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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Tackling the ‘Taboo’ of Talking About Race & Privilege

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 14, 2021 14 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What books and articles should white educators read about race and racism?

These past 12 months have seen many shootings of Black men and women by police and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, not to mention the recent insurrection at the Capitol led largely by white supremacist groups. These events and others have heightened interest and desire among quite a few white educators to learn more about racism, how it plays out in the classroom, and what they can do differently.

Many suggestions for action can be found in previous columns here, and they can be found at Race & Racism in Schools.

One small action that white educators can take to prepare ourselves for more overt action is to read and learn.

This week’s series will feature educators sharing their suggestions for where to begin...

Today, Tameka Porter, Ph.D., Dr. Denita Harris, Keisha Rembert, and Sara Boeck Batista offer their recommendations. Dr. Porter, Dr. Harris, and Keisha were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

“Have an honest conversation about race”

Tameka Porter, Ph.D., a managing consultant at McREL International, provides technical assistance to state education agencies, local education agencies, and other stakeholders to solve high-leverage problems for education professionals and the students they serve:

Living in a society that professes race to be meaningless yet is deeply segregated presents challenges both inside and outside the classroom.

Mainstream dictionaries define “racism” as negative intentional actions by individuals with an attitude toward racial prejudice. Those who do not commit the negative intentional actions are considered good while those who do are bad. Being a good person and being racist are deemed mutually exclusive, though this interpretation of racism does little to provide the nuanced perspectives that develop racial literacy. I offer three texts that provide white educators an opportunity to broaden their understanding of racism, its origins, and how to tackle the “taboo” of talking about race, privilege, and otherness.

In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen notes that the origins of racial illiteracy may come from the traditional textbooks found in high school American history courses. While students may love history, they hate history class because the textbooks deliver a boring narrative about random dates and people, always places the U.S. as the moral center at the expense of nonwhite groups, and skirts controversy about beloved historical figures, elevating them to celebrity or hero status rather than providing a comprehensive scope of their lives, circumstances, and flaws.

For example, historical texts often regard President Woodrow Wilson as a postcolonial hero who brought America into the self-determination era, ignoring that he was an avowed racist and that his foreign policy initiatives played an extensive role in toppling Latin American and Caribbean governments to install pro-American regimes. In 2015, students at Princeton fought to highlight Wilson’s racist legacy in an ultimately successful effort: In 2020, after the national response to the killing of George Floyd galvanized support to remove racist symbols from prominent spaces, Wilson’s name and imagery were removed from the university where he served as president before being elected to serve the country. Would this effort have been met with such resistance if young Americans had access to a more comprehensive teaching of history?

Another option for white educators to read about race and racism is How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, a renowned scholar on history and race relations in America. Kendi’s manual of racial ethics focuses on the origins of racism and how racism became entrenched in America’s national character. Kendi claims that discussions about racism often devolve into pithy defenses of one’s personal stance on racism rather than noting how racism is rooted in ethnic, culture, behavioral, class, gender, and racial power structures. He acknowledges that almost everyone claims to be nonracist but few designate themselves as anti-racist. He challenges his readers to push themselves to become something beyond “not racist” and embrace anti-racism by supporting and affirming policies and practices that embrace all groups—racial, ethnic, gender, and others—by valuing the equality in their differences.

In the modern classic Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum, the titular question is asked by educators and administrators throughout the author’s tour across the country visiting schools as an implied problem. Tatum posits that the self-segregation may occur because students seek out opportunities to connect with others that may have shared similar life experiences as a form of identify affirmation.

While the book was originally written in 1997, it was updated in 2017 to expand consideration of critical issues facing Latinx, Indigenous, Asian-American and Pacific Islander, multiracial, and other nonwhite students. Despite the strides made in increasing the visibility of diversity within the political, educational, and racial landscapes over the past 20 years, schools are still as segregated now as they were in 1997. In highlighting the issue of white identity to build connections across groups, Tatum encourages readers to note the difference between commonly held perceptions and measurable and verifiable realities.

By understanding that racism often comes from a lack of direct interaction, only having superficial experiences with other groups, and repeated exposure to typecast ideas about other cultures, educators can recognize the roots of uncomfortable cross-group experiences and move beyond fear to have an honest conversation about race.


“White Fragility”

Dr. Denita Harris is a curriculum coordinator for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, in Indianapolis. She has over 20years of experience as a teacher, assistant principal, and district-level administrator. Dr. Harris is the recipient of the 2019 INTESOL (Indiana Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Best of the Best in K-12 Education and the 2017 and 2020 African American Excellence in Education Award. Find her on Twitter @HarrisLeads:

I would recommend the following books and articles to white educators who desire to read and learn more about race and racism:

Waking Up White by Debby Irving

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Both Waking Up White and White Fragility are books that are written by white people for white people.

Debby Irving’s Waking Up White takes the reader through her personal journey, from childhood to adulthood, to coming to an awareness of what it really means to be white in America. She encourages the reader to take this journey with her by asking questions at the end of each chapter that allow the reader to reflect on his or her personal experiences about race and racism. It really is a book of awakening for white people, as readers gain a sense of how each of our childhood experiences has helped shape our racial lens.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo gets to the heart of why conversations about race and racism with white people never happen or are not as productive as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) would like them to be. I believe that in an effort to address the semantics regarding race, Robin DiAngelo unapologetically addresses white supremacy, white privilege, and racism in the early chapters of her book.

