School & District Management

Classroom Discussions on Race: Hear What 5 Black Students Say They Need

By Catherine Gewertz — July 31, 2020 9 min read
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By Catherine Gewertz, Sarah Schwartz, and Madeline Will

Thousands of high school students have participated in demonstrations against police killings of unarmed Black people. Some students are demanding that their school districts adopt anti-racist curricula.

Against that backdrop of activism, Education Week asked 10 Black high school students around the country about their experiences in school, including class discussions about race and racism.

In another video, students tell educators what they need from their schools to feel safe and supported. Subsequent videos will feature students’ views on the importance of Black teachers and what they feel should be the role of school police. See all videos here.

Below are some more-detailed stories from five of those students about class conversations they thought went well, and those they thought didn’t go well at all.

‘Keeping It Specific’

Zoë Jenkins, 16 and a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Ky., said her Advanced Placement government teacher led a good discussion about affirmative action and the Supreme Court.

“He ... made sure to give us a lot of context behind why schools were doing these systems to give students like extra points for their race, ethnicity, or gender, and ... just keeping it specific, but also keeping it very factual, and making sure that students were kind of like staying within those bounds. So when students would kind of start veering off, making generalizations or things like that, he was really good about correcting them, but in a way that wasn’t calling them out, but just kind of like a group learning moment like, ‘Hey, you know, I know you probably didn’t mean it this way. But let’s just make sure we use this kind of language when trying to talk about a very diverse group of people.’ So that one went, I think, particularly well.”

It really helped, Jenkins said, that there were “four or five Black students in that class.” It meant that “no one felt the pressure of like, I have to stand up for people of underrepresented minorities in this moment, because I’m the only one.” Having more Black students in class “also forces people to think a little bit more about what they’re going to say and when they say it,” she said.

‘The Pressure on Students to Correct Other Students’

A discussion that didn’t go well, Jenkins said, took place in her AP English class after students had read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and watched the Childish Gambino music video “This is America” and “13th,” a documentary about race and incarceration.

During the discussion, some students referred to Black people as ‘“the Blacks,” she said, and one student “was talking about how, in his words, that when we gave Black people their freedom with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, that they didn’t know what to do with themselves, so they turned to crack and then that’s how we got to the crack epidemic, which is obviously ... just so wrong on so many different levels. But then our teacher didn’t correct that.”

“I can understand the hesitancy to correct that when you’re having, like, a Socratic conversation. You want students to be leading it. But that then puts the pressure on students to correct other students, which can sometimes I think, come off the wrong way, especially in that classroom as the only Black student, there’s a lot of pressure, like, ‘Hey, Zoë, you should really call out that behavior.’ And it’s like, I don’t even know where to begin to explain, like, on how many different levels that was just wrong.”

In that discussion, Jenkins said, “we could have had a lot more work on making sure there was more context. And also just setting norms for how those conversations should be held.”

‘I’m Going to Police You’

Rena Mateja Walker Burr, 16 and a junior at Cleveland High School in Seattle, recalled an incident in class that sparked a discussion when one Black classmate referred to another Black classmate by using the n-word.

“In like Black culture, it’s kind of like a term of endearment,” Walker Burr said. “And the [white] teacher just stopped and she was like, ‘No, you’re not allowed to say it in my classroom.’ And all the students are kind of like looking at each other like what do you mean?’ ... It just turned into this whole huge class discussion. And it was like two days long. And then other class periods got a hold of it, and then they ended up talking about it.”

“A lot of students I talked to ended up like damaged from that conversation,” Walker Burr said. The school tried to resolve the upset by conducting structured conversations about it through its restorative justice system, a discussion-based way of resolving conflicts, but Walker Burr ended up feeling that some students’ experience of their teachers’ comments wasn’t fully understood.

“For a teacher to really just kind of ... nonchalantly not really care about our opinions, it was like kind of a slap in our face because we were just trying to educate her and tell her why we thought, personally, it was wrong for her to try to tell us whether we can use the word or not use the word in our classroom.”

“One of the things I remember [her] saying so vividly was, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to police you on this word.’ And she said it in multiple class periods. And that was just kind of like, oh wow. ... For me personally, and for some of the other students I talked to, it was more of like, we don’t feel safe kind of thing. ... Because you say [the classroom is] inclusive to everybody. But your actions clearly show that it’s not inclusive to people who look like me.”

