Teaching Resources for Talking about Race in a “Post-Truth” Era

PALS Note: PALS is thrilled to have this guest post from Naomi Clark. Clark is an Assistant Professor of English at Loras College. While we have had many posts that dabble in Rhet/Comp, we are excited to have a bona fide Rhet/Comp scholar here to share resources on teaching about race in the college classroom. See below for a plethora of ideas and resources. 

Quinn Dombrowski

If your most recent teacherly *face palm* during this high season of grading wasn’t prompted by a paper insisting on a singular, simplistic interpretation of a text, then it may have been provoked by an argumentative paper’s nihilistic conclusion that “everyone has their own opinion.” Of course, while there are very good developmental explanations for why students arrive in our classrooms with these troubling habits of mind, our job to help them grow beyond these limiting perspectives is not helped by a President-elect who gleefully and recklessly disregards contrary evidence in his speeches and tweets.

Doctoral fellow Brittney Beck wrote an inspiring blog post about the struggle I (and many others) have been feeling as we come to terms with what it means to be a teacher at a time when facts (reportedly) don’t matter. She points out that:

In a pluralist, democratic society, students must learn to engage in dialogue and dissent. It is my role to not just facilitate the sharing and critiquing of opinions and ideas, but to draw harder lines regarding what informed, supported opinions are and to remind students of the co-constructed common reality from which we are all operating.

Beck’s conclusion that media literacy and historical analysis are more important now than ever is particularly on-point for those of us teaching textual analysis and prompting students to make evidence-based arguments in their writing.

This need for informed analysis often becomes startlingly apparent in our classrooms when we talk about race. For example, in my Writing as Social Action class this fall, interactions with a few students made it clear that we needed to go back to basics to explain the differences between bigotry and systemic, institutionalized racism. (No, racism is not just a matter of opinion. No, the idea that size of skull size tracks with race was disproven decades ago. No, Black Lives Matter is not a terrorist organization.)  It’s very likely that shades of these questions will come up again in the spring when I teach a course on Rhetoric, Race, and Eugenics. Most of the students I teach are white and middle-class, coming from comfortable Chicago suburbs or Midwestern small towns. Many have been hearing about equality all their lives while having little substantive exposure to the effects of racism (or effects that they would recognize as such), so these kinds of discussions often risk falling flat.

bookpowerTo aid in these conversations, I have been on the hunt for teaching resources that demonstrate the social construction of race simultaneously alongside statistical, empirical evidence of institutionalized racism. Although my students this semester generally responded well to a selection from Allan Johnson’s very accessible Privilege, Power, and Difference, there were murmurings from even students who are very awake to social justice issues who were unsatisfied that Johnson’s claims do not explicitly reference supporting data. (Score one for critical readers!) While I know the evidence for these claims exists, I have had a much harder time finding undergraduate level instructional materials such as readings, videos, or infographics that visually present evidence of the long history of exclusion and white supremacy in American with a social constructionist sensibility. I haven’t found that holy grail quite yet*, but a call to the hive mind on social media did point me toward some excellent videos, documentaries, articles, and websites that are well worth checking out.

Below are some of the resources I’ve gathered that others may find helpful as well. This collection is far from comprehensive, but focuses specifically on data-driven resources that students and professors alike can use to inform their learning.



“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates: In this article, Coates documents the macro forces—from sharecropping to housing discrimination—that characterized the first half of the twentieth century and how they affected individual, specific families. This article could also be used as a model when talking with students about how their own research into broad social topics can be strengthened by including individual experiences.

“What the Data Really Says about Police and Racial Bias: Eighteen Academic Studies, Legal Rulings, And Media Investigations Shed Light on the Issue Roiling America” by Kia Makarechi: The title of this Vanity Fair article says it all.

“Aren’t More White People Than Black People Killed By Police? Yes, But No” by Wesley Lowry: This Washington Post story responds to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) who claimed that police kill more white people than minorities and that concern about racially charged police violence is overblown. Not so, it turns out.

