Faculty Diversity Texts Project

Provost's Steering Committee on Campus Diversity Issues
Faculty Diversity Texts Project

Link to Diversity Texts Webspace (UNet login required)

The Diversity Text project is a new initiative designed to give all Brandeis students the opportunity to encounter ideas and information about diversity and difference in their coursework. The initiative supports Brandeis' commitment to liberal arts education by helping to expose undergraduate students to a variety of human societies, cultures, and countries while exploring the causes and consequences of racial, ethnic, gender, class and religious differences.

The project's goal is to encourage as many instructors as possible to incorporate one or more texts into their courses that address these issues. This online resource is designed to facilitate this process. It includes short texts that address some aspect of difference, contact, cooperation or conflict between groups and individuals. It includes scholarly articles, personal narratives and poetry, and addresses ideas of diversity in contexts that range from African language and literature, to the importance of algebra in assuring equality, to the scientific underpinnings of race, and beyond.

The texts are listed below in alphabetical order by author except for the set of 11 poems that are included at the bottom of the list; Brandeis faculty and graduate students may access the the actual texts in a secure webspace. If you have technical questions regarding accessing the texts, please contact the Instructional Technology Resource Center at 781-736-4739 or itrc@brandeis.edu.

Each selection below is accompanied by an annotation by a member of the Brandeis community that provides a short summary and context, raises questions for discussion and gives a list of suggested further reading. The annotations can be found below the list, and as individual documents in the secure webspace.

We suggest that you begin exploring this resource by reading the annotations or going directly to an author or title that interests you. The presence of a particular text on this site does not mean that its point of view or argument is endorsed by the instructor who annotated it or the university itself; it is merely a springboard for discussion and further study.

We hope that you are able to make use of this resource. Please let us know if you have additional suggestions for texts that could be added to this site over time. If you have suggestions, please contact Elaine Wong at ewong@brandeis.edu or 781-736-3453.

Diversity Texts List

Click on title to see annotation 

Title Author Annotator
"Does Race Exist?" in Scientific American, December 2003: 80-85 Michael J. Bamshad and Steve E. Olson
Kalpana White, Professor of Biology, and Stephanie Gerber Wilson, Graduate Student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies
"How White People Became White" and "How Did Jews Become White Folks" in "Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror" James Barrett, David Roediger, and Karen Brodkin
Susan Lanser, Professor of English, Women's Studies, and Comparative Literature
"The Puzzle of Hypertension in African Americans" in Scientific American, February 1999: 56-62
Richard S. Cooper, Charles N. Rotimi and Ryk Ward Kalpana White, Professor of Biology, and Stephanie Gerber Wilson, Graduate Student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies
"Anthropology, Art and Contest" in "Contesting Art: Art, Identity and Politics in the Modern World"
Jeremy MacClancy Mark Auslander, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Africa and Afro-American Studies, Anthropology, and Fine Arts
"White Privilege and Male Privilege" by Peggy McIntosh in "Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology" Peggy McIntosh Marion Smiley, J.P. Morgan Chase Professor of Ethics
"Algebra and Civil Rights?" in "Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project"
Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb Jané Kondev, Associate Professor of Physics
"Is Yellow Black or White," in "Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture" Gary Y. Okihiro Shilpa Davé, Assistant Professor of American Studies
"Racist Speech, Democracy and the First Amendment," in "Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties"
Robert C. Post Daniel Terris, Director, International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life and Lecturer in American Studies
"You Just Don't Understand" and "Tiny Tims, Supercrips and the End of Pity" in "No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement"
Joseph Shapiro Stephen Gulley, Graduate Student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management
The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality Thomas Shapiro Daniel Terris, Director, International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life and Lecturer in American Studies
"Gay and Lesbian Families Are Here; All Our Families Are Queer; Let's Get Used to It!" in "In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age" Judith Stacey Karen Hansen, Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies
"Identity Development in Adolescence" and "Racial Identity in Adulthood." in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations about Race
Beverly Daniel Tatum Dirck Roosevelt, Associate Professor of Education
"The Language of African Literature" in "Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature" Ngugi wa Thiong'o (James Ngugi)
Jane Hale, Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature
"American Muslim Identity: Race and Ethnicity in Progressive Islam" in "Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism Amina Wadud Olga Davidson, Adjunct Associate Professor of Women's Studies
"From an Introduction" Kamala Das Olga Broumas, Poet-in-Residence Harleen Singh, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Romance and Comparative Literature and Women's Studies Stephanie Gerber Wilson, Graduate Student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies
"The New Cotton" Nikky Finney
Nikky Finney
"Will V-Day Be Me-Day Too?"
Langston Hughes
"Diaspora" Audre Lorde
"Ethiopia" Audre Lorde
Charles Stuart in the Hospital"
D. Nurkse
Victoria Redel
"Here Is a Map of Our Country"
Adrienne Rich
"Homophobia" Rebecca Seiferle
"The Maid"
Bracha Serri
Additional Texts to be Annotated
(texts are currently available in shared webspace)
Title Author
"Some Reflections on United States Women of Color and the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women" in Feminist Theory Reader Mallika Dutt
"Is Our God Listening?" in "Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras" Diana Eck
"Defining Genealogies: Feminist Reflections on Being South Asian in North America" in "Women's Lives: Multicultural Perspectives" Chandra Talpade Mohanty
"Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination" in "Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror" Toni Morrison
"Life in the Hyphen" in The Hispanic Condition Ilan Stavans


"Does Race Exist?" in Scientific American, December 2003: 80-85.

By Michael J. Bamshad and Steve E. Olson
Annotation by Kalpana White, Professor of Biology, and Stephanie Gerber Wilson, Graduate Student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies
Text suggested by Kalpana White


In "Does Race Exist?" authors Michael Bamshad and Steve Olson ask, "How valid is the concept of race from a biological standpoint?" This is a difficult question, since the criteria used to place people into different races vary from region to region. Furthermore, the outward definitions of race — skin color and hair texture — are dictated by a handful of genes. The other genes of two people of the same "race" can be very different. On the other hand, two people of different "races" can share more genetic similarities than individuals of the same "race." However, many studies have demonstrated that individuals from different continents are slightly more different from each other than are people from the same population or continent.

The authors describe how scientists use genetics to sort most large populations according to their ancestral geographic origins. To determine the degree of relatedness among groups, geneticists rely on tiny variations — polymorphisms — in the DNA. One class of variations, called Alu, help determine whether various populations are related to one another. Alus have no known function, yet they copy and insert themselves at random throughout a person's genome. Because they have no function, they are not subject to selection pressures and thus are neutral predictors of relatedness, in contrast to traits like skin color that are subject to natural selection.

According to the article, a Stanford University study was able to genetically distinguish five different groups of people whose ancestors were separated by oceans, deserts or mountains: sub-Saharan Africans; Europeans and Asians west of the Himalayas; East Asians; inhabitants of New Guinea and Melanesia; and Native Americans. This and other studies indicate that genetic analysis can distinguish groups of people based on geographical origin. The authors urge caution, however. They conclude that many more polymorphisms might have to be examined to distinguish between groups whose ancestors have historically interbred with multiple populations.

The authors further ask the question: Do common notions of race correspond to underlying genetic differences among populations? They note that in some traits they do, but often they do not. For example, skin color and facial features — traits influenced by natural selection — are routinely used to divide people into races. But groups with similar traits as a result of selection may be quite different genetically. For example, both sub-Saharan Africans and Australian Aborigines might have similar skin colors because of adaptation to the strong sun, but genetically they are quite different. The authors caution that traits affected by natural selection may be poor predictors of group membership, and may imply genetic relatedness where, in fact, little exists.