“Curriculum Is So Centered in Whiteness’

Jaden Adeyemi, 17 and a senior at Highland High School in Albuquerque, N.M., said school conversations on race are mostly focused on stories of oppression instead of Black triumph. Black students “are not seeing the successes of people who look like us,” she said.

“In high school, I see how even our U.S. history curriculum is so centered in whiteness,” Adeyemi said. “What we have to understand about Black history is that it’s so vast, and there’s so much that we don’t talk about. ... There are so many things about Black history that people don’t know because we don’t talk about it.”

She said it’s important for teachers to teach the full range of Black experiences—and just assigning diverse books isn’t enough.

“I think the thing about the books that we read is that even though they talk about Black people in Black history, sometimes they’re kind of in that comfort zone of like, ‘This is the small sliver of Black history that we talked about, and so let’s read this book because it kind of fits into that,’” she said. “And I think what I’m waiting for is for a teacher to have us read a really controversial book about Black history that we don’t [typically] want to read in school because it’s not centered in whiteness. We’re scared to do that.”

For example, she has read books like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin in school. Both books are focused on race, but they’re written by white authors and are not told from the Black perspective, she said. Adeyemi wishes teachers would assign books like the ones she reads in her free time, including A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story by Elaine Brown and The Autobiography of Malcom X.

‘They Can’t Be Scared to Talk About It’

McKenzie Curry, 18 and a recent graduate of Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, appreciated when her teacher in her African American history class was honest and direct about the horrors of slavery. Other teachers, Curry said, have shied away from hard truths:

“They kind of move around it, or don’t want to speak on it, or don’t want to speak on the impact of slavery or racism or anything that has to do with ... the harshest of the Black community and Black history. They kind of move around it, but I feel like they can’t be scared to talk about it. ... Because that’s how more of your students will feel more comfortable,” she said.

It’s OK for teachers to be nervous about discussing the history of slavery, Curry said, “but it’s still part of your job. You still have to be willing to go out of your way and teach it.”

Still, as teachers discuss painful topics, they need to take care not to show gratuitous violence, or trivialize suffering, Curry said. She remembered one lesson in an AP Government class, during which students watched a video on Hurricane Katrina.

“The video was shown to try to understand how the government works, and how a government will work during a crisis. But really, all we really saw were how the horrors of Katrina affected the Black community, and how nothing was done to help them really. ... We saw how African Americans were living day to day in slums, basically, and ... dying in the water, just trying to get to land that wasn’t covered in water. ... And it brought an uproar in our class, because we just didn’t think it was appropriate.”

Her teacher skipped through parts of the video that Curry thought would have been more instructive in demonstrating the government response. “It was more of, we were seeing Black people just living miserably than anything else,” she said.

Discussion about Black history and literature in schools shouldn’t begin and end with pain and tragedy, Curry said. “We should be able to read more stories with Black fictional characters or autobiographies about Black people that don’t always have to deal with slavery and racism, because there’s more to the Black experience, and there’s more stories to be told.”

‘This Is My Everyday Thing’

While many teachers have held class conversations on race after high-profile incidents such as the police killing of George Floyd, race should continue to be discussed in class long after the protests have simmered down, said Helena Almaw, 17 and a senior at DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School in Denver.

“Race shouldn’t, in my opinion, just be talked about when there’s a huge problem that has come up in our society,” she said. “There are more people coming out and talking about racial injustice and the injustices that are in our country but only for a small amount of time, and then it blows over. I don’t think that’s right. You know, this is not something I have to deal with one day, or one week—this is my everyday thing. It’s part of everybody’s life, and schools—especially my school—hold a lot of diverse students, and it’s the perfect place for us to hold those discussions.”

School should be the place where students feel safe talking about race, Almaw said, and it shouldn’t always be about injustices or inequities. She wishes positive aspects of race and diversity were discussed, too.

“It shouldn’t have to be us seeing a person getting killed for us to talk about it,” she said.

And that should start early on, Almaw said. She never discussed race—outside of Black History Month—in elementary school.

“If you cut it out of children’s lives early, that’s something they’re going to be subject to—they’re not going to focus on it when they’re older,” she said. “It shouldn’t be something that kids are told they can’t handle, because one way or another, they’re going to see it in the world around them. Kids are our future generations [and] are the ones who are always making changes.”

Photos: Zoë Jenkins, Rena Mateja Walker Burr, Jaden Adeyemi, McKenzie Curry, and Helena Almaw —Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.