"Mr. Smith, why are you teaching us history in our English class?" Students wondered why, in a course on American Literature, I would devote multiple days to discussions of race. I explained to the students the interrelation of literature and the societies in which the authors lived, often pointing out that one couldn't understand modern music without understanding modern times.
As my course contained a unit on slave narratives and another on the Harlem Renaissance, I justified race discussion as requisite to understanding the context of the literature. So by the time our semester together had come and gone, I had taught several lessons that addressed the concepts of race, the historical development of race, and the challenges to race presented by the constant creation of multiracial people.
I had found readings and role plays, personal accounts, and documentary films. We acted out and discussed Twain's controversial Pudd'n-Head Wilson, created graphic novels representing the autobiographies of Fred-erick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, and even watched samples of the PBS film Race: The Power of an Illusion. Like many teachers with a passion, I bent the rules of the district curriculum requirements in favor of lessons I thought more pressing. But with all these lessons I ran into the same problem.
Constructing race, the daily practice of ascribing roles and identities to physical features, is a matter of active perception. If race affects the way you are treated by others in the world, it necessarily depends upon what race they suppose you to be. My curricular premise is that individuals can discover and address their own racism more effectively when they understand that all race categories are political lines drawn in the sands of cultural and genetic diffusion and evolution.
I can say it clearly enough, but lectures never bring the result I'm really after. If race is perceptual, it must be challenged on the level of perception. My lessons based on reading and discussion failed to produce activities that revealed to students how they construct race through their own vision and sense of identity.