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Professional Development Opinion

Responding to a Colleague Who Makes a Racist Comment

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 09, 2020 12 min read
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Today, Dr. Angela M. Ward, Keturah Proctor, Emily Golightly, and Becky Corr contribute their commentaries on the question, “How should teachers respond when a colleague says or does something—knowingly or unknowingly—that is racist?”

Four ways to respond

Dr. Angela M. Ward is a public school administrator with 23 years of experience. She is focused on creating identity-safe schools and workplaces and strives daily to nurture equity-centered schooling. Follow Dr. Ward @2WardEquity on Twitter & Instagram and visit here to subscribe to the 2Ward Equity newsletter:

In my daily work, I navigate racist remarks, actions, policies, and practices. It is often hard to decide which ones to directly address and which ones to file away or ignore for sanity’s sake. I am drawn to act and not ignore most things that come my way because my position as an AntiRacist educator requires me to teach and educate others about race and its impacts on our being.

There are many ways to address racist comments and actions from our colleagues. You must address them to prevent escalation. Biased remarks, racist jokes, and stereotypes that go unaddressed can rise to violence in the form of fights, vandalism, and worst, genocide.

  1. Mirror the person’s words. What I heard you say was _____. Sometimes just hearing the words repeated back helps someone understand the impact.
  2. Explain how the comment landed on you and ask if they intended the comment to land in the way it did.
  3. When you said those Black children are too loud. What I recognized was there were other children in the hallway who were equally as loud. Did you realize the Black children were no louder than the white students in the hallway?
  4. When the response is I didn’t mean ... or some excuse to maintain good-person status, let them know their intent not to harm did not lessen the blow to me, it still harmed me. A wise colleague who identifies as white, once told me "... when someone of color tells me my actions or words harmed them, I take it as a gift.” A gift is not given for you to explain away your intent and to beg the harmed individual for good-person status. A gift is given for you to keep; in this case, the gift is given for your personal self-reflection. As you reflect, you must take a critical stance and get curious about your actions and why the person chose to grant you the gift. I have gifted numerous people with the impact of their words on me as a Black woman.

“Being part of the solution or continuing the harm”

Keturah Proctor has just completed her 20th year in education in the Elmsford Union Free school district. She began her career as a special education teacher, and for the last 18 years, she has taught 6th grade math and English/language arts:


We all have been here. Someone says something, and we get that sick feeling inside because we are put in the position as to whether or not to confront this person. Your inner voice is screaming, “Say something!” But how do we actually go about this? On the one hand, we may not want to respond because we know we will be met with deflection, confrontation, or criticism. But on the other hand, our conscience won’t let the comment or action slide.

The choice really comes down to you being part of the solution or continuing the harm.

If you choose to be silent, you sanctioned the behavior and you have inadvertently become part of the problem. By not confronting your colleague, your inaction informed them that not only are they just in their behavior, but you agree with them. You validated the harm and are, in fact, perpetuating the racist behavior. In being silent, you are centering your own comfort and safety over that of the comfort and safety of students in the learning environment.

If you choose to speak up, there are a few techniques that you can use.

  • Call Them Out: This means in the moment, you stop and say, “What you just said/did is racist.” Be prepared because this has the potential to be a very uncomfortable situation. Expect extreme defensiveness and emotion. These are all deflections or ways for your colleague to shift the focus from their action to you being “rude” and “unprofessional.” Do not let the deflections deter you. Identify the act or comment and explain why it has no place in the learning community. Name the emotion and say, “You have the right to be upset, but I will not stand by and allow that type of behavior to persist. It is wrong, and we must do better.” Don’t let your colleague center their emotion over that of the harm they caused. Maintain the boundary and explain that you will always “Call Out” behavior that is biased or racist.
  • Call Them In: The only difference in “Calling In” is the delivery. “Calling In” a person means addressing the bias or racism in a more private setting where you can foster dialogue. It works well if you already have an existing relationship with that person. You might say, “I felt very uncomfortable with your comment. It is rooted in racism, and I wanted you to be aware of it.” That approach provides a clear boundary that you do not condone the behavior and you are speaking out against it, while also relying on the relationship you have with the person to be able to have meaningful dialogue. Beware, you will see fragility come out. Your colleague will most likely be offended and embarrassed. They will convince you over and over that they cannot be a racist because they love all people or they voted for Obama. None of that matters. Your role is to identify what was harmful and why that type of behavior has no place in the learning community.
  • Use Text: If you are unable to “Call Out” or “Call In,” then communicate using email. You can explain where the harm was done and you can also provide a short text excerpt or article to help support your explanation. As you close your message, invite that person in for conversation. This approach is tricky, because most people will rest on emotion first rather than looking inward and reflecting. Be prepared for a harsh reply but remember those actions are a result of that person’s inability or unwillingness to reflect on their behavior. It is not your responsibility to force this reflection, but it is your responsibility to address the behavior.
  • Ask for Support: If you belong to an affinity group, or a network of individuals that are committed to racial equity, ask for advice. Remember, you are not trying to protect your feelings; rather you are trying to find the best way to identify the harm that was done and to create the boundary that action or language is not at all tolerable.