Further Reading

  • Bamshad, Michael J. et al. "Human Population Genetic Structure and Inference of Group Membership" in American Journal of Human Genetics, Vol. 72, No. 3, pages 578-589; March 2003.
  • Burchard, Esteban González et al. "The Importance of Race and Ethnic Background in Biomedical Research and Clinical Practice" in New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 348, No. 12, pages 1170-1775; March 20, 2003.
  • Cooper, Richard S., Jay S. Kaufman and Ryk Ward. "Race and Genomics" in New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 348, No. 12, pages 1166-1170; March 20, 2003.
  • Olson, Steve. "Mapping Human History: Genes, Race and Our Common Origins," Mariner Books, 2003.

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"How White People Became White"
By James Barrett and David Roediger

"How Did Jews Become White Folks"
By Karen Brodkin

In "Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror," edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997

Annotation by Susan Lanser, Professor of English, Women's Studies, and Comparative Literature
Texts suggested by Susan Lanser and Harleen Singh

Context and Summary

In 1918, Columbia University decided to require aptitude tests for all entering students. Dean Herbert Hawkes was not reticent about the purpose of this exam:

We have honestly attempted to eliminate the lowest grade of applicant and it turns out that a good many of the low grade men are New York City Jews. It is a fact that boys of foreign parentage who have no background in many cases attempt to educate themselves beyond their intelligence . . . I do not believe . . . that a college would do well to admit too many men of low mentality who have ambition but not brains.

Jews, wrote one Harvard professor, were "socially untrained,' and their "bodily habits" were "not good."

These prejudices that inspired the founding of Brandeis mark the exclusion of Jews not only from universities, but from the cultural identity of "whiteness." Scientists now concur that race is a social construction rather than a biological fact; as Christopher Wills puts it, "there are far more genetic differences among the people who make up these arbitrary constructs we call races than there are differences between races." The arbitrary distinctions of race are also visible in the historical fluidity with which "whiteness" has been applied since its emergence in the 19th century. When Italian, Irish, Polish, Jewish, Greek and Slavic workers poured into the United States, they were resoundingly classed as "colored," "yellow," or "Negro" in dominant discourses and practices. Barrett and Roediger document vividly this marking of European immigrants.

How, then, did European immigrants become "white" people? Many Americans believe that hard work and native ability are wholly responsible for the upward mobility and greater social acceptance of certain ethnic groups. Karen Brodkin is one of several scholars who have dissected the myth of "bootstraps" success as a paradigm for understanding the changing dynamics of race and class in the United States. In this excerpt from her book, Brodkin shows how post-World War II federal programs created the conditions that rewarded European immigrant groups to the detriment of African Americans. Brodkin also recognizes the ways in which differing work backgrounds in the "old country" affected the success of certain European groups before the G.I. Bill and associated programs that extended the "privileges of socially sanctioned whiteness." But this very extension of privilege, Brodkin concludes, left the black-white binary, and thus institutionalized racism, intact.

I find these readings especially useful for helping Brandeis students recognize the historical contours of ethnic identity and privilege. Many students are shocked to realize that Jews and some other Europeans were not always considered "white" and were deemed intellectually inferior. The readings make implicit connections between these immigrants and groups still considered "nonwhite," while also recognizing and analyzing the differences of race and class privilege that exist today.


  1. Neither of these readings defines "whiteness" explicitly. What do you understand to constitute "whiteness" as these two authors use the term? What seem to be the determinants of "whiteness"?
  2. How does Brodkin's analysis of Jewish upward mobility complicate myths and stereotypes both about Jews and about other groups?
  3. (How) does the category of "whiteness" operate today? What makes a person or group "white" or "nonwhite"? Are some of the constructions applied to Europeans in the last century being applied today to other groups of immigrants? Are these applications different in any significant ways? Do some groups seem to be more readily welcomed into "whiteness," or have conditions in the United States changed in ways that are deconstructing the primacy of "whiteness" in the cultural imagination and in institutional practices?
  4. Brodkin argues that in the wake of World War II, the United States missed an opportunity to dismantle racial categories through new social programs. What kinds of practices–in any economic, governmental, social, or cultural sphere–might help to end the hegemony of "whiteness" as a social criterion?

Further Reading

  • Brodkin, Karen. "How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America." New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.
  • Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic, eds. "Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror." Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.
  • Frankenberg, Ruth. "White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness." Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
  • Ignatiev, Noel. "How the Irish Became White." New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Kaplan, Caren. "Beyond the Pale: Rearticulating U.S. Jewish 'Whiteness,'" in "Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in the Age of Globalization," ed. Ella Shohat. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999, 451-484.
  • Kaye/Kantrowitz, Melanie. "Jews, Class, Color and the Cost of Whiteness," in "The Issue Is Power: Essays on Women, Jews, Violence and Resistance." San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1992.
  • Lerner, Michael, and Cornel West. "Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion and Culture in America." New York: Plume, 1996.
  • Roediger, David R. "The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class." London: Verso, 1999.
  • Waters, Mary. "Optional Ethnicities: For Whites Only?" in "Origins and Destinies: Immigration, Race and Ethnicity in America," ed. Sylvia Pedraza and Ruben G. Rumbaut. Wadsworth, 1996.

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"The Puzzle of Hypertension in African Americans" in Scientific American, February 1999: 56-62.

By Richard S. Cooper, Charles N. Rotimi and Ryk Ward
Annotation by Kalpana White, Professor of Biology, and Stephanie Gerber Wilson, Graduate Student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies
Text suggested by Kalpana White


Genetic makeup of a population is often invoked as a causal factor for specific medical conditions. Although this is true for strictly genetic disorders like sickle-cell anemia, which is caused by a single defective gene, it is an overstatement for most medical conditions, which are more likely to result from interactions between environment and genes.

Using the example of incidence of high blood pressure within the African Diaspora, this article illustrates how environment dramatically alters the outcomes for populations with similar genetic makeup and explores the factors contributing to high rates of hypertension among African Americans. Hypertension, or chronically high blood pressure, can contribute to heart disease, stroke and kidney failure. Among the African-American population, this condition accounts for 20 percent of deaths, while it accounts for only 10 percent of white deaths.

While one explanation for this phenomenon holds that people of African descent are "intrinsically susceptible" to high blood pressure because of their genetic makeup, the authors of this article argue that the evidence does not support this explanation. The authors compared rates of hypertension for African Diaspora (Caribbean and the Americas), and of people in rural West Africa. While U.S. urban black population rate is close to 35 percent, that of people in rural West Africa is lowest at 6 percent.

The authors suggest that a more useful approach to understanding high rates of hypertension among African Americans is to acknowledge that a complex range of factors, including stress, diet, internal physiology and genes, contribute to the phenomenon. They found that being overweight and the associated lack of exercise and poor diet accounts for between 40 percent and 50 percent of the increased risk of hypertension that African Americans faced, compared to rural West Africans (Nigerians).

Additionally, they found that psychological stress and other factors, such as lack of physical activity, accounted for some of the increase, and that blacks in Europe and North America face a unique kind of stress: racial discrimination. They note that the destructive effects of racism complicate any study of how a disease such as hypertension affects minority groups.

Further Reading

  • Cooper, Richard S. and Charles N. Rotimi. "Hypertension in Populations of West African Origin: Is there a Genetic Predisposition" in Journal of Hypertension, Vol. 12, No. 3, pages 215-227; March 1994.
  • Cooper, Richard S. et al. "Hypertension Prevalence in Seven Populations of African Origin" in American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 87, No. 2, pages 160-168; February 1997.
  • Curtin, Philip D. "The Slavery Hypothesis for Hypertension among African Americans: The Historical Evidence" in American Journal of Public Health, Vo.. 82, No. 12, pages 1681-1686; December 1992.
  • Jeunemaitre, X., F. Soubrier, Y.V. Kotelevtsev, R.P. Lifton, C.S. Williams, A. Charu et al. "Molecular Basis of Human Hypertension: Role of Angiotensinogen" in Cell, Vol. 71, No. 1, pages 169-180; October 1992.
  • Ward, Ryk. "Familial Aggregation and Genetic Epidemiology of Blood Pressure" in Hypertension: Pathophysiology, Diagnosis and Management. Edited by J.H. Laragh and B.M. Brenner. Raven Press, 1990.

