PART I: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF MINORITY GROUPS IN THE UNITED STATES
ASSIGNMENT 1: Revealing Diversity in Your Hometown
People often have a sense about what the diversity of their hometown neighborhood is. Since you grew up there, you feel as if you know something about the other people who live there. But your perception may not always reflect the actual demographics of that town or city. In this assignment, you will test your knowledge about your hometown by researching both current and historical demographics of the area.
Begin by writing down your own assumptions about your hometown. If you moved around a lot, pick the one location where you lived for the longest period of time, or simply pick the location of your current school. What do you think is the racial and ethnic background of the area? Do you think most people graduated high school? Is there a large military presence in the area? Do you think there is an aging population? What would you expect to find about the status of women in terms of schooling, jobs, and income?
Next, visit the U.S. Census Bureau’s website to find out some basic demographics of your area (www.census.gov). There are several ways to search this type of information, but an easy way to get some quick facts is to go to the “Data” heading, then click on the “American FactFinder” link, which provides data from the Economic Census, the American Community Survey, and the 2010 Census, among others. Put in the city and state, or zip code, to get basic facts about your community, or conduct more advanced searches if you are interested in other topics. (Keep in mind the most recent data available for most locations will be 2010 for Census Data and 2012 for the American Community Survey.) This will give you some basic background information about age, gender, race, ethnicity, income, and education of the population.
Now look into the history of your hometown. The best way to start this is to visit your local library. Most libraries now have a website if you aren’t traveling home anytime soon. Libraries often carry historical documents about the local area, including books, photos, and other archival materials. (Many towns also have local museums that you could visit.) Learn what you can about the area. Did it used to be an old farming village before a big corporation came to town? Was it known for its large Irish immigrant population? What year did the first church or synagogue open? When did the schools finally decide to racially integrate?
Next, find someone who has lived in the area for a long time to tell you about living in this community. Ideally, you should find someone who has lived in your hometown for more than 40 years. (This won’t be as difficult as you might think. Ask your local librarian for a suggestion, visit a senior center, or consider asking a neighbor who you think may have lived in the town for a while.) Tell this person you are researching diversity in your hometown for a class and ask if he/she is willing to be interviewed.
Conduct an informal interview with your local participant. Begin your interview by asking some basic questions. When did he/she move to the area? What does he/she like best about the town? Then, use the knowledge you have discovered from your research to develop some additional interview questions about some aspect of diversity you found particularly interesting. What have been his/her experiences with diversity over the years? How does he/she think the area has changed?
Compare and contrast the data you found about changing demographics in the area with perceptions about diversity that you and your interviewee had. Were your own assumptions about your hometown accurate? What assumptions did your interviewee have about the area? Did they match what you found? What was the most significant thing you learned about diversity in your hometown?
ASSIGNMENT 2: Graffiti: Cultural Expression or Discriminatory Act?
Historians note that graffiti dates back to ancient Rome, depicted in sacred messages written inside the catacombs and animal drawings carved inside caves. Today, graffiti can be found spray painted on the sides of buildings or written in marker on the walls of bathrooms. Social scientists continue to debate the merits of graffiti as an “unconventional billboard” (Calvin, 2005). It can be seen as an offensive expression of racist, sexist, and homophobic comments, as well as a symbol of violent gang activity in neighborhoods. On the other hand it can be used as a tool of social revolution, as it was with the graffiti placed on the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, or as an act of war, as demonstrated by the slogan “Kilroy Was Here,” first used by U.S. servicemen during World War II to mark their presence during combat. In popular culture, the rise of hip hop is said to be intertwined with the “tagging” of subway lines that essentially advertised the work of local rappers throughout New York City. More recently, there has been a commercial growth of video games that feature graffiti as part of the story line. Others consider graffiti high art, as represented in the 1980s when art galleries throughout the world began exhibiting the work of graffiti artists. Also, the Academy Awards gave a nod to Exit through the Gift Shop, a documentary about graffiti artists—in particular, the secretive Banksy, who has gained international notoriety for his satirical and subversive work. This assignment requires you to explore the nature and meaning of graffiti.
