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A Boston University course taught by Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, aims to move racism and ethnicity from abstraction to real human experience.

In a G. Stanley Hall lecture at APA's 2004 Annual Convention in Honolulu, Henderson Daniel named her main tools to spur student discussion on the human angle: thought-provoking videos such as "Miss India-Georgia," a documentary of an Indian-American beauty contest that examines the lives of four very different South Asian adolescent girls, and "Skin Deep," a discussion of race among college students at a retreat.

In line with APA's Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice, and Organizational Change for Psychologists (see page 46, "From 'isms' to inclusion"), adopted as APA policy in 1992, Henderson Daniel's course compels students to examine their own racial attitudes and beliefs. It also aims to increase their multicultural understanding and responsiveness.

"I don't expect students [who take the course] to become a candidate for the Nobel Prize like Martin Luther King," commented Henderson Daniel, a member of APA's Council of Representatives and incoming member of APA's Board of Directors. "I'm not expecting them to speak up all the time--no one does. But I'm expecting them to notice racism and make a difference where they are."

Racial history

Henderson Daniel begins her course with an exploration of racism's history in America because, "If you don't know where you're coming from, you don't know where you're going to," she explained. Specifically, the course probes:

  • Racial geography--how space determines the nature and level of contact among the races and how generational messages about race are a part of the geography. For example, parents and grandparents are sources of information and attitudes about racial and ethnic groups.

  • Racial politics--the stages of talking about race in the United States, as proposed by Ruth Frankenberg in her book "White Women, Race Matters" (University of Minnesota Press, 1993). In the first stage, race is a hierarchy with one group presented as superior. In the second, there's a view that race is not an issue and we are all the same, which can lead to color- and power-evasive stances and inertia. The final stage is acceptance of difference as something to be celebrated.

"People raised in each of these eras are alive today," explained Henderson Daniel. "Consequently, all three ways of talking about race are present."

  • Racial biology--the interaction of phenotype and geography that produced adaptive differences in, for example, skin color, hair texture and eye shape.

  • Racial economics--the income disparities caused by educational and real-estate segregation and perpetuated by resulting gaps in family wealth.

Racial consciousness

Once students firmly grasp such origins of racial inequality--"important for people to know so that they don't think certain groups are lazy," noted Henderson Daniel--she urges them to consider their own interactions with other cultures. In one exercise, for example, students examine the difference between consuming a culture and truly understanding it; in one example, she compares eating Chinese food with studying the history and culture of Chinese people who live in the United States.

In additional exercises, students watch and discuss the "Miss India-Georgia" and "Skin Deep" videos, as well as others of:

  • Korean and Vietnamese adoptees talking about their acculturation challenges, "commodification" as adoptees--the sense of being property traded from another country--and differing experiences growing up in their adoptive families.

  • Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD, Spelman College president, on the television show "Oprah," mediating a candid talk on race among Chicago high school students. Students also read Daniel Tatum's book, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" (Basic Books, 2003).

  • Adult men speaking openly about race in their respective lives in "The Color of Fear," a documentary.

It is only once students recognize--and object to-- such racism in others "that they can begin to see racism as a lived experience and not just a theoretical construct," said Henderson Daniel. This insight will influence their perspectives on race and ethnicity in others, she concluded.

Further Reading

For more information, go to www.bu.edu/psych/faculty/daniel.