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Virginia Journal of Education

Joining Hands


Race, social justice and equal opportunity in your classroom.

By Joy Lawson Davis, Ed.D.

Ferguson, Missouri. Baltimore. Chicago. In the past few years, our nation has experienced some significant, defining moments, in the form of tragedies, public protests, documentaries, books and social media conversations all related to the subject of race.

Race one of the most difficult topics we face in both education and society, and these kinds of moments are changing the way we educate, socialize and communicate.

The issue is as much out in the open as it’s ever been, and we cannot ignore the deeply damaging effects of racial discrimination and how it reaches into the very core of who we are as human beings. Race affects us, and our students, at every level: social, economic, educational, emotional and psychological.

As educators, we’re compelled to face how race and culture affect the teaching and learning experience, from primary school through high school. We, perhaps more than any other group of professionals, are positioned to make a tremendous difference over time in how we treat each other and how we change the course of the future. We shape communities directly and indirectly by the way we engage with our students on a daily basis.

First and foremost, we must all thoroughly examine our own biases, our own racial and cultural understandings, and our own worldview. Doing so isn’t just a healthy exercise—it’s a requirement to prepare us to do our best in serving the needs of all students. It’s the beginning of our own exploration of the intersecting issues of race, culture, and social justice as they relate to creating more culturally responsive and “race-safe” classrooms everywhere.

And it’s a tall order.

To be better educators, we must better understand our students’ cultural background and what that means to their lives, every day. We must also expand our knowledge base about our nation’s history of race relations and how our own thinking is affected by those biases and our own experiences and information.

Teachers who know more about their students’ background and respect cultural differences are more likely to connect with them in a meaningful and trustful way. A recent post I read on the blog “Citizen Ed” ( about African-American boys illustrates this point very well. The author, a veteran educator named Lee-Ann Stephens, writes about teachers so concerned with the behavior of black male students that they often overlooked the student’s individual strengths and learning needs. Her comments are well supported by research showing teacher expectations about black students, males in particular, are often negatively based on individual perceptions about the way students act instead of their understanding of student intellectual potential.

Black males are among the largest group of students who underachieve academically, and are under-represented in gifted and advanced programs, over-represented in special education programs, and disproportionately suspended and expelled, according to the 2015 Schott Foundation Report on Black Males. I believe that negative perceptions held by many teachers about black and other male children of color are a significant contributing factor in those statistics. There is more than sufficient evidence of the high intellectual potential of individuals from all cultural groups and communities throughout the history of our nation.

Research from the University of Pennsylvania suggests that as many as 80 percent of classroom teachers nationwide are white, middle class females, while their students are increasingly both culturally diverse and living in poverty. White, middle class teachers in these situations need specialized training if they’re going to be as effective as they need to be. Presuming that a highly qualified teacher, even with the best of intentions, can teach all learners equitably without specific training is like presuming that any surgeon can enter an operating room and perform a neurological procedure without any special training in neurology. You need an intimate knowledge of what your students are living every day.

To do that well, teachers of diverse students must also make a concerted effort to get to know the families and communities they serve. Connecting here will help teachers understand the historical legacy of communities, how the challenges of systemic discrimination affect the daily lives of students and families, and what unique skills they’ve developed to survive and overcome unjust conditions. Family and community members can also be great allies in developing equitable and holistic educational programs that involve everyone who cares about the futures of students from diverse communities.

There are also some important definitions culturally responsive educators should know. Understanding these terms is a first step in beginning to have very important conversations about race that teachers need to have. Knowing this kind of vocabulary can also help teachers design and implement social justice curricula across content areas. Here are a few helpful terms:

• Code switching: Shifting and mixing languages or patterns of speech depending on who we’re conversing with; reflexive, subtle changes in speech, expression patterns. (

• Colorblind: The belief that the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture or ethnicity. Can be a form of racism by denying history of discrimination. (

• Implicit bias: Attitudes or stereotypes that unconsciously affect our understanding, actions and decisions, both favorably and unfavorably, leading to attitudes about others people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age and appearance. (

• Micro-aggressions: Brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by whites, some who are unaware, others who intentionally aim to hurt and offend.  (

• Multiculturalism: An ideology that acknowledges, highlights and celebrates ethno-racial differences, recognizing each tradition has something valuable to offer. It is not afraid to see how others have suffered as a result of racial conflict or differences.

