Let’s Talk about Race!, or Let’s Talk about Race?

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.

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Christopher Bonner

Christopher Bonner is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He specializes in African American history, particularly black protest in the early United States. He is at work on a manuscript titled “The Price of Citizenship,” which examines black activists’ efforts to construct American citizenship before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Follow him on Twitter @63cjb.

Comments on “Let’s Talk about Race!, or Let’s Talk about Race?

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    I’m not sure if you used primary sources about Johnson, or T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes’s Myne Owne Ground, but I’ve found the book to be a useful way to talk about changing conceptions of race in early America, especially the transactional model of racial identity they say that Johnson employed. If your class goes up to the late-18th and early 19th centuries, you might consider discussing Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on Native Americans versus his ideas about blacks, ideas which are very close together in his Notes on the State of Virginia. In my lecture on shifts in racial thought from the revolution to the 1840s, I also compare Jefferson’s ideas on Indians to those of Andrew Jackson and Lewis Cass in the late 1820s, which shows pretty clearly a shift from environmentalist racial thought to biological. You can find Jackson and Cass’s thoughts on race in the Bedford reader by Theda Purdue on the Cherokee Indian Removal.

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