Buy Racial Innocence at Amazon, Powell's, or NYU Press.

Visit Robin Bernstein's website at

View an interview with Robin Bernstein

Thursday, May 19, 2016

What I've Learned: Three Steps to Designing Powerful Syllabi

Many grad students are daunted by the challenge of writing a syllabus for the first time. In my Graduate Proseminar in Studies in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard, I teach a three-step approach to creating powerful and effective syllabi.

1. Ask Two Questions

Teachers can design great syllabi by beginning with two key questions:

Who are my students?

And what do I want them to learn?

The first question requires a professor to think honestly about the students who exist--the real students who are most likely to show up in class, human and messy, with strengths and challenges, areas of knowledge and ignorance, skills and clumsiness, questions and ideas. Real people. Not the ones who "should" exist, not the half-remembered fantasies of how students "used" to be.

The second question pointedly revises the one that too many teachers start with: What do I want to teach? Some teachers leap to decisions about what books they want to assign or what topics they want to cover. This approach is backwards: it sweeps aside the needs of the real students in favor of attending to the teacher's needs and interests. The better question--What do I want my students to learn?--forces the teacher to identify real students' pedagogical needs and the ways in which this specific course can advance some of those needs

This second question also helps teachers to think about multiple forms of learning that can occur in a classroom. A teacher may want students to gain knowledge and skills, of course, but she may also want students to learn habits of mind or patterns of behavior. In my graduate proseminar, for example, I want my students to learn how to work at a constant, intensely challenging pace--but without rushing. I therefore require significant written assignments almost every week, and the course has no final paper or project. The course’s structure precludes an end-of-semester frenzy and instead requires students to work at a steady, constant rhythm--and that rhythm is itself exactly what I want the students to learn. Which leads me to the second rule of powerful syllabi:

2. Design "Making" Assignments to Achieve Pedagogical Goals

Anchor your pedagogical goals in assignments in which students make something specific and defined--such as a piece of writing, an oral presentation, a performance, a website--or, in the case of my grad students, a syllabus! These assignments' structure should be geared to advance the learning goals you have already identified.

"Making" assignments are the most important aspect of the course, because they are the primary machinery by which your students will learn what you want them to learn. Whenever possible, every pedagogical goal should be anchored in "making" assignments, and every "making" assignment should connect to your pedagogical goals in ways that are legible to the students. No secret agendas!

3. Organize Everything Else in the Syllabus around Your Pedagogical Goals

After you've designed your "making" assignments, the next step is to assign "taking in" tasks such as reading (or viewing a play or film, or listening to music, or whatever else is appropriate to the course). "Taking in" is not separate from "making," of course--powerful syllabi integrate all aspects of students' work. Reading should connect logically with writing, and everything should align visibly with the course's core pedagogical goals.

It's obvious to most teachers that reading assignments should reflect pedagogical goals. What's less obvious is that course policies should also do so. When my graduate proseminar students created syllabi this semester, they excelled in identifying pedagogical goals and integrating them with "making" and "taking in" assignments. But I noticed something surprising that recurred across many of the syllabi: harsh penalties for late papers or unexcused absences. For example, some docked a paper a full letter grade for each day overdue, or lowered the semester grade by a half or even full letter for every unexcused absence.

I responded by inviting my students to examine the relationship between those penalties and the course's pedagogical goals. If a serious pedagogical goal is to train students in punctuality, community-building, responsibility, or professionalism, then such penalties make sense. Sometimes one of the most important things a teacher can teach is the importance of showing up and being prepared. But if that's not a central pedagogical goal, what is the reason behind harsh penalties for lateness or unexcused absence?

I wondered what feelings lie beneath these penalties. Sometimes teachers are strict because they feel insecure, defensive, or threatened. These feelings are normal. The problem is that the more a teacher builds them into the structure of a syllabus, the more the syllabus is teacher-focused rather than student-focused. In other words, when professors include something in the syllabus to attend primarily to our needs, we draw energy away from students' needs. Sometimes that's appropriate: for example, it's a poor idea for professors to assign more written assignments than they can reasonably read or grade. It may be in the students' best interests to write five short papers over the course of a semester, but if the reality is that you cannot grade that much student writing, then you should not set that many assignments. So the tension between students' pedagogical needs and teachers' human needs is always present, and it's not a bad thing. But it becomes a bad thing if a professor's needs surface in an un-examined way in a syllabus.

