Fulbright Workshop: Black Lives Matter, Part Two

In Part One of the discussion about teaching Black Lives Matter, I wrote about how I planned for the Black Lives Matter workshop and considered the discussions I both was and wasn’t prepared for when beginning to teach about race in the U.S. in Norway. In this part, I will outline some of the ways I introduce and teach the topic, and I will provide some resources that I have found especially useful.  

In Norway, the movies and novels that come up in a discussion of race in the U.S. are quite varied from texts that have received a lot of critical acclaim to texts that have been critiqued for whitewashing race in the U.S. (For reference, here are texts that come up a lot in discussions: The Help, Crash, The Butler, 13th, Selma.) Because students have a mixture of entry points into this discussion, one strategy that I have leaned heavily upon for this workshop is to use as much primary material as possible. I have decided to do this to emphasis historical material over fictional accounts of events, but I have also done this in part because of my position as a white woman talking, not always but often, to primarily white audiences. I want to discuss Black Lives Matter and provide historical context for the students I’m working with, but I also don’t want to talk over and gloss over the work of black men and women. I try to use examples that do not put me or other white people at the center.

Below I outline some of the points I highlight in the Black Lives Matter workshop and provide some additional resources that helped me put the workshop together.

The workshop starts with a bit of the background of Black Lives Matter itself. The level of knowledge about Black Lives Matter amongst students really varies. Some students know about it and other entire groups have never even heard of it. So we start by looking at the origins of Black Lives Matter and the three women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, at the center of its founding.


When asked for resources about Black Lives Matter, I point to the TED talk below because I think it could be easily shown and discussed in class.

To gather information myself, though, I found Wesley Lowery’s book, They Can’t Kill Us All, really useful, and I have spent a fair amount of time with The Black Lives Matter Syllabus from Frank Leon Roberts at NYU. I point to Roberts’ syllabus in particular if teachers want to contextualize the movement within larger cultural issues and phenomenon in the U.S. and around the world.

In the workshop itself, I start by introducing not only the founders of Black Lives Matter but some of the big events that lead to its founding and growth. Because students are often not familiar with Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown I discuss their deaths. Students gain a sense of where this movement began, how it became a national conversation, and why so many people feel that Black Lives Matter is a vital movement right now.

Because these workshops last between an hour and an hour and a half, there isn’t a lot of time to read texts, but I have found the poem, “Not an Elegy for Mike Brown,” by Danez Smith can be a useful way to show students that the movement for black lives is not about singular instances of violence but about larger systematic issues. The poem is both an elegy for Mike Brown and not one because it is also a lament for all of the other young black people who have been killed needlessly. Smith writes of the preparation to compose the elegy, “bring the boy. his new name/his same old body.” Student quickly understand that the “same old body” refers to the fact that this kind of mourning is one the speaker is very familiar with.

This poem also works well because the first section of the workshop often is me telling them about something. Having them read and think about the poem on their own gives them a little space to formulate their own ideas about what Smith is outlining in their poem and how that connects to the larger conversation.

Another text that emphasizes the point that this is a systematic issue is the song “Hell You Talmbout” by Janelle Monae featuring Wondaland Records. The sheer number of repeated names in the song makes a statement about how many people have been affected by police violence.


After an introduction to Black Lives Matter, we discuss the idea of police brutality, and why the Black Lives Matter protests have focused on police and policing in the U.S. A useful resource for discussing police violence in the U.S. is the Fatal Force database compiled by the Washington Post. The image below from the database is particularly useful for showing the scope of the issue. This is a map of every person shot by a police officer in the U.S. in 2017.

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 3.01.32 PM

In this section of the presentation, I try to open up a discussion that gets to some of the other threads of the conversations around police violence. For example, students know that overall gun violence is much higher in the U.S. than other countries we routinely compare ourselves to. They sometimes want to discuss gun culture in general in the U.S. Some classes have also been interested in police training and whether police officers should carry guns. (Police in Norway do not regularly carry firearms.)

I encourage this conversation not just to make simple comparisons—Norway/good: U.S./bad—but to consider that one conversation often leads to another. It is hard to talk about police violence without talking about overall violence. It is hard to talk about rates at which black people get killed without talking about racism on a larger scale. It is hard to talk about racism without talking about the history of the U.S. The students and I can only make mini-forays into these conversations with the time that we have, but hopefully I am presenting them with a sense of how one issue can rarely ever be discussed in isolation.

