PART II: THE EVOLUTION OF DOMINANT-MINORITY RELATIONS IN THE UNITED STATES
ASSIGNMENT 1: Race And Gender in Children’s Books
Following the civil rights and women’s movements, it might seem logical that publishing companies would begin putting out children’s books that provide a more accurate and diverse portrayal of characters for our young readers. The task of this assignment is to see whether or not this is the case.
Visit the children’s section of a local public library. Pick a sample of 20 books to examine. Although you could conduct a convenience sample by simply grabbing the first 20 books you come across, consider taking a couple of extra minutes to be a little more systematic, which will help you get a more representative sample. First, pick one section of the shelving area and count all the books on the shelves. Determine your sampling interval by simply dividing the total population of books by 20. (For example, if there are 200 books, your sampling interval will be every 10th book.) Then, pick a random book to start with and proceed from there by picking every nth book until you have pulled 20 books from the shelves.
Create a tally sheet to study the race, ethnicity, and gender of each book’s main character. In each row, list the book title and the year of publication. In the columns, include such categories as “male” and “female,” as well as different race and ethnicity categories (i.e., white, African American, Hispanic, etc.).
After you have gone through a couple of books, you may need to adjust your tally sheet to include such categories as “unknown”—for instance, when the main character is an animal and you can’t determine the race. Maybe you need to differentiate between male children, male teens, and male adults. Perhaps an extra row is needed for books that have more than one main character.
When you are done examining all 20 books, add up your columns and develop some general findings. How many main characters were male? Female? White? African American? Consider putting the list of books in order by publication date. Do you find that things have changed over time?
Take it one step further by selecting a small sample of the books to examine more qualitatively. Read each book. Consider the story line, word choice, and dialogue, as well as the pictures. What are the race, ethnicity, and gender of the other characters in the book? What is the relationship between the main character and the supporting characters? What roles do these characters have? What adjectives are used to describe the characters and their actions?
Identify stereotypes that are perpetuated in the books. Do female characters seem helpless and in need of a smart male character to help them solve a mystery? Are white characters given the role of the leader or boss in the book? Do Hispanic characters all know how to speak Spanish? Do dads work jobs and moms bake cookies? Also, consider how stereotypes are confronted in the books. Taken as a whole, do you think the book does a better job reifying or challenging stereotypes?
Share your findings with the reference librarian. Ask the librarian what she or he thinks about the changing nature of race, ethnicity, and gender in children’s books. Has she or he noticed any trends in children’s books, or perhaps trends in the book choices of children and which books they are more apt to check out?
Finally, consider what your findings may suggest about the socialization of children. What messages are young children being given about race and ethnic relations or the meaning of gender?
ASSIGNMENT 2: The Local Diner
The local diner has a long history in American culture. Emerging in the Northeast in the latter part of the 19th century, diners constituted little more than horse-drawn lunch carts initially established to serve blue-collar workers during the Industrial Revolution (Anderson, 2008). Following World War II, this predominantly masculine space began to transform as women began to enter the workforce in larger numbers, serving as both middle-class consumers and cheap labor for restaurant owners (Anderson, 2008). Also, diners have had a long history of racial and ethnic segregation, a legacy that perhaps continues and may even be heightened in certain areas that have overt conflicts over immigration today. Keep an eye out for insights into how these forces may shape the everyday interactions in the diner.
Today, although the nostalgic version of the 1950s diner may no longer exist, most towns and cities still have some semblance of the local diner. Some continue to be places that serve working-class men lunch, whereas others offer coffee to the CEO on her way to catch the morning train into the city, while others still provide french-fries to a group of teenagers after dark. This assignment requires you to embark on an ethnographic investigation of the American diner.
Locate a locally owned diner that has been in your community for at least a decade, and pick a time of day to observe that is most appropriate for the setting. This may require you to go to the diner and find out how long it has been in business and if it tends to get busy during breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Investigate the guidelines for conducting research with your university’s Institutional Review Board. Although projects of this scope may be exempt from board approval, it still is important to understand and follow the protocol for conducting ethical research that is laid out by your institution.
Ethnography is a qualitative research design that requires you to take detailed notes to gather rich descriptions of people in everyday life, so you will need to buy a small notebook to take notes. (It’s best to use a notebook instead of a computer, since this will be a less intrusive method of note taking.) For this assignment, you will take on the role of a participant observer, which means that you will let people at the diner know you are conducting research. Although there are cons to this approach (see discussion of limitations in Step 9), the pros are that notes help increase your level of accuracy in description and, since people know you are conducting research, they may volunteer to tell you relevant information or allow you to informally interview them, which will help you gather richer, more detailed notes.
