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.
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:
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
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.–>
I am a white middle class heterosexual male sociology teacher. I teach about inequality that I benefit from. I teach about inequality that I can mindlessly recreate both inside of and outside of class. I teach about inequality that some students deny exists and some know on a first name basis. From the outside this could seem hypocritical; I could appear a fraud. Have I chose the wrong line of work? Can white teachers teach race and ethnicity? Can middle class teachers teach economic inequality? Can male teachers teach gender inequality? Can straight teachers teach sexual inequality? They can and they must.
I’m let in & taken at my word
As a white middle class male heterosexual teacher I walk into my class room and when students lay eyes on me they more often then not have their preconceptions of what a professor is going to look like met. My collard shirt, my wedding ring, my clean shaven face all reassure them that I am what they were most likely bargaining for. I fit the stereotype of a professor and subsequently benefit from it. When I talk about inequality students take me at my word. They don’t say to themselves, “well of course you would say that you are _______”. When a person of privilege asks, “why are things this way; why are things so unequal” the taken for granted aspects of our culture are more easily knocked down from their perch of sacredness and honest exploration of the status quo can begin. (Messner 2000).
For students of privilege I can use our shared cultural experience as an illustrative example of how inequality is created. When I tell my students how I mindlessly hurt someone with my own prejudice I can role model how to grapple with and acknowledge privilege. For all of my students I can be an example of someone who stands up for social justice and does not tolerate intolerance. I can show them that no one is inoculated from being prejudice, discriminating, or holding biases. I can stand before them not as a savior with all the right answers, but a fallible educator with some of the right questions.
I’m obligated for countless reasons, but here are two of them.
First, racism is not people of color’s problem, nor is misogyny women’s problem, nor is homophobia the LGTBQ community’s problem, etc. The oppressed and exploited are not responsible for ending oppression and exploitation. They are inextricably linked to it and certainly most affected by it, but it is not their responsibility to mitigate it. As an individual who begrudgingly benefits from exploitation and oppression I am obligated to work to end it. If you believe for one second that you benefit because of your social position (regardless if you seek it out or not) and you believe in social justice, then you either feel obligated to do something about it or you feel cognitive dissonance. If what I’m saying sounds to you like “white guilt” or one of it’s equivalents, then I ask you, how is cognitive dissonance treating you?
Second, research suggests that faculty of color and women are disproportionately assigned to teach what’s called in the biz, “required diversity classes”(Perry, Moore, Edwards, Acosta, and Frey 2009). These classes on race, gender, sexuality, and inequality are tough classes for any teacher. Subsequently this makes the tenure process, for which course evaluations are a component, more changeling for anyone who teaches them. Assigning faculty of color and women to teach required diversity classes recreates inequality and reflects the “oppression is the responsibility of the oppressed” mentality discussed above. As a person of privilege I am obligated to share the burden* of teaching these courses
Minding Your World View
Teaching inequality from a place of privilege requires me to be constantly reevaluating my world view, how I structure my class, and how I interact with students. Privilege is often automatically extended to the privileged. Bias emerges not from consciousness, but from being unconscious about how your world view is slanted. To understand your privilege and how you benefit from it you have to think outside of yourself. You have to imagine how your words and actions would appear to someone who does not experience the privileges you do. Its complex, convoluted, and at times maddening. But the burden of dealing with privilege is minuscule compared to the burden forced upon those without it.
Teaching involves power and so it has the potential to recreate inequality. All teachers must be mindful of this. You must be willing to own up to your mistakes and learn from them. You must be honest with your students about the privileges you hold and your humanity. This is the only way to reduce inequality, make your community a better place, and change students lives.
*For the record. I don’t see teaching diversity as a burden, but a privilege. I prefer teaching required diversity courses as I love interacting with my students on material that is challenging and at times controversial.
It’s been 20 years since Hochschild published The Second Shift
, but it’s critique of domestic labor still rings true in my classes. When teaching gender inequality I ask my students to think about their childhoods, how domestic labor was split in their home, and then discuss what the consequences are of this division. Mom’s Chores/Dad’s Chores is a simple, but powerful activity.
