More Scenarios for Discussing Racism and Ethics

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Black Lives Matter by Tony Webster on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseLast week, I attended After Charlottesville: Having Difficult Conversations in the Classroom, a workshop open to everyone in the university community that resulted in an active conversation about what we can and can’t talk about in the classroom and who can and can’t have a platform for speech at the university.

The Guidelines for Discussing Incidents of Hate, Bias, and Discrimination, from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, were shared in the session to provide ways to be proactive about the issues of hate, as well as suggestions for what to do if something unanticipated happens.

As my continuing focus on discussing racism, I am outlining three more scenarios that ask students to confront racism through discussions of ethics. I provided three scenarios last week and also discussed a moral compass technique that helps students discuss ethical scenarios in more nuanced ways.

The Scenarios

  • Your company sells a variety of canned food products under the brand name Old South. The product labels and advertising depict pre-Civil War plantation scenes. A recent social media campaign is demanding that your company eliminate the racist images used in these product labels and advertisements. The company CEO has decided to do “what’s best for business.” He doesn’t believe that the images are problematic since they are based on historical drawings, but he is worried about the impact on sales. The CEO has asked the marketing department to rebrand, but has given them at least a year to make the necessary changes, including redesign, focus group tests, soft market launches, and, ultimately, a highly-publicized national launch. Your manager has asked you to write a press release that explains the company’s plan to customers and protesters. The CEO demands, however, that the company neither apologize or admit any problems with the current designs. He believes that doing so could cause customers to avoid the product until the redesign is launched. Is the CEO making an ethical decision? How would you write the press release?
  • You need to write a quarterly update to stockholders and the public about the company’s financial performance and current initiatives. Your manager interviewed the CEO for some comments in support of the information in the update, and gives the audio recording to you. The CEO is Japanese, and her English is not perfect. You listen to the recording and note a number of errors. In some places in the recording, her accent is strong, and you cannot determine what she is saying. The update must be released by 8AM tomorrow, so there is no time for back-and-forth with the CEO to talk about corrections. Rather than including what she said in the interview verbatim, you have corrected some minor errors and completely rephrased other comments to state what you think she means. You release the quarterly update to the public without having the CEO review your changes to her statements. Was your decision to rewrite the CEO’s comments ethical? Are there other ways that the situation might have been handled?
  • One of the employees in your department has a racist tattoo on his right arm. It is usually covered by his shirt, but recently he had on a short-sleeved polo shirt, which allowed half of the tattoo to show. Several employees noticed the tattoo and reported to HR that they found it offensive. HR asked you to tell the employee to cover the tattoo with a bandaid. To ensure that the issue does not come up again, you and managers from other units write a policy document that covers problematic tattoos—whether racist, sexist, or offensive in some other way. You and the other managers create a policy that forbids showing any tattoos, regardless of what is shown in the image. Tattoos are to be covered fully by clothing, a bandaid, or makeup. There is strong opposition to the policy. Many employees have tattoos that are in no way problematic (e.g., stars, flowers, Harley Davidson-themed, military logos). They say that they are being discriminated against just for having tattoos. You and the other managers stand by the policy, because you do not want to be in a position where you must judge whether tattoos are acceptable. Have you and the team of managers made the right decision? Are there any other ways to address the situation?

Next week I will share the final four scenarios for confronting racism with discussions of ethics. If you have suggestions for a scenario, questions to ask, or an idea to share, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.


Credit: Black Lives Matter by Tony Webster on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 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.