So I'm not saying professors should never impose strict or even harsh penalties for late papers or excessive absence (there can be good reasons for doing so: as my friend Elizabeth Freeman points out to me, if you are teaching large lecture courses on a quarter system, every late paper snarls the pedagogical flow and overburdens the Teaching Assistants). Rather, I suggest that professors should be honest with ourselves about why we're doing so--and whether that choice furthers a course's pedagogical goals or attempts to manage an emotional need.

The bottom line: your syllabi will be most powerful when you lead with the questions, "Who are my students? And what do I want them to learn?"--and then structure your "making" assignments around those goals, and then do the same with all other aspects of the syllabus, from the reading assignments to the policies on lateness. Your needs, including your emotional needs, are important. And they should figure in your syllabi in a thoughtful, self-conscious way--all the while putting real students first.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Racial Innocence Suffuses a White Confessed Killer

The New York Times has published Brit Bennett's important commentary on the #CharlestonShooting in the context of the history of white terrorists in the United States. The Times appends to Bennett's essay this photograph of the accused killer in a bullet-proof vest.

Photo credit: Chuck Burton/Associated Press

This photograph tells a story: that the white confessed killer is in danger of being shot... by whom? Who is the implied threat in this image? Dylann Storm Roof claimed that he murdered nine worshippers in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church because black people threaten whites: "You are raping our women and taking over the country." This image in the NYTimes reinforces that perspective. This is what happens when white supremacism saturates a culture: even when a white person massacres black church-goers, the story is visually re-told as one in which black people threaten whites--who need and deserve protection.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

My Philosophy re: Book Prizes

I just said this to a friend, but I think it's worth sharing generally: it's my philosophy about book awards. I believe that first-time academic authors need to make sure their books are nominated for as many awards as possible. The reason is that the point of a nomination is not just to win. Too many people think that if you win, you win, and if you don't win, you lose. That's completely wrong. Whether you win or not, a nomination creates an opportunity for a whole range of positive effects: your book is guaranteed to be read by at least two or three scholars in your general field, and regardless of whether it wins, those people could assign it in their courses, review it, recommend it to students and colleagues, cite it, remember it when you apply for a job... the list of positive possibilities just goes on and on. Prize nominations are a key way to jump-start a reading community for your book. And on top of all that, you could win!

Sometimes people don't nominate their books for awards because they don't think their books could win. This negative self-assessment often entwines with the politics of gender, race, sexuality, and other categories of identity. But my perspective is that winning is beside the point--so the question of whether you have a "chance" of winning is irrelevant. If your book is good enough to get published, it's good enough to be read--and that is exactly what will happen when you nominate it for a prize.

I do understand that nominations can be costly, but I believe it's worth the expense for both publishers and authors. Nominations for many awards for 2014 books are now open... so get your book out there!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Can Black Children be "Angels"? The History behind the New York Times Insult to Michael Brown

On August 24, John Eligon wrote in the New York Times that Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old gunned down by police in Ferguson, Missouri, was "no angel." The full paragraph read:

Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.

Appropriately, this slur received widespread criticism and caused many readers to cancel their subscriptions to the Times. The police's claim that Brown was a suspect in the robbery at the time of the shooting has now been discredited, and the Times' implication that a teenager deserved to die because he lived in a "rough" neighborhood and engaged in typical teenage behaviors such as rapping, scuffling with one neighbor, and dabbling with drugs and alcohol is the deepest of insults to African American worth. It suggests, as many have pointed out, that black lives don't matter.

Soon after the Times article appeared, Vanity Fair published Kia Makarechi's important analysis of the Times's use of the phrase "no angel." In this article, Makarechi showed a pattern in which the Times used this term to refer to white people who were the most heinous of criminals and black people who were innocent victims of crimes, entertainers, or criminal suspects. Specifically, Makarechi showed that

A sample of the white folks the Times has called “no angel” includes infamous mobsters, murderers, a pornographer, and a Nazi. Black Americans described similarly by the paper include a basketball player, a singer, criminal suspects, and unarmed men killed by white people.

In response to the criticism, Times editor Margaret Sullivan wrote that the phrase "no angel" was "ill-chosen" and "regrettable." Eligon said, "I understand the concerns, and I get it."

Sullivan's and Eligon's wishy-washy half-apologies are not just inadequate: by treating the use of the phrase as an isolated incident, Sullivan and Eligon ignore the long history of white assertions that black children cannot be angels. The history that the Vanity Fair article exposed is just the tip of the iceberg.

