NYU Fall 2014 Syllabus

Race, Ethnicity, and Popular Media

New York University

Professor Frank Roberts Fall 2014

Office Hours: By Appointment

Contact: Frank.Roberts@Yale.Edu

Frank Roberts—NYU Syllabus Fall (Wordcopy)

"Frank Leon Roberts"

Time Magazine, Sep. 2014

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.

Required Textbooks:

  1. Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the War Against Imperialism
  2. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
  3. Shayne Lee, Erotic Revolutionaries: Black Women, Sexuality, and Popular Culture
  4. Tricia Rose, Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—And Why It Matters
  5. Jack Halberstam, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal

*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.

Required Reading:

  1. Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the War Against Imperialism
  2. Cornel West, “Nihilism in Black America” in Race Matters (Online)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1mo3_R54JE]

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.

Required Reading:

  1. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, “The Strange of Enigma of Race”  in Racism without Racists (The Strange Enigma of Race in Contemporary America)
  2. Eduardo Bonilla,  “‘The Sweet Enchantment of Color-Blind Racism in Obamerica’
  3. Ashley Doane, “The Changing Politics of Colorblind Racism” (Online)
  4. Frank Roberts, “Stolen Life: On the Meanings of Trayvon Martin” in The Huffington Post (Online)


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.


Required Reading:

  1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_mJaZHei7U]


In-class Documentary Film Screening: The House I Live In (Dir. Eugene Jarecki, 2012)
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0atL1HSwi8]



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.

Required Reading:

  1. Ross Chambers, “The Unexamined
  2. Frances Kendall, “Understanding White Privilege”
  3. Rich Dyer, “Richard Dyer, The Matter of Whitenesss”
  4. Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack



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.

Required Reading:

  1. Wayne Marshall, “From Musica Negra to Reggaeton Latino: The Cultural Politics of Nation, Migration, and Commercialization” in Reggaeton, Eds. Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Pacini Hernandez, Duke University Press, 2009 (Online Click Here)
  2. Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Pacini Hernandez, “Reggaeton’s Socio-Sonic Circuitry” (See link above for file.)
  3. Agustin Lao-Montes, “Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York City” (Online Click Here)
  4. Juana Rodriquez, “Divas, Atrevidas Y Entendidas” in Queer Latinidad (NYU Press) (Online Click Here)
  5. Rubén Rumbaut, Pigments of Our Imagination: On the Racialization and Racial Identities of ‘Hispanics’ and ‘Latinos’ in : How the U.S. Racializes Latinos: White Hegemony and Its Consequences, edited by José A. Cobas, Jorge Duany and Joe R. Feagin. Paradigm Publishers (2009) (Online Here)
  6. Chimamanda N. Adichie, Brief paragraph handout excerpt from Americanah

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGKrc3A6HHM]
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dv7VmX4gQxs&w=853&h=480]


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.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwJhmqLU0so]


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.

Required Reading:

  1. Shayne Lee, Erotic Revolutionaries: Black Women, Sexuality, and Popular Culture


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?

Required Material:

  1. Judith Butler, “Critically Queer” in Bodies That Matter (Online)
  2. Michael Cobb, “Introduction” to Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled (Online)
  3. Lisa Duggan, “Preface” (with Richard Kim) and “Beyond Marriage: Democracy, equality, and kinship for a New Century” in A New Queer Agenda (Online)

Optional (Recommended, and will be discussed in class!):

  1. Cathy Cohen, “Punks, Bulldagers, and Welfare Queens” in GLQ (Online)
  2. Kenyon Farrow, “After Equality” in A New Queer Agenda (Online)

Additional Recommended Reading:

  1. Jack Halberstam, “Introduction,” to The Queer Art of Failure
  2. Jack Halberstam, “Introduction” to In A Queer Time and Place

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1IMmTgRjxM]

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.”

Required Reading:

  1. J. Halberstam, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q01fEVoPV6A]

Documentary Film: Miss Representation, 2011 (85 Minutes) To Be Screened In Class
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2UZZV3xU6Q]


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?”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Drjx7m-cDBE]

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.

Required Reading:

  1. Tricia Rose, Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—And Why It Matters



To Be Announced
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7gUu4DYZO0]


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.


  1. Glenda Carpio, “Introduction” (only pps. 2-6) of Laughing Fit To Kill

Media (To Be Viewed In Class):

  1. Aamer Rahman, The Truth Hurts (One Man Show, 2014).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dw_mRaIHb-M]



Part II:

Requirements and How You Will Be Graded:


There are three graded requirements for this course, distributed as follows:


  1. 50% Critical verbal in-class participation and the weekly submission of two “discussion questions/critical issues” (drawn directly from the issues raised in the readings) that you’d like to discuss in class.


