In the past week or so, Starbucks has made itself an easy target for criticism and ridicule with the “Race Together” campaign. The ideas that employees would engage strangers in “a conversation about race” and that these conversations might be productive are at least problematic and also, quite literally, ridiculous. But I’ve been thinking about that kind of conversation quite a bit for a course I’m teaching on the development of race in colonial America. I’ve just graded an essay in which I asked students to explore the construction of race through a single primary source, in this case, the French Protestant Jean de Lery’s observations of and interactions with natives in sixteenth-century Brazil. As I read, I discovered that students were running into some common challenges in trying to talk about race. And when I prepared to address those challenges, I also discovered that I didn’t quite know how to teach them how to do it.
I’ve said that the class is about the development of race, but I should confess that I’m not always so careful with my language. I’ve often told people that I’m teaching on “race in early America,” flattening a complex concept and what I hope is a complex class. Early in the semester, I had students rehash what’s been called “The Origins Debate,” taking sides on the question of whether black slavery in the Americas had its roots in economic incentives or prejudice against the Other. It’s really an exercise in using evidence and making an argument. As Edmund Morgan wrote: “whether or not race was a necessary ingredient of slavery, it was an ingredient.” But I don’t know that recognizing this complexity has given students the tools to understand what race is, what it means to call something a social construct, and how they should write and talk about it. In their recent essays, I bumped into phrases suggesting that race shaped the process of colonialism, or that, on occasion, Europeans could overlook race in interactions with Natives.
Today, I led students through a conversation about Anthony Johnson, a man of African descent who arrived in Virginia in the 1620s as either an indentured servant or a slave. By the 1650s, Johnson was a free property holder who also owned at least one enslaved black man. He had that ownership confirmed by a colonial court. Had Anthony Johnson lived a century later his story would not have been possible. Black peoples’ paths to freedom, economic opportunity, and legal protection were increasingly limited in the eighteenth century. Through his story I tried to ensure that students understood that race was not a trait that Johnson possessed, but that if we imagined him living in 1750, after the boom in African enslavement in Virginia, we could see him being viewed and governed in a way that reflected other colonists’ ideas about a black race and its connection to servitude. As racial slavery developed, it constricted possibilities for people of African descent.
I’m not entirely sure whether this worked, and I welcome thoughts and guidance. I want my students in this class and others to talk about race carefully but without scare quotes and not to be afraid to identify actions or people as racist. I opened class by saying that talking about race can be emotionally difficult, and I’ve learned that it’s even harder to figure out how to use language to think and talk carefully about the concept. The most trenchant criticism of the Starbucks campaign is the fact that we can’t really talk about race if we don’t first talk about how to talk about race.permission.