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Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh York St John University. ‘ En/Countering the Elephant in the (Class)room ’ : teaching race and ethnicity on the introductory module, 1EN450 ‘ Gender and Writing ’ HEA ‘ Towards a Postcolonial Pedagogy ’ conference, Reading University, April 29 2014.

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dr sarah lawson welsh york st john university
Dr Sarah Lawson WelshYork St John University

‘En/Countering the Elephant in the (Class)room’: teaching race and ethnicity on the introductory module,

1EN450 ‘Gender and Writing’

HEA ‘Towards a Postcolonial Pedagogy’ conference, Reading University, April 29 2014.

some key questions
Some key questions
  • When can we talk about race & ethnicity?
  • On which modules & in relation to which texts?
  • How are key terms & concepts best introduced?
  • How can we enable students to engage with current debates about race & ethnicity in relevant and informed ways?
  • ‘The elephant in the (class)room’: dealing with issues of cultural sensitivity & ‘cultural paralysis’.
  • Seminar politics: what is appropriate? Managing student discussion, raising awareness of cultural appropriation & the ‘burden of representation’.
and some answers
And some answers…
  • 1. Integral not additional.

Always consider talking about race & ethnicity – don’t just annex these discussions onto the end of modules/ a course or reserve them for discussion of specially selected texts and/or issues.

  • 2. Race and ethnicity are issues for everyone.

Talk about race and ethnicity in relation to all texts, including canonical/white ones & include critical approaches to ‘whiteness’ & other hegemonic and/or normative categories as part of this study. (You can use Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison materials cited in bibliography as supporting resources on this for students.)


3. Introduce key concepts through evidence-based learning.

Students can learn more about the notion of race as a construct by being allowed to research key stereotypes (e.g. in relation to the objectification & commodification of the black female body), their historical roots & legacies and by being encouraged to discuss how many stereotypes are still manifest today (e.g. in advertising images). This kind of deeper learning is more productive than simply telling students that race & ethnicity are not fixed categories and allows them to trace for themselves some of the shifts in understanding and terminology that have taken - and are still - taking place

4. Make it relevant.

Include and encourage students tomake links to wider non-literary sources (e.g. images, blogs, journalistic pieces, essays) and to current debates in the media. Currently we make links to:

debates on slavery and reparation in the Caribbean,

media representation of Twelve Years a Slave, Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o & her 2014 speech about race & beauty (see resources),

writer & musician Questlove blogging on racial discrimination in the Trayvon Martin case and racial/sexual politics as a man of color,


5. Model appropriate critical vocabulary

Students need to be taken out of their ‘comfort zone’ and allowed to confront difficult or disturbing issues in their literary study but they also need support in formulating appropriate skills and, especially, critical vocabulary, for talking about race and ethnicity.


6. Seminar politics.

Allow students to express their reservations, difficulties and/or anxieties in talking about race and ethnicity, if they have any.

Give students opportunities to ‘own’ discussions, by:

  • Asking students to ‘brainstorm’ those factors which inhibit and those factors which enable student discussion of race and ethnicity in the classroom.
  • Allowing students to decide on some ethical guidelines for their own interaction within classroom debates e.g. to listen, to give equal attention to multiple points of view, to engage only in discussion backed by evidence rather than anecdotes or generalizations, developing strategies for dealing with conflict and difficult or extreme points of view.
gender and writing
Gender and Writing
  • https://moodle.yorksj.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=9021
  • The module engages students in the critical examination of literary representations of and debates about gender. It focuses on the manner in which gender in constructed through language and is responded to by language as well as broadening student awareness of wider debates on gender in contemporary society.
  • Each week there is 1 x 1 hour team taught lecture and 1 x 2 hour seminar plus tutorial time.
primary texts studied in order
Primary texts studied (in order)

August Strindberg, Miss Julie.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Grace Nichols, The Fat Black Women's Poems.

Nella Larsen, Passing.

Jackie Kay, Trumpet.

Plus selected poems including:

Dean Atta, ‘I am Nobody’s Nigger’,

Linton Kwesi Johnson,‘Sonny’s Lettah’, Inglan is a Bitch’, ‘If I Woz a Tap-Natch Poet’,

Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘We Wear the Mask’,

Una Marson, ‘Kinky Hair Blues’.

