How do I talk about race in the classroom?
With Kamala Harris, we elected our first African American, Asian American, and woman vice president.
Being the first to do something is monumental and can inspire children with the same identity to tell themselves: If she did it, so can I.
But it can also lead to the misconception that all barriers have fallen and we now live in a “colorblind” society. Some may believe that the history of racism and discrimination toward people of color no longer matters.
Research shows that egalitarianism—aiming for a world where people “don’t see color"—may seem entirely positive, but there are unintended consequences. For example, focusing only on a child’s character, without discussing their racial identity and society’s perception and treatment of that identity, is actually related to lower well-being and higher anxiety and depression outcomes.
So how do we discuss this concept in all its complexity: that children of color regularly face racism and discrimination and can still persevere? That white children may unwittingly commit racist acts if they are not aware of what it means to be racist?
Having constructive conversations about race is a skill—one that you can develop with practice. Resources compiled by Embrace Race and RESilience, for example, suggest how to broach the topic with kids.
But first, it’s important to take the time to unpack your own socialization and beliefs. Thinking about where you grew up, how you were taught about race as a child, and your experiences with discrimination can help you evaluate your own point of view. Then you can open yourself to hear the perspective of the young people in your life without putting your baggage on their shoulders. A frank discussion of identities—race and culture and context, in all their complexity—is healthy for you, children, and society at large.
Don’t assume that kids don’t pay attention to race. Although they may need a little help to understand and communicate those feelings, young children are able to see race and reflect on their personal feelings and experiences about it.
Do talk to young people about where they see advances for issues of race—and where there’s still work to be done. Ask open-ended questions like, “Why do you think that happened?” and “How does that make you feel?” especially when discussing the news and in the course of everyday activities, like walking in the hallways. And listen. Feeling heard will help them gain confidence to achieve their own goals and work toward building a truly equitable society—one where a notable first will not be the last.
The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.