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, derogatory remarks and other acts of microaggression because of someone's ethnicity, nationality, colour or ancestry. Other forms of racism are discrimination, exclusion and the creation of barriers, whether intentional or not, that prevent people from receiving equal treatment on the basis of their race.
Racism can be unconscious or conscious. An implicit bias is an unconscious association, belief or attitude towards another group based on personal prejudices. It is sometimes attributed to fear and 'racial anxiety', which refers to the heightened levels of stress and emotion experienced when interacting with people who are perceived to be different. Another form is institutionalised racism, which is reflected in inequalities in employment, housing and a wide range of other social areas. Racist ideas, probably for historical reasons, still permeate various levels of many societies and are passed on from one generation to the next.
Various forms of racism and discrimination led to various racial conflicts in the USA and other countries throughout the 20th century. The 21st century has also seen its share of race-related incidents. The recent protests and riots in the US in June 2020 were sparked by the death of George Floyd, an African-American whose death at the hands of police violence led to demonstrations of solidarity around the world.
Racism as a film topic
A number of art forms, such as literature, music and historical and fictional films, deal with racism, race relations and racial tensions. Unsurprisingly, the genres of film most likely to address these issues are documentaries and dramas. The episode A Class Divided of the PBS documentary series Frontline portrays a group of students who participated in a 1970 class activity on discrimination and prejudice organised by Jane Elliott, an anti-racism activist, and recall their experiences in 1985. Some famous dramas dealing with racism in the US and England include 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 might be expected, most filmmakers and entertainers shy away from humorous genres - such as making a comedy or sketch comedy about racism - with the notable exceptions of Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Robert Benigni's hybridisation of a comedy and Holocaust drama Life is Beautiful (1997). Interestingly, since the late 1990s, a growing number of ethnic minority comedians in Europe and the US have deliberately addressed the issue 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 British and Western culture, 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”.
The 5-minute sketch Negrotown (2015) is a playful interpretation of the serious topic of racism.
The sketch begins with an all-too-familiar scenario: a man played by Keegan-Michael Key is stopped by the police for no reason other than his ethnicity in an act of racial profiling, and his head is slammed into the side of the police car. Then Peele's character shows up and takes him to a place called Negrotown.
Negrotown recreates the setting of a musical from Hollywood’s Golden Age from the
1930s to the early 1950s. Musicals were an influential cultural and artistic force at the time, for example The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). These usually
escapist musicals follow certain conventions: they are filmed in bright colours using the Technicolor process and contain catchy tunes and impressive dance choreography to make the audience feel
good. Negrotown resembles a scene from one of these musicals with its 1950s-style street, dancers in candy-coloured costumes and the cheerful tone of the song. However, the lyrics
delivered by singing tour guide Peele are at odds with the upbeat melody. The issues raised in the song are a harsh social critique of the discrimination and racism experienced by many black
people, such as ethnic profiling and police violence, prejudice, racial anxiety, condescending attitudes towards them and cultural appropriation, as exemplified in the following
“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)
Students answer the 20 questions of the test to measure white majority racism against non-white minorities, developed by researchers at the University of Maryland and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Alternatively, the teacher can choose some questions from the test to comment on. The test measures different categories of racism: general racism, socio-historical racism, perpetual xenophobia (automatically seeing anyone 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 (which 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.
These are written on the board or recorded in some other 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.