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.
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.
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.