  • 1 x 1000 word critical reflection based on experience of giving a 15-20 minute group presentation on one of the following extracts on gender:
    • Virginia Woolf, from ‘Professions for Women’
    • Margaret Atwood, ‘Not Just a Pretty Face’
    • Angela Carter, ‘Notes from a Maternity Ward’
    • Norman Mailer, ‘In Search of the White Negro’
    • Alice Walker, ‘In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens’
    • Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson,‘Trayvon Martin and I ain’t shit’

PLUS 1x 2000 word essay which focuses on at least two module texts.

three main strands to teaching of race ethnicity on this module
Three main strands to teaching of race & ethnicity on this module
  • 1. The Politics of Representation
  • Enabling students to critically examine representations of race & ethnicity in a range of texts (literary & otherwise).
  • 2. Understanding Intersectionality
  • Facilitating understanding of the often complex imbrications of race, sexuality & gender in a range of texts (literary & otherwise).
  • 3. Race and ‘Race’, Black and post-Black identities
  • Stemming from/linked to Bradbury’s research - introducing more advanced understanding of different kinds of embodied & post-Black subjectivities in a range of texts (literary & otherwise).

Lupita Nyong’o’s 2014 speech (excerpted below) is taught alongside Charish Halliburton’s, 2014 Black Feminists blog post, ‘The Fetishisation of Lupita Nyong’o’, to encourage contextualized critical debate.

  • “I want to take this opportunity to talk about beauty, Black beauty, dark beauty. I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: “Dear Lupita,” it reads, “I think you’re really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.”
  • “My heart bled a little when I read those words, I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me.”
conclusions teaching race and ethnicity
Conclusions: teaching race and ethnicity
  • Curricular integration - don’t just add study of race and ethnicity to curriculum.
  • Race and ethnicity matters in all texts not just those of writers of ‘color’ or writers for ethnic minorities. We all have an ethnicity.
  • Look at a range of texts not just literary ones.
  • Use multi-media resources to engage students.
  • Make – and encourage students to make - links to relevant current debates in a range of contexts.
  • Encourage an understanding of race as a construct through evidence-based learning. This can be creative as well as critical. (e.g. Hottentot Venus student visual project).
  • Facilitate an understanding of race and ethnicity as grounded in specific historical and cultural contexts. Choose teaching strategies which enable students to discover for themselves why contexts might matter rather than simply telling them that they do. (Lawson Welsh 2013: 140-1)
  • Offer students varied opportunities to engage with and to construct more nuanced discussions of race and ethnicity in literary and other texts.
conclusions talking about race ethnicity
Conclusions: talking about race & ethnicity
  • Allow students to acknowledge or reservations they may have about talking about race and ethnicity.
  • Enable students to ‘own’ their discussion. Ask them to brainstorm strategies for enabling discussion of race and ethnicity in the classroom and to suggest ways in which such debates might apply and be taken beyond the classroom.
  • Allow students to decide on some ethical guidelines for their own interaction within classroom debates.
  • Wherever possible, model appropriate language, especially for introductory level students. There is often student anxiety about offensive or inappropriate language and terminology.
  • Chinua Achebe, ‘Colonialist Criticism’ in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths & Helen Tiffin eds, The postcolonial studies reader (Routledge: 1995), 57-61.
  • Charish Halliburton, ‘The Fetishisation of Lupita Nyong’o’, Black Feminists (blog) March 5 2014 http://www.blackfeminists.org/2014/03/05/the-fetishisation-of-lupita-nyongo/(accessed 22.04.14)
  • Alexa Huang, ‘In transit: embodied differences’, transit hhttp://miaoby.wordpress.com/ (2014).
  • Sarah Lawson Welsh, Grace Nichols (British Council and Northcote House: 2007), chapter 2.
  • --- 'Bodies, Texts and Theories: Teaching Gender within Postcolonial Studies' in Alice Ferrebe and Fiona Tolan eds, Teaching Gender (Palgrave Macmillan: 2012), 138-157.
  • ‘Toni Morrison refuses to privilege white people in her novels’ (video) 20 June 2012 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4vIGvKpT1c (accessed 22.04. 2014)
  • Lupito Ngwongo transcript of speech at Black women in Hollywood lunch (2013) http://www.buzzfeed.com/mackenziekruvant/lupita-nyongo-essence-speech-black-beauty and video of speech (2013) http://entertainment.time.com/2014/02/28/lupita-nyongo-essence-black-beauty/ (accessed 22.04.14)
  • Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson,‘Trayvon Martin and I ain’t shit’, New York Magazine, July 16 2013. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/07/questlove-trayvon-martin-and-i-aint-shit.html (accessed 22.04.14)
  • Shing Yin Khor, ‘Just Eat it: A Comic about Food and Cultural Appropriation’. http://bitchmagazine.org/post/a-comic-about-food-and-cultural-appropriation (accessed 22.04.14)
  • With thanks to the Gender & Writing team 2013-14 at York St John University: Dr Alex Beaumont, Fraser Mann, Janine Bradbury, Saffron Walkling.