Toni Morrison in the sociology classroom

As deaths tend to do, the end of Toni Morrison’s life this past week has caused me to reflect on what I have learned from her life and writings. Years ago I used one of her short stories, Recitatif, in a class as a way to teach about the social construction of race. In the story, we follow the lives of two girls as they become young women. We know that one is Black and one is White, but Morrison never tells us for sure which girl is which race. However, context clues often lead the reader to unknowingly begin to racialize each girl. For example, she describes hair textures, bodily smells, musical interests, and skin care products. The process is incredibly subtle, with many readers not even realizing they had assigned a race to each character. I’ve found it to be an incredible resource for helping students understood the social process of racialization and how assumptions about one’s race are formed. Further, it is a helpful resource for me when I find myself implicitly assigning race to someone (when listening to a podcast for example) whose race has not been explicitly discussed.

Amanda Petersen