Introduction and Theoretical Basis

The modern high school ELA classroom is more often than not a highly diverse community. However, this may not always be the case with the texts that form the 'high school canon', especially those that do not directly address racism. This lack of diversity is more evident in pop culture, where the TV and movie heroes are - more often than not - a white male, though this is slowly beginning to change. This wiki serves to provide some tools to teachers wishing to introduce their students to the practice of reading texts in terms of their ability to portray the diversity of peoples and cultures that is usually evident in the classroom. It is built to address the Grade 10 Academic curriculum expectations but is flexible enough to be adapted to other course curricula.

The theoretical basis comes from Henry Jenkins' Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, wherein he argues that minoritized groups are often excluded from the production of cultural artifacts (books, media, advertising) and therefore also excluded from positive representation in those artifacts. Instead, popular culture becomes directed against them in the forms of negative stereotypes and two-dimensional characters. These minoritized groups retaliate against these representations - or lack thereof - by appropriating pop culture materials and repositioning them to create a space of inclusion for themselves.[1]

The classroom activities listed here specifically address race in the media, however they can be extended to other texts and modified to address gender, class age and other points of social difference.

Good Representation Can Be Hard to Find

There is a significant lack of well-rounded characters of colour in published English-language speculative fiction. This lack is also noticeable in popular television series and films, where characters that had not been white in the original texts may be portrayed by white actors for the screen. For example, the recent movies 21 and The Last Airbender were all derived from texts wherein the original characters were Asian, but were white in the movies.

The Johnston Test
The Johnston Test, a modification of the Bechdel Test may serve as a general gauge of how well a text or media depicts racial diversity and representation.

1. It has to have two persons of colour in it.
2. Who talk to each other.
3. About something other than a white person.

Teachers in more advanced classes may want to apply the Bechdel Test as well.

1. It has to have two women.
2. Who talk to each other.
3. About something other than a man.

Further Reading
  • A published author elaborates on the lack of diversity in science fiction and fantasy writing HERE. He makes the argument that, according to demographic statistics, there should be a great many more published black science fiction writers.
  • The Media Awareness Network has a section on media stereotyping HERE, with links and references to several other articles of interest. They also offer modules and class plans for a fee.
  • A young fan expresses her disappointment in The Last Airbender HERE. She makes the point that people of Asian descent should be able to see themselves portrayed as heroes and main characters in popular media.
  • Blog posters provide lists of non-white roles being portrayed by white actors HERE and HERE.

Teaching Tools
1. Apply the Johnson Test to your school books, then to your students' favorite books and TV shows, and see how many i) pass the test, and ii) pass on a regular basis. How many characters of color are there? How many of them are actually strong, fleshed-out characters, and not just background? For another level of discussion, incorporate the Bechdel Test as well.

2. Ask your class if they can think of any movies where a role for a colored person was taken by a white actor? What about one where a white role was taken by a colored person? (quick answers: Robert Neville in I Am Legend, and Kingpin in Daredevil, which is a good point to ask how many roles feature people of color as a villain) What roles can you think of that might have been improved or made more relevant if they were played by an actor of a different race, and why?

Teacher will break the class into small groups (4 or 5 people each is a manageable number) and assign each group a well-known movie, TV show or book (good choices include past Oscar winners, Lost, Glee, and Star Trek, plus any books the class has read in the past that include a person of colour).

Teacher will distribute a handout listing the Johnston test and some other discussion questions regarding the characters of colour in these texts, such as how many are there, are they strong characters, do their characters develop or grow over the course of the story, are they just there for background, what are some good character moments for them, plus any other questions the teacher may want to address. Students are given an appropriate amount of time to discuss their text and the questions.

When the time is up, they will stand up and present their decision on how well their show depicts diversity, and introduce their character of colour to the class. They should say whether they believe he is a strong character or not, and explain why. More advanced classes may also wish to explain how they might make the character stronger or more interesting. Alternatively, students may also produce a poster depicting their character.

Curriculum Expectations
Oral Communication: 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, 1.8, 2.1, 2.3, 3.2
Reading and Literature Studies: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.6, 1.7, 1.8
Writing: 1.2, 1.4, 1.5, 2.5, 3.7, 4.1
Media Studies: 1.4, 1.5, 1.6

Reappropriating Race

The same texts that exclude or misrepresent people of color may be actively used as a galvanizing point for pop culture fans of color to congregate and engage in activism to take control of their portrayal from the media.

