Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Strategy Tuesday! Spotlight on Graig Meyer at Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate



Here’s the fifth of five strategies for this Strategy Tuesday.  We hope you’ve enjoyed learning from the outstanding tutors, mentors and sports coaches who we’ve highlighted today.  To receive additional strategies via e-mail each month, be sure to sign up for our “Superstars Alerts” on the right.

- - -

The strategy below comes from Graig Meyer, the program coordinator at Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate, a program of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

The strategy will help you facilitate a meaningful “straight talk on race” with your student or mentee about the ways race and ethnicity are discussed and approached by book authors, screenwriters, song writers, media editors, and media producers.  It’s important not to rush this discussion.  You’ll likely facilitate it over a series of sessions.

- - -

About Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate 
Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate is the flagship mentoring program of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.  The program relies on the relationship between mentor-advocates and students as the foundation for providing a variety of individualized services. BRMA students benefit from mentoring, advocacy, tutoring, enrichment opportunities, leadership development, and college scholarships. One hundred ten mentor-advocates are serving with Blue Ribbon this school year.

Strategy #5!

Discussing How Race & Ethnic Issues Are Portrayed in Media

Created by: Graig Meyer, Program Coordinator, Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate
(America Learns Network member since 2005)
Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate
Topics: Discussions about Race  
Grade Levels: Sixth – Adult  
Arrangements: One-on-One; Small Group; Large Group  
Materials: - “Straight Talk” article by Mitali Perkins

- "Black writers in a ghetto of the publishing industry's making" by Bernice McFadden (Washington Post opinion)

- The Seventeen Magazine Project

- Broadway Sees Benefits of Building Black Audience

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Situation: Guided by an editorial by author Mitali Perkins in the School Library Journal, this strategy is designed to help you have a “straight talk on race” with your student around how race and ethnicity are discussed and approached by book authors, screenwriters, song writers, media editors, and media producers. 

Note that while Perkins has a very strong opinion on the issues she addresses, you definitely don't need to share those feelings.  We also don't intend for you student to always experience media with a sharp lens towards how the media treats race and ethnic issues.

The point is to give your student an opportunity to think about these issues.  Consider studying opposing viewpoints as you discuss Perkins' arguments.

Setting Up the Discussion:

Read the editorial with your student and discuss any initial reactions your student has towards it.  (Note that these initial reactions may take up an entire session or more.)

Questions you may want to ask your student include:

  • As you read this piece, did you tend to agree with Perkins' arguments?  What did you agree with?  What didn't seem quite right? 
  • How would you go about proving Perkins right on any of the issues she raises?
  • Is Perkins exaggerating anything in the piece?
  • What would somebody who disagreed with Perkins argue?  How might that person try to prove her wrong?  How would Perkins respond?

Explain to your student that you'd like to review the five questions the editorial author raised in the article in terms of a book or movie that both of you are familiar with.

Ideally, both of you will have read (or will choose to read) one or more of the books the author mentions in the article.  If that's not a possibility, consider selecting a book or movie to analyze in light of the five big questions the author raises in her piece.

Even in the absence of racially diverse characters of the piece you and your student select, you can discuss this absence, the possible or actual intentions of the absence (if any), the meaning of the absence (if any), and the implications of the absence (if any).

Question 1: Are the nonwhite characters too good to be true?

Perkins writes:

Nowadays, though, many are overcompensating for the longtime exclusion of nonwhite characters in books and movies. Many writers and filmmakers are still using race as a tool to shape young audiences’ feelings about their characters. What’s the formula? White characters are equated with bad, and nonwhite ones are equated with good.

With the noblest of intentions, writers sometimes fall into this trap by making it clear that a secondary character is a person of color. These nonwhite friends or acquaintances often serve as literary foils for a white protagonist.

After re-reading this section with your student, consider discussing these questions:

  • Are nonwhite characters in the book/movie we're looking at too good to be true?  What details from the piece make you feel this way?  What about other pieces you've read or watched?
  • Perkins notes that some people believe that only people of a particular racial, cultural or ethnic group should be able to write about that group (e.g., only Jews should be able to write about Jews, and only Indians should be able to write about Indians).  How do you feel about that argument in terms of the piece we're looking at?  How do you feel about that argument in general?
  • Author Bernice L. McFadden wrote in this 2010 Washington Post opinion piece, "Literature about the oppressed written by the oppressor has a long tradition. The trend can be traced all the way to colonialism -- a movement that was not only physical but textual, the evidence of which can be found in the diaries, letters and journals of colonists, settlers and plantation slave owners."

