The Concept of Racism, Stereotypes and Prejudices Reflected in En Vogue’s "Free Your Mind"

A Lesson Designed for Students of Sekundarstufe II-Leistungskurs Englisch

Term Paper 2015 24 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



1 Introduction

2 Theory and analysis
2.1 The concept of race
2.2 The concepts of stereotypes and prejudice
2.3 The song’s lyrics analysis

3 Didactics and Realization
3.1 Teaching Aims
3.2 Group of Learners and prerequisites
3.3 Lesson plan
3.4 Student’s Results
3.5 Anticipation of Problems

4 Conclusion

5 Works Cited

6 Appendix
6.1 Lyrics
6.2 Lesson plan
6.3 Task sheet
6.4 Project week schedule

1 Introduction

With the notion of being a matter of the past, the topics of racism, stereotypes and prejudices are oftentimes put aside in today’s youth mindset. But, although seemingly far away from Germany, these subjects are still present and have been ever since the racial segregation in the US has been dissolved; unfortunately the same applies in Germany and the issues are increasingly present in German news, e.g. PEGIDA movements or the burning of refugee homes. Especially now, teachers are required to focus on educating critical citizens and making students aware of the current developments and critically reflect the dangers and possible ways of diminishing such developments.

This paper shows a possible approach to tackle the challenge described above in devising a lesson that handles with the subject matter by using En Vogue’s Free your mind. Although released in 1992, the song still addresses contemporary problems of racial discrimination and calls on overcoming fossilized stereotypes in order to get beyond those conflicts. Being still topical, the song offers various access points to use in a unit and lesson on the issues of racism, stereotypes and prejudices. The outlined lesson takes place towards the end of the teaching unit, basing on theoretical knowledge and bringing it to life. The lesson also serves as a preparatory step to an upcoming school-wide project week on the topic “Respekt”.

Next to the aspects of fluency and ability to communicate, learning English as a second language also requires to teach for language awareness and cultural understanding, which brings the intercultural aspect into focus. This aspect provides students with knowledge beyond active language usage and helps to enable conscious language usage and educate critical citizens. Therefore, Cultural Studies are incorporated in the Lehrplan Englisch of Rhineland-Palatinate to enable to reflect cultures and to understand cultural, social and political values and norms aiming at improving the individual’s intercultural awareness (cf. 33f.). This term paper demonstrates that items from popular culture are suitable for education for the eligible competences and objectives, and qualify students to critical reflection on media, the self and the surrounding society.

2 Theory and analysis

2.1 The concept of race

According to Webster’s Third International Dictionary of the English Language, race is “a division of mankind possessing traits that are transmissible by descent and sufficient to characterize it as a distinct human type […]” (def. 7, 2e). Additionally, it mentions anthropological factors “[…] implying a distinct physical type with certain unchanging characteristics, as a particular color of skin or shape of skull […]”(def. 7, syn).

With this definition given, Cultural Studies look at a different aspect of race as “a discoursive-performative construction” and the corresponding “treatment of people” (Barker) connected to it. With the term being used as a part of identity, it becomes a central part of “social and political power struggles”. While this distinction based on physical features may hold true in order to determine affiliation to a certain group of people, other associated features that describe intangible characteristics of a group of people like intelligence (cf. Barker) just use this scientific concept as a shield to cover for the discriminating aspects connected to them. Whenever aspects related to the diminishing of people’s quality are combined with physical features, one may speak of racism (cf. Ashcroft 199).

Racism puts groups of people of common descent and alleged characteristic qualities into a hierarchy in order to legitimate unjust treatment (cf. "Racism." Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary). Especially in van Dijks critique of D’Souza’s book The End of Racism; Principals for a Multiracial Society (1995) resentments against the African-American community in the US are named and listed, showing that racism is still a current topic disguising as neutral science. Some of the points van Dijk lists as D’Souza’s “conservative ideological beliefs“ making African-Americans the so-called “social opponent” (Dijk 345) or the main enemy are reflected in En Vogue’s lyrics, which are to be discussed later on.