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" Anthropology, Art and Contest" in "Contesting Art: Art, Identity and Politics in the Modern World." Oxford: Berg, 1997.

By Jeremy MacClancy

Annotation by Mark Auslander, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Africa and Afro-American Studies, Anthropology and Fine Arts

Text suggested by Judith Eissenberg

Context and Summary

In this introductory essay to his edited volume "Contesting Art: Art, Identity and Politics in the Modern World," Jeremy MacClancy reviews current anthropological understandings of art, especially in the context of political struggles over indigenous peoples' rights and recent shifts in the global art market. Art, MacClancy argues, has increasingly become an object and medium of political contest, as historically oppressed communities and marginalized persons argue for symbolic and material resources; arguments over just what "art" is or means, he insists, are often flashpoints for much broader battles over identity, personhood and the distribution of power.

Art is a weapon, potentially, in the hands both of the strong and the weak. Local artists from colonized or oppressed communities often develop "hybrid" aesthetic forms that appropriate Western images and genres in imaginative ways; in the process, they may tap into the prestige and efficacy of dominant Western or colonial social formations while undoing previous distinctions between the "colonizer" and the "colonized," between "artist" and "artisan," between "the collective" and "the individual," and between the "West" and "the rest."

Art in this sense at times helps produce an "intercultural arena" that transcends or subverts previously fixed conceptions of identity, race, ethnicity and gender. Yet such projects are not without their own contradictions, and may in turn be appropriated by new nationalist undertakings and new hierarchies of power in which poor or historically oppressed social groups remain subordinated.

Debates over who "owns" works of art and artistic patterns are increasingly fraught — and easily merge into — broad struggles over claims to land and reparations over past injustices within and between diverse communities. "Art," so long conceived of as a tranquil refuge from the trials and tribulations of the wider world, may well turn out to constitute one of the most heated battlegrounds of our current history.


  1. In what respects can "art" or ideas about art be used to oppress or exploit human communities or individuals? In what respect can art help liberate persons or undo past injustices?
  2. What does MacClancy mean by his assertion that "art objectifies power"?
  3. Marshall McLuhan long ago asserted that "the medium is the message" in electronic broadcasting and mass communication. In what respect might this also be true for the media used by tradition-based artists or others who undertake art projects within indigenous, colonized or formerly colonized communities?
  4. How useful is the concept of "authenticity" in thinking about transformations in the art and expressive cultures of oppressed communities, as western or foreign elements and genres are incorporated by artists and others? Are some cultural products and performances more "authentic" than others, or does the concept of "the authentic" obscure more than it illuminates in thinking about art in modern and postmodern global contexts?

Further Reading

Gell, Alfred. "Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory." Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Myers, Fred. "Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art." Durham, Duke University Press, 2002.

Pinney, Christopher and Nicholas Thomas (eds). "Beyond Aesthetics: Art and the Technologies of Enchantment." Oxford: Berg, 2001.

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"White Privilege and Male Privilege" by Peggy McIntosh in "Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology," edited by Margaret Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998.

Annotation by Marion Smiley, J.P. Morgan Chase Professor of Ethics

Text suggested by Bill Lattanzi, Artist-in-Residence in Theater Arts

Context and Summary

In this important work in the field of race and gender studies, Peggy McIntosh explores the nature of white privilege by turning both to her own experiences as a white U.S. citizen and to the related case of male privilege. She argues that white privilege is not, contrary to many scholars, a mere bundle of benefits accruing to one's membership in a privileged group. Instead, it is the license to impose on others one's own construction of social and political reality and to remain oblivious to the power inherent in such an imposition and the harm resulting from it.

According to McIntosh, those who have access to white (and male) privilege are granted the luxury of creating a world in which they themselves feel comfortable and in which they can set down the standards of correct behavior and success for the rest of the community. Moreover, they are granted such luxury without publicity, i.e., in a way that remains hidden from both them and those whose own points of view are either silenced or viewed as nonsensical according to prevailing norms. Thus the double sword of privilege.

Two aspects of McIntosh's analysis render it particularly helpful pedagogically. The first is its provision of examples of white privilege from everyday life — ranging from child-rearing to shopping to teaching to identity politics — whose very extensiveness and banality underscore the pervasiveness of white privilege in contemporary U.S. society. The second is the model of white (and male) privilege that she develops from these examples, a model whose generality renders it very useful to understanding race and gender-based privilege, not only in contemporary U.S. society, but in different parts of the world and throughout history as well.

McIntosh is the associate director of the Women's Research Center at Wellesley College. The piece appears in "Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology" (3d Edition), ed., Margaret Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins (Wadsworth: 1998).


  1. How does one go about recognizing one's own white privilege or one's male privilege? Can one achieve such recognition on one's own or is a relationship between oneself and subordinate members of the community necessary?
  2. Can the model of white privilege that McIntosh develops be used to explain culturally or class-based domination as well? Can it be used to understand either colonialism or neocolonialism?
  3. How and under what conditions might we move beyond white privilege and/or male privilege in practice? Can we posit a world in which the kind of privileging that McIntosh describes does not exist?

Suggested Readings

  • Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993. Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic, eds. "Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror."
  • Frankenberg, Ruth. "White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness." Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
  • Hooks, Bel. "Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center." Cambridge: South End Press, 1984.
  • Rothenberg, Paula ed. "White Privilege: Essential Readings in the Other Side of Racism." New York: Worth Publishers, 2002.
  • Spelman, Elizabeth. "Changing the Subject: On Making Your Suffering Mine" in "Fruits of Sorrow: Framing our Attention to Suffering." Boston: Beacon, 1997.
  • Wildman, Stephanie. "White Privilege." New York: New York University, 1996.

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"Algebra and Civil Rights?" in "Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project." Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

By Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb
Annotation by Jané Kondev, Assistant Professor of Physics
Text suggested by Cindy Cohen


This is the first chapter of a book about the Algebra Project, founded by Robert P. Moses in the 1980s. The goal of the Algebra Project is to help underprivileged students achieve the mathematical skills they need in order to take math classes in high school that will prepare them for college. The main rationale for the Algebra Project comes from the observation that the biggest problem facing poor people and minorities is the lack of economic access, which in the modern world is directly linked to math and science literacy.

In this chapter, the author gives a personal account of the founding of the project as well as explaining interesting parallels between the goals and methods employed by the project and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The author was on the front lines of the civil rights movement in Mississippi more than 40 years ago. It is therefore very interesting to read about the similar issues he faced then with regard to voter registration and similar issues and in promoting math literacy today.

Another interesting aspect of the project is its focus on algebra, among the various subfields of mathematics. One reason for this is that the symbolic language associated with algebra provides the framework necessary for working with computers, and computer literacy is becoming a prerequisite for getting good-paying jobs in the 21st century.

The parallel that is made here is between math illiterate people today and people who couldn't read and write in the Industrial age. While literacy has traditionally been a high priority for parents in terms of education goals, the additional difficulty with achieving math literacy is that it does not share the same status. More often than not, parents look upon math as a necessary evil to be overcome in school, and not as an important part of our technological culture. This is just one of many hurdles facing the Algebra Project.

The chapter also briefly touches on the role of mathematicians in the literacy effort. It correctly points out that there is nothing in the training of mathematicians that prepares them to take a leading role in this effort. One can not help but wonder if Brandeis, with its stated mission of justice, might not be the place where this problem is tackled.

Further Reading

For additional information about the Algebra Project, visit: www.algebra.org.

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"Is Yellow Black or White," in "Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture." Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994, 31-63.

