Race and Human Variation

Kevin Mumford, April 2005

To the Editor:

I write to commend Perspectives for the report (published in the December 2004 issue) on the recent conference on “Race and Human Variation.” According to author Noralee Frankel, a group of leading scholars convened meetings to discuss the fascinating history of racial mixture and classification, but the report did not indicate if participants also discussed their curriculums. I ask this because my own experience is that teaching the construction of race challenges many students to reconsider their most basic assumptions about race—often in uncomfortable ways. Lecturing on the history of miscegenation or changing scientific taxonomies raises questions on the extent of homogeneity, and even political unity, that many automatically attribute to the so-called black community. This fall I taught a course at the University of Iowa that enrolled a diverse group of undergraduates, but when I introduced topics such as whiteness studies or the idea of an analogy between gayness and blackness, some students appeared visibly shaken, even angered to the point of a small-scale revolt. Colleagues at other schools report the same experience with a kind of disenchantment with the theme of social construction. In class discussions, I found that some students preferred to reference personal experiences, which they projected upon an unchanging past. At a time of crisis in minority access to higher education, all voices urgently need our recognition, but this does not dictate their scholarly legitimacy. The historian’s objective must remain historical accuracy. The project of rethinking race sponsored by the Ford Foundation and taken up by leading scholars such as Thomas Holt at this conference demands not only more research, but also innovative and sensitive pedagogy, if we are successfully to enlighten our classrooms.

—Kevin Mumford
University of Iowa