2.2 The concepts of stereotypes and prejudice

Closely intertwined with the concepts of race and racism is the concept of stereotypes, which are defined as “a standardized mental picture held in common by members of a group and representing an oversimplified opinion, affective attitude, or uncritical judgement […]” (Webster’s, “Stereotype”, def. 2). Thus, stereotypes can also be seen as “knowledge structures that serve as mental “pictures” of the groups in question” (Stagnor 2). While simplification as such is not a negative aspect and in accordance to Dyer helps to structure and understand the world (qtd. in Hall 257), stereotypes become reduced and fixed to differences, focusing on deviating factors that are used to differentiate at the same time. With the emphasis on differences usually a negative connotation comes along regarding most prominent aspects of visual representation (cf. Hall 257). Especially in connection to race and the differences between the stipulated groups are used to stress alterity and base stereotypical associations on it.

When visual differences are set and saliently embedded in people’s minds, prejudice comes into the picture as an “irrational hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics” (Webster’s, “Prejudice”, def. 2c). With precast views, inherited through family or implanted by ideology, members of the “other” group are judged based on the “social and symbolic order” (Hall 258) created by stereotypes and aggression and hostility is sparked by alleged features imputed.

But the factors of stereotypes and prejudices alone do not lead to a situation as it is described in En Vogue’s song (see appendix), the combination of the two only leads to perceptible effects when “gross inequalities of power occurs” (Hall 258). Finally, this is the point when the so-called hierarchy between the races comes into the picture. This ranking system applied by dominant groups leads to ascribing negative features and classifying “people according to a norm and constructs” (Hall 259) groups as other, less valuable, auspicious etc.

Summarizing, it takes not only the practice of simplification and precast formation of opinion to come up with negatively connoted stereotypes and prejudices, it also requires the concept of race and the fuel of racism to create the feeling of superiority in one group and inferiority in the other group at the same time.

When all those factors come into place and persist over time without being seriously questioned they fossilize in people’s minds and appear as truth (cf. Stagnor 8). In the song Free your mind by En Vogue, this phenomenon is addressed and criticized.

2.3 The song’s lyrics analysis

The song Free your mind by En Vogue was released in 1992 shortly after the riots in Los Angeles called Rodney King Riots. Accordingly, the lyrics deal with problems and issues which crystallized more than before in the course of the events during the riots.

The spoken intro line refers to the TV-Show “Living Colors” spoken by a main character. “Living Colors” was the first black comedy TV-Show that dealt with prejudices and stereotypes by making fun of them (cf. Laurence). It was thought to be the counterpart to “Saturday Night Live” and promoted comedians to become very successful. The text “Prejudice? Wrote a song about it! […]” serves perfectly as an opener for the song, hints subtly a connection to the TV-Show and thus, reveals the overall topic of the song.

The song goes right into the topic of prejudices and stereotypes African Americans are graded in by addressing the contradictory perception of black women in tight clothes being read as prostitutes while with white or non-black women dressing in the described manner would be taken as feminist and body-loving women. Here, fashion as “means of communication” (Barnard 174) has two constructed meanings: one constructed by black women intended as an expression of self-esteem and pride and the other one, constructed by non-black people and reader of fashion in black women in total contradiction. Hence, fashion and its meaning is measured with double standards and the connotation to it differs depending on race.

Same applies with the problem addressed in the second part of this stanza. The fashion of a subculture, namely Hip Hop, is oftentimes associated with drug-related crime committed by those who identify with Hip Hop and express this by dressing accordingly. Here, two major aspects of stereotypes and prejudices are incorporated: initially, the overall rejection of subcultures as “interference with the orderly sequence […] and violation of authorized codes” (Hebdige 587). Furthermore, the fear of alterity that prevails among non-members of a subculture is combined with the second aspect of hip hop culture, as it has its roots in poor black society with high criminal rates (cf. August, Everton-Price und Harrison 287). Thus, En Vogue activate the biased perception of people in Hip Hop fashion as criminals being involved with drugs and the common assumption of both as a prime, pegged combination of hip hop and crime.