Use a camera to photograph graffiti in your community. This can include graffiti on public buildings, on street signs, in trains or buses, on school desks, or even inside bathrooms. Gather at least 10 photographs of graffiti and upload the photos to a computer.
Begin by attempting to discern what the graffiti is trying to represent. Consider starting off with some general categories, such as offensive, humorous, romantic, political, and artistic. It may take some additional research to uncover the meaning of the drawing. Use an Internet search engine, such as Google Images, to help you decipher certain symbols, or websites such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (www.splcenter.org) to help you uncover gang-related or hate-group graffiti.
Next, consider who may have written the graffiti and whether the artist intended to be anonymous or not. For example, a “Debbie loves Bob” inscription on a tree may have been written by that couple or perhaps by one individual (Debbie) who intended to express her affection towards the other individual (Bob). On the other hand, “MS13” inscribed on a tree is a pretty specific reference to the Mara Salvatrucha gang. This type of graffiti may have been written by a member of the gang, or a person hoping to become a member of the MS-13. Yet in this situation, trying to identify the actual artist is going to be a little more difficult than trying to find Debbie or Bob in the former case. And because belonging to a gang often involves illegal activity, the artist is more likely to want to remain anonymous.
Use PowerPoint, or a similar computer program, to create a presentation that allows you to represent and organize your results visually. For example, you could create one slide with photos of the gang-related graffiti you found, another slide with graffiti related to sexuality, one for graffiti that you believe use racist comments against a particular minority group, and another of graffiti that appear to be created by the same artist.
As you review the themes that start to emerge from your visual representation, try to speculate as to what the intention of the artist in each category might be. What were the general expressions of a particular subculture? Did the graffiti signify a possible conflict or threat against another person or group of people? Was it a statement that you think was trying to empower a person or group of people? In particular, try to consider how age, race, ethnicity, class, or gender relates to the graffiti. For example, as you try to discern the intention of the artist, do you need to understand something about youth culture to fully comprehend the graffiti? Are you starting to sense that gays or lesbians are often the target of the graffiti done by one group? Is the writing in Spanish and does this tell us something about the community, beyond the fact that the person who wrote it is likely bilingual?
As you consider the meaning of individual photos and groups of images in your collection, try to speculate more broadly about what the graffiti might tell us about our culture. This will require you to make some generalizations that connect the graffiti to dominant ideologies in our society. Even if you consider the graffiti humorous, at whose expense is the joke?
Include general statements as part of your presentation. Such statements might look something like this:
*Graffiti in boys’ locker rooms condemn certain sexual behavior, in particular homosexuality, which reinforce a hegemonic masculine norm of heterosexuality.
*Gay pride rainbows anonymously drawn on the side of local businesses express a pro-gay sentiment that is not often spoken about publicly in this conservative town.
*The word terrorist outside an Islamic community center signifies racist hate speech that has been on the rise since 9/11.
Finally, take seriously the location of the graffiti in order to think about how context might shift the meaning and power of the message. Several different gang tags outside a school building might signify a growing problem of school violence that officials may need to investigate, whereas similar gang tags under a highway overpass may go unnoticed for years. A derogatory comment in a school bathroom about a female cheerleader carries a particular meaning when placed in the girls’ bathroom and perhaps a different meaning when placed in the boys’ bathroom.
This assignment has hopefully made you more acutely aware of the graffiti in your community. Think about how you reacted to the different types of graffiti you found—were you offended by them, worried by them, impressed by them? Have you started to become more aware of the graffiti that surrounds you? Use your knowledge about graffiti to make a difference in your neighborhood. This might include initiating efforts to clean up graffiti that is deemed offensive or even helping to raise money for a scholarship fund for a young graffiti artist whose work may one day be considered a national treasure.
Banksy (Director). 2010. Exit through the Gift Shop. London: Paranoid Pictures. (This is a documentary about street graffiti artists, produced and directed by Banksy, which was nominated for a “Best Documentary” Academy Award in 2011.)
Calvin, Lisa. 2005. Graffiti, the Ultimate Realia: Meeting the Standards through an Unconventional Cultural Lesson. Hispania 88(3): 527–530