By Gary Y. Okihiro
Annotation by Shilpa Davé, Assistant Professor of American Studies
Text Suggested by Shilpa Davé

Context and Summary

This illuminating essay reframes current U.S.-Afro-Asian interracial relations through a historical examination of the commonalities between African and Asian Americans and the development of U.S. racial categories.

Gary Okihiro is the director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University. He is the author of numerous books in U.S. and African history. His most recent works are "The Columbia Guide to Asian American History" (Columbia UP, 2001) and "Common Ground: Reimagining American History" (Princeton UP, 2001). Okihiro received a doctorate in history from UCLA. He is the recipient of the lifetime achievement award from the American Studies Association and is past president of the Association for Asian American Studies.

The essay "Is Yellow Black or White?" appears in "Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture," which is based on a series of lectures delivered at Amherst College during Okihiro's time as the John J. McCloy '16 Professor of American Institutions and International Relations.

Okihiro begins the essay by looking at relations between the Korean and black communities in the United States between 1985 and 1992. He posits the question "Is yellow black or white?" as a means of addressing the limitations of the binary racial dialogue of black and white in the United States. Instead of analyzing African Americans and Asian Americans in relation to "whiteness," he presents a historical background of Afro-Asian relations outside of American contexts. In essence, he focuses on how African and Asian Americans share a common history and relationship that precedes American history.

The essay then maps out trade relations between India and China and Africa in the early centuries of C.E., leading up to an examination of labor exchanges and policies in the 19th century. Okihiro draws comparisons between coolie labor and the African slave trade and argues that the availability of labor in the United States influences the regulation of immigration in the country. This regulation results in the creation of different racial experiences and racial hierarchies developed around the centrality of "whiteness." Drawing upon anthropologists, government officials, newspaper articles and statesmen such as Ben Franklin, Okihiro details the evolution of race and racial categories in the social, legislative and public sphere.

In particular, Okihiro develops sections on the legislative practices regarding Asian immigration to the United States and the passing of antimiscegenation laws designed to maintain separation of the races. He also discusses how segregation in the schools and in the military affected both Asian American and African Americans. Ultimately, Okihiro answers his question, "Is yellow black or white?" thusly: "The questions posed, in a real sense, is a false and mystifying proposition." (62) He argues that we need to question the meanings implied in asking this question and work to discover other ways to talk about race relations outside of the established black-white framework.

This is an excellent article to allow students to rethink how racial dialogue in the law, the media and on campus has a history that extends beyond the borders of the United States. It gives students the opportunity to talk about the idea of racial separation and racial solidarity in the public sphere and in their own lives. This essay can be used in both the social sciences and the humanities such as American studies, African American studies, history, sociology, legal studies, comparative literature and English. This would also be useful in a USEM or writing seminar that discussed public policy, government or race and ethnicity.


  1. Okihiro discusses how the labor needs of the United States in the 19th century led to the creation of immigration laws and hence racial hierarchies. What hierarchies did they create, and how might we interpret them in more recent times (in terms of national and international events)? Do they stay the same? Why or why not?
  2. The Supreme Court ruled antimiscegenation laws unconstitutional in 1967. Despite this, the categories for mixed race or multiracial people are still in flux. How does this group challenge the black-white racial dialogue?
  3. Okihiro comments that his question is only valid within the meanings given and played out in American racial formation. How is the question Okihiro posed answered and discussed at Brandeis University?

Further Reading

There is a large reading list that discusses Asian-American history and culture and comparative American studies. Other texts besides the work of Gary Okihiro on Asian Americans, comparative race relations and critical race theory include:

  • Michael Omi and Howard Winant's "Racial Formations in the United States" (Routledge 1994)
  • Claire Jean Kim's "The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans" in Politics and Society (v. 27 no. 1 March 1999 105-138)
  • Ron Takaki's "A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America" (Bay Books 1993)

Reading on Afro-Asian relations include Helen Zia's "Lost and Found in L.A." in "Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of An American People" (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2000) as well as films such as "Sai-I-Gu" (dir. Dai-Sil Kim Gibson 1993) and "Wet Sand: Voices from L.A. 10 Years Later" (dir. Dai-Sil Kim Gibson 2003).

For further reading on Asian Americans, see:

  • Ron Takaki's "Strangers From A Different Shore" (Little Brown 1996)
  • "Immigrant Acts" (Duke UP 1996) by Lisa Lowe
  • Yen Espiritu's "Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities" (Temple UP 1992)
  • Linda Vo's "Mobilizing an Asian American Community" (Temple UP 2004)

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"Racist Speech, Democracy and the First Amendment," by Robert C. Post in "Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties," edited by Henry Louis Gates. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Annotation by Daniel Terris, director, International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life; lecturer in American studies

Text suggested by Tracy Edwards

Context and Summary

This carefully argued essay examines the case for regulating racist speech in U.S. society in the context of a commitment to promoting public discourse within a democracy.

The author, Robert C. Post, is a professor of law at Yale Law School. His academic background includes not only a law degree, but a doctorate in the history of American civilization. Before embarking on his academic career, he clerked for Justice William Brennan, one of the Supreme Court's most vigorous defenders of the First Amendment. Post's writing includes books on free speech ("Censorship and Silencing," 1995) and on issues of diversity ("Race and Representation," 1998).

This article was first published in the "William and Mary Law Review" in 1990. It responded to the development of hate speech codes in the 1980s at a number of American colleges, such as the University of Connecticut. Although the specific cases discussed in the essay are outdated, the substance of the argument remains entirely relevant, and will likely be so for many years to come.

Post approaches his topic as a white scholar "committed both to principles of freedom of expression and to the fight against racism." He describes the "difficult and painful" process of writing this essay: "The topic under consideration has forced me to set one aspiration against the other, which I can only do with reluctance and a heavy heart."

The essay methodically examines the arguments for regulating racist speech in the public arena. It considers, among other topics, the potential harm that racist speech does to groups, its impact upon individuals, the ways that racist speech threatens to silence alternative voices, and the ways that it undermines the mission of educational institutions. At the same time, Post equally carefully delineates the arguments against regulation of racist speech, relying less on an absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment than on the essential value of (relatively) unfettered public discourse to a democratic society. While the account is balanced, Post ultimately favors caution when it comes to restricting racist speech in the public arena, but with a number of caveats.

A separate section considers the particular case of racist speech on college campuses, where Post is more inclined to accept restrictions in the name of building community. Among other things, he poses a possible distinction between how these matters are handled in dormitories, in the public spaces of the college and in the classroom.

This is an excellent article for students willing to tackle these issues in-depth and wrestle with the intellectual underpinnings of the arguments. It is ideal for bringing issues of race and democracy close to home and to consider how they play out within the campus community. The essay has obvious relevance in a number of social science areas: history, sociology and legal studies, for example. Although a challenging read, perhaps, for first-year students, USEMs or writing seminars focused on issues of public expression in (even quite far-flung) societies might be a good place to incorporate this sort of text, which combines intellectual rigor with questions of immediate relevance to Brandeis students.


  • Post bases his argument on principles of constitutional law and democratic theory. How would the perspectives of other disciplines — sociology, psychology, cultural studies, or history, for example — offer a different set of considerations regarding harms inflicted by racist speech?
  • Does the contemporary American tension between free public expression and combating oppression have its counterparts in other national or historical settings? What might be learned from comparing cases and situations?
  • How might the principles in Post's article be applied to considering a university response to recent incidents involving racist speech on the Brandeis campus?

Further Reading

There is a vast literature on hate speech in the United States and on college campuses. The 1994 collection where the Post article appeared is a good starting point. A more recent collection focused on colleges in particular is "Hate Speech on Campus: Cases, Case Studies and Commentary," edited by Milton Heumann and Thomas W. Church with David P. Redlawsk (Northeastern University Press, 1998).

Students considering this issue in-depth should probably be exposed to the other side of the argument. A prominent spokesperson in favor of restricting hate speech, who has written about college campuses in particular, is Richard Delgado. See his collection "Must We Defend Nazis? Hate Speech, Pornography and the New First Amendment" (New York University Press, 1997).

