Definition of racism
Racism is based on the idea that there are different human races and that some are superior to others. Racist behaviour includes physical violence, intimidation, verbal abuse and online hate speech as well as condescending attitudes, disparaging remarks and other acts of microaggression because of someone’s ethnicity, nationality, skin colour or ancestry. Other forms of racism are discrimination, exclusion and the implementation of barriers, whether deliberately or otherwise, that prevent people from receiving equal treatment because of their race.
Racism may be unconscious or conscious. An implicit bias is an unconscious association, belief, or attitude towards another group that is based on personal prejudices. It is sometimes attributed to fear and “racial anxiety”, which refers to the heightened levels of stress and emotion when interacting with people who are perceived as different. Another form is institutionalized racism that is reflected in inequality regarding employment, housing, and a wide range of other social domains. Racist ideas still permeate various levels of many societies, probably for historical reasons, and are perpetuated from one generation to another.
Different types of racism and discrimination led to various racial conflicts in the USA and other countries throughout the 20th century. The 21st century has already experienced its share of race-related incidents, too. The latest protests and riots in the USA in June 2020 were kindled by George Floyd’s death, an Afro-American, whose demise was caused by police violence and led to displays of solidarity around the world.
Racism as a film topic
A number of art forms such as literature, music and historical and fictitious films tackle racism, race relations and racial tension. Not surprisingly, the film genres that most frequently address these issues are documentaries and dramas. The episode A Class Divided of the PBS documentary series Frontline portrays a group of students who took part in a class activity in 1970 about discrimination and prejudice organized by Jane Elliott, an anti-racism activist, and recalled their experiences in 1985. Some famous dramas dealing with racism in the USA and England are 12 Years a Slave (US/UK, 2013), American History X (US, 1998), Mississippi Burning (US, 1988), This is England (UK 2007) and Loving (2016). As one would expect, most filmmakers and entertainers shy away from humorous genres - such as a making a comedy or sketch comedy about racism - with the notable exceptions of BlacKkKlansman (2018) by Spike Lee and Robert Benigni’s hybridization of a comedy and Holocaust drama Life is Beautiful (1997). Interestingly, since the late 1990s, an increasing number of ethnic minority comedians in Europe and the USA have deliberately embraced the topic in their TV shows. For example, the British-Asian comedy show Goodness Gracious Me reverses the roles of the British and the Asians to expose the ethnocentric view of the British and western cultures and also pokes fun at South Asian stereotypes.
The sketch Negrotown
Key & Peele is an American sketch comedy television series created by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele that aired on the pay television channel Comedy Central from 2012 to 2015. The sketches make fun of various social issues. Racism is also a regular topic, as observed by Vanity Fair: “But as far-reaching as their comedy was, the main thrust of Key & Peele was always race. From bemoaning the lack of representation in their favorite films, to sexual stereotypes, to directly addressing the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement, Key & Peele always delivered their social commentary with a wink and welcoming smile”. (https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/09/key-and-peel-finale-2015-negrotown)
The 5-minute sketch Negrotown (2015) is a playful interpretation of the serious topic of racism.
The sketch opens with an all-too-familiar scenario: a man played by Keegan-Michael Key is stopped by the police for no reason apart from his ethnicity in an act of racial profiling and his head slams against the side of the police car. Then Peele’s character emerges and leads him to a place called Negrotown.
Negrotown recreates the setting of a musical of Hollywood’s Golden Age from the 1930s to the early 1950s. Musicals were then an influential cultural and artistic force, for example The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). These usually escapist musicals follow certain conventions: they are shot in bright colours using the Technicolor process and contain catchy tunes and impressive dance choreographies to make the spectators feel good. Negrotown resembles a scene taken from one these musicals with its 1950s-style street, dancers in candy-coloured costumes and the cheerful tone of the song. However, the lyrics delivered by the singing city guide Peele are incongruent with the happy melody. The issues raised in the song voice a harsh social criticism of the discrimination and racism experienced by many African Americans, such as ethnic profiling and police violence, prejudice, racial anxiety, condescending attitudes towards them and cultural appropriation, as exemplified in the following lines:
“There is a cab that always stops.”
“In Negrotown you can walk the street without getting stopped, harassed, or beaten.”
“You won't get followed when you try to shop.”
“You can wear your hoodie and not get shot.”
“You can walk in a group and it’s not considered a gang.”
“No white folks to cross the street in fear.”
“No trigger-happy cops or scared cashiers.”
“No stupid a* white folks touching your hair or stealing your culture claiming it’s theirs.”
“Every word you say ain’t considered slang.”
(referring to the African-American Vernacular English, the variety of English spoken, particularly in urban communities, by most working- and middle-class African Americans)
Suggestion for a lesson based on the sketch (from level B2)
Students are asked what behaviour and actions they associate with racism.
Students answer the 20 questions of the test for measuring White majority racism directed against non-White minorities created by researchers at the University of Maryland and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Alternatively, the teacher selects some issues from test to comment on them. The test measures different categories of racism: general racism, socio-historical racism, perpetual foreigner racism (to automatically regard everybody of a different ethnic origin as a foreigner)
Worksheet (downloadable pdf)
Students match the words related to racism with their definitions.
Students are told that they will watch a sketch about racism.
What happens in the sketch?
What do you think of the sketch?
Students watch the sketch (contains occasional strong language). Before talking about the questions in the plenary, students can work with a partner.
Students watch the Negrotown part again and make notes of the issues raised in the song.
They are written on the board or recorded in another way and the meaning is clarified, if necessary.
The teacher asks the students:
What do you think about dealing with racism in a humorous way?
What effect does it have on the audience?
What is the meaning of Negrotown in the song? What does the officer mean when he says that that the arrested man will be going there?
(Answer: a utopia for black people and prison)
As a further step, students can decide if the racial incidents shown in the sketch are overt or covert. The following website provides various examples of overt and covert racism:
Overt and covert racism
Students read Racism –Tips for Bystanders
Students visit the above website and comment on the tips.