Shortly before the Civil War, many white writers--especially abolitionists--began anxiously debating whether black children who died could become angels, and if so, whether they needed to become white first. As I write in my book, Racial Innocence, the 1862 abolitionist story "Poor Little Violet," by Lynde Palmer, included a very disturbing scene in which Violet, an enslaved girl, discusses death and angelhood with a white slaveholding girl named Carrie. Violet asks,

“[W]hen we goes to Canaan, that old Sambo sings about, may I be your little slave then, Miss Carrie, ’cause you’s allus so kind?”

“I don’t think there will be any slaves there,” said Carrie, slowly, pondering over the matter.

“Why, what will the black people do, then?” cried Violet, with curious round eyes.

“Maybe,” replied Carrie hesitatingly, “maybe there won’t be any black people—you know, Violet, our bodies are covered up in the ground,”—Violet shivered,—“but our souls go to heaven, and they must all be white.”

“All of ’em?” asked Violet, eagerly.

“Yes, mamma told me that no soul can go till it is washed white in Jesus’ blood.”

“And can my soul be white?” whispered Violet.

“Yes,” said Carrie, “if you ask God.” (Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, p. 59)

The Times's reference to Michael Brown as "no angel" is so deeply hurtful because it extends a historical libel that African Americans, and African American children in particular, cannot be innocent. As the slaveholder Carrie tells Violet, to be an angel is to be white. And in this white-authored text--which was intended to critique slavery--a black girl joyously receives this information with hope that she can shed her blackness, become white, and become an angel.

What is at stake in the phrase "no angel" is the racial distribution of innocence. By calling Michael Brown "no angel," the Times excluded an African American teenager from the realm of innocence. And by doing so, the newspaper of record reserved that assumption of innocence for the white policeman who killed him.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Second Annual Childhood Studies Lecture

I'm giving the Second Annual Childhood Studies Lecture at Rutgers-Camden on Thursday, September 19. The talk is hosted by the Department of Childhood Studies, the first department in the US to offer a PhD in childhood studies. I'm looking forward to engaging with the wonderful students and faculty in this ground-breaking department.

In the talk, titled “Trayvon Martin and So Many More: Racial Innocence Today," I'm going to address the ways in which racial innocence continues to affect children and adults today--and the ways in which racial innocence has changed in crucial ways in the past fifty years. Rutgers Today posted a nice news release about the talk: Rutgers to Host Second Annual Childhood Studies Lecture, “Trayvon Martin and So Many More: Racial Innocence Today." If you're going to be in the Camden/Philadelphia area, I hope you'll come to the talk!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Full-page ad in PMLA

I am overwhelmed by this full-page advertisement that NYU Press placed in the current issue of the PMLA, which arrived in my mailbox today.

PMLA 128.1 (May 2013): 848

The PMLA, established 1884, is the journal of the Modern Language Association. Each issue reaches about 29,000 members of the MLA plus 2,000 libraries.

Sometimes all you can say is "Wow."

Thank you, Eric Zinner and NYU Press, for your ongoing, simply stunning support for this book.

Monday, August 5, 2013

"Arresting... shows how the hegemonic project of white supremacy takes constant reinforcement in popular forms to naturalize racist practices on the ground"

Jayna Brown, author of the brilliant, award-winning Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, has reviewed Racial Innocence in the current issue of Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters. She wrote:

“Through an amazing curation of materials carefully and painstakingly gleaned from a number of archives, including collections at the American Antiquarian Society and the Harvard Theatre Collection, Robin Bernstein shows how the innocence of white childhood was imagined and enacted in relation to fictional versions of the black child, rendered in advertisements, collectibles, children’s books and toys, and especially dolls, from the antebellum era into the 1910s. . . . Bernstein’s book is an excellent study of material culture, carefully reading the politics of the manufacture of these toys in their historical context. For instance, Bernstein explains how soft dolls were developed not only for cuddling but to withstand abuse, which she argues is profoundly racialized and gendered. Many dolls in Bernstein’s study accompany storybooks, such as the Golliwog dolls, based on characters invented by Florence Upton, and Raggedy Ann dolls, which John Gruelle designed to accompany his children’s books. Bernstein explains how these dolls have deep roots in minstrelsy. Bernstein’s elucidation of the cruelty involved in the creation of toys and the narratives of storybooks, that supposedly represent the innocence of childhood, is arresting. But it is how white children played with the dolls I find most disturbing in the book. . . . I had a strong response to these assaulting, violent images. The sheer number of the book’s examples began to accumulate on my back, and behind my eyes, as I read. A few of these toxic images went a long way in my case, and I found myself yearning for some kind of black [']answer back,' as my students call it, to counteract the symbolic torture and immolation of black children. But perhaps the very repetition of such images, things, and acts underlines a crucial utility of the book, as it shows how the hegemonic project of white supremacy takes constant reinforcement in popular forms to naturalize racist practices on the ground. Black resistance is the absent presence that threatens such naturalization. The last chapter opens with the ‘answer back’ I needed. She relates the childhood recollections of Daisy Turner, who as a little girl actively resisted a teacher’s scripted racism. The teacher planned a school pageant, in which every child was to represent a different country while holding a doll, dressed in the same clothes, which was meant to represent that nation. Each child was given a poem to read. Daisy Turner was given a black doll named Dinah, representing ‘the nation’ of Africa, and a matching poem. Daisy Turner refused to read the script given her by her teacher, and improvised her own recitation.” Jayna Brown, Callaloo 36.2 (Spring 2013): pp. 482-485.

When I was writing Racial Innocence, I was deeply conflicted about the violence I was representing. I worried that in describing violence against black dolls, I was replicating it and re-inflicting damage. At the same time, I needed to describe the violence in a way that took seriously the acts of white children and that held them accountable. A key point of my book is that the actions and material culture of white children have, over the past hundred and fifty years, been made to appear innocent. But they are not innocent. White children's violence against black dolls is real violence; it is not just "child's play." I wanted my book to rip the veil off of a century and a half of racial innocence, and to do so I had to expose violence. I tried to describe it in a simple, straightforward way that avoided, equally, sensationalism and trivialization. And I know that these descriptions have caused pain, as Jayna Brown describes.

I'm grateful that Brown recognizes the heart of my goal: I aimed to show "how the hegemonic project of white supremacy takes constant reinforcement in popular forms to naturalize racist practices on the ground." This is exactly what I wanted my book to demonstrate: the ongoing, always-forming-and-reforming historical relationship between the micro and the macro, between the seemingly innocent acts of individual children and the broadest structures of white supremacy. As Brown notes, white supremacy requires "constant reinforcement" to to continue to exist. In other words, white supremacy is fundamentally a lie, and the only way it can maintain any credibility at all is if it is constantly re-enacted "on the ground," as Brown puts it.

Brown's review prompted me to recall a passage from the Introduction to my dissertation:

As I wrote this dissertation, I frequently envisioned a machine capable of reversing gravity. I imagined a machine that could contain a space such as a room or a house and invert it, yet enable all objects within that space to function normally so that the people within the house could not sense that they were in fact upside-down. I imagined, in other words, a machine capable of convincing people that up was down and down was up. How much human genius would be necessary to invent a machine that could obscure the fundamental truth of gravity? How large would such a machine need to be? How much energy would it use? How much would it cost? How much constant effort, and from how many different populations, would be required to maintain this machine? What chaos would ensue if—or inevitably, when—a fly in the gears caused the machine to pause, even for a nanosecond, in its labor? And how would the upside-down people within the machine manage these intermittent episodes of chaos?

This imagined gravity-reversal machine provides the metaphor by which I understand white supremacy. White supremacist ideology was and is a tremendous, energy-gobbling machine that aims to convince all people within its influence of a fundamental falsehood: that people of color are essentially inferior to white people; that some of us are more and some of us are less human than others. Evidence against white people’s inherent superiority is and always has been abundantly available. . . . I wrote this dissertation because I wanted to understand machinery that could convince large numbers of people that a falsehood was true, that up was down and down was up, that some people are more human than others. I wanted to understand machinery that could manage abundant and assertive evidence—of gravity, of humanity—in such a way that that evidence did not shatter the illusions that the machine existed to construct. Childhood is one crucial gear—a “linchpin,” in Caroline Levander’s language—within the giant cultural machine of white supremacist ideology. This dissertation traces the teeth of that gear and shows how it performs within the cultural machinery of white supremacy.

May we all, like Daisy Turner, "answer back," throw down the props of white supremacy, and interrupt the constant, repeated acts--often banal, everyday behaviors that appear too minor to matter--that white supremacy depends on for its continuing, malignant existence.