I ask my students to brainstorm chores that are stereotypically associated with moms and those that are stereotypically associated with dads. I have a male volunteer write the mom chores down as student blurt them out. “Laundry. Dishes. Groceries and cooking. Cleaning. Vacuuming. Transport kids to activities. Schedule doctors appointments.” The list goes on for a while and is daunting to say the least.
Then I have a female volunteer write a list of dad chores from the students lists. “Keeping the family safe. Mow the lawn. Fix the car. Squash bugs. Weed eat. Scoop Snow. Change oil.” Inevitably someone chimes, “Make the money.” If someone says this I ask my students how many of their fathers and mothers worked and almost the entire class raises their hands. Then I ask if the “bring home the bacon” stereotype is more fantasy than reality today. Students unanimously say that its a myth now-a-days.
After we have a good list of chores for both parents I ask my students if they see any common theme for each list. It sometimes takes a minute, but my students almost always see that the mom chores are everyday tasks. Alternately the dad chores are things that have to be done, but they don’t have to be done every single day.
I always finish the activity by asking, “do you think domestic labor inequality creates pressure on a relationship?” “Could this lead to divorce or marital unhappiness?” “What did you learn about gender roles and domestic labor from your childhood?” “What will you teach your children about gender and domestic labor?”
Discussing economic inequality can be tough for a couple of reasons. First its depressing. Second it’s hard to express with words/statistics. I created a couple of slides and a video to teach economic inequality visually. My students actually laughed out loud at the video. This is still a work in progress, but I wanted to share with you what I have at the moment. Enjoy.
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.
This may be controversial and I may draw a fair amount of criticism from my techno-friendly teachers, but I don’t allow my students to use technology in the classroom. No cell phones, no laptops, nada. I am not technophobic. I have tons of gadgets, I research technology, I run a blog you may have heard of, so my objection to technology in the classroom is not borne out of ignorance. My concern is that students use technology to check out of my class and not to enhance it.
My first teaching gig was as a recitation instructor for a 250+ class. I sat in the very back of the class during every lecture and almost every screen was on Facebook or some other unrelated site. I know my students can’t stop themselves from surfing the web during class time, because I can smell my own. When I took a graduate methods course that required every student to be behind a laptop during lecture, I too couldn’t help myself. It would start innocently, I would look up the difference between grand mean centering and mean centering in Hierarchical Linear Modeling and next thing you know I would be reading about some D list celebrity news. If I can’t help myself how can I expect my students to?
You Are Not a Single Cell Organism
The above is what I tell my students on the first day of every one of my classes. I tell them that single cell organisms use osmosis to pull in what they need from the outside world. They, I tell them, are unable to absorb class information simply by showing up. I make the joke that if they were going to text their BFF, read a newspaper, or sleep during class they may as well do it in the comfort of their home. This isn’t a brow beating. I just try to be as honest and as non-judgmental as possible. They need to know how to set themselves up for success.
“Virtually all multitaskers think they are brilliant at multi-tasking and one of the big discoveries is, you know what, you’re really lousy at it. It turns out that multi-taskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking” -Dr. Clifford Nass (Timestamp: 10:40)
To help make my case I show them a recent PBS Frontline video that looked at how college students multitask at M.I.T. and Stanford. In both cases the students interviewed thought it was, “unfair” of teachers to deny students their technology because we “have to accept” that they are excellent multitaskers. Unfortunately for the very confident students in the video research suggests that most multitaskers are terrible at it. Watch the first 11 minutes of the video below to see both the interviews and the scientific research being done.
Teaching in a technology free environment comes with responsibilities. If you are going to demand your students undivided attention you owe it to them to provide a rich, interactive, and compelling class*. It’s not fair to demand all eyes on you and then drone on behind a podium reading prepared notes. If you are going to request the students be present then you have to do more than simply be present yourself. I have encountered faculty who believe they are “owed” the attention and respect of their students. While this may be true, this must be reciprocated back to the students. You “owe” them an outstanding education.
I have found that many students groan on the first day when I make them put away their laptops and cell phones, but after a few weeks they don’t seem to mind. If you can give your students a class that they are engaged in, they won’t miss their gadget distractions for long.
*To be clear I use technology in my classes all the time. Videos, websites, multi-media presentations, and music are a big part of what we do during class time.
