior or assuage any guilty feelings they have? I would also ask what a pre-teen heterosexual girl would think about these messages?

An interesting sub-plot to this song is that Rihanna is herself a survivor of partner violence. Famously, R&B singer Chris Brown beat and strangled Rihanna. I would share this with your class, who will probably be already aware of the incident, and ask them how this changes their impression of the song. I would also come prepared with some statistics on partner abuse to give the problem scope.

Now for the rest of the songs:

Conflicting Messages:

Be prepared that your students will find messages that seem on the surface to be pro-women or anti-gender binary. For instance look at the #1 song on iTunes Just The Way You Are by Bruno Mars. The song is all about how wonderful and beautiful the singers partner is. But if you read just below the surface it’s plain to see that the song 1) focuses on the aesthetic aspects of the partner and 2) perpetuates the stereotype that women always hate the way they look and rely on their partners to define their value. Here is a sample of the lyrics:

Oh her eyes, her eyes
Make the stars look like they’re not shining
Her hair, her hair
Falls perfectly without her trying
She’s so beautiful
And I tell her every day

Yeah I know, I know
When I compliment her
She wont believe me
And its so, its so
Sad to think she don’t see what I see

But every time she asks me do I look okay I say

When I see your face
There’s not a thing that I would change
Cause you’re amazing
Just the way you are
And when you smile,
The whole world stops and stares for awhile
Cause girl you’re amazing
Just the way you are

Women are not complete without a man

Listening to Teenage Dream by Katy Perry we hear the familiar romance theme of a woman being incomplete until she finds herself a man.

Before you met me
I was a wreck
But things were kinda heavy
You brought me to life

I finally found you
My missing puzzle piece
I’m complete

Some Other Overarching Messages:

  • Heterosexuality rules the day. None of the songs mentioned the LGTBQ community at all.
  • Both men and women spend a lot of time, “in the club”.
  • Almost half the songs spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the male gaze.
  • Men enjoy cheating on their partners. See this line from –I Like It by Enrique Iglesias featureing Pit Bull:

    “Tiger Woods times Jesse James equals Pit Bull all night long”


Messages about women:

Women as sex objects

I’ma get your heart racing/
In my skin-tight jeans/
Be your teenage dream tonight/
Let you put your hands on me/
In my skin-tight jeans/
Be your teenage dream tonight/

Female empowerment is gained through being sexual.
Women are obsessed with their appearance and their value as a human being is directly associated with their physical appearance.–>

Teaching sociology students to see beyond the individual and toward the social is challenging, but crucial. For the last few semesters I have started this conversation by talking about the economy. I have my students come up with a list of qualities we assume a person has if they are unemployed. “Lazy!”, one student chimes out. “They want to live off of the system,” another says. “It’s their fault,” another student inevitably says. Every class is a little different, but the list of personal qualities almost always paints the unemployed as lazy individuals who either made bad choices (e.g. failing a drug test) or were not good workers (e.g. habitually being late to work).

This week I showed my classes this map of unemployment in the United States from January 2007 to May of this year:

As the map becomes consumed with the dark shade of unemployment I ask them, “Is laziness contagious? Is making bad choices or being a lousy employee contagious?” After a few chuckles from the students I say, “Of course not, so something bigger than the individual is happening. Something social is occurring that individuals can’t escape.” I then ask the class to break up into small groups and answer this question, “How have you or a loved one been affected by the downturn in the economy?”

This question is a sociological question. For students to answer it they have to think about how their individual lives have been affected by social conditions. When students start sharing some of the hurts that they have experienced in this economy it helps the entire class break free of a solely individualistic world view. It also lays the ground work for creating a classroom environment where sharing how you have been affected by society is acceptable. I have yet to have a student be anything but supportive for their fellow classmates.