Race, Ethnicity, and Popular Media
New York University
Professor Frank Roberts Fall 2014
Office Hours: By Appointment
Frank Roberts—NYU Syllabus Fall (Wordcopy)
This seminar explores the cultural politics of race and ethnicity in the United States with an emphasis on popular media. Given that each of the three concepts mentioned in the title of this course (“race,” “ethnicity” and “popular media”) are in and of themselves notoriously ambiguous categories that resist easy definition, we will spend a great deal of time this semester engaging four deceptively straightforward questions: What exactly is race? How does race differ from ethnicity? What exactly constitutes “popular media”? And how is any of this collectively related? Over the course of the semester we will primarily devote our attention to three issues. First, we will begin thinking about how the issue of race (more specifically: the pernicious legacy of racism and racial inequality) continues to expose the limitations and contradictions of U.S. democracy. Secondly, we will think about how the language that most Americans use to talk about race (such as through the use of vague conversational buzzwords like “colorblind,” “reverse racism,” “post-racial,” or “multiculturalism”) has primarily been shaped by what they have heard, read or seen in some mass mediated context (whether it be in a newspaper, television show, or on the radio). Lastly, we will think about the vital role that expressive media has historically played in influencing how we talk about and re-present race in American culture.
*In addition, there will be a significant amount of reading that will take the form of various individual essays. These essays will be made available online through blackboard.
Sep. 11: Course Overview and Introductions
An introduction to who is the room, what we will be reading this semester, what I am expecting from you, and what you would like to get out of this course.
September 18th: The Fire This Time: US Democracy in Tumultuous Times
In this session we discuss the roles that race and racism have played in preventing the United States from realizing its full democratic potential, as well as think critically about “democracy” itself as a shifting, fragile and still-unfinished concept that is in need of renewed mainstream engagement. From the slow curtailing of American civil liberties (as manifested in legislation such as the U.S. Patriot Act and the National Security Act); to the escalating militarization of American cities (as evidenced recently in the police presence during the riots of Ferguson, Missouri); to the increasingly plutocratic dimension of the American electoral process—-US democracy is arguably in flames: in danger of burning to the ground. Politically speaking, how might we put the fire out? What do race and ethnicity have to do with any or all of this? By probing answers to the aforementioned questions, this issued raised in this session will help lay the foundation for our future class discussions (later in the semester) about the unique potential of media, arts and expressive culture for responding to various crises in American culture democracy.
Sep. 25th: Approaching the Language of Race in Contemporary America
In this session we will critically interrogate the language of race and racism in contemporary America. More specifically, we will pay close attention to several terms and rhetorical phrases that have become popular “buzzwords” in American media in the post-civil rights era. The terms we will pay particular attention to will be: “colorblindness,” “post-racial,” and “multiculturalism.” To what extent do these phrases congeal more than they reveal? Likewise, to what extent have these terms/concepts caused more harm than good in terms of giving us an adequate language to how race/racism does and does not function in contemporary America. Our central premise in this session will be that popular media–particularly news media (whether it be or CNN or MSNBC, Fox News or The New York Times)–play critical roles in producing the language and vocabulary that everyday Americans use (or misuse?) to describe race and/or racism. Other themes and key concepts to be discussed during this session include intersectionality, neoliberal multiculturalism, hypodescent, and post-intentional racism.
Relevant clips for 9/18 discussion:
Oct. 2: The Fire This Time: US Democracy in Tumultuous Times, Part 2
On the heels of the previous discussion, in this session we discuss the increased militarization of police culture in the United States and its deleterious effect on the lives of black and brown people, particularly black men.
In-class Documentary Film Screening: The House I Live In (Dir. Eugene Jarecki, 2012)
Oct. 9: The Meaning of Whiteness
In this session we will discuss the history of whiteness as a U.S. racial category. More specifically, we will discuss one of the key components of white privilege: the privilege of not having to talk about, think about, or be defined by race (as evidenced by oft-made comments such as “I don’t see race, I just see human beings”). In this session we will examine the extent to which “white experiences” are often framed (in media, or in critical receptions of literature and film, for instance) as “universal” experiences—whereas the experiences of nonwhite people get reduced to racial categorization.
Oct. 16: Listening to Latinidad
In this session we will: 1) explore the history and ambiguity of “Hispanic” as a term and racial/ethnic category 2) discuss the conceptual differences between “Hispanic” and “Latina/o” as identitarian categories and 3) approach the musical genre of “Reggaeton” as a case study for thinking about how Latina/o communities in the diaspora have used performance and media as embodied sites of sociopolitical critique.