Ultimately, we can no longer be silent and be idle. We are in the midst of change. Being an anti-racist is about action. It means actively taking steps to dismantle what was and to create what will be. Our students deserve transformational change, and we have to be brave enough to do the work.

The responsibility of being “a person of privilege”

Emily Golightly has taught for the past 16 years in North Carolina, serving as a classroom teacher in grades K-3, a reading specialist, an ESL teacher, and most recently, a media coordinator of a K-5 library. She is passionate about literacy and has served on her local and state-level reading associations. She is also a member of the North Carolina English Learner Advisory Council. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, crocheting, and playing board games with her family:

Teachers have the unique responsibility to be advocates for their students, who sometimes are not able to advocate for themselves or may not have yet developed the empowerment and voice to articulate their own self-advocacy. I consider that to be a critical part of our responsibilities as educators, to help protect and support our students. Taking that to the next level is becoming an ally. Allies stand beside, speak up for, and help those who have been oppressed find their voices. As allies, we help speak the truth that others coming from a place of privilege may not recognize when voiced from an oppressed group.

As an ally, I believe it is important to approach difficult situations from a standpoint of care and education. Sometimes comments come from a place of ignorance, so education can be a remedy to that. I try to see the best in others and look for positive intent in the interaction or situation if at all possible, which helps me approach that person in a totally different mindset than if I were to assume ill intent or blatant racism. Remaining calm and solution-focused helps me avoid the situation devolving into an argument. (Anyone who has ever read the comments on a social-media post knows what I mean and how intent has the power to color interaction.) I believe it is important for whole-school culture to also provide activities and opportunities for the faculty and staff to build empathy and understanding, whether that is in a faculty meeting, small-group (like a PLC meeting), or even through ongoing book studies to keep the conversation going.

I think one of the most important things when addressing racism is to remember that you are communicating with another adult, someone whose upbringing and life experiences have made him or her believe that this behavior is acceptable. People’s values do not develop overnight, and ideas, opinions, and behaviors are not likely to change overnight, either, so being an ally means having the stamina to keep having the conversation. As a person of privilege, I am uniquely positioned to support those whose voices have been silenced, and that is an ongoing process that requires patience, persistence, and care.

This is not just an issue of righting a wrong. It is trying to gently help a colleague (perhaps even a misguided friend) understand that their words and actions have a lasting impact on the children that have been entrusted to them, an impact which has the power to affect future generations. As a teacher living in the rural South, one way I address racism is by modeling anti-racism in what I read, how I incorporate anti-racist ideals into my teaching, and what I post and share on social media. I also share and promote books, lessons, authors, and professional-development opportunities that support anti-racism whenever possible.

“Teachers need to be prepared beforehand”

Becky Corr is an English-language development team lead for the Douglas County school district in Colorado. In her role with DCSD, as well as the owner of EdSpark Consulting, she provides coaching, professional development, and family-engagement opportunities:

Last year, I was teaching a professional-development course, and a white teacher, in front of his colleagues, said, “I don’t see color.” It was like a bomb went off in this diverse classroom, and the participants were all looking to me to see how I would respond. On top of that, I was being observed by the director of a popular advocacy organization. The pressure was on, and a lot was at stake—the intellectual and emotional safety of the adults in the class, being number one. I was in a place where I did not have a relationship with this teacher that I could leverage, and since the comment was made in front of the class, I had to respond openly. Almost as quickly as the words, “I don’t see color,” left his lips, I responded, "... but your students do. It matters to them and their identities. To build relationships with students, teachers must see them wholly, and that includes their color.” In this particular situation, my response sparked the teacher to reconsider his stance and to show affirmation of the identities of the diverse classroom. However, there have also been times when I’ve been tongue-tied and I spent the rest of the day replaying the situation in my head and thinking about what I should have said.

When teachers hear something racist, it is incumbent upon them to respond because the social, emotional, and physical safety of those around them is at stake. Teachers need to be prepared beforehand with some response strategies, so that they don’t end up being tongue-tied or end up creating more tension. Setting up different scenarios and practicing how to respond in those situations will give teachers more confidence when responding. It is risky to speak up, but the risk is even greater for those who are the target of racism. It is important to think through and role play different scenarios, so that teachers can assess the risk and how best to respond.

Teachers come to me concerned that they don’t know how to respond and ask if there are any resources that could help. In response, I have collaborated with our prevention and mental-health teams to create a professional-development course to strengthen teachers’ knowledge and refine their skills for responding to racism. Resources like Teaching Tolerance’s “Speak Up at School” including their webinar, the full guide, and pocket guide are very practical. The full guide provides excellent scenarios and analysis of situations that can be utilized for role playing.

Teachers set the tone in the classroom and school environment. As role models and guides, teachers must lead by example. What we tolerate in the school setting, we are teaching is acceptable. The power to positively influence change lies with us.

Thanks to Dr. Ward, Keturah, Emily, and Becky for their contributions!

(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How should teachers respond when a colleague says or does something—knowingly or unknowingly—that is racist?

In Part One, Ixchell Reyes, Gina Laura Gullo, Cheryl Staats, Keisha Rembert, and Dr. Denita Harris offered their suggestions.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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