What's Race Got to Do with It?


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Activities marked with asterisks (***) are good opportunities for students to lead discussion.


LOW RISK – Trust Building Activities and Icebreakers
These exercises are useful to help foster an inclusive atmosphere at the beginning of a session or to provide participants a break in the middle of a tough discussion.


Blindfold Exercise – Sort by Numbers

This simple trust-building exercise works best with groups of 6-10 people. If you have more than 10 people, you can either ask for 10 volunteers to participate while the rest observe silently or divide everyone into small groups of 6-10 and conduct the exercise with one group at a time. If there are multiple groups, have them wait outside the room until their turn to participate, so they can’t see what’s happening ahead of time. Allow about 10 minutes to play one round of the game.

Ask everyone to spread out around the room and put blindfolds on. Once the blindfolds are in place, go around and whisper in each person’s ear a different number between 1 and 10 (or however many participants there are). Make sure that that no one else hears what number you’ve assigned , that everyone has their own number, and that the participants are arranged in a random order. Tell participants that the object of the exercise is for them to figure out a way to line up in numerical order without speaking or using any kind of verbal communication. They’ll have to move around to find each other, and using non-verbal communication is okay.

After they’ve finished the exercise, have everyone count off to confirm the proper order. As a follow up, you can ask participants how they felt during the exercise, and/or how they think it is relevant to the overall theme you’re exploring together.


Blindfold Exercise – Guided Walk
(depicted in video – DVD Chapter 1)

This is a good, short introductory game, especially for diverse groups where participants don’t know each other. It works for any size group, provided there’s enough space so people don’t bump into each other. Limit the area where people can roam and/or the time allowed to keep things under control and make sure people have a chance to trade roles.  If you have an odd number, pair the extra person with one of the facilitators or create a group of three and have one person lead two people at once. Allow approximately 10-15 minutes.

Have everyone pair up (ideally with someone who is racially different). Ask one person in each pair to put on a blindfold while the other takes hold of his/her partner’s hand and leads them around the room, hallway or vicinity. After a while, have them switch roles. When the exercise is over, ask participants how they felt about it. What was challenging? Did they prefer leading versus being blindfolded? Why?


Musical chairs

Use this game to break up a long session or a difficult discussion – it gets people moving around, lightens the mood, and gives people a chance to bond. Allow at least 10  minutes so the game has a chance to get going, and another 5 minutes afterwards for everyone to calm down.

Arrange chairs in a closed circle with one fewer chair than the total number of participants. Have everyone take a seat (one person will be left standing in the middle). The person standing in the middle makes a statement such as, “I like people in the room who are wearing blue jeans.” Everyone wearing jeans has to get up and find a new seat as quickly as possible (can’t be right next to where they’re sitting), leaving one person without a chair. (Anyone who isn’t wearing jeans remains seated.) The person left standing in the middle then makes a new statement, such as: “I like people in the room who like jazz.” Everyone who likes jazz then has to get up, leaving a new person standing in the middle, and so on. The game continues until the facilitator calls an end to it.


Introductions Game

These two variations on group introductions help people get to know one another individually and they take away some of the pressure people might feel introducing themselves to an unfamiliar group, especially one that is diverse. You can replace any of the questions with your own, but keep them simple and bonding.

SHORT VERSION (15-20 minutes depending on the size of the group):
Have people pair up or form small groups (ideally across racial/ethnic lines). Ask each group discuss the following three questions: (a) what’s one thing you have in common with each other? (b) what’s the most important thing in your life right now? and (c) if you could be any kind of plant, animal or mineral, what would you be and why?

After several minutes, come back together and have everyone introduce their partner(s) to the whole group.

LONG VERSION (5-10 minutes per participant):
If you have a small enough group and time for more detailed introductions, have each person take a turn answering some of the following questions (allow the questions to be a guide rather than a strict script):

  • Tell a funny story about something that happened to you.
  • What was coming to college like for you?
  • What clique did you belong to in high school?
  • Describe a typical family interaction.
  • When was the first time you noticed race/ethnicity?
  • What’s something crazy you’ve always dreamed of doing?

NOTE: An alternative or follow up exercise is to ask participants to meet before or after the screening to share a favorite piece of poetry or music or attend an event together and then report back to the class about their experience.


Sorting People – Race Is Not Biological

This exercise can be used as both an icebreaker and a lesson on how we can be divided into different biological groups depending on the criteria we use. NOTE: this exercise is not meant to demonstrate that we are all the same or that races don’t matter. The point is that racial differences are not biologically based but socially constructed. This activity can help spark a deeper discussion about the root causes of the disparities raised in the video. Allow 20-30 minutes for the activity and discussion.

Use the following list of inherited, biological traits to divide people into different groups (sort everyone first using one trait, then resort them using another, and so on, to show how the groups change depending on the criteria):

  • hair color
  • blood types (A, B, O, A/B)
  • whether or not your tongue curls
  • lactose tolerance or intolerance (ability to digest milk products)
  • left-handedness or right-handedness
  • fingerprint types (loop, whorl, arch or tented arch)
  • skin color (compare the inside of your upper arm)
    Follow-up questions:
  • Does the composition of the groups remain consistent from one criterion to the next?
  • Is there a clear line of demarcation between groups or is the boundary more gradual or blurred?
  • Are these criteria any less arbitrary than the physical characteristics we associate with race?
  • Does this exercise mean that race doesn’t matter?