If white readers choose to demonstrate their fragility when it comes to this topic, the book makes room for an early display of these types of behaviors and a quick exit from the text; however, if white readers are determined to build their racial stamina and examine why it is so easy for them to shut down or avoid topics of race, they should read this book to search their inner soul as to why that is so. They can also ask themselves what happens when these behaviors are displayed to their colleagues, friends, and maybe even family members of color.


“Pedagogy of the Oppressed”

Keisha Rembert is a passionate learner and fierce equity advocate. She was an award- winning middle school ELA and United States history teacher who now instructs preservice teachers. She hopes to change our world one student at a time. Twitter ID: @klrembert:

The books I will recommend all have a base in educational practices.

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is foundational to understanding the role of educators in humanity overall.

Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks is another important book.

Anything and everything by Gloria Ladson-Billings will give you insight into teaching Black children.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum will help white educators understand the complexities of racial identity.

One of my new favorites is Dr. Bettina Love’s book We Want to Do More Than Survive, which speaks to what radical teaching must look like in a racialized world.

Everyday Antiracism by Mica Pollock offers the voices of many experts to talk about race in education.

Teaching When the World Is on Fire by Lisa Delpit is another great read to understand how current-day events and movements should impact our classrooms.

I also suggest subscribing to Teaching Tolerance and Rethinking Schools.


“We cannot wait another moment...”

Sara Boeck Batista is an English teacher at Leaders High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. She received EL Education’s Klingenstein Teaching Award in 2019:

We are at a crucial time in the struggle for racial justice, and white educators, like me, have a vital role to play if we are going to make true and lasting shifts toward racial equity in our school system. While some white educators have been using the tenets of culturally responsive and sustaining education in our own classrooms for a long time, many more are just beginning to engage in the critical inquiry necessary to understand ourselves in a racialized context—as people who live, teach, and are complicit in a systemically racist society.

As white educators, we have an obligation to work toward racial justice and we cannot wait another moment to start to make our schools equitable spaces that prioritize the freedom and dignity of all people.

Learning is a good place to begin and in which to ground meaningful action. Below is a list of some resources for learning that may help white educators start the journey of being better anti-racists, teachers, and co-conspirators in the struggle for racial justice.

If you are just starting to think about the impacts of race on society and education . . .

In this primer on racial identity, Tatum clearly explains fundamental understandings of racial and cultural belonging and its role in identity development, power, and privilege in society.

A podcast season covering the history and purpose of whiteness. The host is a white man who seeks to answer many of the questions that come up for white people who have not seen race as an issue that applied to them.

This text documents the original purpose of schooling in the United States as a practice of assimilation and cultural denial that must be acknowledged to fully understand our role in the educational system.

If you are looking to interrogate your internal biases and understand the effect of racism on you . . .

This book has had more of an impact on me than any other on this list because it asked me to recount my own deep-seated thoughts and indoctrination into the system of white supremacy. It asks readers to pull out the parts of themselves we want to deny but that we can’t begin to unlearn without first recognizing that they exist. It’s worth noting that recently, several Black women, including Alexis P. Morgan, have denounced Saad for plagiarism and other misdeeds in her publication of this book. These women have challenged Saad to acknowledge her own privilege and position, underscoring the point that all racial-justice work is complex and intersectional. In any case, I want to acknowledge that many less privileged and published writers are also doing the work of developing strategies for white people to unpack our complicity in white supremacy and we should also look for these voices..

Written by a social worker, this book names the ways in which racial trauma and white supremacy live in our bodies. What I love about this book is how well it explains the emotional work that needs to be done to abolish white supremacy, in addition to the intellectual work. It also talks specifically about how this trauma exists for police and paths toward healing.

If you are working to take inventory on racial justice in your classroom or school . . .

This tool can be used to score the cultural responsiveness of a classroom or school, leading to a clearer picture of what might need additional attention or reform. My colleagues and I adapted it to use in our peer observations of one another to focus our reflection on culturally responsive teaching.

A short segment of a larger text on organizational change, this resource recounts the features of white supremacy that are often masked as “professionalism” or “just the way it is” but, in reality, perpetuate white supremacy.

If you are interested in facilitating discussions of race with students, colleagues, and others in your life . . .

This book transformed the way I thought about having conversations with students and adults in my life about race. It clearly outlines some of the behaviors that come up when discussing race and, through a psychological lens, explains how to overcome roadblocks to productive conversation and common race-talk pitfalls.

  • We are Not Yet Equal Yet by Carol Andersonthe last “yet” needs to come out of the title, but I can’t do that because it’s linked text.

The middle-grades version of Anderson’s book White Rage. This text is helpful for understanding why white supremacy has survived in the U.S. despite moments of progress in our history.

The young-adult version of Kendi’s book Stamped From the Beginning, this book covers the history of racism and does a particularly good job of explaining the ways that white-supremacist thinking has manipulated events in history to maintain the status quo.

If you are looking for practical actions that you can start doing in your classroom tomorrow . . .

A collection of articles about common scenarios and considerations for doing anti-racist work in schools. I appreciated that each article ends with personal-reflection questions and action steps to consider as you think about these issues in your classroom.


Thanks to Tameka, Denita, Keisha, and Sara for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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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