Bibliographies on this subject are posted on a number of Web sites. A very good one put together with undergraduate students in mind is on the site of Union College; see "A Generation of Hate: Bias Crimes and Hate Speech Issues, 1977-2003."

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"You Just Don't Understand" and "Tiny Tims, Supercrips and the End of Pity" in "No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement." New York: Times Books, 1993.

By Joseph Shapiro

Annotation by Stephen Gulley, Graduate Student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management

Text suggested by Stephen Gulley


The introduction and first chapter from Joseph Shapiro's "No Pity" serve as a wake-up call for the dominant culture in America. That culture sees disability as a problem located within the individual, a matter of medical tragedy, personal loss or trauma. Consequently, people with disabilities are viewed in one of two diametrically opposed ways: as inspirational figures who bravely overcome their circumstances to rise above a fate worse than death, or as invalids whose full-time job it is to accept gracefully our sympathy and pity.

Shapiro lays bare these stereotypes and demonstrates how the underlying ideas have been every bit as restrictive for people with disabilities as the impairments they must manage day to day. By the end of the first chapter, readers wrestle with the fact that people with disabilities are first and foremost people, and that the "problem" of disability lies just as much in the environment (physical, social, political) as it does within the individual.

The remainder of the book (and you won't be able to stop after the first chapter) serves as primer on the disability rights movement. From the birth of independent living at Berkeley, to the 504 sit-ins, to the protests at Gallaudet, to the passage of the ADA, Shapiro chronicles many of the major milestones. These chronicles are based upon hundreds of interviews the author conducted with activists, policymakers and scholars, a number of which from Brandeis. The narratives are so well written, they make the scholarship practically transparent.

Possible Uses

This book is currently part of the curriculum for the Sociology of Disability (HSSP), but it would be equally appropriate for history courses (especially those which focus on the development of modern social movements) or public-policy classes. Moreover, it would be of great use in any class or seminar that pertains to human diversity.

Further Reading

After reading this book, you may find yourself hankering for more. If you are looking for a first-person narrative, try John Hockenberry's "Moving Violations," Nancy Mairs' "Waist High in the World" or Irving Zola's "Missing Pieces." If you are looking for a scholarly approach to disability oppression in an international context, try James Charlton's "Nothing About Us Without Us." If your focus is in public-policy studies, pick up a copy of Jacqueline Vaughn Switzer's "Disabled Rights." And for a very thorough treatment of the field of disability studies, try Albrecht, Seelman and Bury's (eds) "Handbook of Disability Studies."

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"The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality" (Oxford University Press, 2004), Introduction and Chapters 1 and 2 (pages 1-59).

By Thomas M. Shapiro
Annotation by Daniel Terris, Director, International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life and Lecturer in American Studies.

Context and Summary

These chapters are the opening sections of a powerful book that argues that differences in financial assets (homeownership, inheritances and other unearned sources of wealth) are contributing to rising inequality in the United States. A relative lack of access to those assets prevents many African Americans from achieving upward mobility; a relative access to unearned wealth, on the other hand, gives many whites a position of privilege that supports increasing wealth and economic stability.

The author, Thomas M. Shapiro, holds the Pokross Chair of Law and Social Policy at the Heller School. Shapiro, a sociologist by training, has previously written the award-winning "Black Wealth/White Wealth" (in collaboration with Melvin Oliver).

The book opens with a look at two American families, one black, one white, with similar profiles in terms of income, professional status and education. "Conventional wisdom," Shapiro points out, "suggests that race should be at most a minor factor in opportunities available to these two families."

But this, in fact, is not the case. White families tend to have significantly more access to "hidden" advantages, assets that they are reluctant to talk about or acknowledge (even to themselves) because they do not fit with an American ideology of meritocracy. Those advantages translate into better housing, better access to jobs and, most importantly, access to better educational opportunities for their children. The "hidden cost of being African American" is that the asset deficit leaves many black families on the brink of economic disaster, and prevents them from living in neighborhoods with the best services and public schools. Shapiro points out that the discussion of "the advantage of being white" is a "threatening" idea to many Americans, but that the data bears out this side of the argument as well.

The specific chapters here provide an overview of Shapiro's argument, as well as a detailed account of how the trajectories of families' lives differ based on their assets. He develops the concept of the "Asset Poverty Line," an index for measuring opportunity in the aggregate, and he presents data that shows how "the way homes are bought and sold, where they are located and how the market values them provides a contemporary foundation for inequality."

The book is based on both the analysis of economic data and on qualitative interviews with nearly 200 black and white families in the Boston, St. Louis and Los Angeles metropolitan areas. The analysis is sophisticated, but Shapiro's prose is lively and accessible. The text provides a clear line of argument that undergraduates will follow with ease, but it also suggests a wealth of directions that advanced students could pursue through further research.

It is a natural text for social-science courses (economics, history, sociology and others), but it might also be adopted to good advantage in humanities classes where the underlying meaning of such concepts as equality and opportunity is at stake. Instructors who wish to use a shorter selection could stop at the end of chapter 1 (page 41), but the accounts of specific families and the discussion of "what accounts for wealth differences" in chapter two would be compelling for students.


  • Shapiro bases his argument on economic analysis and qualitative interviews. How would the perspectives of other disciplines — philosophy or history, for example — offer a different set of considerations regarding the nature of equality in American life?
  • Why is it so hard to talk about "wealth" and its privileges in the United States, both within families and in American public discourse?
  • Do Shapiro's arguments about assets have implications for the ways that undergraduate students of various backgrounds are able to make the most of university life, both at Brandeis and in other American colleges?

Further Resources

Shapiro and Oliver's 1995 "Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality" (Routledge) is an important backdrop for the current work. Sociologist Lisa Keister's "Wealth in America" (Cambridge University Press, 2000) provides an analysis of the weak correlation between income and wealth. Shapiro also recommends the 2003 television series "Race: The Power of an Illusion," produced for PBS in 1993. The third episode of the series, "The House We Live In," with its focus on black homeownership, would be a particularly good complement for this text.

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"Gay and Lesbian Families Are Here; All Our Families Are Queer; Let's Get Used to It!" in "In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age," edited by Judith Stacey. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, pp. 105-144.

By Judith Stacey

Annotation by Karen V. Hansen, Associate Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies

Text suggested by Sue Lanser and Harleen Singh


As with the issue of race, the existence of gay and lesbian families raises the hoary question of how to define them. Should the "one-drop" rule prevail? Is one gay or lesbian member in a family sufficient to label the family homosexual? Does that include siblings and children as well as grandparents and cousins?

This article explores the curious shift within the gay and lesbian community from a radical politics that distained modern family attachments and monogamous relationships, to one that opened the door to domesticity, childrearing and long-term legal commitment. Although the gay and lesbian community continues to debate the desirability of marriage, as was obvious in the 2004 presidential campaign, the right to marry has become a major civil rights issue. Stacey's article, published in 1996, illuminates the reasons for the intensity of feelings about the issue and its fire power in national politics.

Stacey discusses the multifaceted character of gay and lesbian marriage that makes it both a conservative proposal, consistent with many Republican principles, and simultaneously a radical reorganization of postmodern kinship. She argues that in contrast to other civil rights issues such as nondiscrimination in employment or military service, it is seen as more fundamentally threatening to family life, sexuality and gender relations. Citing its creative potential, Stacey claims that gay and lesbian marriage can transform conceptions of heterosexual marriage and upend restrictive gender arrangements.

The last section of the article summarizes the research conducted on how children fare with gay and lesbian parents. Rather than harmed, as the cautionary tales of conservatives would suggest, children who grow up with gay and lesbian parents are not significantly different than their counterparts with heterosexual parents in "school achievement, social adjustment, mental health, gender identity or sexual orientation" (p. 129).