Creative Activism

The Australian film Babakiueria illustrates the use of appropriation of the news documentary to highlight the racism and prejudice inherent in media's treatment of other cultures.

Creative responses to exclusion and misrepresentation significantly include appropriation and reinterpretation of canon ‘white’ texts. Published examples of this reinterpretation are Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall. Theory scholar Abigail Derecho points out that "the works […] are clearly intended to draw readers’ attention to unjust power relations between dominant and subordinate subjects, to discriminatory policies, to psychological and institutionalized prejudices and to the power of canonical texts to perpetuate stereotypes of race, gender, class and nation".[2]

A method used by fanwriters to both nullify racebending and bring awareness of racial and cultural issues to the foreground is to take a white character and reinterpret them as a person of color.

Doctor Who as a black man
Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Latina (language warning!)
Dean and Sam Winchester (Supernatural) as Roma

Additional stories may be found HERE. Read the warnings carefully, as fanworks are by nature uncensored.

Further Reading
Henry Jenkins has written extensively about fan culture and the practice of 'textual poaching', wherein fans appropriate pop culture artifacts they feel do not adequately address or reflect them, and alter them so that they do.[3] He keeps a constantly updated blog containing several articles on teaching media in the classroom, and is the lead investigator for the New Media Literacies group, which houses an archive of teaching resources, unit outlines and brief essays regarding how to approach media texts.

This article has embedded links to an interview with the founder of a grassroots movement against 'racebending' - changing a character of color into a white character. It is appropriate for class viewing.

Teaching Tools
1. Take one character from either your favourite book or a book you’re studying in class, and brainstorm changing his/her racial or cultural identity. Would the story change if he/she was a different race/culture? Would people in that world or time react to them differently? What would his/her family and community be like?

2. Have students research a different culture, and then rewrite a scene from a book depicting a white character as if he/she was of that culture. Alternatively, have students draw a poster promoting multiculturalism depicting that character in the researched cultural setting. Using the fanwriting examples above may help illustrate the activity to students, but teachers should be sure to secure the fanwriter’s permission first. Formal evaluation for this activity may include student reflection on how race affects everyday life, or on how diverse he/she feels print and media texts really are, and how well they reflect reality.

This lesson may stretch several classes, and includes an evaluation activity.

Students will work either in pairs or small groups, depending on teacher's preference. Teacher will offer a choice of characters either from the course readings or from popular culture and allow each group to claim the character they want to work with. The teacher should choose an unclaimed character and begin a class discussion by asking what would have happened to this character if he/she had been born a different ethnicity. Would he/she still have the same job? What would the other people in the book have assumed of him/her? What would his/her house look like? What in the book/TV show/movie would happen to them that would be different?

Then teacher will place an appropriate number of racial/cultural backgrounds in a hat and have groups draw one from the hat. Alternately students may ascribe their own cultural background to the character.

The evaluation for this lesson is to have the group members research this new culture and produce both i) a poster and ii) a rewrite of a scene involving this character, both depicting the character in his/her new ethnicity. Teacher should offer students a worksheet with research considerations for the students, including the history of the culture both in the country of origin and in Canada, the culture's attitudes to family, social structures, language, and most importantly how that culture is perceived by the mainstream media.

Students should especially address i) how the new culture changes the character's motivations and considerations, and ii) how the new culture affects the way people react to and interact with the character.

The scene rewrite and poster will serve as evaluation materials. Students should also hand in a reflection on what they have learned about how the media portrays different cultures and how diverse shows and movies really are compared to real life.

Curriculum Expectations
Oral Communication: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, 1.6, 1.8, 2.2, 2.4
Reading and Literature Studies: 1.1, 1.5, 1.7, 1.8, 2.3, 3.2, 3.3, 4.2
Writing: 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, 2.1, 2.2, 2.5, 3.2, 3.7
Media Studies: 1.1, 1.4, 1.5, 1.6, 2.2, 3.1, 3.4, 4.2
  1. ^ Jenkins, Henry et. al (Eds.) (2002). Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.
  2. ^ Derecho, Abigail. (2006). Archontic Literature: A Definition, A History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction. In Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse (Eds.), Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (pp. 61-78). Jefferson: McFarland and Company Ltd.
  3. ^ Jenkins, Henry. (1992). Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.