• White privilege: A socio-cultural term describing benefits white people have on a daily basis beyond those of other groups. White privilege can exist without white people’s conscious knowledge and helps maintain the racial hierarchy in the United States.

Incorporating social justice issues into your curriculum gives students a chance to discuss race and how it affects their lives. Many students are deeply concerned about racial discrimination, injustices against their fellow human being, how laws are designed, systemic discrimination and the impact on society in the past, today and the future. Many social justice giants began their activism as adolescents facing difficult situations in their own communities.

Some of the best lessons I’ve learned about race, culture and social justice over the years have come from frank conversations with my students and from reading their heartfelt autobiographies about their own experiences with bias, discrimination, privilege, micro-aggressions and stereotyping. Lawrence Blum’s book on High Schools, Race and America’s Future provides excellent ideas and feedback on lesson plans that he designed for a high school course of the same title.

About seven years ago, I began teaching an undergraduate course titled “Curriculum and Instructional Strategies for Diverse Learners,” which has been an opportunity to use some excellent resources I gathered over the years related to diverse students and discrimination in education. The course covers ideas and research on topics such as critical race theory, white privilege, racial identity, poverty, gender issues, micro-aggressions, the history of schooling in America, implicit bias, and stereotype threat—all very important constructs to understand in order to reach and teach an increasingly diverse student body. 

This course is mandatory at our university for all elementary, secondary and special education majors. I taught a similar mandatory course at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette a few years ago. I’ve come to learn, however, that such courses are not mandatory in all teacher education programs. As a result, I believe too many new teachers enter classrooms with little or no knowledge of the complexities of addressing the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students. When they go into the classroom, those teachers are responsible for children whose experiences, traditions, values, strengths and historical legacy they may only understand in a limited way. That can make those teachers less likely to reach their students in a meaningful, substantive way and less likely to empathize with their daily living conditions.

That shouldn’t be the case. Classroom teachers can become leaders in the social justice movements in our society by making their classrooms “race-safe” spaces where students feel comfortable being who they are, where they feel respected and valued, and where there are opportunities to speak openly about issues that matter most to them. Such an environment is also one where there is no tolerance for stereotyping, name-calling, or denigrating of individuals or groups.

In today’s world, it is every educator’s task to help shape a generation of young people who are “racially just” in word and deed, who contribute positively to conversations and to action-oriented projects designed to help those whose needs are overlooked, and who have the skills to bring our society to a higher, more transcendent level. Will it be a challenge to do this? Yes, it will. But as those responsible for developing the minds and shaping the conscience of a nation, I believe it’s a challenge well worth working for.

Dr. Davis is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Teacher Education at Virginia Union University’s Syphax School of Education, Psychology and Interdisciplinary Studies.


VEA Can Help

Bringing a sense of social justice to your students and your classroom sounds like a lot to accomplish, but VEA can help. Here are three workshops the Association offers state educators:

• Diversity. Participants explore the evolution of diversity and its impact, and learn to recognize ways that cultural values affect a person's worldview and behavior.

• Cultural Competence. This training challenges educators to examine and strengthen their own teaching practices so that every student, from every culture we encounter in school, has the opportunity to be successful.

• Conflict Resolution. This covers effective strategies and the appropriate use of those strategies in intergroup and interpersonal situations involving conflict. 

To learn more about these workshops or to schedule one in your area, visit the “Training and Workshops” section of the “In the Classroom” heading on the VEA website,, or email


Social Justice Resources

Education advocates are also, by definition, social justice advocates. Here are two more places to look for information and assistance:

• Teaching Tolerance, a program of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is an educational outreach offering free material to teachers designed to reduce prejudice and support equitable school experiences for all. Curriculum kits and publications are free. Learn more at

• NEA’s Diversity Toolkit is a collection of online resources, including basic information, strategies, tools and suggestions on the many aspects of diversity. Access the toolkit at




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