Teaching “Race & Ethnicity” : The First Day (Open Thread for Comments)

What’s the best way to begin a class on “Race & Ethnicity”? This question is inspired in part by the terrific discussion in yesterday’s comments about the common trainer’s question, “what about being (fill-in-your-racial-ethnic-background) makes you proud?” and by a recent question on the Teaching Sociology listserv.

For the readers here who are professors and classroom teachers, what’s the best exercise or introduction to this class that you’ve used?

For readers who have taken such a class, what sort of exercises have you enjoyed on the first day? What sorts of exercises do you absolutely loathe?

Let us hear from you in the comment box.

And, as a reminder, we have a (beginning) stash of films and syllabi here at RacismReview available for download. I know lots of folks are working on their syllabus for the upcoming semester right now. Please email me (jessiedanielsnyc _at_ gmail _dot_ com) if you’d like to see your syllabus added to the mix.


  1. Julie Netherland

    What a great idea! I look forward to seeing what folks post. When I was pursuing my social work degree, I was really disappointed in my course on race and racism. I think we need creative new ways for opening up the conversation in ways that both challenges people and makes a safe space for all students to participate. Look forward to seeing more here.

  2. Jessie Author

    Thanks, Julie! 😉 I agree we need new and better ways to get conversation going. In my classes, I tend to use a lot of online discussion in addition to the in-class discussion. And, my experience with online discussion is that if students in the class don’t know each other, then the online discussions get overheated (doubly true in courses on race, sexuality, gender). So, one first day exercise I’ve used before is to bring a digital camera with me on the first day and have each student in the class take a photo of a fellow student. Then, I post their photos in the course management system (Blackboard, or such). And the students can go in and post a little introduction about themselves. I like it as an icebreaker on the first day and, as an added bonus, it gets students to check in online early in the course. I know I have some (former) students that read here, perhaps one of them can report on how their experience with that exercise! Tip: If you’re thinking of trying this yourself, be sure the camera is fully charged and/or bring extra batteries.

  3. Joe

    One useful exercise is early in a course to have students keep diaries of racial events they see for a week or more. Then discuss the events they see in class. We did more extensive diaries from nearly 1000 students for our Two Faced Racism book, and the results were incredibly revealing. They really provoke good discussions in classes.

  4. I ask the students to come prepared on the first day of class with a story about their names – who where they named for, what does their name mean, where does their family name originate from. We introduce ourselves with these stories. It’s a low key exercise that gets everyone talking and gets us knowing one another. As the stories unfold, we learn who can trace their family history back how far and who cannot, how family names changed as people immigrated, etc. I can point back to these stories throughout the semester as we talk about immigration patterns, how different groups achieved whiteness (especially tracing how the notion of whiteness works with naturalization laws and census data over the years [this is U.S. context]), the system of slavery, colonization and genocide, etc.

    I look forward to seeing what others do early in the semester.

  5. John W. Eby

    Here are things I’ve tried in the past in my race and ethnicity course for the first period. You can begin by having students write a paragraph then talk about it in small group discussion then large group sharing. Or just start with small groups. Tell stories. Encourage
    humor. These must be done thoughtfully of course. Students can get hurt.
    Emphasize that each person’s story is “true” for them. DON’T let the discussion get into judgment of student’s perceptions. Other students can say, “But that isn’t really what happened or what it meant.” These work in Gender classes, too.

    Of course persons of majority races or ethnic groups may find it hard to
    answer the questions. People of minority ones may find it painful. The
    composition of the class makes a difference. Be careful to not “isolate” students.

    Describe the first time you can remember that you realized you are a
    particular race or ethnicity?
    Describe a time when your race or ethnicity giving you an advantage? A
    Describe a time when you observed race or ethnicity giving another person an advantage? A disadvantage?
    Describe what you especially like about being who you are?
    What are some really exciting and fun things that are part of your
    ethnic tradition?
    Describe some traditions from ethnic groups other than your own which have enriched you?

    John Eby
    Messiah College
    PS: This list was adapted from one I posted on teachsoc@googlegroups.com

  6. Tee

    I teach sociology at a small Catholic uni in the Midwest. Last fall, I had students name their favorite fruits as part of the standard first-day-of-class introduction. I kept a tally on the board and then after everyone introduced themselves, I divided the room into tropical fruits, melons, berries, stone fruits, citrus, and other. I then told the class that mangoes were the best fruit ever and offered them a number of reasons to establish the superiority of mangoes, and by extension, all tropical fruits. I then explained that the tropical fruits would receive certain bonuses and perks throughout the semester. I then “gave” slightly fewer perks to the next three groups, no perks to the citrus and penalized the group other after running down a list of reasons that those fruits were undesirable. I then asked students to think about the consequences of assigning resources and penalties based on gender, social class, and race and gave a quick introduction to the social construction of race and white privilege. The exercise went over quite well for some students but I did encounter some resistance for a small–but vocal–minority (no pun intended) group of students. I don’t know if I’ll try this again at my current institution where students are fairly homogeneously white, suburban-rural, ideologically conservative, and working- to middle-class. I would do this at a more diverse school. I am an African American woman, so that may have some bearing on my students’ response.

  7. Isabel Adonis

    I am teacher, but not in a classroom. I am of a mixed race origin and I do not hold a position of power.

    In order to talk about race you have to start from where you are. If a teacher or lecturer wants to talk about race in an educational setting then they must identify their race and relation to the environment in which they are talking. See the last comment.

    The ground or assumption of the race dialogue must also be explored -notice how closely the educational environment with its endless grading and measurements, its graduation day and so on mimicks a slave system.

    You may want to discuss whether it is in fact safe to talk about race at all given its inherently messy ambiguous and paradoxical nature.


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