Your guidelines for the discussion questions/critical issues compotent are as follows:

  • You are required to come to class every week with two short pre-prepared questions/points (i.e.—they must be typed, not handwritten, and submitted via hardcopy). It is never guaranteed that your questions will actually make it into our discussions, nonetheless you are required to come to class with them. Moreover, though you are required to submit written copies of your two questions/issues—your verbal participation in class is not limited to these two aforementioned questions/issues. In addition, it is completely acceptable to regurgitate questions/or points that you raised in your weekly 1 page response paper. In short, your two weekly discussion questions/points should give me a clear idea of what you plan on talking about in class that day.


Your verbal participation grade will be assessed in the following way:


“A” Range Participation:

  • You came to class every week with two well thought-out, pre-prepared “questions” or “issues” (drawn directly from the readings) that you kept handy.
  • Your contributions to our class discussions indicated that you were reading the assigned material closely, as opposed to simply coming to class and “improvising” on the assigned topic.
  • In the moments that you were called on unexpectedly to discuss a particular topic, you articulated your ideas with clarity.
  • You spoke at least once in every session.
  • The depth of your insights were roughly in the top 30 percentile of the class (which means whether or not you receive an “A” in participation is partially contingent on the quality of your fellow colleagues’ contributions to class. Your participation grade will be curved in relationship to your peers insights. This means: if your peers were consistently making stronger, sharper insights than you in class—you will be receiving a lower grade than them. “Sharp insights” do not necessarily mean insights that share the same view as the professor or the author whose work is under consideration. “Sharp insights” simply refer to your ability to breathe life, depth, nuance and wisdom to our classroom conversations.


“B” Range Participation (inclusive of any one of these scenarios, or all):

  • You met all of the criteria listed above; your contributions were valuable and insightful—but your contributions were not consistent enough to be considered within the top 30% of the class.
  • Your written weekly questions were often or occasionally vague—thus indicating that you probably did not actually do the assigned reading material; or that you did the readings at the last minute and simply attempted to “throw together” your discussion questions in a disingenuous attempt to fulfil the course requirement.
  • Your contributions were valuable—but you lacked self-awareness. “Self-awareness” is the ability to discern when it is time to strategically be silent in order to allow your colleagues to speak.
  • You raised your hand often—but when called upon, your ideas were either: a) too scattered b) simply a regurgitation of comments that someone else had already made c) lacked depth or insight.
  • You were occasionally unattentive. “Unattentive” includes: texting your phone during class; using your laptop in class (prohibited); having a “side conversations” during class. If you are observed engaging in any of these activities, even once, you will be incapable of receiving an “A” for participation.


“C” Range Participation (inclusive of any one of these scenarios, or all):

  • You rarely participated in class voluntarily.
  • When called upon to speak, you refused. (Responding with “I don’t know” or “I don’t have anything to say” constitutes a refusal.)


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):


  • If you are going to be using media material (i.e. youtube clips, videos, music, etc.) your media material cannot take up more than 5 minutes worth of time. You may show multiple clips, but no one clip can be longer than 5 minutes.
  • Your entire presentation must not exceed 20 minutes under any circumstances. The instructor will be obligated to stop you at the 20 minute mark, regardless of whether you have finished.
  • Your entire presentation must not be shorter than 15 minutes.
  • Do not include a “Question & Answer” period.
  • Your presentation format can take a variety of forms. You are given complete free reign in coming up with your format. You can use your twenty minutes to “break down” the author’s argument; expound upon one of the theories or concepts that the author engages in order to present your own original essay/lecture (this is called the “applying theory” approach); bring in clips/media material that you think illustrate or contradict the point the author is trying to make; ask the class to get into small groups to discuss a particular issue than have them “report back” on their findings (if you do this, your small group activity segment must NOT exceed 6 minutes). Any of these formats is fine—you may also experiment on a format not listed.
  • Ultimately, you are being graded on 1)how well you engage the author’s ideas 2) originality, 3) the quality of how well you “teach” the author’s argument (this includes vehemently disagreeing with what she has to say).

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:

A quality:

  • Your response papers were successfully submitted by 6am on the due date to the instructor’s email address (which will be NYUGALLATINRACE@gmail.com).
  • Your response papers consisted of 600 to 800 words of your OWN voice. In other words, a 600 word response paper should not include a quotation that was 300 words.
  • Your response papers were not riddled with grammatical errors.
  • Your response papers were well written and highly engaging.
  • Your response papers directly engaged the author’s argument. This means that before you endorse or disagree with the author—you made it clear that you actually understand the author’s argument.
  • Your end-of-the-semester 1,500 word essay that provided an “overview/introduction” to your 10 papers was well written.
  • Your response papers often brought in original examples (i.e. something going on in current affairs; a historical phenomenon, or a personal antidote) that clarifies the accuracy OR limitations of the author’s argument that is under review. (You are not required to do this every time.)


B quality:

  • You deviated from the above criteria.
  • You did not successfully submit 10 papers.
  • Curve grade caveat: you met the requirements, but the quality of your response papers were inferior to that of the overall quality of your peers.


C quality:

  • You deviated from the above criteria in a truly egregious way.