The stanza continues with an example of false conceptualization based on racial theory (cf. Barker), leading people to think that “straight hair” hints at non-black genes and thus, being misconceived as non-black trait. Besides, the misinterpretation of behavior not fitting into the stereotypical views and the preconceptions associated with this assumed deviation are being addressed by mentioning interracial dating and what is made of it by onlookers.

Continuing with the second stanza, the speaker puts the precast assumption of economic wealth/poverty being interrelated with race into focus. Likewise, the method of payment is already read as an expression of solvency or the lack of it and the presence of black people in a store provokes prejudiced universal suspicions about shoplifting which leads to a permanent surveillance (“I can’t look without being watched”, line 23). Both are based on the stereotypical perception of Blacks as being criminal (cf. D’Souza qtd. in van Dijk, 345), dishonest and poor (cf. Peffley, Hurwitz and Sniderman). The stanza ends with the speaker realizing that those prejudices and the treatment based on them is fossilized that it is not worth fighting against them. With lines 25/26 the speaker appeases to the situation.

In the chorus’ lyrics the connection to the Rodney-King-case becomes quite apparent as the first line bewails circumstances black people are put in by prejudice-driven treatment through Whites. The speaker calls for a change in the White’s perception (lines 13 and 28: “Before you can read me […]”), which is only possible by freeing ones mind. If this was accomplished all problems addressed in this song and stemming from real life experience would vanish.

3 Didactics and Realization

Subsequent to the analysis of En Vogue’s Free your mind which straightforwardly expresses tensions that are still witnessed by Afro-Americans and stemming from racial prejudices and stereotypes, the following chapter concentrates on the didactic approach on the interrelation of the academic concepts presented above and the students’ reality and topicality in everyday news at the moment. Moreover, the teaching aims, the lesson plan, the group of learners and possible student results will be reflected and discussed analytically.

3.1 Teaching Aims

The Lehrplan Englisch of Rhineland- Palatinate aims at teaching students to become critical citizens that are capable of using language consciously. Therefore, Cultural Studies is embedded to enable students to reflecting cultures and understanding cultural, social and political values and norms to improve the individual’s intercultural awareness (cf. 33f.).

In specific, the overall teaching unit intends to enable students to critically handle the topics racism and prejudice and to create awareness of fossilized stereotypes, which is thought to support young people to grow up to reasonable and stable personalities. In the planned lesson as such students are asked to gather ideas before creating scripts to shoot a video clip for the song. By shooting a video clip, students have to visualize the lyrics and the interpretation, which has already been finalized in class beforehand. Using popular culture in the ESL classroom is both appropriate and instrumental in helping students to create a relation to their world, as they can include their own experience and current topics they are affected with. Initially, providing a comfortable working atmosphere is crucial when it comes to creative work, so students are separated into small groups with their tasks (see task sheet in appendix). The teacher’s role is reduced to a consultant and moderator. Additionally, students can recapitulate the findings of the plenum’s discussion with regard to the analysis and come up with own ideas how to visualize the specific images created by En Vogue. By probing their closest surroundings, school life e.g. and their role within this, students have to assess their own attitudes and behavior self-critically.

Not only critical thinking competences are necessary within this lesson, but also social skills as group work requires students to independently discuss and reflect statements and ideas, agree on a draft and use appropriate language to describe their ideas on the video clip. Peer learning, dealing with conflicts and especially listen to one another can strengthen these social skills and competences. Also, students have to independently manage their working process and progress, which improves methodological competences further. By critically probing themselves with regard to prejudices, stereotypes and racism, students are supported to self-reflect and build up strong characters.

Within the conceptualized lesson, the focus is primarily on speaking practice by interaction. As this teaching unit is scheduled at the beginning of Gymnasiale Oberstufe the students are encouraged to speak fluently, to improve their speaking skills by expressing their opinions and to broaden their vocabulary suitable for the topic.

In summary, the lesson is considered to improve core competences in the fields of social, personal and methodological development, evoked by the inclusion of permanently topical aspects of Cultural Studies concepts. This will be achieved by relating the subject matter to students’ environment and through the use of varying didactic methods during the lesson. Furthermore, both oral production and interaction are the major skills focused on.