Pick three days to observe your site. On the first day, simply observe and take jottings. Jottings are your own brief shorthand notes that help you recall details about the atmosphere, events, people, and conversations you observe, which you will later use to write up more extensive field notes. Limit your observation time to 1 hour, since it will take you almost twice as long to type these notes as it did to conduct the observation—as a general rule, for every hour you observe, you will have five pages of typed field notes.
Once you leave the setting, immediately type up your field notes so everything will still be fresh in your memory. Field notes are essentially a minute-to-minute account of your observation. The more detail, the better! Use complete sentences, write things down in chronological order, and avoid subjective statements. For example, instead of saying a customer was “sloppy,” describe the clothes they were wearing, their demeanor, the style of their hair, the dirt under their fingernails, etc. The more detail you give, the more objective your notes will be.
Start to look for some initial themes by coding your first set of field notes. Coding is simply a process that allows you to analyze your data in terms of certain variables. After you are done typing your field notes, print them out; as you read through them, write possible codes in the margin. For the purpose of this assignment, begin with demographic variables such as race, ethnicity, gender, age, and social class. This will help you start to see patterns emerge. For example, maybe you’ll start to notice that only male patrons sit at the counters or that most of the workers are white. Try also to develop your own codes. This can be anything from a code titled “food” or “music” to one called “nostalgia” or “gossip.” This process will not only help you systematically see patterns of behavior but will likely also introduce some unanswered questions about your site that you can investigate during your next visit.
Follow the same process of taking jottings and field notes during your next two days of observation, but this time, don’t be afraid to informally interview workers or patrons. This should help you answer some of the questions you have. In particular, try to find people to talk with who have either been working at the diner for a long time or patronizing it for years. This will allow you to get much more insight into the history and background of the diner than you would get if you observed alone.
Start to look for relationships between codes. What is the relationship between gender and work roles? How does ethnicity factor into the selection of menu items? How does the price of food influence the social class of the patrons? How have the demographics of the diner patrons changed over the past several decades? How does the diner represent a part of American culture?
Write a one- to two-page paper with your initial findings. Discuss the limitations of your research, including your role as participant observer, and how you might fix these problems if you were to continue with this research project. This should include a discussion of reactivity—how the participants of your study may have modified their behavior because they knew they were being observed—and reflexivity—how your own identity may have influenced what you observed and how you interpreted these observations.
Anderson, Erin R. 2008. “Whose name’s on the awning?” Gender, entrepreneurship, and the American diner. Gender, Place, and Culture 15(4): 395–410.
ASSIGNMENT 3: Historical Films in Modern Day Contexts
Films based on a true story or historical event are often critiqued for failing to present an accurate account of the facts. Regardless of this, many people watch these films as a way to learn something about history. It’s not necessarily true that people are naïve about historical films. For example, most people who have seen Titanic probably understand actors Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio represent a fictionalized depiction of a possible love story between a British aristocrat and a poor Irish boy. Yet at the same time historical films blur the line between fiction and reality. So while you might see their love story as being made up, you might still believe that the representation of social class division on the ship is still accurate, even if it is not. This assignment requires you to review a film that has been produced in the last decade but depicts a time period before, during, or following the Civil War. The film should also attempt to tackle some aspect of slavery. Such films might include Cold Mountain, Amazing Grace, Django Unchained, Lincoln, or 12 Years a Slave.
Begin by writing a brief synopsis of the film. What was it about? Who were the main characters? What are the main storylines?
Next, try to evaluate the historical accuracy of the film. How does the film portray pre-industrial America? How does it relate to the historical background provided in this book or in books you have read in other courses? When answering this question, consider such things as whether or not the characters are depicting real people (i.e. President Lincoln), what props are used in the setting and does it seem authentic, what music is playing the background, and which real events are portrayed and did they get the timeline correct?
Closely examine the dominant-minority relations portrayed in the film. This book suggests the Noel Hypothesis as an explanation for why colonists enslaved black Africans. Is the Noel Hypothesis supported in the film? Consider the three characteristics of this hypothesis—ethnocentrism, competition and differentials in power between groups. Provide evidence from the film for each category. This could also include a discussion of specific scenes that seem to contradict this hypothesis.
Overall, in terms of historical accuracy, do you believe the filmmakers “got it right”? Why or why not?
Now, consider your analysis of the historical accuracy of the film in relationship to your own reaction to watching the film in today’s context. Did you like the film? Why or why not? Did you have an emotional reaction to the film? Explain your reaction. Do you feel like the film took seriously the nature of dominant-minority relations at this time period or did they try to oversimplify things?
Finally, speculate as to why you think this historical film resonates with a contemporary audience. What themes or ideologies do you think the filmmakers used to draw in an audience and make the film relevant today? Go on-line and look up the film’s website. Who made the film? Find some film reviews or visit blogs where the public has commented on the film. What has been said about the film? Overall, consider why you think people continue to be interested in historical films about dominant-minority relations in pre-industrial America.