When We Talk About Race, Let's Be Honest

Four ways educators can address race with students

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The day after white nationalists clashed with counterprotesters over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Virginia, a 3rd grade teacher approached me at a professional-learning meeting. "I want to say something to my students about Charlottesville, but I really don’t know what to say, so I probably won’t say anything about it unless one of them brings it up," the teacher told me.

These recent protests and the tragic death of counterprotester Heather Heyer have once again raised important—yet stubborn—questions about how educators should grapple with and address the issue of race in the classroom. But it is this type of inability that is part of the problem.

When We Talk About Race, We Owe Students Honesty Educators may feel apprehensive about addressing race, but that doesn’t mean they can stay silent, writes professor Tyrone C. Howard
Melody Johnson with her grandson Windell Francis during a vigil in Auburn, N.Y., on Aug. 14. The rally was held in response to a white nationalist rally held in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month.
—Kevin Rivoli /The Citizen via AP

As an African-American university professor who works with teachers locally and nationally, most of whom are white, I have seen firsthand that race is an ever-elusive topic in many discussions. One thing is clear though: Not talking about race and race-related events leaves students misinformed and curious and contributes to the ongoing tensions that exist in our country. By now, most students have seen the events in Charlottesville on social media or have heard their parents and peers discussing them. As they start a new school year, some may wonder: Why aren’t we talking about this?

The uncertainty that many educators have about discussing race is nothing new. However, when contentious race-related events occur, many classroom teachers respond with ambiguity, avoidance, and outright fear. This has to cease. Teachers need to be bold, courageous, and willing to engage students honestly about race, no matter their age.

There are differences along racial lines for teachers and their willingness to discuss race. Many white teachers do not see race as important, adopt colorblind approaches, and are unable or unwilling to engage race-related topics and discussions. White teachers must develop the capability to engage with race-related issues in the classroom. For teachers of color, there may be more of an inclination to have race-related discussions, because of firsthand accounts of racism or discrimination. To be clear, though, even some teachers of color are uncomfortable in discussing race. Thus, the goal must be for all teachers to develop the competencies to engage their students in race related discussions.

To be fair, such dialogues are rarely easy. In my work with educators, I have heard countless numbers of teachers (mostly white) claim that they feel woefully ill-equipped to discuss issues related to race, even though they work in majority nonwhite schools. For many white teachers, this is in part because these discussions fly in the face of timeless mantras and core values that are ingrained in American schools. Meritocracy, fairness, equality, justice, and egalitarianism are all core concepts that educators teach and preach both implicitly and explicitly to students of all ages. However, when race enters the conversation, issues around meritocracy are called into question because of the salience of white privilege and the disadvantages faced by communities of color. We also face a justice system that in the eyes of many does not seem to administer equitable outcomes to people of color.

Enter into this equation the horrific events in Charlottesville, where in the year 2017, white supremacists and neo-Nazis—branded with swastikas, carrying torches reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, and chanting Nazi slogans—were a symbol of white anger and resentment. This upsets the proverbial American apple cart. If concepts such as fairness, merit, hard work, and equality are staples in our discussions with students, then the realities of hate, racism, anti-Semitism, violence, and fear also must be part of our discussions informally and formally within school curricula.

"Teachers must be able to help students understand that there is no room for hate in a civil society."

How should teachers respond? First and foremost, teachers must equip themselves with sound knowledge on the history of slavery, racism, xenophobia, and the constant quest for equality that many nonwhite groups in this country faced historically and still struggle for today. These topics can be adjusted and modified for age appropriateness, but students need to be given honest accounts about some of the ugly histories of this country and learn about how the United States has not always lived up to its lofty ideals. We are a work in progress.

Second, educators must prepare for the fact that these conversations and lessons will be uncomfortable and do not always end smoothly—not even with children. To that end, teachers must be willing to stand in the gap and facilitate topics; teach students to query sources of information; and realize that there are often no kumbaya moments.

Third, teachers must be able to help students understand that there is no room for hate in a civil society. When protesting tactics are reminiscent of an earlier and uglier time in our nation’s history, they must be discussed, understood, and condemned. Though not easy, it is what we owe students, the field of education, and our nation if we are to become an ideal democracy. Teachers must be prepared to understand the messy, complex, emotional, cruel, shameful, and often contradictory messages that go along with these subjects. To do this, teachers must seek multiple perspectives, talk to a diversity of people about race-related topics, and also speak their truth, while acknowledging their own biases.

Finally, school leaders must play a pivotal role in providing guidance for how teachers might address these topics. The dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s school of education, Diana Hess, who has studied teachers’ avoidance of controversial topics in the classroom, says that many educators worry about students’ feelings, parents’ reactions, and administrators’ responses. However, students may be outright fearful after seeing the events in Charlottesville and may wonder if upheaval in their own community will follow. When racial animus is prevalent anywhere in our nation, and if students’ feelings and safety are priority No 1. for schools, avoiding the topic compromises student safety and well-being.

Nonwhite students have been the majority in U.S. public schools since 2014. Fear, uncertainty, and intimidation tactics cannot disrupt our country’s changing makeup. As painful and difficult as the events of Charlottesville are, they have provided us with yet another teachable moment to grow, learn, and educate our future leaders about the importance of living in a racially pluralistic, inclusive, and civil society. We cannot afford to lose the importance of this moment.

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