Question of the Month:

Objects of Intolerance Can Be Used to Teach Tolerance

September 2007

A:  I wish our readers had met Tamsey Andrews, who worked at Ferris State University as the Grants Director shortly before she died in 2002. Tamsey, who received a Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology at Brandeis and a Masters of Education from Harvard, argued that the objects in the museum should be treated as value-neutral "art." Her argument troubled me on several levels. First, like many novices, I saw art as something aesthetically pleasant, intellectually provocative, or in some other way laudable; the racist objects in the museum seemed, to me, the antithesis of art. Second, how could a racist object (think of a postcard with a Black man being hanged or beaten) be value-neutral? There was, after all, a message being sent to the viewer of the postcard, especially if that viewer was an African American living in the 1940s. Finally, there was the implication with her approach that no interpretation was more valid than any other, and if I believed that then I would have to accept that an interpretation deriving from a racist, oppressive worldview was as valid as one that opposed that interpretation -- and that was a snag for me.

I shared these concerns with Tamsey and she suggested that I read about Visual Thinking Strategies, a pedagogical tool used in museums and schools. At the risk of being too simplistic, Visual Thinking Strategies are used in small groups where a museum docent (or a teacher) facilitates a discussion by asking general, non-threatening questions that lead the students toward greater understanding -- of themselves and the art. You might begin by directing students to look at a print by Paul Klee, the Swiss Expressionist painter. You start with, "What's going on in this painting? Students are allowed to answer any way they deem relevant. After each student's response, you paraphrase what they said. This lets students know that you understand them, and helps ensure that everyone in the class has heard the comments. Repeating what students say also helps them realize that their contributions to discussions are valid. You might next ask, "What do you see that makes you say that?" After they respond, you probe with, "What more can you find?"

Americans are reluctant to talk about race relations in settings where their ideas may be challenged, and there are many reasons for that reluctance: a lack of confidence in one's communication skills and not wanting to say one thing while meaning another; a fear of saying something that sounds racially insensitive or racist; the dread of getting angry or sounding angry; the sincere conviction that nothing good can come from discussing race relations and racism because these are "old" conversations; the trepidation of experiencing an argument, and so forth. No pedagogical tool, including Visual Thinking Strategies, can make people talk about race relations, but this approach does help create a safe, non-threatening space where honest, facilitated discussions are possible -- and, truth be told, that was a problem for me when I first used the approach.

matchbook Yes, I wanted the Jim Crow Museum to be a place where people could talk openly and honestly about race relations -- in other words, I wanted the museum to be a "safe" place, but equally important, I wanted the museum to be a place where ideas and beliefs were challenged -- not bludgeoned. In other words, I wanted the museum to be safe but uncomfortable. It is obvious to me now that I was struggling with two roles: facilitator and activist. The facilitator role fit neatly into the Visual Thinking Strategies, but the activist wanted to advocate, correct, proselytize, and tell students/visitors "what to think." I would hold an object -- say, matches with a grotesquely caricatured Black child -- and ask, "What do you see?" Often, someone would say, simply and succinctly, "A child," or worse, "A cute little boy." The activist in me wanted to scream, "What do you mean, you only see a child," or "Are you serious, you actually believe this child is cute?" I wanted to stop the dialogue and begin a monologue about the role that racial caricatures had played in supporting the Jim Crow racial hierarchy. I wanted to passionately detail the ways that African American children had been depicted as naked or near-naked, physically ugly, poor, illiterate, "baby Coons." I wanted to make sure that all the visitors understood the psychological harm done to children of color in this country -- and I wanted to do all of this as soon as I heard "A cute little boy."

If you do something a long time you should get better at it. There are two premises that I accept today that I did not accept years ago: you have to reach people where they are; and, intellectually beating down someone makes teaching them improbable. It is unproductive to "tear into" someone because they do not know who Jim Crow was or what Jim Crow laws were, or because they believe that Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben honor Black people and the Klan is misunderstood, or because after looking at a caricatured image of an African American child they announce that the child is cute. I have gotten better at allowing others to speak openly (even when what they say disappoints me) and I have gotten better at allowing others to "save face." In these ways, Visual Thinking Strategies has helped me be a better facilitator. It is a good way to start. I am still learning to trust the process and still learning to trust the abilities and willingness of people to learn about race relations. But I still believe, and may always believe, that a place where you are safe to express your views does not mean that those views cannot and should not be challenged. The facilitator knows something that the activist may not: the teacher does not always have to be one that challenges: sometimes the other students will challenge, and sometimes, the person will challenge himself or herself.

Nigger Milk It is likely that I will never believe that the 5,000 objects in the Jim Crow Museum are "value-neutral art" or "value-neutral objects." I understand that no object has intrinsic meaning but it would be naive of me to believe that the 1921 printed cartoon of a Black child drinking ink (with the caption "Nigger Milk") is value-neutral. Indeed, I would argue that the many objects that defamed African Americans both reflected and shaped values. The objects in the museum are, in a real way, propaganda. I do believe that propaganda can be explored, examined, critiqued and understood. This brings me again to Visual Thinking Strategies: it is not necessary for me to accept all of its underlying assumptions. This approach works for me because I have modified it. I begin by asking visitors/students to examine objects carefully. Then, I ask "What do you see?" "What else do you see?" "What does this mean to you?" I give them a loose rein. I try to communicate that they are free to express any and all ideas, values, tastes, and beliefs. Next, I probe. "Why do you believe that?" "What makes you say that?" "Where do you think that value came from?" Again, I try to facilitate the discussion without dominating it (that's hard for me). More questions. "What does this image remind you of?" "Can you see how someone would view this differently?" At this point I usually "burst" and start lecturing.

I do not know if the Visual Thinking Strategies approach will work for you but I will give a link so that you can learn more about it: www.vtshome.org/what-is-vts. If this approach does not work for you, find another. I believe, and know to be true, that objects of intolerance can be used to teach tolerance. I encourage you to find a way to use these objects to facilitate intelligent discussions about race relations and racism.

September 2007 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum


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