Visit www.pbs.org/race for more activities and games on misconceptions about biology and race.


MEDIUM RISK – Uncovering Existing Disparities
These exercises help participants connect issues raised by the video to a larger social context. It’s a good idea to help people process their thoughts and reactions after the activity by providing supporting facts and figures and having an open discussion about the meaning of the activity.


Race Literacy Quiz

Developed by California Newsreel in conjunction with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, this quiz challenges many notions about race that we take for granted, including its basis in biology, its history as a concept and its social impact. This exercise will help shift the focus of discussion from individual acts of racism to structural conditions. Allow 5-20 minutes, depending on how you use the quiz and the extent of discussion.

>>PRINTABLE HANDOUT: Race Literacy Quiz (Answers Included)
>>PRINTABLE HANDOUT: Race Literacy Quiz (Answer Key at End)

Select questions as appropriate for your group and allotted time – you may choose to read a few questions aloud to the group or assign students to research portions of the quiz in advance or as homework.

Possible follow-up discussion questions: (a) if public policies helped create a wealth gap, how might they help close it? Whose responsibility is it?  (b) what’s the difference between a biological and social view of race? If race isn’t biological, why should it matter? (c) how does the racial wealth gap affect things like educational opportunity, academic performance and job prospects? what can or should educational institutions do to balance things out for people of color?

For other tools and resources like this, visit the companion Web site for RACE – The Power of an Illusion at www.pbs.org/race.


Counting Who’s Missing (depicted in video – DVD Chapter 2) ***

This exercise explores underrepresentation and “invisible” disparities.

>>In advance of your screening, have participants count the number of African American students in each of their classes. (Variation: have them count the number of students of every race; however, the idea is to notice who is underrepresented, not the overall make-up of their classes.)

In class, go around and have each student report the number of African American students and the TOTAL number of students in each of their classes, then ask people for their reactions to the exercise: have they ever noticed the numbers before? have they ever spoken to those students? picture themselves in a similar situation: how would they feel? how indicative are the numbers across the campus or on other campuses? If there are Black students in your group, allow them to share their experiences but don’t put them on the spot or ask them to speak for the experiences of other African American students.

Related Discussion Questions:
Underrepresentation & Segregation, Colorblindness/The Burden of Race


Racial Inventory (depicted in video – DVD Chapter 5) ***

Adapted from Peggy Mcintosh’s article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” this exercise helps reveal the disparate (and often hidden) ways that race impacts our daily lives. It’s a good post-screening tool to help viewers move into higher-risk discussion and connect the video content to their own lives. Allow 20-30 minutes for the activity and discussion.

>>PRINTABLE HANDOUT: Racial Inventory Questionnaire (PDF)

Hand out copies of the questionnaire to participants. Allow approximately 5-10 minutes for everyone to fill in their answers (instructions are on the handout). Note that each item is written as a POSITIVE statement, so advantage or “privilege” yields a higher score. When everyone is finished, tally all the scores on the blackboard by race (allow people to self-identify) and then come up with an average score for each racial group represented. Afterwards, go around the room and ask people for their reactions – what surprised them, what didn’t, what they think the scores mean or reflect, how they feel about the activity and/or results, and what would have to change to bring the scores closer together (i.e., impact of individual actions vs. societal/structural changes).

Related Discussion Questions: Normalization of Whiteness/Race, Wealth and Class, Discrimination / Stereotyping


HIGH RISK – Exploring One’s Personal Stake or Vantage Point
These activities are designed to put people in each other’s shoes, so to speak. Because they can expose blind spots or sensitivities, they should be conducted with care to avoid hardening people’s attitudes and beliefs. Facilitators should maintain a respectful environment and always include time for discussion and processing after conclusion of the activity itself.


Fishbowl Discussion

A fishbowl is a form of discussion in which a small group speaks while a larger group observes. Discussion is often guided by questions or a specific topic. In a racially diverse group, this is a useful way to raise sensitive issues and build mutual understanding. The example below is relatively low risk (asking questions anonymously) but the free style of the format can be high risk if the topic under discussion is controversial. Allow 20-30 minutes for the activity and follow-up.

>>There are many possible variations for the fishbowl. Here is one method, using African American students as an example:

Set up either two circles of chairs (one large outer circle and a smaller inner circle) or a large circle with cushions or comfortable floor seating in the middle. Have the African American students sit in the middle or inner circle and have everyone else take a seat in the outer circle.

Ask the students in the outer circle to take out a small piece of paper and write down a question they’ve always wanted to ask a Black person but were perhaps afraid to ask. Collect the questions and read all or some of them aloud anonymously so the students in the middle can respond. The students in the middle can say as much or as little as they want about any topic – they can agree or disagree, argue or debate – and the others must remain silent until the exercise is over. The point of this activity is to create a safe space both for the observers to ask questions they normally would not feel comfortable asking and for the speakers to talk freely, on their own terms.

A possible variant is to allow the students in the middle to talk about race as if they were alone with other members of their own ethnic group. (This works best with low-income students of color and others who are willing to talk “uncensored.”) The students might talk generally about other racial groups, about what they dislike or don’t understand, or they might even talk specifically about other individuals in the room. The point is not to attack others but to “remove the veil,” so to speak, from our true experiences and feelings about race. Obviously this kind of discussion can be quite inflammatory so facilitators must establish clear ground rules and help participants to not take what’s being said too personally.


Privilege Walk (depicted in video – DVD Chapter 9)

Like the racial inventory, this exercise reveals hidden disparities and advantages. The activity can be done several ways, with different results. Version A, shown in the video, brings participants back together after each item, emphasizing the many ways we can be divided as well as areas of commonality. Version B is a more graphic demonstration of participants’ overall or absolute level of “privilege” relative to one another. Allow 20-45 minutes for the activity and discussion, depending on which version you use.

>>Print-friendly: Version A Instructions and Statements to Be Read Aloud (PDF)
>>Print-friendly: Version B Instructions and Statements to Be Read Aloud (PDF)


Structured Debate

This activity asks participants to consider a controversial issue from someone else’s point of view. Ideally, this activity should be conducted over several sessions, to allow participants to research and develop informed arguments. Alternatively, hand out “prep” sheets summarizing the main arguments for either side.

>>There are many variations on the structured debate format – some are highly formal, involving advocates for and against a position and a separate arbiter or decision maker (typified in the mock trial format); others require participants to change roles and/or build a consensus.

Below are several examples of structured debate lesson plans taken from the Web. These can be adapted to different topics and session lengths, and the debates can take place in small groups as well as in a large group with many participants or select participants and observers.

Racial Profiling Debate
This method requires participants to argue a position, then switch. (Note: a shorter, effective variation is to ask students to prepare ahead of time for a particular position but then when the time comes to actually debate the issue, have each group argue the opposite point of view.)

Residential Segregation Mock Tribunal
This example, taken from the RACE – The Power of an Illusion Web site, describes a mock tribunal on residential segregation. Although the lesson is meant to be conducted over several class sessions, a shorter variation is to use the sample arguments as prep sheets and adapt them to the method(s) described in the example above.

This format is suitable for any public issue that has strong proponents and opponents.


Role Play / Role Reversal (depicted in video – DVD Chapter 3) ***

In this exercise, students are asked to “step into someone else’s shoes” – to experience firsthand a vantage point other than their own. Allow 20-30 minutes for the activity and discussion.

>> This activity works best if led by students who can draw on their own personal experiences. Be sure to plan for preparation beforehand and debriefing by facilitators afterwards.

In the video, David, Mayra and Abe - the three Latino students – act out a “driving while brown” profiling scenario in which the racial roles of police and suspect are reversed.  Afterwards, members of the class relate stories about their own brushes with the police and discuss the legitimacy of racial profiling as a practice. The activity elicits a visceral response from Mark but also makes Peter think twice about his stance after hearing David’s personal stories.

Other role play / role reversal possibilities: Latino students might enact an elementary class session taught entirely in Spanish to demonstrate cultural bias and their own childhood experiences; African American students might role play someone being followed in a store and questioned about shoplifting or a high-scoring student being unfairly accused of cheating on a test; Asian American students might illustrate stereotype threat by praising or criticizing their colleagues right before administering a test; Native American students might illustrate the arbitrariness of the reservation system by assigning people to marked areas of the room and then moving them around.

Starpower Game

An alternative role play activity is Starpower, a game developed by R. Garry Shirts in 1969 to simulate a stratified society. Although the game itself teaches about power relationships, with proper facilitation it can be a useful tool for exploring meritocracy and racial disparities. To purchase the Starpower "kit" go to: http://www.stsintl.net/schools-and-charities/products/starpower/


Stereotype Game

By bringing a taboo subject out into the open, this activity helps students think through racial stereotypes. The exercise works best if led by students themselves. In any case, it should be properly debriefed so as not to hard attitudes and resentment. Allow 15-20 minutes for the activity and discussion. Note: an abridged version of this activity is depicted in DVD Chapter 7.

>>Have representatives of one racial group stand by a blackboard and invite their classmates to call out common stereotypes of their group, which they will record on the board. (Note: this part of the exercise should be free form, not serious.) If students are hesitant to begin, members of the group can suggest or call out some of their own.

Then, have each member of the target group stand next to the blackboard in turn and ask the other students which stereotypes they think apply to that individual. Afterwards, allow the stereotyped students to share their reactions – whether any of the attributes are true for them or not, how they felt about being labeled, etc. When they’re finished, open the discussion up to other students.

If done properly, students will initially get caught up in the fun of throwing out stereotypes, but they may think differently after seeing how such labels impact their peers. Members of the target group will usually share personal stories, and it gives them an opportunity to “push back” against labels that are unfairly applied to them.

Here are examples of other group stereotyping exercises:

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