Equity & Diversity Opinion

Students Want to Talk About Race. Let Them

Educators can follow these guideposts for productive conversations
By Tyrone C. Howard & Keara Williams — February 28, 2022 5 min read
Collage illustration of Ahmad Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor
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The guilty verdicts last month in the federal case against the men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery serve as yet another reminder that we need more classroom conversations about how to talk to students about the volatile situations that remain connected to racial justice in America. We also need to be reminded of just how to conduct them. The aftermath of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor—as court cases in all three tragedies have either concluded or are ramping up—have left feelings of hurt, anger, and despair among students who are trying to process the totality of these horrific events.

If we go back to the spring and summer of 2020, we must remember the historic and massive protests that erupted in the streets of this nation that Black lives do matter, and that we must fight systemic racism. Among the protesters marching in the streets were school-age youth who were challenging adults to be better in acknowledging, confronting, and eliminating racism. Those particular protests may have ended, but our students’ feelings have not.

To be clear, the racial reckoning of 2020 continues to reverberate. Even as conversations have shifted to the banning of books in school systems like the Katy Independent School District in Texas, furor has mounted over critical race theory, and the desire to eliminate race talk—and, in some cases, history altogether. Each of these realities has highlighted how race still grips and divides America. Many educators find themselves unequipped or unwilling to address racial topics that may lead to legal bills and/or fines (or worse) or cause emotions to run high and parents to show up en masse to protest, or prompt the unwelcome ire of administrators.

As race, racism, equality, our racial past, and the intersection with our schools remain critical topics for discussion (and will certainly inform politics in the fall midterm elections), what do educators need to know? How can they respond?

We offer the following guideposts:

  • Create space to let students talk about issues of the day. Students, even those as young as upper elementary and middle school, are constantly consuming information about events of the day. Often, students do not have the space to talk with their peers in a structured, respectful, and informed manner. Students want to talk about race because they live it daily. Educators can open up discussions about race and racism by asking students what they think and why they think the way they do. Solicit their divergent viewpoints by asking them how our country can eliminate racism and ensure equity for all. Such spaces should be centered on healthy, civic dialogue that honors and respects multiple student viewpoints. This is about what the students think, not the teacher. Shifting the teacher’s role to facilitator guarantees that students are building the skill set to critique, understand, disagree, and agree—all while respecting each other.
  • Acknowledge what you don’t know. Many educators shy away from conversations about race and racism because they fear saying something wrong, looking wrong, or saying something racially offensive. To challenge this, educators should tell students where they feel informed and where they don’t. Learning together can be one of the more powerful knowledge-building tools. Saying to students “I don’t know” can be a transformative learning exchange that lets students know that educators are not all-knowing, but see students as sources of information where they can teach and teachers can learn. It also demonstrates vulnerability and honesty.
    As we conclude Black History Month, it is important to remember that the quest for racial justice remains elusive for African Americans and other people of color in this nation.
  • Increase your racial literacy. Not knowing is acceptable for all of us. Not taking the steps to learn more is unacceptable. Young people of color are now more than 50 percent of the student population and, so, as issues tied to our increasing racial diversity take center stage, educators should increase their racial literacy by reading books, short stories, and novels by and about people of color. Discussions with colleagues or friends of color about race relations, their experiences as people of color, or ways to be an ally can also increase our racial literacy. But not acting is accepting ignorance and runs counter to what we ask our students to do every day as classroom learners.
  • Talking race is not critical race theory. With all of the tension, anger, misunderstanding, and uproar over critical race theory, many educators have conflated any discussions about race, racism, or racial injustice with critical race theory, and they are not. Critical race theory examines racism in the law at the graduate school level. Discussing events of the day is not theoretical, but a reality. Our nation’s history and present day are shaped by the experiences of people of color. We are still far from being a racist-free society. In their own social circles, our students frequently discuss race and racism. They can handle such discussions in the classroom. Teaching anti-racism is—and should be—considered a core American value.
  • Discussing current events can stimulate learning. Diana Hess, the dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, has written about how discussion of controversial issues and current events can stimulate students’ learning. When done properly, these discussions can increase student engagement and enhance learning opportunities. Teachers, no matter their grade or subject matter, should create space in an age-appropriate manner for students to talk about issues in the world around them. Whether it be the current crisis in Ukraine, the current debates about COVID-19, or racial and gender inequities, we can create critical, civic-minded citizens by instilling a sense of learning, thinking, and discussing topics of the day.

As we conclude Black History Month, it is important to remember that the quest for racial justice remains elusive for African Americans and other people of color in this nation. Schools as laboratories of learning, inclusivity, and collaboration can—and should be—the places our students come to learn, think, reflect, heal, and act. Our students deserve nothing less. It is imperative for adults to demonstrate the required courage to create the spaces that many students are yearning.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as Students Want To Talk About Race


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