Why We Teach About Race in Anthropology

One of my most important activities as an online instructor is to communicate with my students via the discussion forum. Each week there are two topics that the students have to write a thoughtful post to address. One of the second week’s topics is about race in our culture. As I scanned the posts the students had written to find good ones to respond to, a very lengthy answer caught my eye. The student wrote a very personal essay about how she was affected by the week’s material. As a member of a minority, she was harshly reminded of the marginalization she constantly experiences in her own life. Why must inequality, and her own status, be brought up in school as well?

This is my slightly edited answer:

You bring up a lot of good points and questions about the experience of race, especially in our own culture. This topic hits us very close to home, so I understand why you feel frustrated when you encounter it again in this course. I think it is an important topic for us to explore, especially in a cultural anthropology course. Here are my top reasons for thinking so:

  • Race is important to discuss because it is so relevant to our own lives. One of the goals of this course is to teach you information and critical thinking skills that will help your professional and personal lives. As a result, the course material sometimes focuses on ourselves, as well as the distant cultures. For example, this week discusses race, of course. Next week we talk about gender, another important category in our culture. The anthropology class of twenty years ago was all about the Bono and other people far from ourselves, but it turns into trivia if it does not connect to our own lives.
  • Combined with how relevant race is to our culture, there are also rampant misconceptions about race in the general public. Many people believe that race determines intelligence, which it certainly does not. Also, since people associate certain socioeconomic groups with certain races, they assume that there is a biological reason, which is also not true. A recent book that made it to the New York Times bestseller list is making these false claims, but the misinformation is getting spread. In fact, people are paying to be misinformed. We teach what the actual science tells us about race, basically because the fact-based information is just not getting out there, and it is hurting our culture.
  • One of the barriers keeping racialist thinking from going away is that we do live different racial experiences, but we rarely get to see it from each other’s shoes. While the material in this course and your previous one may be harsh reminders, they may give your classmates a new perspective that they never had before. While some of your classmates may never truly live the experience of racial prejudice, by learning about it, they can sympathize and reinforce what we are learning about the problems of racial categories and the inequality that it causes. The point of teaching about race is not to reinforce how unequal we all are, or to justify or support inequality. If people are leaving this week’s material believing that people of certain groups should be as oppressed as they are,  I have failed my students.

I hope I have explained what we teach race in this class. I think that if we are to address inequality in our culture, we have to spread the information we have instead of avoiding the topic. While getting the same lesson, especially a distasteful one, is tiresome, the repetition shows how important we think this information is. Let me know what you think, especially if you have suggestions of how we can teach this information in a better manner. Just out of curiousity, what was your other course that dealt with race?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *