Friday, February 10, 2012

Teaching the History of Immigrants and Discrimination

Immigrants are remarkably varied, but most have one thing in common: they face discrimination as new Americans. This experience resonates with elementary school children, who understand the challenge of being the “new kid.” Similarly, teenagers easily relate to being judged and judging others.

Recently, New York City teachers gathered at the Museum to explore the topic of discrimination. Together, we considered the pervasive language of “othering” and its curricular connections. We began by reflecting on ethnic stereotypes, both good and bad and went on to examine political cartoons and music from the past and the present.

John Bull and Uncle Sam--popular 19th c. symbols of England and the U.S.--
debate about the Irish. The Irishman is depicted with a pronounced
lower jaw and mouth, a flat, short nose, and the sloping forehead--stereotypes of a "racial inferior".
By exploring the lives of three immigrant families that lived in 97 Orchard Street, we gained insight into the history of racial prejudice. Questions guided our visits to their recreated homes. What was it like to be one of the only Irish families in the 1860s “Little Germany” of the Lower East Side? How did Natalie Gumpertz get by when her husband disappeared and gender discrimination prevailed in the 1870s? What options did Adlofo and Rosario Baldizzi have as Italian immigrants in the face of the discriminatory quotas passed in 1924? These questions, along with music and political cartoons, shaped our experience and our understanding of the role that popular culture plays in advancing and negating stereotypes.

In this  1871 cartoon, Catholic bishops drawn to look like threatening alligators play on the religious superstition Americans felt towards the Catholic Church. A father tries to protect his family. On the left stands St. Peter's cathedral, the center of the Roman Catholic Church,
now re-labeled "Tammany Hall."
This workshop helped me remember the power of a simple drawing and the magic that happens when a group of dedicated teachers gather around a table. An old cartoon still communicates prejudice over 100 years after its publication. It resonates. One glance makes you curious to learn more, to understand its place within history and our culture. I wish I could visit each of their classrooms and hear the conversation it inspires in today's students.

--Posted by Director of Education Miriam Bader

1 comment:

  1. I've been using political cartoons as part of my Immigration Unit with my almost all-white students in New Hampshire for the past several years. I wish I could have been at this workshop.

    Here is my unit as it stands:


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