  • What makes a family "gay" or lesbian"?
  • What features of the institution of marriage make it desirable? Oppressive? What cultural, financial and legal advantages result from marital status?
  • How is gender related to marriage in its modern or postmodern forms?
  • In what ways does the prospect of gay and lesbian marriage affect heterosexual marriage?

Further Reading

  • Benkov, Laura. "Reinventing the Family: Lesbian and Gay Parents." New York: Crown, 1994.
  • Burke, Phyllis. "Family Values: Two Moms and Their Son." New York: Random House, 1993.
  • Stacey, Judith and Timothy Biblarz. "(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?" American Sociological Review, v. 66 (2001): 159-183.
  • Sullivan, Maureen. "The Family of Woman: Lesbian Mothers, Their Children and the Undoing of Gender." Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.
  • Weeks, Jeffrey, Brian Heaphy, and Catherine Donovan. "Same-Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments." New York: Routledge, 2001.

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"Identity Development in Adolescence" and "Racial Identity in Adulthood" in "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race." New York: Basic Books, 1999.

By Beverly Daniel Tatum

Annotation by Dirck Roosevelt, Associate Professor of Education

Text suggested by Marya Levenson

Context and Summary

Beverly Daniel Tatum is a clinical psychologist, working more or less in the Eriksonian branch of the developmentalist tradition. Her research, teaching and consulting focus on black children's racial identity development and the experiences of black adolescents in predominantly white settings. She is currently president of Spellman College and was formerly at Mt. Holyoke College.

The first two chapters, "Defining Racism" (3-17) and "The Complexity of Identity" (8-21) are useful, perhaps especially for undergraduate classes, but I'd not discount their value for graduate students and professors. In the first, Tatum makes the distinction between prejudice, as preconception, received opinion, etc. — a matter of how one sees — and racism understood as a "system of race-based advantage" — a matter of how one is positioned.

In the second, she reaffirms the idea of a quest for identity as a central task of adolescence — one in which the questions "Who am I?" and "Who can I become?" necessarily entail "Who do others say I am?" and "What do others think I can become?" In Erickson's words, in considering identity formation, "we deal with a process 'located' in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his (sic) communal culture . . . This process is, luckily, and necessarily, for the most part unconscious except when inner conditions and outer circumstances combine to aggravate a painful, or elated, 'identity-consciousness'" (19).

One way in which the search for identity may become a "crisis" is when there is a grave mismatch between the legitimate needs of the young person searching and the stock of imagery and narrative offered by the prevailing culture.

"Identity Development in Adolescence: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" (52-74) offers racial identity development theory as an "interpretive framework" for working with these issues and specifically for understanding the kinds of phenomena captured by what Tatum calls her "provocative question" (one that reliably evokes recognition and frustration — either at the phenomenon, or at the need to explain it). It's a more capacious framework than "self-segregation," taking as it does construction rather than negation as its organizing principle. The thesis is that, not only is the development of identity always a social process, but, in a race-conscious society, when a black youngster, fueled by the urgencies of adolescence, begins to ask questions like "Who am I?" "What does it mean to be me?" "Who can I become?" the questions, "Who am I racially, What does it mean to be black? are also necessarily engaged.

Tatum argues that racial identity development is an aspect of development for anyone growing up in a race-conscious, racist society — other youth of color, certainly, but also white youth — "but because race is not seen as salient for white adolescents it is usually omitted from the textbooks" (p. xv). Race obviously is highly salient for black adolescents trying to manage the calculus of self-perception and perception by others, being typically the first attribute that whites (and often others) register, not neutrally, but as heavily freighted signifier.

Tatum underscores this with a familiar scenario: Her son at 15, black, "6-foot-2, wearing the adolescent attire of the day, passing adults he doesn't know on the sidewalk: Do women hold their purses a little tighter, maybe even cross the street to avoid him? Is he being followed by security guards at the local mall? Do strangers assume he plays basketball?" (54). The book is judiciously sprinkled with concrete anecdotal reminders of the persistence of habitual, not always subtle prejudice and racism, and pronounced race-consciousness.

The development of identity is also a search for social solidarity; the driving questions include not only "Who am I? and How do others see me?" but, "Who is my cohort group?" (18). As black adolescents increasingly encounter situations in which their blackness is uppermost in others' responses to them, and as the wish for strong group affiliation grows stronger, being black becomes a more important and more vexed facet of identity, especially in mixed race settings. Racism acts as both a threat to and a shaping force on identity, and an oppositional stance is often appealing.

It "both protects . . . identity from the psychological assault of racism and keeps the dominant group at a distance" (60). At the same time, the repertoire of ways of "being black" — the "identity kit," in James Gee's phrase — is often limited, constrained by stereotype and so forth. Especially with respect to academic performance: School success maps on to the perceived dangers of "acting white" in part because of the paucity of images, in the curriculum and on the faculty, of strong, compelling, academically successful black role models, a problem exacerbated by the continued underrepresentation of black students in upper-track courses. Tatum insists on the "need to provide adolescents with identity-affirming experiences" includes providing them with useful information about and images of their cultural heritage (74).

In "Racial Identity in Adulthood: Still a Work in Progress" (75-90), Tatum moves from explaining the black table in the cafeteria to arguing its merits. The development of a positive racial identity and sense of group solidarity are enhanced by immersion in and active desire to learn more about one's own culture and history. The stresses of being black on a predominantly white campus are mitigated by such engagement and academic performance, Tatum suggests, often supported by it; informal tables in the lunchroom, black (or Asian, or Latino…) cultural centers, and the like should be encouraged. When such spaces are present, cross-racial dialogue may actually be more likely, not less. And whites, not typically conscious of their whiteness except when in the presence of people of color, will indeed be more self-conscious in this respect. "What does it say about the white people if all the black people are sitting together. The white person wonders, "Am I being excluded? Are they talking about us? Are my own racial stereotypes and perhaps racial fears being stimulated?" (89).

Logically following from these considerations, the next section of the book takes up the question of white identity, and is also recommended.

Possible Uses

My experiences with this book, and those of many others, is that it has, among other virtues, the capacity to stimulate good and serious intraracial and interracial dialogue about race among both those who feel, and perhaps are, knowledgeable and sophisticated about these dynamics, and those who are not and/or do not feel so.

Further Reading

  • Chinua Achebe, "Home and Exile"
  • W. E. B. DuBois, "The Souls of Black Folk"
  • Erik Erikson, "Identity, Youth and Crisis"
  • Erik Erikson, "Childhood and Society"
  • Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack"'
  • Jeannie Oakes, "Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality"
  • John Ogbu, e.g., Fordham and Ogbu, "Black Students' School Success: Coping With the Burden of 'Acting White'"
  • Richard Rodriguez, "Hunger of Memory"
  • Patricia Williams, "Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race"

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"The Language of African Literature" in "Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature." London: Heineman, 1986.

By Ngugi wa Thiong'o (James Ngugi)

Annotation by Jane Hale, Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature

Text suggested by Jane Hale

Context and Summary

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, born in 1938, is a Kenyan teacher, novelist, essayist and playwright. He grew up under British rule in Kenya, attending Christian mission schools. In 1963, the year of Kenya's independence, he graduated from college in Uganda and went to England for graduate study. His first novel is "Weep Not, Child" (1964), a tale of growing up in colonial Kenya. Next came "The River Between" (1965) and "A Grain of Wheat" (1967). He was imprisoned in 1976 for his political outspokenness. His prison diary, "Detained," was published in 1981.