“Historian Traces Economic and Racial Divides In Ferguson, St. Louis”  Story by Cameron Dodd and video by Katie Hogsett: In this interview (with accompanying video), Colin Gordon provides an overview of the historical factors that contributed to the conditions surrounding the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent protests. The interview may work on its own as a conversation starter, it could be used to prompt students’ interest in the author’s longer works (such as Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City and its accompanying interactive maps) or it could be paired with other resources that discuss law enforcement or neighborhoods.

“How the Poor Became Black: The Racialization of American Poverty in the Mass Media” by Martin Gilens: This essay in Race and the Politics of Welfare Reform (U of Michigan P, 2003) is a content analysis of news stories over a period of forty years that documents how African Americans became increasingly visible in American media during the twentieth century. Gilens notes that concurrently with this shift, the “moral tone of poverty coverage in the news” became less sympathetic toward impoverished Americans more generally. Although the essay is written for an academic audience, its approach (along with its charts and graphs) make it accessible for undergraduate students as well. While not as flashy as a video might be, it does offer concrete data that speaks to the interactive nature of cultural perceptions and economic realities.

“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”  by Peggy McIntosh: Although this now classic, go-to “listicle” does not delve into the numerical evidence of systemic racism, it could work well as an experiential complement to more conventionally data-driven research.  The version linked here also includes “Some Notes for Facilitators.” (Perhaps tangential, but if your classroom demographics include students of working class origins, they may find Gina Crosley-Corcoran’s intersectional critique of McIntosh’s list helpful: “Explaining Privilege to a Broke White Person.”)

“What My Bike Has Taught Me about White Privilege” By J. Dowsett: While I can’t vouch for everything on the host blog, this particular post uses the author’s experience riding in the bike lane as a metaphor for white privilege/systemic racism. Students who may bristle at the mention of white privilege are likely to find the conversational tone engaging and nonthreatening. The author responds to critiques in a follow-up post.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander: No list about systemic racism would be complete without this title on it. This highly acclaimed book that documents the ways social policy, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system are oriented by white supremacy shows the devastating effects of the status quo on African American communities.

Privilege Exercise (with a focus on race): There are many iterations of the privilege walk activity online, but I am linking to this one because of its particular focus on race. (Of course a version with a broader focus would help promote a more intersectional analysis and discussion, so select according to your pedagogical goals.) While a privilege walk would work well with any of the readings or documentaries included on this list, I am also imagining how these statements could serve as springboards for micro-research projects that could be completed in a single class session or as homework. Each student could be assigned one or two statements to research and then report back their findings to the rest of the class. Depending on the focus of the class, students could report their findings in an infographic or other visual/multimodal means.

Patrick Breitenbach


The Liturgists Podcast, Episode 34 – Black and White: Racism in America: This podcast episode offers an informed overview of systemic racism in America in a way that speaks particularly well to students coming from a conservative Christian background. While it is decidedly not coming from that perspective, it does include the life experiences of an African American man who describes the tension he felt between the Black church of his youth and the white, middle-class evangelicalism he encountered as a young man—and how a deepening knowledge of history brought him back to his roots.

CodeSwitch: This NPR show (and podcast available on iTunes) is a conversation among journalists of color about race. The episodes are lively and thoughtful, including titles such as DOJ’s Withering Baltimore Report Says ‘What Black Folks Have Been Saying For Decades’ and Racial Disparities In Wages Boil Down To Discrimination.



13th by Ava DuVernay: I haven’t watched this documentary yet, but it’s in my Netflix que in anticipation of winter break. It comes highly recommended as it traces the historical roots of the present-day prison industrial-complex back to slavery. You might find this discussion guide helpful in your classroom. (Although this discussion guide is produced by a Catholic organization, Center of Concern, the content is relevant for anyone approaching the film from a social justice perspective.)

