Confronting Racism with Discussions of Ethics

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Business Meeting by thetaxhaven on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseDuring the next few weeks, I will continue my series on racism in the classroom by sharing 10 scenarios that confront racism through discussions of ethics. The teaching strategy for these class discussions is simple:


  1. Students are presented with a scenario.
  2. They decide on their ethical stance on the issue in the scenario.
  3. They examine a summary of responses from their class.
  4. They discuss the various stances and work toward deeper exploration of the issue and, if possible, consensus on how to deal with the situation.


In step two, students choose their ethical stance using a strategy that I outlined two years ago for Discussing Ethics Scenarios in Professional Writing, though the strategy would work for any course. Using this strategy, decisions are chosen on a digital compass. As explained in the Learning & Leading with Technology article “Developing Ethical Direction” by Mike S. Ribble and Gerald D. Bailey, students choose among these 8 options:


  • Right
  • I am not sure it’s wrong
  • Depends on the situation
  • As long as I don’t get caught
  • Wrong
  • What’s the big deal?
  • It’s an individual choice
  • I don’t know


To simplify the process of tallying responses for the course, have students respond to the scenarios with a Google Form, or use one of the online polling tools, such as Poll Everywhere, SurveyMonkey, or Top Hat. Before beginning class discussion of the scenarios, prepare students for the issues that you will introduce. You can use the ideas I shared in my post last month, Preparing to Explore Racism and Racist Events in the Classroom.


The Scenarios

  1. You are in a meeting with the marketing team. Your manager (a black woman), her manager (a white man), and four other people (2 women and 2 men) are present. During the meeting, whenever your manager makes an assertion about the best direction for the team to take, her manager interrupts her or talks over her. Several times, he stops her and asks one of the other men in the room to clarify or explain the ideas. Your manager is frustrated, but remains silent to avoid confrontation with her own manager. Is your manager making the right choice? After making your decision, consider what actions you might take in the meeting.
  2. You are joining colleagues from the team of developers (4 men and 3 women) you manage for a barbecue on Friday to celebrate the launch of the program you have been working on for the past year. You arrive about 30 minutes late, because of a meeting with Accounting, and notice that everyone seems to already be in the backyard, laughing and having fun. You walk out the back door and scan the yard. You immediately notice that Haruka, a Japanese-American woman on the team, is not present. You approach Jeff, who owns the house and has taken command of the grill. You ask him, “Hey, looks like nearly everyone is here. When will Haruka get here? I want to share some feedback from Accounting with everyone.” Jeff looks a bit puzzled, but explains, “Oh, we never invite her. She’s so quiet. Makes everyone uncomfortable. She probably wouldn’t come anyway.” Is Jeff’s decision right or wrong? As the manager, how should you handle the situation?
  3. You are in an all-employee meeting of the food production company you work for. Every division provides an update on current projects and forecasts future projects and issues to consider. The Warehouse division, led by Sherry, has been working on a service project to provide food for those at the local family shelter. To share their work with everyone, they have developed a two-minute video that shows employees from the division unloading contributions along with testimonials from the shelter staff and people temporarily living there. About half-way through the video, a male person in the meeting room audibly makes a derogatory comment about the people living in the shelter. The comment includes racial stereotypes and a specific ethnic slur. Sherry looks unsure what to do and fidgets a bit as the video plays out. Once it finishes, she asks everyone to congratulate her team on their hard work and then sits down while employees applaud. Asked about her decision not to address the derogatory comment, Sherry explains that she had no way of knowing who made the comment, so it was best to just ignore it. Did Sherry make the right decision? If you were in Sherry’s position, what would you do? If you were sitting in the meeting, would you do anything? Why or why not?

Customizing the Scenarios

I’ve written the scenarios for use in a Business Writing or Technical Writing course. By changing the basics of the scenarios, you can convert them for use in another class, like first year composition.


For #1, change the scenario to a meeting of a small group working on a group presentation. Drop the references to managers, and talk about group members instead. To make the scenario easier to talk about, add specific first names. Obviously choose names that aren’t members of the course.


For #2, again, change from colleagues from the development team to members of a small group that is celebrating submission of a major project.


For #3, rather than an all-employee meeting, change the situation to a class meeting. Rather than divisions, have small groups, which are presenting their projects to the class. Sherry becomes a student from one of the groups.


Final Thoughts

Ethical scenarios like those above and those I’ll share in the next weeks can yield strong class conversations. While students may have strong convictions about the situations, there are rarely easy answers. Students must weigh alternatives and negotiate with one another to arrive at consensus.


Next week, I’ll be back with more scenarios. In the meantime, if you have any questions or want to share a scenario of your own, please leave me a comment below.




Credit: Business Meeting by thetaxhaven on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.