Oct. 23: Class Fieldtrip Film Screening: Dear White People, by Justin Simien
In this session, we will take a trip to the movies to view Justin Simien’s new satire, “Dear White People.” Winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent, “Dear White People” is described as a “sly, provocative satire of race relations in the age of Obama. Writer/director Justin Simien follows a group of African American students as they navigate campus life and racial politics at a predominantly white college.”
Oct 30: Get Me Bodied: Black Women Performers and/in American Popular Media
Whether it be through radio disc jockeys such as Don Imus discussing the “problem” of “nappy-headed hoes,” or US congressmen debating the sexuality of black single mothers on welfare, historically, the black female body has been configured as a “problem” within the realm of American popular media. In this session we will explore the politics of this enduring legacy and think about how contemporary black female performers (ranging from Beyonce to Lauryn Hill) consciously or unconsciously work through, against, and around these discourses in their popular media creations.
To be announced
Nov: 6: Contemporary Media Debates: Sexuality and the Mainstreaming of “Marriage Equality”
In this session we will discuss the limitations of certain “equality discourses” that have emerged in media debates related to contemporary civil rights and social justice causes. By using the marriage equality/LGBTQ marriage movement as a case study, we will think critically about how certain “civil rights” causes potentially reinscribe the very forms of inequality they purport to stand against. Similarly, we will think about how the contemporary discourse on LGBTQ “marriage equality” often relies on coded racial analogies (i.e. “the gay rights movement is ‘like’ the black civil rights movement of the 1960s,” etc). At what price does the push for marriage equality come, and at whose expense?
Optional (Recommended, and will be discussed in class!):
Additional Recommended Reading:
Nov: 13: Gender, Normativity, and Popular Media: Or, Approaching Lady Gaga
In this session we discuss representations of women and feminism in the realm of American popular media. We will also explore two very different articulations of what exactly it means to be engaged in “feminist practice.”
Documentary Film: Miss Representation, 2011 (85 Minutes) To Be Screened In Class
Nov: 20: Class fieldtrip Screening: Straight White Men, by Young Jean Lee
In this session, we will take a class trip to The Public Theater to witness the production of Young Jean Lee’s critically acclaimed new play, “Straight White Men.” Set in an American city, the play asks the question: “when identity is the cornerstone of one’s worth, and privilege is increasingly problematic, what is the value of being a straight white man?”
Dec. 4: Listening to Black America: The Rise and Fall of Hip Hop
In this session, we will explore the rise and fall of hip-hop as the unofficial musical “voice” of black youth in America.
To Be Announced
Dec: 11 Fear of a Brown Planet: “Dark” Comedy and the Art as Racial Critique
In this session, we will think critically about the long and subversive history of comedy as a site of trenchant sociopolitical critique. Drawing from a growing body of critical scholarship in humor studies, we will ask ourselves: what happens when “joking” becomes a way of telling the truth? How have comedians of color historically seized humor as a way of critiquing and exposing systems of inequity? These questions will be explored in the context of our viewing of the critically acclaimed work of stand-up comedian Aamer Rahman—a Bangladeshi Australian artist whose one man show “The Truth Hurts” builds on a rich tradition of “dark comedy” and humor as a site of racial critique.
Media (To Be Viewed In Class):
Requirements and How You Will Be Graded:
There are three graded requirements for this course, distributed as follows:
Your guidelines for the discussion questions/critical issues compotent are as follows:
Your verbal participation grade will be assessed in the following way:
“A” Range Participation:
“B” Range Participation (inclusive of any one of these scenarios, or all):
“C” Range Participation (inclusive of any one of these scenarios, or all):
2. 25% one in-class presentation. All students will present a 20 minute “lecture” on one of the assigned readings. The purpose of this exercise is for you to master the art of lecturing/presenting/ “teaching” on a topic. On the day that you present, you are required to submit a copy (emailed electronically: to NYUGALLATINRACE@gmail.com) of your powerpoint presentation and/or an “overview” of your presentation. You are not required to do a response paper on that way.
In order to receive an A, the guidelines are as follows (adhering to these guidelines does not guarantee that you will actually receive an A; however NOT adhering to these guidelines does guarantee that you will NOT receive an A):
3. 25% 10, 1 to 1.5 response papers. You are required to produce ten, very brief 600 to 800 word “response papers” over the course of the semester. Your response papers will always be due at pm on the Wednesday before class (i.e. the day before class). Your response papers are similar to the presentations in so far as you can use the papers as an opportunity to “break down” the author’s argument; or simply hone in and/or expound upon one of the theories or concepts that the author engages. Your papers will NOT be handed back to you, nor will they be graded individually. At the end of the semester you will compile all of your response papers into one packet—alongside a 1,500 essay where you provide me with an overview of the key themes, ideas, and theories that have been of interest to you this semester. Your grade for this portion of the course requirements will be determined by the following criteria: