African American Lives 2 -- Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
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"Rationalizing Race in US History"
by Ashlinn Quinn

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Introductory Activity:

  1. GROUPING BY PETS: Tell the students that you are interested in learning about the pets that students have at home. To help you understand the pet ownership of the students, you are going to post the names of four classes of pet owners, and you'll ask the students to group themselves according to the group to which they belong. Write the words "cat," "dog," "both," and "neither" from left to right across the board (or tape signs marked with these words around the classroom), and ask the students to group themselves near the word that describes the pets they have at home. Tell students it is essential for them to keep discussion at a minimum as they move into position.

  2. Allow the class to group themselves next to the appropriate signs. If the students have any questions as they are grouping themselves, refrain from commenting too much or creating new groups - just ask them to align themselves with the group that seems like the best fit.

  3. Tally the number of students in each group (cats, dogs, both, and neither). Ask the students if it was easy or hard to group themselves in these categories. Did any students have difficulty deciding to which group they belonged? (In general, this is a fairly straightforward grouping exercise, but some students - for example those who have pets other than cats or dogs - may have felt that their pet ownership was not well represented within the cat/dog categories).

  4. Let the students return to their seats. Explain that they have just participated in a classifying exercise - they have followed certain criteria to divide themselves into separate groups. Tell the students that the class will now repeat this classifying exercise a few more times using different criteria. Each time, you will be interested in the students' opinions of how easy or difficult it was to use these criteria to classify themselves into separate groups. Remind students not to discuss their choices as they move into position.

  5. GROUPING BY BIRTHDAY: Post signs for "Fall," "Winter," "Spring," and "Summer" around the classroom (or write on the board). Tell the students to stand near the sign that indicates the season of their birthday. Once the students have grouped themselves, discuss the ease of this exercise. Did the students encounter any difficulties? Were any students unsure where to align themselves? (Students whose birthdays fall in the "boundary" region between two seasons probably had more difficulty than others.) Ask the students in each group to recite the dates of their birthdays. Is there any overlap between groups? How did the students decide how to group themselves - did they come up with a consistent definition of the beginning and end of a season? (Some students might think that, for example, the months of March, April, and May are all the "Spring" and June is "Summer," but others might argue that summer does not officially begin until the Summer Solstice, which occurs around June 21 each year).

  6. GROUPING BY HAIR LENGTH: Again, post signs for four groups: "Very Short," "Short," "Long," and "Very Long." Allow the students to group themselves. Again, discuss difficulties. Were there any disagreements? Was there difficulty determining the groups? (Again, it will be students in the boundary regions between two groups that are likely to have the most difficulty).

  7. Have the students return to their seats. Explain that classifying people into groups is something that scientists, researchers, government officials, and regular people do all the time. Categorizing people and things into groups is very useful - it helps us organize our perceptions, find the answers to particular questions, and to make sense of the world. Inform the students that while the groups they have just formed (by pets, birthdays, and hair length) may seem a little silly, the same processes apply to the classification of people into ANY categories. Broadly speaking, these processes can be understood as group labeling, boundary definition, and subjective assessment. As a class, develop a definition for the term "subjective assessment." (Subjective assessment is to determine a classification or value based on opinion, perception, viewpoint, or other non-objective criteria.)

  8. Ask the students: though classification is useful, what difficulties can arise when trying to classify humans into groups? Review the four different classification exercises they have just done (pets, birthdays, and hair length). What were the difficulties that emerged in each? (The group labeling in the "cat/dog" classification scheme may have left some students who had other pets feeling squeezed into categories that didn't really fit them. With "birthdays," students grappled with boundary definition - they had to agree on a definition of the seasons before they could place themselves in consistent groups. The "hair length" grouping scheme was extremely relative and relied on subjective assessment - the students probably used each other as reference points for determining the boundaries between the groups.)

  9. Point out that groupings based on subjective assessment are susceptible to change depending on who is in the group and on who is doing the grouping. For example, what would happen to the "hair length" groups if suddenly ten students joined the class who all had hair down to their knees? Would the previously determined "long hair" group shift? (These students might shift into a different group). As another example, ask the students to raise their hands if they think they are "young." Most will probably raise their hands - but what is the boundary of "young," and who determines it? Would a 5-year old think that high school students are "young"?

  10. Explain that while the informal grouping exercises the students have completed thus far have been just for the class' own use, at times information on group belonging is collected by the government, employers, or researchers to use for formal analyses. A lot of this information is collected in surveys and forms. Ask the students to name some categories typically used to categorize people that they may have seen on forms, applications, or other official documents. (Accept all answers. One answer will probably be "race.") Do the students think it is easier or harder to divide people into groups according to race than according to the criteria they used in the previous exercises? (Accept all answers).

  11. Divide the students into working groups. Direct the groups to the "Sorting People" online interactivity, at Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION: Ask the students to see how well they do at this challenge - see how many of the 20 individuals they can place in the "correct" racial group. Tell the students to "Begin Sorting" and give them 5-10 minutes to complete the activity.

  12. Review the students' experience. How many of the people were they able to sort into the "correct" groups? Was this easy or difficult? What criteria were students using when sorting the people? (The only criteria available to the students was the people's appearance - their skin color, eye color, hair color and facial features). What other information might be useful to sort the people into the categories provided? (Information about their ancestry would be helpful). Do the students think that some of the people might have mixed-race ancestry, or could belong to more than one racial group? (Probably).

  13. Explain that in the activities that follow, the students will be looking at the classification of people by race in formal ways over the course of US History. They will begin by exploring one family's experience with racial categorization.

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Major corporate funding for African American Lives 2 and its outreach initiatives is provided by The Coca-Cola Company and Johnson & Johnson. Additional corporate funding is provided by Buick.
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