I opened YouTube to this video and, before playing it, asked some of my Chinese students to look at the cover shot--the close up of the young man with sunglasses and a large instrument, only halfway visible--and guess what and whom they were about to watch. Most agreed that he was probably a rapper musician about to chant a song, and maybe play upright bass at the same time.
"Okay. Why do you say that?" I asked.
Shyly, one replied, "Well, he's wearing sunglasses, and not to sound racist or anything, but usually black guys with sunglasses on YouTube are, like, rappers, you know…."
"Or a comedian. Maybe he's going to do a parody song."
Keeping a blank face, I continued questioning: "Really? And what do you guess that his voice might sound like?"
Another student answered, "Kind of like a Southern accent, like African-Americans in cities talk."
"Mmhmm. So, keep in mind what you predicted and watch with me now." I clicked the Play arrow.
[READER, NOW CLICK ON THE ARROW, TOO, AND WATCH THE VIDEO, IMAGINING YOURSELF AS A CHINESE MIDDLE SCHOOLER, WATCHING THIS WITH ME.]
"WHAAAAT?!" they all exclaimed.
"How does he speak Chinese better than I do?" Giggles and uncomfortable looks were exchanged between the girls and boys.
"Wow, is he that guy from Pentatonix, Mrs. Lipson? The beat boxer? I didn't know he could play cello, too!"
I nodded, smiling.
"Gosh, I didn't even know you could play cello like that--so cool!"
"I didn't expect him to start beat-boxing while he was playing!"
I interjected, "You expected a lot of things, but not what he did, right?" They all nodded.
"Yeah, especially the Chinese! How did he learn Chinese? I mean, he's African-American!"
"He's obviously very smart," replied a 13-year-old boy. "He said in Chinese that he goes to Yale."
"Is this for real? Like, did he learn a script or something? Is this a scam?"
Another student answers the question, shaking his head. "No, he was speaking Chinese perfectly." Turning to me, he added, "Mrs. Lipson, his vocabulary was not even basic, like you'd expect. He uses really advanced words. Wow…"
"Yes, he's a remarkably talented young man. He happens to be a friend of my daughter, too, by the way." Jaws dropped, but before more enthusiastic commotion could start, I declared, "Okay, everyone, listen up. Here's your prompt: Write about how this video defies expectations and illustrate each of the stereotypes that this brilliant, talented, young man, Kevin Olusola, has challenged via his YouTube performance. And I want you to reflect upon what your expectations show you about yourself and your perceptions of others, as well as how you defy expectations of Chinese people."
The short essays that resulted from this prompt, overall, discussed how Kevin Olusola singlehandedly dispelled five stereotypes and enlightened these viewers with his YouTube video. Their main points included how this video taught them: 1) That a dark-skinned man in sunglasses is not a rapper, a comedian, or a "thug," and may be an Ivy-league college student; 2) That a black man might play cello, an instrument usually associated with classical music, not pop or rap; 3) That a cello can play music other than classical style; 4) That beat-boxing can pair with cello for an awesome, one-man band; and 5) That an African-American can speak better Chinese than a Chinese-American--and that they needed to study Chinese more! The students' reflections regarding themselves included their realizations that they needed to keep biases out of their expectations regarding black people and people of other races, in general. And their realizations regarding how stereotypes of Chinese people affect who they are and how they act made for a lively discussion about academic pressures based on expectations that they must be smart and great test-takers and get perfect scores in math, etc.
Thank you, Kevin Olusola, for unwittingly providing such an enlightening writing prompt! Look up Kevin Olusola on YouTube, and find him as one of the five brilliant a cappella singers of Pentatonix.