"Caitaani Muthara-Ini" ("Devil on the Cross"), the first modern novel written in his native language, Gikuyu, appeared in 1980. Ngugi left Kenya in 1982, traveling and living in Europe and the United States for the following decades. He returned to Kenya for a visit only this summer (2004), where he and his wife were savagely beaten by political foes. "Decolonising the Mind" is a collection of essays and lectures by Ngugi from 1981 to 1986. In the preface, he describes his cultural project thus:

"In the 18th and 19th centuries Europe stole art treasures from Africa to decorate their houses and museums; in the 20th century Europe is stealing the treasures of the mind to enrich their languages and cultures. Africa needs back its economy, its politics, its culture, its languages and all its patriotic writers." (xii)

Twenty years or more after independence, most African writers were still writing and publishing in colonial languages. Schools were still teaching students in these languages, rather than in their native tongues. Africa was still divided into English-speaking, French-speaking, and Portuguese-speaking countries, according to the old colonial boundaries. Colonialism had given way to neocolonialism, which exerted its power through what Ngugi calls "the cultural bomb [whose] effect is to annihilate a people's belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves" (3).

Especially recommended: Introduction and Chapter 1: "The Language of African Literature." A plea for African writers to write in African, rather than colonial, languages; an analysis of how language and culture are inextricably related. Ngugi gives background for the debate he engages in the text, sketching out a history of African writing in French and English by such authors as Chinua Achebe and Amos Tutuola of Nigeria, Léopold Senghor and David Diop of Senegal. He tells about his own education in colonial Kenya, and about the disconnect between the Gikuyu language and culture in which he was born and raised, with its rich oral literature, and the English language and culture of his formal education. He writes movingly of how language is the carrier of culture, "the collective memory bank of a people's experience in history. Culture is almost indistinguishable from the language that makes possible its genesis, growth, banking, articulation and indeed its transmission from one generation to the next" (15). He calls for African writers to do for African languages what Shakespeare did for English, and what Tolstoy did for Russian, to write great works in their native languages that will enrich and empower the language and culture of their people. It is only when African minds are decolonized, principally through the valorization and growth of African languages, that Africans will truly be free.


The types of issues raised by "Decolonising the Mind" that Brandeis students and faculty might wish to consider are:

  • What does it mean to come from a non-English-speaking environment to an English-speaking classroom?
  • Do we have anything to learn from people who don't speak our language well? How can we do so? Why should we try?
  • What are the U.S. cultural realities and linguistic expressions thereof that we can explain to our international and ESL students? How can we engage such students in telling us similar information about their own cultures and languages?
  • Why should we learn to read and write other languages? Why can't we just use translations for everything? Why should Americans learn any language other than English, since it's becoming the international language and more and more people in the world know how to speak it?
  • In what ways is education the most powerful weapon of cultural dominance?

Further Reading

Dangarembga, Tsitsi. "Nervous Conditions." London: Women's Press, 1988.

Harjo, Joy and Gloria Bird. "Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native Women's Writings of North America." NY: Norton, 1997.

Hoffman, Eva. "Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language." NY: E.P. Dutton, 1989.

Purcell-Gates, Victoria. "Other People's Words: The Cycle of Low Literacy." 1995; rpt. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.

Shakespeare, William. "The Tempest." 1623; rpt. London: Penguin, 1968. It's instructive to read this alongside Martinque writer Aimé Césaire's riposte, "A Tempest" (1969). Trans. Richard Miller. NY: Theatre Communications Group, 2002.

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"American Muslim Identity: Race and Ethnicity in Progressive Islam," by Amina Wadud in "Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism," edited by Omid Safi. Oxford: Oneworld, 2003.

Annotation by Olga M. Davidson, Adjunct Associate Professor of Women's Studies

Text suggested by Kecia Ali, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Islamic Studies and Women's Studies

Context and Summary

This essay, written by an African-American Muslim woman, explores the tensions of diversity between Muslim African-American and what she calls "Muslim immigrants" in contemporary America. The author, Amina Wadud, aspires to write not only as an African American but as a citizen of the world who has visited a variety of Islamic countries and who takes a cross-cultural perspective.

Wadud finds that the core of these tensions of diversity has to do with race. She advocates an open and honest confrontation between the two groups in order to clear the air and help resolve the differences.

Most of the problems, she argues, have to do with preexisting inequities suffered by African Americans in America, which feed into the new patterns of inequities that are generated in the interactions between Muslim African Americans and the "Muslim immigrants."

The preexisting patterns of inequities center on the direct and indirect results of racism in America. One of the indirect results, poverty, has a most telling effect on the new patterns of inequities. Since a majority of Muslim African Americans are economically worse off than their "Muslim immigrant" counterparts, many African-American imams are impeded in fulfilling their functions as heads of their religious communities because they are forced to take on supplementary sources of employment in order to make ends meet.

Other problems have to do with preexisting cultural differences. For example, the relatively stricter norms of gender-based separation of tasks among the "Muslim immigrants" results in patterns of avoidance of public roles by "their" women. As a result, an inordinate burden falls on the shoulders of female counterparts in the African-American communities.


  • The author notes that "Muslims in America engage in so many forms of ethnocentrism that these tendencies belittle the genuine integrity of Islam." The examples that are cited are taken almost exclusively from the "Muslim immigrant" side, not from the African-American side. In view of the inequities suffered by the African-American side, this emphasis is understandable and even justifiable. Still, the question remains: maybe part of the problem is not only the cultural differentiation of the "immigrants" but the lack of cultural self-definition on the part of the Muslim African-Americans. Where is the cultural cohesiveness of Muslim African-Americans? This question is not meaningfully addressed in the essay.
  • A related problem is the lack of a social blueprint, as it were, for the entry of African Americans into the cultural as well as religious world of Islam. Other than the Qur'an, no other meeting ground for shared values and experiences is cited.
  • Wadud advocates a reversal of terminology in order to enhance the dialogue among the "tribes and nations" of Muslims in America. Instead of speaking of Muslim Americans, the discourse should shift, she argues, to the topic of American Muslims. But then the question remains: How will the Muslims of America, as American Muslims, help solve the fundamental problem of racism in America?

Further Reading

Bulliet, Richard W. Islam: "The View from the Edge." New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

McCloud, Aminah Beverly. "African American Islam." New York: Routledge, 1995.

Mottahedeh, Roy P.. "The Shu'ubiyya Controversy and the Social History of Early Islamic Iran," in International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 7:162-82, 1976.

Suleiman, Michael W., "Arabs in America." Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.

Waines, David. "An Introduction to Islam." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995

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Collected Poems

  • "From an Introduction" (Kamala Das)
  • "The New Cotton" (Nikky Finney)
  • "Hate" (Nikky Finney)
  • "Will V-Day Be Me-Day Too?" (Langston Hughes)
  • "Diaspora" (Audre Lorde)
  • "Ethiopia" (Audre Lorde)
  • "Charles Stuart in the Hospital" (D. Nurkse)
  • "Bedecked" (Victoria Redel)
  • "Here is a map of our country" (Adrienne Rich)
  • "Homophobia" (Rebecca Seiferle)
  • "The Maid" (Bracha Serri)
Annotation of "Diaspora" and "Ethiopia" by Harleen Singh, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Romance and Comparative Literature and Women's Studies

Biographical information on other poets compiled by Olga Broumas, Poet-in-Residence and Stephanie Gerber Wilson, Graduate Student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies

Poems suggested by Olga Broumas, Jane Hale, Susan Lanser and Harleen Singh


The section on poetry is significant in that it allows for a larger discussion of identity, politics, history and gender though the discussion of one poem. The poems in this section have been selected for the important questions they raise. These poems are not simply the explanation or statement of purpose for these poets. They are an encapsulation of the wider conversation involving the many facets of "diversity" this project is committed towards.

The poets range from women in the so-called Third World to men and women of color in the United States, and their poetry focuses on disparate issues. Issues of sexuality, gender, class, race, colonialism, language and many others are expressed in these poems, and this section should be used as a point of departure for the many discussions that are relevant to this project.


