Making Memes to Protest Racism

Artist Daniel Rarela created a series of memes that juxtapose quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s text with images of King from the time period and with contemporary images. Rarela’s goal, as explained in a January 2017 News.Mic article, “Artist creates ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ memes to stop people from whitewashing MLK.”

Rarela noticed people who had not protested the murder of black people by police, but who later spoke up about the death of police officers after a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, Texas. As these folks posted social media updates that invoked the words of Dr. King “without talking about the racial and economic justice he championed.” Rarela found their “selective compassion” troubling and designed his memes in response.

The memes that Rarela designed are no longer available in the News.Mic article nor on Twitter. Many have been archived by Caroline Yezer on ThreadReaderApp (also in this PDF). Among these archived memes is an image San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick overlaid with King’s statements. The meme pairs an image of Kaepernick, kneeling during the National Anthem as a protest against racism, with King’s comments on the purpose of direct action. Together, the words and image communicate a powerful message about Kaepernick’s direct action, about the on-going battle against racism in America, and about the timeless relevance of King’s words:

Rarela's Meme of Colin Kaepernick with MLK Jr quotation on direct action

Transcript of the Tweet and Meme

Memes as Models for Student Compositions

In the classroom, discuss the message Rarela’s memes communicate and the visual argument strategies he uses in his design. See Visual Argument Analysis from Colorado State University for questions you can use in analysis of the visual strategies.

After discussing Rarela’s designs, students can create their own memes, pairing images from current #BlackLivesMatter protests with relevant quotations from Dr. King and other civil rights leaders. Students can also use literary quotations from black authors, historians, journalists, and activists to illustrate or comment on the images.

As another option, students can use quotations from other texts that comment in some way on the actions in the image. Compare Rarela’s images to the meme below, showing President Donald Trump in front of St. John’s on June 1. Use the NPR article “‘He Did Not Pray’: Fallout Grows From Trump’s Photo-Op At St. John’s Church” for background information on the image, if necessary. In this meme, the overlaid text comments ironically on the image, using a biblical quotation to comment ironically on the image of Trump holding a bible in front of a church.

Meme showing President Donald Trump in front of St. John’s Church

Transcript of the Meme

Tools for Meme-Making

Students can use a free online tool like Canva or PicMonkey to edit their images. Spend some time in class demonstrating how to work with text and images in the software students will use. Show students how to find online help for the tools they use.

In particular, students need to understand how to create contrast between the image and the text that they add in the image editor. Rarela uses the stark contrast of the red background with white lettering to ensure Dr. King’s text stands out. As a class, you can explore other ways to highlight the text.

Original Example Following Rarela’s Design

To demonstrate the idea, I created a meme, matching comments from Coretta Scott King with a political protest photo. The NPR story “Activist Climbs Flagpole At S.C. Statehouse, Removes Confederate Banner” provides background information on the protest, which occurred after the shooting of nine members of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The image pairs a photo of Bree Newsome removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse in 2015 with a comment Coretta Scott King made on the Confederate flag.

Meme showing Bree Newsome removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse in 2015 with a quotation from Coretta Scott King

Transcript of the Meme


This post updates and revises “Making Memes to Illustrate Readings,” published in January 2017 on Bedford Bits in the Macmillan Community.

Preparing to Explore Racism

Multiculturalism by Pug50 on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseBefore discussing racism, we must prepare students to ensure the classroom offers an inclusive and safe environment to explore these issues. We have to be prepared to guide students through fair but honest discussions in ways that avoid emotional or highly charged confrontations.

Fortunately, there are many resources available to help teachers prepare with these classroom discussions. The following resources suggest practical strategies you can use to guide these student conversations:

These resources emphasize the significance of ensuring that students are prepared for the conversations. Though we may wish to, we cannot force students to accept and support any particular viewpoint. We cannot require an ideology, but we can ask questions and encourage analysis that persuades students to consider the issues more clearly.

To prepare students for these conversations, create classroom discussion guidelines and practice following them in less contentious conversations before moving to more difficult subjects. Alternately, you can use the  Guidelines for Discussing Incidents of Hate, Bias, and Discrimination, from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. You cannot guess everything that can go wrong, but you can have classroom management strategies in place that will help you defuse problems before they spiral out of control. Additionally, choose activities that ask students to consider the factual aspects the issue they are exploring, but not to judge the facts or their presentation as good or bad.

