Talking About Race in School
June 11, 2021
June 11, 2021
The time is long past when educators could sidestep classroom discussions of race issues. Racial justice is front and center in our national consciousness and very much on the radar of our youth. The topic is going to come up. For healthy and constructive ways to handle race-related conversation in class, the National Education Association offers these 10 principles:
1. Create a welcoming classroom and school
Each class has its own culture and learning climate. When you make equity and inclusion prominent priorities in your classroom norms, routines and environment, your students will feel a greater sense of belonging, safety and openness. Balance participation and learning opportunities.
2. Root out biases and barriers
Be willing to examine your own biases. Reflect upon all aspects of your teaching practice. Could your curriculum, pedagogy, grading, classroom management, or disciplinary practices be giving preference to some students while putting others at a disadvantage? Are there any barriers to learning and success that some students may be experiencing? What are the racial impacts of different policies and practices at your school and school division?
3. Encourage self-expression
Give your students the ability and validation to bring their full racial and cultural identities into your classroom so they can be themselves and speak their truths. Trust their wisdom and show deep respect. Discussions can begin by giving students an opportunity to share their experiences, perspectives, or stories. Identify and appreciate points of connection, as well as differences.
4. Be open yourself
Be willing to share different dimensions of your own racial identity and cultural background. Be open about your experience with racial inequities and/or racial privilege and any efforts you’ve participated in to advance racial justice. How has your racial identity been both a strength and a challenge in your life? What have you learned along the way, what were your mistakes, and what are you still learning?
5. Engage, don’t avoid
Racism is perpetuated by silence. Being “colorblind” often serves as a pretense to downplay the significance of race, deny the existence of racism, and erase the experience of students of color. Be willing to lead the uncomfortable conversations and turn them into teachable moments. Learn to break through your own discomfort to embrace the tensions and unknowns.
6. Create opportunities for discussion
Use current events, cultural happenings and local angles to spark relevant and meaningful discussions among your students. Pop culture (e.g. music, movies, sports, celebrities) is particularly engaging for young people, supplying continuous fodder for important race conversations. Keep abreast of race-related news sites or social media by people of color to get ideas for hot topics.
7. Talk about racism and racial equity
If you want to get real about race, you have to also be willing to talk about racism and racial equity. To do so effectively, it helps to establish definitions for the terms you’ll be using. For example, racial equity is not just the absence of discrimination but also the presence of values and systems that ensure fairness and justice. (More definitions are available in NEA’s Racial Justice in Education Resource Guide, available for download at nea.org.)
8. Establish and enforce group norms
Since conversations about race can be difficult and divisive, establish some agreements before you begin the conversation. Allow your students to generate, agree to, and hold each other accountable to their own norms. Display these agreements and refer back to them, as needed. Decide upfront on the goals and parameters of the conversation — what you are and are not going to address.
9. Process is as important as content
If you expect a challenging conversation, take time to get centered and take some deep breaths together. Try to be fully present with each other, without any distractions. Pay attention not only to what is being said (or not being said), but also to how it is being said, and who is saying it (or who is not speaking). Expect to do more facilitating and process management, with the content of the conversation mostly generated in real time by your students.
10. Model your values and vision
Practice equity, inclusion, empathy and respect in your own classroom. Your actions, more than your words, will have the greatest impact on your students. They are looking to you for leadership and allyship. You can play a formative role in helping them build critical skills for navigating the complexities of race.