Below is the blurb I add to every one of my syllabi:
Use of Personal Technology During Class
Because this class is highly interactive and your participation is important to its success, the use of personal laptops, iPods, and cell phones during class is prohibited.
It’s syllabus time for many of us so I wanted to share with you one of my syllabi and highlight one component. The syllabus was developed for my 120+ student sized class Sociology 101 course I am teaching this fall at Georgia Southern University. I treat my syllabi like a contract between myself and my students, so I try to be very thorough.
One of the sections I am adding this term is a clear definition of “My Role as Professor” and “Your Role as Student.” Many students come in expecting a “teacher as expert” classroom model. They want the teacher to tell them what is “really important” a.k.a. what is on the test. Students with this learning mindset write on course evaluations that they want, “the class to focus more on what will be on the test” and that they want, “less group work.” Group work, from this mindset, is time wasted that could have been spent pulling information from the expert at the front of the room. I want to move my students away from this mindset as quickly as possible because no student grows as a human being in a “teacher as expert” class. If you want to be more than the holder of knowledge worth knowing, if you want students to develop critical analysis skills then you have to extinguish this expectation right away. I address this and a couple of other points in the excerpt from my syllabus below:
My Role as Professor As the professor I am responsible for creating a safe, interesting, and maybe even fun learning environment for all students. I will help students learn the course material by providing activities, artistic expressions (a.k.a. media), discussion topics, and, when needed, individualized attention. I should be a thought provoker, a source of information, and an educational trainer pushing you to reach the high expectations I have for you in this class. I have spent a great deal of time to ensure that this class will be like no other you’ve taken before. I want you to leave class each day excited and motivated to apply the lessons of sociology in your personal life.
As a professor I am not responsible for telling you “what to study for the test”. I will not go over every piece of information that you will need to know for the quizzes. If you hoped that I, as the professor, would be a resource for you to find how you can put out the least amount of energy while still earning a good grade, I am probably not the instructor you are looking for. I respect you and your other time commitments enough to share this with you up front.
Your Role as Student As a student in this class your primary responsibility is to come to class prepared. That includes doing the assigned reading and taking the time to think about how it relates to your experiences and the world around you. In class you are expected to give all of us your attention and participate in class and group activities and discussion. To put it simply, if you hope to do well in this class you have to be an active participant in your education.
You can find my entire syllabus here and feel free to use any piece of it without attribution. Many of my colleagues deserve credit for pieces of this syllabus as well. No one teaches alone, but this is especially true when it comes to syllabi. If you have syllabi or components of syllabi that you would like to share please feel free to send them here.
The Color of Fear is a emotionally charged film that will leave your students talking and rethinking their perception of the world around them. The film places eight men in a room to talk about race, prejudice, and discrimination. There are two men who are Hispanic, two who are African American, two who are Asian American, two who are White, and the film’s director Lee Mun Wah. The film was released in 1994, but every semester my students tell me that it is the best and most relevant video we watched in my sociology courses.
The film seems to have aspired to be a round table discussion, but turns more into an intervention for David Christensen, a white man who is unwilling to accept that the men of color actually experience discrimination. Throughout the film the men of color share times they have been the target of racism and discrimination and each time David minimizes and discredits them by saying that their claims are, “unfounded”. David tells them men of color that racism is no longer a problem and that the problem these men are experiencing is all in their heads- that they are seeing something that is not there. Not surprisingly, this infuriates the men of color, especially Victor a African American man.
Victor at two points in the film becomes angry at David, but each time he raises his voice his words become a razor sharp scalpel dissecting David’s flawed logic and inaccurate perception of reality. Victor challenges David to see that in the United States being American frequently is shorthand for being White, that the world that is open to David as a White man is not as fully open for men of color, and that issues of race, prejudice, and discrimination are alive and well even if David chooses to ignore them. Click here to see a video of the second time Victor vents/educates David. This time Victor presses David to see that social and systematic inequality exists:
The video also discusses a variety of other topics including inter-ethnic prejudice and discrimination, masculinity, and Affirmative Action. However, after using this video a number of times it became apparent that the David/Victor relationship was by far the most compelling and eye opening part of the video for many of my students.