Not only must students be prepared, but you must be prepared yourself. If you feel uncomfortable guiding these class discussions consult the articles How Should I Talk about Race in My Mostly White Classroom? from the Anti-Defamation League, and Know How to Talk about Race, from the Teaching Tolerance website. Both provide information that will help you build confidence about how to talk about race and racism in the classroom.

As you prepare, also read the AAUP article “Eight Actions to Reduce Racism in College Classrooms,” from the November–December 2016 Academe. The article provides a candid outline of typical ways that racism appears in higher ed and offers concrete suggestions for self-examination of teachers’ own attitudes and actions. It urges readers to “recognize your implicit biases and remediate your racial illiteracy,” to “meaningfully integrate diverse cultures and peoples into the curriculum,” and to “responsibly address racial tensions when they arise”—excellent suggestions all. These recommendations are supported by climate studies the authors conducted at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.


This post updates and revises “Preparing to Explore Racism and Racist Events in the Classroom,” published in August 2017 on Bedford Bits in the Macmillan Community.

Photo credit: Multiculturalism by Pug50 on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Class Discussion about Tolerance

tolerance by ambar stefania, on FlickrOne effective, but simple, way to explore tolerance is to look at the ways people talk about the concept and then produce projects that share their exploration with others on campus. Here’s one way to accomplish that goal through in-class discussion and collaboration.

Session One

  1. Ask students to brainstorm on their understanding of tolerance. They can record personal experiences, working definitions, and responses to events in the news. The goal is to create a touchstone that they can return to later. There is no right or wrong answer. Everyone in a community can talk about tolerance for the values and actions of others.
  2. Move to UNESCO’s 1995 Declaration of Principles on Tolerance (alternate pdf). Article 1 of the Declaration specifically addresses the “Meaning of tolerance.” Ask students to read the entire Declaration, paying particular attention to that section.
  3. Discuss the definition in the Declaration and how it compares to the ideas in students’ brainstorming. Explore the language that is used in the document specifically. Unpack the complex words, and note how the document works toward inclusive language.
  4. If class time allows, students can work in groups, each taking one point of Article 1 and rewriting the explanation using less formal language. They can imagine themselves writing for younger students or writing sound bites for a general audience.
  5. After discussion of the Declaration, ask students to reflect on how the document relates to their earlier notes on the concept either in class or for homework.

Session Two

  1. Review the definition(s) of tolerance from the previous session, explaining that the class will spend time this session comparing to the ways that tolerance is discussed publicly.
  2. Share news articles about tolerance, intolerance, and bullying with the class. You can use local examples or stories from the Google News Search for the word tolerance. Review stories in advance to ensure they are appropriate for the classroom.
  3. Ask students to separate objective details and material from subjective details and material, noting how the information is used in the articles. Talk about how purpose and audience influence the information and the language that is used to present it.
  4. Have students apply their definitions of tolerance to the articles, considering these discussion questions:
    • Do the articles specifically use the word tolerance or intolerance?
    • Are other words used to describe tolerant (or intolerant) attitudes?
    • How does the perspective shift if you rephrase the pieces to use the antonym?
    • How does the discussion in the articles align with the UNESCO Declaration and the ideas they brainstormed in Session One?
  5. Finish the project by asking students to write about how one or more of the articles relates to their own or the UNESCO Declaration’s understanding of tolerance. Ask students to draw conclusions about how tolerance is discussed (implicitly or explicitly) and defined.
  6. Alternately, move the project toward sharing students’ exploration of tolerance outside the classroom. Ask student groups to create a text that explains tolerance and urges others to promote and practice tolerance every day. Check with your school’s office of equal opportunity office, student affairs, or residence life for help distributing students’ work to the campus community. Students can work on projects like these:
    • create posters that are displayed on campus.
    • write letters to the school or local newspaper.
    • produce video or audio podcasts that share their messages.
    • arrange a flash mob on tolerance.
    • design an infographic that presents details on tolerance.
    • create a playlist of songs that reflect tolerance, with notes on why they were chosen.
    • curate a display for the library or student center.
    • assemble a class photo essay to display on digital sign boards on campus.
    • write flyers, pamphlets, or brochures to distribute on campus.
    • post a meme-style campaign on social media, modeled on the photos in the image above.


This post updates and revises “Talk about Tolerance,” published in November 2016 on Bedford Bits in the Macmillan Community. The 2016 post was itself a revision of a post from November 2010.


Photo Credit: tolerance by ambar stefania, on Flickr, under a CC-BY 2.0 license.