Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Buffalo Massacre Is Exactly Why We Need to Talk About Racism With White Students

Too many white people are receiving their schooling about race from racist media
By David Nurenberg — May 17, 2022 4 min read
On May 15, people march to the scene of a mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The school leadership team’s discussion of the Buffalo grocery store shooting, which I joined at the beginning of this week, was as typical as it was frustrating. The principal and deans of a largely white suburban high school were making plans for how to support their handful of African American students and teachers in the wake of these racially motivated murders. When I, in my capacity as a consultant, raised the question of what programming they were planning for white students to understand the roots and prevention of such horrors, I was met with blank stares.

At least, they were willing to listen. A different suburban principal once told me in no uncertain terms that he would not authorize any whole-school assemblies or activities to address the police killing of Eric Garner, both because the principal didn’t want to touch “politicized issues” and because this issue just wasn’t “relevant enough” to the overwhelmingly white student body.

When white people—especially white educators—conceive of racism as an issue somehow relevant only to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, it’s like addressing drunk driving by talking only to pedestrians. Students of color indeed need support at times like these, but these are also precisely the times when white students, and adults, most need antiracist education. Unfortunately, these days they are less likely to receive it: 17 states, through outright legislation or other avenues, have adopted vaguely worded policies limiting teachers’ discussion of the history and present conditions of racism in the United States. Even in my famously progressive home state of Massachusetts, a student teacher in one of my graduate classes bemoaned a mandate from her principal to “not teach anything about race that happened after 1968.”

The problem with the “not past 1968” approach that guides what most white people learn in their K-12 education—and I was no exception—is that it creates a false narrative that racism in America was perpetuated by long-dead people and was resolved 50 years ago. Stopping the story at Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal, leaves the wrong impression. Without learning about the many court decisions, some as recent as 2012, that perpetuated and accelerated school segregation into the modern day, too many white people see the present “savage inequalities” in educational opportunities as the product of vague and impersonal economic forces alone, or worse, that the inequalities reflect communities of color somehow placing less value on education. Stopping the story at the Civil Rights Act of 1968 keeps white people ignorant of the ways in which structures and established practices in present-day health care, hiring, criminal justice, and drug enforcement continue to massively disadvantage people of color.

With schools increasingly constrained in what they can teach, too many white people—like the 18-year-old accused Buffalo shooter—wind up receiving their education instead from racist social media communities that promote the conspiratorial “replacement” theory and other racist propaganda that portray white people as the modern victims of discrimination.

When white educators conceive of racism as an issue somehow relevant only to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, it’s like addressing drunk driving by talking only to pedestrians.

The Buffalo shooting should be a rallying call for schools to offer white students a genuine education about present-day racism and how it is not just perpetrated by gunmen but also reinforced by the unconscious everyday actions of so many of us ordinary white folk. Teachers can draw upon a deep bench of authors—Zaretta Hammond, Patricia Devine, Robin DiAngelo, Diane Goodman—offering resources for identifying and combatting biases that many whites are unaware of and would be eager to correct if they knew.

For example, school administrators and teachers can conduct bias audits where they gather data on patterns in course placement, school discipline, college recommendations, and more to reveal where well-intentioned white educators might be subconsciously disadvantaging Black and brown students in favor of white ones. White students can learn how small, unintentional, and easily avoided comments or gestures (“microaggressions”) can contribute to an atmosphere of bias and supremacy and resolve to not commit them. If we confine our definitions of racism solely to conscious and bestial acts like those of the Buffalo shooter, white educators like me risk perpetuating the conditions that breed acts like his as well as indulging in a sense of helplessness in preventing such actions.

See Also

A person pays his respects outside the scene of a shooting at a supermarket, in Buffalo, N.Y., Sunday, May 15, 2022.
A mourner pays his respects outside the scene of a racially-motivated mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y.
Matt Rourke/AP

We’re not helpless, and committing to change the landscape isn’t just a call for altruism. Well-researched resources like Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project (explicitly banned in some states’ curricula) can teach white students and teachers alike not only about structural racism’s effects on people of color but also how institutions like slavery and Jim Crow shaped and continue to shape injustices in our economic and democratic institutions, from which white people also directly suffer. White students need to learn not only about civil rights heroes of color, but also about the whites who fought—and, like Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and Viola Liuzzo, sometimes gave their lives—to undo racist systems that hurt us all.

Such an education makes fighting racial injustice seem much more relevant and much less like learning “someone else’s story” for no other purpose than to evoke guilt or sow division. Every civil rights victory was also, in some part, an active decision by white people to recognize, legally and personally, the humanity of their countrymen and to change their own behavior to reflect this.

These are the active, antiracist decisions that every new generation of white people needs to make in order to prevent horrors like Buffalo, or the Atlanta spa shooting, or Ahmaud Arbery’s murder. Educators need to prioritize teaching white students the knowledge and skills that inform such decisionmaking.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2022 edition of Education Week as We Need to Talk About Racism With White Students Now


School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Wisconsin District Bans Pride Flags From Classrooms, Pronouns in Emails
The superintendent said the decision, which is facing pushback, was reaffirming a policy that was already in place.
2 min read
Flags are displayed as the Newberg Education Association gathers with community members ahead of the Newberg School Board vote on whether to ban Black Lives Matter and Pride flags at the school, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Newberg, Ore.
Flags are displayed at a community gathering in Newberg, Ore.<br/>
Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP
Equity & Diversity Two Okla. Districts Get Downgraded Accreditations for Violating State's Anti-CRT Law
The Tulsa and Mustang public school systems are the first to feel the sting of a state law that restricts discussion of race and racism in schools.
8 min read
Superintendent Deborah Gist speaks during a Tulsa Public Schools board meeting in Tulsa, Okla. on March 5, 2018.
Superintendent Deborah Gist speaks during a Tulsa Public Schools board meeting in Tulsa, Okla., in March 2018.<br/>
Joey Johnson/Tulsa World via AP
Equity & Diversity Florida to Schools: Don't Follow Federal LGBTQ Protections
Florida advised school districts to ignore protections for LGBTQ students the Biden administration is trying to implement.
1 min read
Participants with the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth march at the annual Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade in Miami Beach, Fla.
Participants with the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth march at the annual Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade in Miami Beach, Fla.
Lynne Sladky/AP
Equity & Diversity The Case of the Missing Data on AP Students
The College Board raised eyebrows by removing public racial and ethnic data on AP students. It will restore the data this fall.
5 min read
Image of data and demographics.