I also try to make space for questions and conversations that might run counter to the narratives presented by Black Lives Matter. For example, students are often familiar with the phrase “All Lives Matter.” I sometimes hear them murmuring it to each other before the presentation starts as they look at the title card. Instead of just ignoring the impulse to bring this up, I ask them why they think people want to say “All Lives Matter” and then I ask them what they think Black Lives Matter would say in response to All Lives Matter. Having them discuss these issues in groups with each other and then having a larger group discussion allows students to consider these questions and not just get answers from the teacher but have a genuine dialogue with each other about what they think.

Students often want to know information about how much more dangerous it is for black people to interact with police officers. I have found that this Vanity Fair article, which links to a variety of studies about police violence to be particularly useful. I use one of the statistics on a slide in the presentation. I have found this slide to be clear at communicating the point that police violence disproportionally affects non-white people.

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 4.44.03 PM

How do Norwegian students generally react to all of this information? Honestly, they are often horrified by how frequently people are killed by police and how the numbers breakdown along racial lines, but I do get some push back. Here are some questions that I often get asked, which I think are similar to questions that you would get in the U.S.:

  • Do only white cops kill black people?
  • But weren’t these people doing something wrong?
  • What about black on black crime?
  • But don’t black people have higher rates of poverty and therefore live in area where more crimes are committed?
  • Is Black Lives Matter anti-cop?

It has been interesting to ask students where they get their information about race in the U.S., and I have found that they hear about these issues often from commentary on YouTube. The ins and outs of what teenagers are watching on YouTube is an eye-opening conversation, and I have found that many teenagers are get a large chunk of their information in this way. I’m not anti-YouTube, but I try to provide a more thorough approach than one you might see in a short video often made for entertainment.

Depending on the time, we end the presentation in a couple of different ways. For example, in one version of the presentation, we also discuss the global aims of Black Lives Matter and their guiding principles. In another, we talk about Civil Rights, and sometimes we make protest signs of our own. I mix and match these endings based on the time I have with students and the level of the class. Hopefully, overall, the information I have gathered to present to students gives them some things to consider and provides a full picture of the issues discussed by Black Lives Matter.





Fulbright Workshop: Black Lives Matter, Part One

In Part One of a discussion about my time teaching about Black Lives Matter in Norway, I will provide a look at how I approach teaching race in Norway. Some of the questions that come up are quite similar to comments I have had about race in the U.S. and in other ways, a European context provides an entire new set of points for discussion. In Part Two, I will discuss the presentation I give on Black Lives Matter in more detail. 

I would also like to say thanks to my fellow Roving Scholars, Ruth Fairbanks and Rachel Cohen, for discussing these ideas with me and providing a few of the sources on immigration linked to below. While this post is certainly my perspective and not theirs, discussions with them have been invaluable to, well, everything I’ve done as a Roving Scholar. 

Fake news is one of the most popular workshops that I give in Norway, and also in the running for most popular is the lesson on Black Lives Matter. Teachers pick it for their students because it is current and because they think it might be a topic that shows up on the exams at the end of the year. I also have a feeling they pick it because it is useful to have an American talk about issues of race, which the teachers themselves might not always be sure how to approach from an American perspective. My Black Lives Matter workshop is at least the third workshop in so many years offered by a Roving Scholar on the topic, and it is still one of my most popular, so I think this shows there is a bit of a thirst for information of this kind.

I emphasize that Norwegian teachers seem to want to hear about race from an American perspective in particular because I have learned that Norwegians, and Europeans in general, have a very different way of talking about race than we do in the U.S. This was first brought to my attention by my friend who is French. She is a historian who worked with me in The Bahamas, and she studies and teaches about race in the Caribbean. She told me that when she went home to France and explained what she taught in the Caribbean, her friends and family were surprised that she was even talking about race. They found it rude or offensive to be discussing a person’s race. (The answer about why this is, which I have heard from more than one person, is echoed in this 2014 piece in the New Yorker—that countries in Western Europe don’t want to count people by race because of the legacy of Nazism.)

