Teaching Race Across Space and Time


By Dr. Abena Ampofia Asare (Stonybrook)

(a partial response to the Original Questions posed on the blog).



Global history is a critical tool for decolonizing the social sciences in the 21st century.  From Terence Ranger’s recognition that “useful histories” were necessary to add ballast and heft to the emergent African nationalism or the Nazi Holocaust’s memorialization imperative, preserved in the cry, “Never Again,” the importance of history in creating the future is a cliché.[1] However, the task of marshaling history for the purpose of pedagogical decolonization is distinct from George Santayana’s warning about the risks of historical obliviousness and even from the Akan sankofa proverb reminding us that it is never too late to pursue that which has been lost to us.[2] Global history, rigorously taught, may dislodge the various ideologies (ethnicity, race, religion, gender, neoliberalism, etc.) that are the basis of legalized discrimination and others forms of social violence.

A decolonizing global history is profoundly disorienting. The foundational role of colonial economics, ethics, aesthetics, and politics in our modern world means that a decolonizing pedagogy will necessarily alienate a student from the world in which she lives. When I speak of alienation here I do not refer to rejection or disaffection, but rather to the creation of distance. A pedagogy of decolonization must not seek to substitute one ideology for another (i.e move students from center/right to the left or vice versa) but instead will provide students the analytical tools to disembowel, examine, and reconstruct the ideologies through which they think and live.

Over the past five years of teaching Africana Studies at a public state university in the USA, I have observed how confusion about what race is and is not hampers the possibility of anti-racist action and thought. In North America, combatting ideologies of race and racialism is ground zero in the work of decolonization. Race has been the conduit and the cover for the perpetuation of all manner of state-sanctioned violence. And yet, our higher education courses often do little to expose and/or challenge the premises of our racialized society. Indeed, I fear that our North American misunderstanding of race is only being heightened by diversity and inclusion curricula that approach racism as primarily an ethical failing or an obstacle to community cohesion. After all, diversity is not anti-racism.

I have created a syllabus for a history course which propels students into a novel mental terrain in which the racial categories we inherit and inhabit are neither inevitable or natural, but instead are created, preserved and re-invigorated by our national economic, political, social, and institutional choices. We can combat neither systemic nor individual racism until we first understand that race exists not as an artifact of the past, but as something that we choose, daily in the present.[3]

The value of this syllabus is that that it alienates diverse students from their received knowledge about race within the context of the college classroom. There are three intertwined learning outcomes that propel students outside the race-tinted glasses that color our collective vision.

First, the course explores the idea of race as historically constituted. Through readings exploring how African American, European American, Native American and Asian American communities have been assigned a racial identity, this class takes seriously the idea that race is a product of history. I insist that understanding race as a social construct requires knowing when and how the borders of Black identity, White identity, Asian identity, Native American identity etc. have been drawn and redrawn in US history.[4] Through these readings, students consider how Black-ness, like White-ness, Asian-ness or American Indian-ness, is a product of economic, social, and cultural technologies (the transatlantic slave trade, Western expansion and genocide, dispossession of land, immigration restrictions, employment discrimination, wealth transfer and barrier to full citizenship rights, spatial and geographic segregation, media misrepresentation and cultural appropriation and erasure) that have created our social categories.

Teaching all these texts together, as branches of a single national history of racialization, is part of this decolonizing pedagogy. Usually, in the USA, racial injustice is framed as an historical exception attached to the bodies of people who are classified (because of skin color and phenotype) as ‘other.’ By contrast, this course identifies racialization as a cornerstone of the American national identity, an ideology which informs the life and thinking of all who land within the national borders. The students come to see that racialization is not an exception based on African or indigenous bodies, but instead is an ideology rooted in institutions, structures and practices which shape the thinking and lives of all within the national borders.

Second, the course describes race as geographically specific. By exploring the varied racial formations of other countries, specifically Australia, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and South Africa, students perceive the artificiality of the racial categories that they have heretofore seen as commonsensical and/or natural.[5] Only when students understand that our current racial formations are constructed, handed down to us by our shared history, can they imagine futures which may or may not reproduce the ideologies that entrap the present.

Finally, students are required to interview a member of their local community in order to complete a micro-oral history focused on the construction of an individual’s racial consciousness. This project encourages students to wrestle with the course’s central argument– that racial ideology and identity is constructed and contingent– beyond the walls of the classroom. Wrestling with these ideas about race beyond the classroom is an opportunity to attempt to consider this critical question: how do the course’s insights translate/ apply to the non-academic sphere?

Together, these three learning objectives alienate diverse students from the received knowledge about the USA’s racial categories. By teaching with and through this history, students perceive the instrumentality of the race concept; the way it is always and everywhere deployed for sundry ends. They begin to understand how their own racial identity is inscribed within their location in time and space and is not solely the product of objective qualities like their body, their family, or their culture. While this syllabus has only been taught within a North American context, the central insight—that global history, rigorously and comparatively taught, is useful in changing how students understand and relate to categories of identity—is broadly applicable, even in Pamplemousses.






[1] Terence Ranger, “The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa” in Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983). John K. Roth and Elisabeth Maxwell, Remembering for the Future: the Holocaust in an age of Genocide, (Palgrave, 2001).

[2] George Santayana, The Life of Reason, (1905-1906). To learn about the Akan adinkra symbols, of which sankofa is one, please read Christel N. Temple, “The Emergence of Sankofa Practice in the United States: A Modern History,” Journal of Black Studies, 41:1 ,2009.

[3] Barbara Jeanne Fields and Karen Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, (Verso, 2014) Barbara Jeanne Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology” New Left Review, May/June 1990.

[4] A selection of some of the course texts include; Yaba Blay, One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race (Blackprint Press, 2013). M. Annette Jaimes, The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization and Resistance, (South End Press, 1999). Eva Garroutte, Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America, (University of California Press, 2003). Leland Saito, Race and Politics: Asian Americans, Latinos and Whites in a Los Angeles Suburb, (University of Illinois Press, 1998). Natsu Taylor Saito, “Model Minority Yellow Peril: Functions of Foreignness in the Construction of Asian American Identity,” Asian American Law Journal, 1997. Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, (Verso, 1999).

[5] Some selected texts from this section of the syllabus include Henry Louis Gates, Black in Latin America: An Island Divided, PBS, 2011. Edward Telles, Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, Race and Color in Latin America, (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) Anthony Marx, Making Race and Nation, (Cambridge University Press, 1998) . Xolela Mangcu, The Colour of our Future, (Witswatersrand University Press, 2015). Jennifer Clark, Aborigines and Activism: Race, Aborigines and the Coming of the Sixties to Australia, (UWA Publishing, 2008).


4 thoughts on “Teaching Race Across Space and Time

  1. What a fantastic and brave thing you are doing. I am a social scientist and know only too well how difficult it is as a person of colour to get teachers and others to see things from any other perspective that the colonialist one. you have my support.


  2. Thank you for this positive feedback. Helping students deconstruct the ideologies that we live with and through– like race– is enormously fruitful. I wonder what other scholars and teachers have read or taught which plays this role? Ta-Nehesi Coates in “Between the World and Me” has some great passages about his time at Howard University and how his undergraduate education served this powerful purpose.


  3. Pingback: Teaching Race Across Space and Time – Abena Ampofoa Asare

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