  • How do these poems bring to light humanitarian issues through their imagery?
  • How do these poems attempt to correct the "imposed silence of our lives?"
  • Why is poetry effective in its attempt to give a voice to the dispossessed? Or is it not effective?
  • What other poems/issues do these poems bring up for the reader?
  • What kind of reading does Audre Lorde's self-proclaimed position as a "Black, Lesbian, Mother, Warrior, Poet" offer in terms of her two poems?

Kamala Das was born on March 31, 1934, in Malabar in Kerala (Dwivedi 297). Her love of poetry began at an early age through the influence of her great uncle, Nalapat Narayan Menon, a prominent writer. Das was also deeply affected by the poetry of her mother, Nalapat Balamani Amma, and the sacred writings kept by the matriarchal community of Nayars (IndiaWorld). She was 16 when her first son was born and says that she "was mature enough to be a mother only when my third child was born" (Warrior interview).

Das' achievements extend well beyond her verses of poetry. She has dabbled in painting, fiction (Warrior interview) and even politics (Raveendran 53). She has moved away from poetry because she claims that "poetry does not sell in this country [India]," but fortunately her forthright columns do (Warrior interview). Das' columns sound off on everything from women's issues and child care to politics.

In December 1999 she converted to Islam, creating a furor in the press. Less than a year later, Kamala Surayya announced plans to register her political party 'Lok Seva.'

Nikky Finney was born in Conway, South Carolina, on the coast where rice fields were more prominent than cotton fields, in 1957. This geographic landscape is reflected in Finney's poetry, especially her most recent collection, "Rice" (1995). Finney began teaching and writing in California, but moved back to the South, where she is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky.

Her mother was an elementary-school teacher, and her father was a civil rights lawyer. Both were deeply involved in the 1960s movement for equality and justice for African Americans. Finney says that her daily acquaintances with her parents' battles for dignity are the soul of her writings.

"I love words that passionately embrace my womanness wholly and my blackness tenaciously. Period," she says. The author of three poetry books, "On Wings Made of Gauze," "Rice" and "The World Is Round," Finney was awarded the Pen American Open Book Award for Rice in 1999. She is also the author of "Heartwood" (1998), a collection of short stories written especially for literacy students. Finney is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, a collective of Appalachian writers of African descent.

James Langston Hughes was born Feb. 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. He was raised by his grandmother until he was 13, when he moved to Lincoln, Ill., to live with his mother and stepfather, eventually settling in Cleveland. It was in Lincoln that Hughes began writing poetry. Hughes' first book of poetry, "The Weary Blues," was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. He finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later. In 1930 his first novel, "Not Without Laughter," won the Harmon gold medal for literature.

Hughes, who claimed Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman as his primary influences, is particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the 1920s through the 1960s. He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of jazz and the influence it had on his writing, as in "Montage of a Dream Deferred." His life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer on May 22, 1967, in New York.

Audrey Geraldine Lorde was born on Feb. 18, 1934, in New York City. The daughter of Caribbean immigrants who settled in Harlem, she graduated from Columbia University and Hunter College, where she later held the post of Thomas Hunter Chair of Literature. Lorde often described herself as a "black lesbian, mother, warrior, poet." She collected a host of awards and honors, including the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit, which conferred the mantle of New York State poet for 1991 to 1993.

In 1968, Lorde accepted a teaching position at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., and witnessed the violence in opposition to the civil rights movement. She later cofounded the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. She was one of the featured speakers at the first national march for gay and lesbian liberation in Washington, D.C., in 1979.

Lorde died in St Croix, Virgin Islands, on Nov. 17, 1992, after a protracted battle with breast cancer. Before she died, in an African naming ceremony, Lorde took the name Gambda Adisa, meaning "Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known."

Recognizing that "imposed silence about any area of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness" ("The Cancer Journals," 1980), Lorde worked tirelessly for issues of social justice not only within the context of the United States but on a global front. "The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde" was published in 1997.


In this poem, Lorde traces a moment of oppression across the American and South African landscape. Both countries form a part of the metaphorical country named "Afraid," which has no "exit visas." This is especially pertinent to the history of immigration in the United States. The oft-repeated mythology of the United States as a country built upon immigration excludes the history of those brought to its shores involuntarily. Every story of a slave ship landing in Jamestown, Va., complicates stories of Plymouth Rock.

In both instances, Johannesburg and Alabama, a "dark girl flees" her circumstances. And in both instances the "passports at birth" are marked by race and its ensuing results. The imagery of South Africa intertwines with the American landscape to allow the reader to glimpse the "nightmare" in both countries. The escape in either a "midnight sleeper out of White River Junction," or in a "false-bottomed truck" across a river and a border, accentuates the similarity in the stories of freedom. And finally, the imagery signaling a revolution of some sorts, "grenades held dry in a calabash," all signal towards a kind of desperate measure by these women to escape their lives. Each of these stories then complicates the idea of "Diaspora" to allow the word to stand for the many different stories of oppression.


This is a stark and moving poem on the state of Ethiopia and its people long suffering from famines and civil wars. It is of interest to note that the name Ethiopia has been derived, through the Greek form, "aithiopia," from the two words "aitho" ("I burn") and "ops" ("face"). It would thus mean the land of the scorched faces. There is, of course, debate among modern scholars about this etymology.

The simple imagery of a young girl's birthday celebrations effectively brings home the terrible toll famine has exacted on the region. Weak from deprivation the girl breaks her wrist clapping, and nothing can fix that. The image of a child's birthday party allows the more privileged reader to find a commonality in thinking of many such occasions, but this empathy is then eroded in confronting the very real material effects of starvation — weak bones that break at the smallest effort.

D. Nurkse's books of poetry include "Leaving Xaia," "Voices Over Water," "Staggered Lights," "Shadow Wars" and "Isolation in Action." He has received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the Whiting Writers' Award, the 1998 Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry and a New York State Foundation for the Arts fellowship. In 2000, he received an Artist's Fund grant from the New York State Foundation for the Arts and a Tanne Foundation grant. In 1996, he was appointed poet laureate of Brooklyn. He has also written widely on human rights.

Victoria Redel has published two books of fiction, "Where the Road Bottoms Out" and "Loverboy," as well as two collections of poetry, "Already the World" and "Swoon." She has received a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center. Her work has been published in many journals and magazines, and her novel is slated to be an upcoming motion picture starring Kyra Sedgwick. She currently teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College and in the undergraduate and graduate writing programs at Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in New York City with her two sons.

Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore in 1929. She is the author of nearly 20 volumes of poetry and several books of nonfiction prose. Rich has received the Bollingen Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the National Book Award and a MacArthur Fellowship. She is also a former academy chancellor. In 1997, Rich was awarded the academy's Wallace Stevens Award for outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry. She lives in northern California.

Rebecca Seiferle is the author of three books of poetry, "The Music We Dance To," "The Ripped-Out Seam" and "Bitters," a National Book Award nominnee. She has also translated "César Vallejo's Trilce" and most recently, "The Black Heralds." Her work appears in a number of anthologies, including "The Best American Poetry 2000." Her work has won the Bogin Memorial Award and The Cecil Hemley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her translation of "Trilce" was the only finalist for the 1992 PEN West Translation Award. She is the founding editor of The Drunken Boat, an online magazine of international poetry and translation. Winner of the Western States Book Award in 2002, she moved from New Mexico to Waltham, Mass., to be the Ziskind Visiting Poet in Residence at Brandeis from 2004 to 2006. She has received the  Lannan Fellowship, only one of which is awarded for poetry each year.

Bracha Serri was born in Yemen and divides her time between Jerusalem and Berkeley, Calif., where she is working on a doctorate. Her activities over the years have been quite diverse. She has been a peace activist and has researched Yemenite dialects. Her overtly political and feminist poetry draws heavily on the linguistic and metaphoric tradition of the great Yemenite religious poets such as Shalom Shabazi. Serri has never shied away from bringing the full weight of judgment and traditional morality into the context of radical politics. Her books include "Red Heifer" (1990) and "Seventy Wandering Poems" (1983).

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