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Race in America

Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, Teaching Tolerance

Let’s Talk!, Teaching Tolerance

Native Knowledge 360°, National Museum of the American Indian

Code Switch, NPR

Talking About Race, National Museum of African American History & Culture

Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (New York: Little, Brown, 2020)

Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, (Boston: Beacon, 2018)


Race in America: Talking About Race and Racism in Art | Activity

A light-skinned man, woman, boy, and girl, and a brown-skinned man sit and stand around a table spread with papers and a map in this horizontal portrait. The light-skinned man sits on a red upholstered chair at the table to our left, and his body faces our right in profile. His legs are crossed, and he rests his right elbow, closer to us, on the back of the chair. He has a sloping, rounded nose, dark eyes, jowls along his jawline, and his closed mouth juts forward. His left arm rests on an open pamphlet on the table next to a sword with a delicate silver hilt. To our left, the young boy stands also looks to our right in profile, next to the older man's chair. The boy wears a dusky rose-pink suit with a white lacy collar. With his right hand, he pulls back a dark green cloth covering a globe on a wooden stand along the left edge of the canvas. The woman sits at the right side of the table, across from the man. She has dark eyes, full cheeks, a double chin, and her pale lips are closed. She wears a voluminous ivory satin gown and petticoat with a black lace shawl, and an ivory cap with a satin bow covers her gray hair. She points to a spot on a map on the table with a closed fan held in her right hand. The young girl, wearing a gauzy white dress with a pine-green sash at the waist, stands on the far side of the table near the woman, holding the curling edges of the map. Behind the women, the brown-skinned man wears a rust-orange and gray uniform, and stands with one hand tucked into his vest in the shadows at the edge of the composition. His features are indistinct but he faces our left in profile. The room has a gold-and-yellow checkerboard floor, and a red cloth drapes from columns frame the scene to each side. It is unclear whether a river view at the back of the room is seen through an open window or door, or if it is a large painting behind the people.

Edward Savage, The Washington Family, 1789-1796, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1940.1.2

This activity is an adaptation of the lesson plan “Talking About Race and Racism” from Teaching Tolerance. Used with permission.

Essential Question

What do I need to participate in an open and honest conversation about race, racism, and its depictions in The Washington Family?


  • Students will reflect on their own comfort level when talking about race.
  • Students will distinguish between intent and impact and reflect on what it means in the context of class discussions about works of art.
  • Students will describe how stereotypes inform our implicit biases and how implicit bias impacts how we create and interpret art.
  • Students will establish norms and learn strategies for having open and honest conversations about the depictions of different people and groups in works of art.


Write the prompts (below) on the board and allow students time to quietly and independently respond in writing. If you have a journal procedure, use it here. Allow time for sharing and discussion.

On a scale of 0–5, how comfortable are you talking about race? Explain.

On a scale of 0–5, how comfortable are you talking about racism? Explain.

  • 0 = I would rather not talk about race/racism.
  • 1 = I am very uncomfortable talking about race/racism.
  • 2 = I am usually uncomfortable talking about race/racism.
  • 3 = I am sometimes uncomfortable talking about race/racism.
  • 4 = I am usually comfortable talking about race/racism.
  • 5 = I am very comfortable talking about race/racism.

Establishing Rules and Norms

1.    Classroom conversations need to be honest, respectful, and supportive. Share some of the strategies you will use to support students during these conversations. For instance, let them know that you will:

  • debrief with them or allow them time to reflect on their own (e.g., talking circles and journaling);
  • check in with them throughout the lesson to see how they are feeling and doing (e.g., fist to five);
  • encourage them to ask for a pause when they are feeling strong emotions that prevent them from moving forward (e.g., stoplight); and
  • introduce them to methods for communicating through strong emotions (e.g., RCRC)  
2. Gather in a talking circle. Locate a talking piece. Pose the question, “What do you need from your classmates and teacher to have an open and honest dialogue about the information we will encounter in this work of art?” Pass the talking piece around the circle moving clockwise. Remember, only the student holding the talking piece can speak. Others listen.
3. After the talking circle, draft rules and norms that everyone will adhere to as you embark upon this lesson series. Where possible, try to relate the discussion back to existing classroom rules.

Implicit Bias and Stereotypes

Intent versus Impact


  • bias
  • caste
  • color blindness
  • enslaved
  • focal point
  • gaze
  • hierarchy
  • perspective
  • slaveholder
  • stereotype
  • stigma
  • symbolism

Image/Text Graffiti (adapted from Teaching Tolerance)

1.    Print out a reproduction of The Washington Family for each student or project the image in your classroom.

2.    On a separate, blank sheet of paper, instruct your students to write a description of the painting for someone who cannot see it. Ask them to be as detailed as possible but stick to visible elements—not interpretations or judgments. (This step is introductory, meant to encourage students to look closely before making judgments.)

3.    Identify the figures in the painting and answer any clarifying questions students may have about objects in the painting. Ask them to flip over their sheet of paper and write one to two sentences identifying the focal point of the painting. Students need to use visual evidence to back up their claim—for example, “George Washington is the focal point because his dark clothing draws our eyes in,” rather than “George Washington is the focal point because he is the first president.”

4.    Tape or affix these sentences to desks or on walls around the classroom.

5.    Signal students to move to another desk and read their classmates’ work. Provide enough time for students to read and respond to the written text with their own notes (one or two minutes). Repeat until students have responded to multiple viewpoints. Remind students to respond to each other’s comments.

6.    Ask students to return to their seats and read what others have written. Have them write a final sentence commenting on the thoughts of their fellow students. Was there anything surprising or new in what they read?

7.    Conclude with a large class discussion exploring the question, “What is the purpose of this artwork?” Incorporate information as needed from the image set or the National Gallery of Art website.

Exit Ticket

Emma Amos, Gold Face Type, 1966, color screenprint, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 2019.164.2

Carrie Mae Weems, All the Boys, 2017, color offset lithograph on Somerset Satin paper, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 2018.70.1

Invite students to reflect on their learning by creating a portrait of justice. This work might be inspired by someone living or historic, or an idea or event; encourage your students to choose someone or something specific . Students might look to acts like civil rights legislation or Supreme Court decisions, or to transformed relationships between individuals For inspiration, lead students in a discussion of a work of art such as Gold Face Type (1966) or All the Boys (2017) by Carrie Mae Weems and consider how these works might relate to justice.

Ask students to reflect on a series of questions before creating their work:

  • What does justice mean to you?
  • What structures, systems, or individuals caused/are causing the original injustice or inequity, and why?
  • Who was/is affected by these injustices, and how?
  • Who was/is involved in overcoming the injustice? What did/do individuals or groups champion or imagine to make justice a reality? Consider any challenges or barriers these individuals fought and overcame.
  • How did/does this particular example of justice positively affect individuals, communities, or society?

Students may choose to create a work of art that is realistic or abstract in nature. Encourage them to think about what kinds of lines, shapes, colors, and textures communicate their thoughts and feelings about justice.