    Let's imagine that people of a new race comes out of nowhere, and that for whatever reason, only white fiction authors put characters of that race in their their books.  It isn't until 50 years after the new race is born that people of that race start writing fiction with their own people as characters.  Are the pieces written by white authors automatically invalid?  What race/culture-related questions should readers be asking themselves as they read the pieces by the white authors?  What about race/culture-related questions to ask as one reads the works by people of that new race?
Question 2: How and why does the author define race?

Some books clearly define the race of characters, others leave it up to the reader's imagination.  Consider these questions:

  • How, if at all, does the author/screenwriter define race?
  • If race is defined, what was the purpose of doing so?  What, if anything, would be lost if the author had not defined race?
  • If race was not defined, were there signs that led the reader/viewer to know the racial or ethnic background of the main characters?
  • Perkins states that the race of characters who are not white is more often labeled than the race of characters who are white.  Do you agree?  If so, what examples can you think of? What would be some reasons for this practice?  Are those reasons acceptable to you?
Question 3: Is the cover art true to the story?

Perkins shows that the cover art of some books misrepresents the main character's race.  McFadden, in her opinion piece, wrote:

Kathryn Stockett and Sue Monk Kidd are living the dream of thousands of authors, myself included. But they are not the first white women to pen stories of the black American South and be lauded for their efforts. In 1928, Julia Peterkin wrote a novel, "Scarlet Sister Mary," for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Stockett's and Kidd's novels tackle racism and celebrate the power of friendship and acceptance. Both novels were given beautiful covers that did not reveal the race of the characters. Both books were marketed to black and white audiences.

My debut novel, "Sugar," was also published by a Penguin imprint. Set in the 1950s South, the story line deals with racism and celebrates the power of friendship and acceptance. The original cover depicted a beautiful black woman standing behind a screen door. "Sugar" was marketed solely to African American readers. This type of marginalization has come to be known among African American writers as "seg-book-gation."

Questions to discuss together:

  • What is the impact of this practice to individuals who are just browsing books in a store, in a library, or on the web?
  • How important was it for Perkins to change the ending of her story?
  • Does the cover of the book we're looking at together represent the characters appropriately?  Is the cover a result of "seg-book-gation"?
  • Should the characters who are written about the most in a book (or who are shown most in a movie) always be the most prominent ones in a cover/poster?  What if a sub-character in a movie is a bigger star than the lead, and that making the sub-character look like the main character will lead to more ticket sales?
  • Read the New York Times article, Broadway Sees Benefits of Building Black Audience.  Does "seg-book-gation" exist in the theater?  If it does, is that a bad thing?  How do the black theatergoers interviewed in the article seem to feel about some shows being marketed to African Americans?
Question 4: Who are the change agents?

Perkins states that a number of hit movies (e.g., Dances with Wolves and Freedom Writers) portray the white character as coming in to save the day.  Is this also true of books?  Here are some questions to discuss:

  • Who are the change agents in the piece we chose to look at?
  • Let's respond to Perkins' question in this section: "Is it easier for young white readers to connect to a story about poverty or suffering in a nonwhite culture if a white character helps solve the problem?"
  • If Perkins is correct on the whole, what impact does this reality make on individuals?  On society?
  • If you agree with Perkins, how do you think whites became the dominant change agents in books and movies?  Is this changing at all?
Question 5: How is beauty defined?

In many situations, beauty is defined by cultural characteristics (straighter hair, lighter colored skin, etc). According to Perkins, the idea that European features are “more beautiful” is true for people who are a part of a number of cultures.  She also argues that some people take specific actions to look more European (such as skin bleaching and hair straightening).  (Note that that these statements alone are topics that you may want to spend time discussing and researching with your student.)

What messages do we get in the media that determine our view of beauty?  To explore that question, Perkins recommends heading over to Media That Matters and watching the film “A Girl Like Me”. This short film re-examines an experiment done in the 1940's that evaluates children's perception of beauty and good vs. bad people.

You may also want to check out The Seventeen Magazine Project, a blog kept by Jamie Keiles as she followed Seventeen Magazine's tips for living over thirty days.

Watching the film and checking out the blog can inspire a conversation about what beauty is and looks like to your student.  Encourage your student to think about how specific books they read (or movies he has watched) have affected how he has defined beauty and how he looks at himself.

Additional questions to consider:

  • What do you think makes a person beautiful?
  • Who are some people that you think are beautiful?
  • Why do you think they are beautiful?  How did you come to shape your opinion?  How has it changed over time?
  • How is beauty portrayed in the book/movie we selected?
  • What does the media, as a whole, get right about beauty?  What does it get wrong?  
  • If you were the parent of a teenager, what, if any, steps would you take to help your child define beauty for herself?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You guys don't shy away from real issues, do ya? LOVE IT! THANK YOU.