3.2 Group of Learners and prerequisites

The lesson is designed for students of an advanced course in year 11 at the Gymnasiale Oberstufe, consisting of 15 students. In an advanced course, students’ oral production and writing skills should be at the verge from level B1 (Threshold) to level B2 (Vantage) of the Common European Framework (CEF) and thus, be able to “[…] reasonably fluently sustain a straightforward description […] presenting it as a linear sequence of points” (58) and “[...] write straightforward connected texts […]” (61). Presupposing this, all communication will be in English only. Also, students are familiar with the method of teaching to be used within this lesson. As the students’ age ranges from 16 to 17, only a minority of the class may either know this song of 1992 or the corresponding video clip. This fact helps to abet creativity in coming up with ideas. Nevertheless, students are familiar with video clips for pop songs as such, which links the task to some extend to their reality and thus, makes it more interesting, challenging and motivating to participate. Even though the song may not be contemporary, the interpretation and visualization, the drafting of the clip and the shooting followed by showing it creates authenticity of the material chosen for class. As Weskamp lines out, authenticity is given, as it evolves within the context of the lesson (cf. 57) and supports self-motivated usage of language. Furthermore, all technical prerequisites such as cameras for videotaping, computers or tablet PCs are available at all times and a sufficient number of students is familiar with video editing software.

In order to promote fluency and thus, see language as a means of social interaction (cf. Müller-Hartmann and Schocker-v.Ditfurth 66), group work is the most feasible method of choice within this context. It creates a “[…] comfortable target-language atmosphere where English is used as the ‘natural’ means of communication […]” (63). To accommodate the natural heterogeneity in every group of learners the tasks given has to be created diversified to stimulate participation and thus, facilitate gain in knowledge, skills and competences. The following sub chapters are to discuss the matter.

3.3 Lesson plan

The lesson outlined below is part of a whole teaching unit on the concept of racism, stereotypes, and prejudices. As this unit takes place at the beginning of the term, these topics connect to contents of year 10 about racial segregation in the US and deal with them on an advanced level. The unit precedes a school-wide project dealing with respect for others. Consequently, this lesson is designed as a pre-project task (cf. Müller-Hartmann und Schocker-v.Ditfurth 117) to enthuse students for the upcoming project. Additionally, it serves as a preparatory step in the project (cf. Meyer 74). The focus is set on visualizing the lyrics of En Vogue’s song on the content side, which leads to a development of media literacy and ability in Medienhandeln (cf. Volkmann 285). Medienhandeln, as Volkmann puts it, goes beyond reception or interaction with media, as it puts innovative and creative usage of media into focus, which causes an deep examination of the topics and hence, a long term learning success can be achieved. The shooting of an own video clip supports students to recognize non-verbal aspects of a culture (cf. Volkmann 281). Creating images by themselves based on the findings requires students to intensively deal with this aspect of popular culture.

On the methodological side, the focus is set on oral production and spoken interaction within a learner-centered approach (cf. Müller-Hartmann und Schocker-v.Ditfurth 115). Using popular culture in such an approach helps to pursue the overall target of enabling students to successfully manage everyday communication outside school and creating language awareness (cf. Volkmann 278).

I decided for Free your mind because I think it has not lost its significance although it is almost 25 years old. It connects to the contents taught in year 10 and to the concepts covered so far. With the current developments Germany or the discussions on police violence against Afro-Americans in the US it is a suitable item for the upcoming project. I chose the task of shooting an own video clip with respect to authenticity and motivation following Volkmann’s argument that young people today acquire their knowledge about the English speaking world through popular culture and hence, it serves the purpose of sustaining the motivation to proceed to a life-long learning of English (cf. Volkmann 279).



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University of Koblenz-Landau – Institut für Anglistik
Cultural Studies Pop music video production in class En Vogue R'n'B Racsim Stereotypes Prejudices lesson plan didactic approach on pop culture



Title: The Concept of Racism, Stereotypes and Prejudices Reflected in En Vogue’s "Free Your Mind"