I’m glad my friend told me this about race in Europe, because as an American and an Americanist, I really had no idea about this difference. This piece of knowledge altered my approach to discussing Black Lives Matter in Norway. Instead of starting by introducing the topic of Black Lives Matter generally, I begin with the slide below:

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 9.10.22 PM

The question on the slide, “Why is race important to U.S. history?” is a very big question, of course, but I answer it simply: You can’t talk about U.S. history without taking about race. Period. The map in the background helps to illustrate this. It is a historic map from 1860, which shows the percentages of slaves across the southern U.S. You can see how widespread slavery was and how concentrated it was in some areas.  I think this map helps students understand why race is a category of study in the U.S. They still don’t tend to use the word race I have noticed—preferring the term skin color—but I hope that this helps them understand my approach to the topic.

I have also discussed how and why we count people by race/ethnicity in the U.S. with a group of teachers-in-training. They are taking a course about the U.S., so I thought they might be interested in learning a little bit about how we talk about race in the U.S. I showed them a sample of the question at the end of a job application that asks about race and ethnicity. (This is one different than many I have seen, which tend to give you the option of picking both Hispanic or Latino and another category.) The students were very interested in this, and I did my best to explain why job applications ask for this type of information. I didn’t, however, know all the ins and outs of how this information is used or not by hiring committees, and if I do a similar exercise again, I would use this article from Chronicle Vitae to explain this further.

Screen Shot 2018-01-20 at 11.37.21 AM

These topics can seem so bureaucratic, but they are important markers of not only institutional policies but also of important topics and trends in a country. While Norway does not ask about race in job applications, I was interested to see a box on a recent job application I filled out in Norway that asked: “Do you meet the requirements for special treatment for applicants of foreign origin?” This box did not mention race, but it did specifically ask about being an immigrant or coming from “an immigrant background.” It did surprise me to see this question at all, but it was not too surprising after a second’s thought. While race may not be a hot topic in Norway per se, immigration, and immigration of people from particular ethnic and religious backgrounds, certainly is.

Norway’s history of immigration is mostly a history of emigration—a fact that has been reintroduced into the conversation recently in the U.S. after Trump said that he would like to have more immigrants from Norway. This NPR article discusses how many Norwegian immigrants there were in the U.S. during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Even though I knew that a lot of Norwegians moved to the U.S. I was still quite surprised to learn how many Norwegians left the country. The NPR article notes, “From 1870 to 1910 a quarter of Norway’s working-age population emigrated, mostly to the United States.” A quarter of the population! And while the beginning of the 20th century was not that long ago, things are certainly much different in Norway today. The chart below shows the number of immigrants and children born to immigrants in Norway. For reference, there are over 5 million people in Norway in total. It is clear that the Norway of the early 21st century is not the Norway of the early 20th.

Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 8.58.12 PM

I have been very curious about how Norwegians are adjusting to the changes in their demographics. I have asked many of the people I have met in Norway about these issues. Some people want to really engage with a discussion of their changing society and others have shied away from this conversation. I think it can be difficult to discuss because it is not just that there are more new people but also more people who are not white and more people who are not Christian. While in the U.S. we spend a lot of time talking about difference, diversity, and cross-cultural competance, this kind of conversation seems new to many Norwegians. (And/or it is also possible that they don’t want to have it with a relative stranger in English. I don’t think I can take my own foreignness out of the equation.)

From an outsider’s point of view, you can see that this society is not changing seamlessly. In Oslo, for example, there is a clear divide between the western part of the city, which is more affluent and more white, and the east part of the city, which has more people of color. Or take the instances when I hear people referred to as immigrants, when they are second or third generation. As the pushy American, I have asked several people if “immigrant” is just a euphemism for person of color and the answer I have mostly gotten is, well, I guess so. Or take the mosque in a tiny, northern Norway town, which had these posters explaining what it means to be Muslim. I don’t know the motivation for these posters, but I imagine that you don’t make them if you haven’t been met with some resistance or at least have been met with some people who you feel need a little bit of an education.

I often say in my workshops that it is unfair to compare Norway and the U.S. on a one-to-one ratio because they are vastly different places with vastly different histories. So I do not offer these thoughts on Norway’s discussions around immigration in order to say that are the same as the conversations and disagreements we are having in the U.S. around race. And I’m not trying to suggest my very U.S.-centric view of placing an emphasis on diversity is the right way of viewing the world. However, I do think that almost all of the issues that one country faces are mirrored in a variety of ways in other countries. And that sometimes it takes holding up that mirror to see your own world with clarity.