American PromiseThis PBS documentary explores the perceived African-American male achievement gap by tracing the experiences of two middle-class, African-American young men who attend an all-white elite New York school from kindergarten to twelfth grade. An accompanying discussion guide is also available.

The Unequal Opportunity Race by the African American Policy Forum: This 4-minute animated representation of the obstacles that white supremacy has constructed for African Americans works especially well when paired with one of the articles above.

“How Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Amplify Racial Inequality”: This seven-minute PBS clip discusses studies on the long-term implications of growing up in impoverished neighborhoods.

Black America since MLK: And Still I Rise: The text looks at the last five decades of African American history since the major civil rights victories through the eyes of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., exploring the tremendous gains and persistent challenges of these years (as described on the PBS website). It appears to be expiring from the website very soon, but is also available on iTunes and on DVD.

“Racism in the United States by the Numbers”: In this four-minute video, John Green, a fast-talking YouTube celebrity, recounts big data stats that show evidence of institutionalized racism in law enforcement, the criminal justice system, health care, and other domains. Unfortunately, I don’t see links to the data as he promises in the video, but the video could still be useful as a preface to a more substantive reading assignment such as Allan Johnson’s Privilege, Power, and Difference or one of the articles linked above. Although it pains me to say it, I have to agree with a friend who pointed out that coming from a white dude might help legitimize the message in the eyes of some students.

What is Systematic Racism?: This series of eight one-minute videos “shows how racism shows up in our lives across institutions and society: Wealth Gap, Employment, Housing Discrimination, Government Surveillance, Incarceration, Drug Arrests, Immigration Arrests, Infant Mortality” (from online description). The brevity of the videos makes them ideal as classroom discussion starters. They are produced by Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation whose website includes a host of other materials for addressing systemic racism as well.

Quinn Dombrowski


Black Lives Matter Syllabus: The ultimate resource that brings together expertise, data, critical theory, and dynamic teaching materials for college classrooms.

Teaching Tolerance: A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center: This contains a wealth of resources for K-12 classrooms, but college instructors are likely to find relevant teaching materials there as well.

The Racial Dot Map: The website offers a macro- and micro- view of racial demographics in the United States. This dynamic map makes it possible to view the racial make-up of local neighborhoods as well as the distribution of racial diversity within the nation as a whole. Something particularly useful in a tool like this one is the ability to drill down into areas that may appear to be racially diverse from a distance (i.e., urban areas), but are actually quite segregated at the neighborhood level.

Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics (Pew Research Center): When you’re ready for a deep dive into the data, this website offers a comprehensive breakdown of how wealth has been distributed among different racial groups in the United States from 1984 to 2009. This kind of information is likely to be more useful to those who already have a thorough understanding of the historic conditions that produced these trends in more recent decades.

Parable of the Polygons: The source is an interactive website that uses moveable geometric shapes to demonstrate the relationship between bias, segregation, and social structures. This could be used as an activity to accompany a discussion on housing and education in racially segregated neighborhoods.

Implicit Association Test: This ongoing Harvard study assesses the implicit biases of individuals. Assigning this test to students before reading something like Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People could be a powerfully transformative experience for many of us—not only for students!

I’m excited about using more of these resources in the classroom next semester in ways that will engage students on multiple levels—experientially, emotionally, and logically. But this list is just a starting point; undoubtedly, there are many excellent resources I’ve missed. Please share your favorites in the comments. Any thoughts about how you might use these kinds of resources in classroom activities or as prompts for writing assignments? I’d love to hear all about it.

*If any readers with graphic design skills are interested in collaborating on a project like this with me, please email me at naomiDOTclarkATlorasDOTedu.

nclark_headshot751x501-copyContributor Bio:

Naomi Clark is an Assistant Professor of English at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. A specialist in rhetoric and composition, she directs the Writing Center and teaches first year writing and public writing courses. Her research interests include the circulation of political rhetoric, new materialism, community based learning, and teaching for transfer. You can connect with her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/naomi.p.clark or on her website at http://naomiclarkphd.com.

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