Autobiography in Multicultural Education: Reading, Writing, and Video Production

Teresa Graham Brett
Charles F. Behling
Jeffrey D. Brake
University of Michigan
October 2, 1998


This article describes the use of autobiography as a method to encourage students to explore their personal experiences as targets and agents of aversive, modern, and symbolic -isms. Three autobiographical exercises are described: reading the life stories of peers, writing one’s own story, and converting that story to video.

Contemporary pyschological theories of prejudice, discrimination, and -isms, e.g. aversive racism (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1986) modern racism (McConahay, 1986), symbolic racism (Sears, 1988), etc., suggest that individuals must confront beliefs and behaviors of which they are unaware in order to develop more egalitarian behaviors and attitudes. The present article suggests one method of multicultural education relying heavily on autobiographical pedagogy to help students increase awareness of their own prejudices and discriminatory behavior. The technique described in this article will draw upon reading autobiographies, writing autobiographies and producing individual video diaries.

The present course was offered to first year students, as part of a living-learning program at a university. The course was taught as a seminar, with 19 students. Of these students, were 14 women and 5 men; 3 African American (one multiracial), 3 Asian American, 1 Latino/a, 1 Native American (multiracial), and 11 White; 7 students were Jewish; and 1 self-identified gay person.

The seminar was team taught by three instructors, one woman and two men, one Asian American (biracial) and two whites.


The course began with traditional readings on the psychology of prejudice, discrimination, and racism, emphasizing the approach of Dovidio and Gaertner (1986). Importantly, however, the course incorporated from the very beginning frequent experiential exercises (e.g., Intergroup Relations Program, 1998a; Adams et al, 1997).

Early readings also included an excellent collection of racial-ethnic autobiographies, “Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews, and Latinos” (1991). This is a collection of short personal accounts written by students for courses at the University of Michigan. In addition to being powerful and instructive stories in their own right, the collection has the advantage of being highly identifiable to many students. The authors, after all, are approximately the same age as the readers, and the authors composed their stories in a class very much like the one in which the readers are enrolled.

After discussion and exercises relating to these autobiographies, students were asked to write their own life stories. Persons were encouraged to be as honest as possible--i.e., to “push their comfort zones” by confronting issues which may be unsettling, but to “respect their safety zones” by not revealing issues to others which felt excessively risky violations of privacy (Intergroup Relations Program, 1998b). Instructors required all students to write autobiographies, but students were assured that they could withhold permission for any or all of the instructors to read the autobiographies (the entire papers or any portions of them). (In this case, the work would be self graded.) Finally, students were invited, but not required or pressured, to share any portions of their stories with other students in the class.

After the autobiographies were completed, about six weeks into the course, students were then asked to reproduce their stories in a different format. At this point, students were asked to produce short videos reflecting some part of their life stories. This portion of the project was supported by a grant from the Institute for Public Media Arts, and by advice and consultation with the staff of the Institute.

It was not expected that students would become proficient in video production itself; many assurances were given that grades and evaluations would be based on content, not production quality.

Students quickly became very enthusiastic about this project. Video seemed intrinsically interesting to most of the students, and it gave a contemporary, almost communal and festive flavor, to work during this part of the course.

Although students based their videos on their written autobiographies, using the autobiographies read in the text as models, the videos often took on a more emotional and less guarded tone than the written autobiographies. As one example, women writing about body image converted their discussions from mostly cognitive accounts to powerful visual images, marked with music and commentary.

It should be acknowledged that two of the three instructors were quite inexperienced in video production, while the third was expert. Despite the anxiety of the two inexperienced instructors, it proved quite easy to lead the students in the video project. The students themselves were eager and adept at learning these skills, and the generous guidance of a single experienced video teacher was sufficient to allow production of the videos.

After the videos were produced, the students met for a screening party at a faculty home. Any students who wished showed their videos, asked for feedback (sometimes oral, sometimes written, sometimes both) from their peers. The videos were all powerful and instructive, ranging in style from ironic and comedic to courageously revealing.


The autobiographical method--reading published stories by other college students, writing one’s own ethnic-racial autobiography, and then finding a visual method to present one’s autobiography--was highly effective in encouraging students to apply traditional psychological concepts to their own lives. The more formal academic readings of the course were well reflected in the personal writings and videos.

Importantly, students seemed to bond together as a group, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes in conflict, as they explored both the similarities and differences in their perceptions and experiences. At the present time, a year after the course, members of the seminar still meet for discussion and social events.

Crucially, the method seemed to enable students to apply to themselves the notion that contemporary -isms are often behaviors engaged in by persons who consider themselves unprejudiced and who are unaware of their disciminatory actions. Students showed, in both written and video autobiographies, cases in which they had been the targets of such contemporary discrimination, and perhaps more importantly, cases in which they had been the agents of such discrimination. This would seem a powerful step in learning both the psychology of prejudice and discrimination, and in developing abilities and skills to contribute effectively toward social justice.


Adams, M., Bell, L.A., & Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1997). Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. New York: Routledge.

Dovidio, J.F. , and Gaertner, S.L. (Eds.) (1986). Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism. New York: Academic Press.

Intergroup Relations Program. (1998a.) Exercises for Multicultural Dialogues. University of Michigan: Unpublished Manuscript.

Intergroup Relations Program. (1998b). Some differences between Comfort and Safety. University of Michigan: Unpublished Manuscript.

McConahay, J.B. (1986). "Modern Racism, Ambivalence, and the Modern Racism Scale." In J.F. Dovidio and S.L. Gaertner (eds.), Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism (pp. 91-126). New York: Academic Press.

Schoem, D. (Ed.) (1991). Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews, and Latinos. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Sears, D.O. (1988). "Symbolic Racism." In P.A. Katz and D.A. Taylor (eds.), Eliminating Racism: Profiles in Controversy (pp. 53-84). New York: Plenum.


Send correspondence to Teresa Graham Brett, Co-Director, Intergroup Relations Program, 3000 Michigan Union, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mi. 48109-1349.

The course described in this article was supported by a generous grant from the Institute for Public Media Arts, Chapel Hill, N.C.

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