Saturday, November 11, 2017

America's Racism Translator: A Lesson Plan in Code-Switching

“Part of what he talked about was a 'war on crime' 
but that was one of those code-words... 
which really was referring to the black political movements of the day...
the anti-war movement, 
the movements for women's liberation and gay liberation

James Kilgore
Ava DuVernay dir., 13th

The Presentations


You are pitching a sketch based on the popularity of Obama's Anger Translator and adapted to address the way in which media as well as politicians often speak in code on issues that reflect or deepen racial inequalities in order to make them more palatable to an audience sensitive to overt racism. Your overall premise has been approved but the producers need a pilot that demonstrates how the new show "Racial Translations" would work. Together, you and your teach of four will research, write, and perform the short sketch for a test audience.


For this pilot sketch, in 6-8 minutes, your team of four will present a back and forth between two sides, one using language and rhetoric that strategically de-emphasizes racist components of the programs and one side translating that language to demonstrate how the message and systems presented participate in racial divides and inequality. While the inspiration, "Obama's Anger Translator," is intentionally comedic, this program may choose to move in a more measured and serious tone. In any case, avoid yelling racist language even for comedic effect.


In order to communicate the translation clearly, the translation should be broken down into two main points. Point 1 will be presented in code and then the same point will be code-switched by another presenter. Then Point 2 will be presented in code, followed likewise by a translation. All the points should connect in some way to the code-switching exemplified in the documentary, 13th, which the audience will all be familiar with and which will serve as a common point of comparison. Because this is a test audience and pilot, it is important that viewers can understand the sketch and its purpose. To make the connections and goals clear, bring in print out with names, time stamps where the points relate to the film 13th, and a script or list of main points. In response, the test audience will provide feedback at the rate of at least one comment from each of the other teams presenting pilots on the same day.



The Example

In the film, 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay in 2016, offers numerous examples of how media and politicians make statements as well as laws that avoid language connected with overt racial inequalities but could be translated to demonstrate how they drive wedges between peoples to the seeming benefit of white communities but at the expense of people of color. Being able to translate such code-speech is critical to see through the ways in which racism has been enacted covertly, avoiding specific terms that signal the intent and effects that come into making such laws.

A key example of this code-switching occurs in a scene that samples President Nixon's former aid, John Ehrlichman, admitting to Dan Baum from Harper's Magazine how they employed "Law and Order" or "Anti-Drug" language and laws aimed at isolating and undermining progressive movements and people of color.

"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

In this interview, the campaign director effectively acts of his own racial translator. He demonstrates how code-switching racist laws and prejudiced practices into "law and order" language would bring communities on board without having to admit to the racial inequalities being enacted.



The Outcome

Overall the code-switching exercise was a success across numerous pedagogical lines. Because students were modeling their translations off of the information presented in the film 13th, student's work demonstrated a higher level of engagement and close-reading. While there was some overlap, with some more startling or easy to translate points being picked up by multiple grounds, each group had to do their own digging beneath the surface and research. The result was more of the film 13th was covered than would have been possible within a single collective series of close-readings.

Second, the project forced students to apply critical thinking when close-reading. Because code-switching is as much about what is NOT being said as it is about what words are being used, students had to think creatively and critically to logically fill in the blanks. The ability to understand the multiple meanings of words and rhetorical moves is key to any close-reading exercise whether the text is a poem, a film, or a piece of legislation.

Third, to fill in the blanks students were forced to do additional research beyond what was explicitly presented in the film 13th. Students looked into specific laws as well as the different ways they have been interpreted by lawyers, politicians, and civil rights groups. The ability to transfer the knowledge in class and bring these insights to the outside world is an essential part of any seminar but especially one concerned with critiquing racism and white supremacy. Such massive and long standing networks exist beyond what can be covered in one semester, so students need to become skilled at doing research and seeing the code-switching going on all around them.

Finally, it may seem like a very particular element of the wider lesson but forcing students to deal with the problems in claiming or seeking to be "color-blind" and unable to see race or racism. Just because explicit racial and/or racist thought may not be used does not mean that various assumptions and systematic inequities are not still being enacted. By the end of the exercise, students came to appreciate the need to be able to identify and translate racism even in instances where there has been an intention effort to obfuscate issues of race in the classroom or government.


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