Up to now I have taught sociology to classes that are predominately White. On the first day of my Race and Nationality courses many of students are unsure why a course like this is needed in a post Civil Rights Movement era. Some are uncomfortable with the idea that White privilege even exists. I tell my students on the very first day that in any group or community there are multiple realities- multiple ways of seeing the exact same situation. Often my students think that I am out of touch with reality or that I’ve “read to many books”.
What I love most about The Color of Fear is that after watching the film it is crystal clear how someone could live in a unjust world and be totally unaware of it. David seems to be a good, honest, hard working man, but yet he is surprised to the point of disbelief when he hears the men of color discuss how racism has affected them. When David finally accepts the experiences of the men of color I can feel the whole room decompress. Many of my White students have told me that they identify with David and all of my students tell me that they better understand White privilege. Furthermore, this is a great sociological piece because it opens doors in students minds and begs them to see beyond the individual and to how the social affects each of us.
As is probably apparent by now, this film is controversial. I have shown this film over 10 times now and I have a few recommendations for anyone intending to share it with an audience. First, if at all possible watch the entire film in one setting or at the very least two classes back to back. The video is about a process of coming to terms with the world around us and if you stop in the middle it may leave students thinking that there is no hope for a positive conclusion. Secondly, don’t let students discredit Victor during the film. I have had students become uncomfortable by Victor’s outbursts and make disparaging remarks about him like, “is this guy crazy or what?” Each time I have stopped the video and asked the class if they feel Victor is crazy, unhinged, or out of control. Most students say no. If you don’t address the comments right away I fear that students will write Victor off and quit listening to him.
I have my students write a paper on the film and you can find the directions for that here. I focus primarily on David, multiple realities, and the dichotomization of racism.
Teaching ethnocentricity is like teaching a fish to feel the water that surrounds them. Many students unabashedly think that their culture is the “right way to live”. Luckily, there are a couple of widely used activities that will help open your students eyes to the consequences of ethnocentrism. Both articles, “Body Rituals of The Nacirema.” and the “The Sacred Rac” use ethnocentric language to describe culture in the United States.
The first is a classic anthropological article titled, “Body Rituals of The Nacirema.” This article is a anthropological study of the United States (circa 1956) however it uses loaded language to frame very “normal” aspects of american life in a very abnormal way. I typically have my students read this in the first week of my Intro to Sociology courses. I ask my students to raise their hand if they would like to live with the Nacirema. Any student who raises their hand has either figured out the ruse or has done this activity before. I tell these students that they may not talk until I say they can. This prevents them from ruining it for everyone else.
The majority of my class almost always says they do not want to live with the Nacirema. I ask them to give me their reasons. Typically students say that the Nacirema are weird because they hate their bodies and they let “holy mouth men” drill holes in their mouths. I let the students go on for a little while and then write Nacirema on the board at the front of the room. Then as the students are talking I slowly write Nacirema backwards. A-m-e-r-i-c-a-n. Then I ask, “Does anyone find it strange that Nacirema is American spelled backwards?”
I let all the students then discuss how ethnocentrism can affect the way we see a culture, even our own. My students usually love this activity, but I always apologize for decieving them or at the very least leading them astray. I think it is important to reestablish trust with your students by acknowledging that this was only for academic purposes.
The second article, “The Sacred Rac” takes a similar ethnocentric look at our obsession with cars in the United States. The article starts off by talking about a Indian anthropologist who travels to visit the Asu, a people who worship the “sacred Rac” much like the people of his country honor their sacred cows. This article is a great jumping off point for a discussion of stereotypes about Indians and about ethnocentrism. After reading this students almost always ask something like, “Why would a people put up with these animals if the cost so much and hurt so many people?” When I tell them that this article is about cars not racs in the United States the students are floored. I then provide them with stats from the Center for Disease Control that find nearly 5 million people are injured or killed in car accidents each year and that the total economic impact of car accidents was $230 billion in 2000.
These articles put both US culture and ethnocentrism in easy to understand terms. Students typically enjoy these activities and many have told me they show them to their friends. I have found that both these articles provide the most benefit if you do them early in your classes. After these experiences students are often more tolerant and open to other cultures.
About Sociology Source
Resources & Ideas for Teaching Sociology from Nathan Palmer.