Equity & Diversity From Our Research Center

What Do Teachers Think About Discussing Racism in Class? We Asked Them

By Ileana Najarro — June 16, 2021 | Corrected: June 28, 2021 | Updated: June 17, 2021 5 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the nonprofit Youth Celebrate Diversity.

As questions over whether and how racism should be discussed in the classroom continue to dominate headlines across the country, a new national EdWeek Research Center survey found that about a third of K-12 educators support legislative efforts to restrict classroom discussions on the topic.

The survey, completed last month, found that while 59 percent of participating teachers, principals, and district leaders believe systemic racism exists, 23 percent said they do not believe so. The survey defined systemic racism as meaning “racism is embedded in systems and structures throughout society rather than only present in interpersonal interactions.”

Respondents to the nationally representative online survey, administered between May 26 and June 7, were K-12 educators—specifically 280 district leaders, 235 principals, and 378 teachers. Eighty-five percent of survey respondents were white.

When asked if there should be legal limits on classroom conversations about racism, sexism, and other controversial issues, a majority said no. But 32 percent of participants said yes, certain conversations on racism and sexism are not appropriate for schools.

Those results come as 21 states have introduced bills that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in classrooms, according to an Education Week analysis. Five states so far have signed those bills into law.

Students and educators interviewed by Education Week largely said the survey results matched their experiences in schools, many of which have historically excluded these conversations.

Patrick Harris, a middle school teacher in Michigan who is Black, has taught how racism is embedded in society to middle schoolers in predominantly Black schools and racially diverse schools. He has found that when discussing the origins of race as something that was socially constructed, kids start to make connections and feel empowered to envision a new world where race is deconstructed.

For 17-year-old Lameese Makkawi, a student leader in Colorado with the Youth Celebrate Diversity group, who identifies as Black Sudanese-American, the proportion of educators supporting laws to limit conversations about topics like sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and racism is disappointing. Those conversations can help kids learn at a young age how to be more tolerant and equitable toward their peers, she said.

“If you’re a person of color, a person who is a part of a marginalized community, and you don’t know how history has affected you or your people, and how it will continue to affect you, because of the systemic racism implemented in all these institutions, you will not be prepared to defend yourself and speak up for yourself,” Makkawi said.

“If you’re somebody who is white or privileged in some way, and you don’t know how your privilege can be used not only to be an ally and help or how we can hurt other people, you will inflict so much pain without even meaning to because of how you were taught.”

The EdWeek survey also asked participating teachers when they talk about racism in the classroom. A majority said they do it as it relates to both history and present-day issues. Twenty percent said it’s only discussed as it relates to history or the historical context of a lesson. And 16 percent said they never discuss racism.

Around the country, state legislatures and school boards have been grappling with the hot-button issue of what students should learn about racism and whether critical race theory plays a role in K-12 schools.

Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, who identifies as a 4th generation Montanan and has spoken out against critical race theory in schools, said in a statement that she and parents across Montana were “concerned that certain exercises and lessons based on critical race theory and similar ideologically driven teaching have the potential to discriminate against Montana students’ civil rights.”

In fact much of the current debate on critical race theory has stemmed from fears, mostly among conservatives, that students—especially white students—will be exposed to supposedly damaging or self-demoralizing ideas.

But it’s unclear to what degree K-12 educators are explicitly teaching the concepts of critical race theory, which originated from a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A classroom discussion about race doesn’t always equate with critical race theory, particularly at the K-12 level, said Janel George, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, who is Black.

“Those would have to be some pretty advanced kids to read through [Richard] Delgado or [Kimberlé] Crenshaw, or Derrick Bell’s work,” she said referring to some of the legal scholars that created the theory.

In response to EdWeek’s survey results that found a number of educators don’t believe systemic racism exists, she said that many people think an inanimate system can’t be racist. But it’s well-documented that laws or policies can be crafted and shaped in ways that replicate racial inequalities or dismantle them—for instance, discriminatory real estate practices lead to segregated housing and education.

On the issue of legislative limits, Ian Rowe, co-founder of the Vertex Partnership Academies charter high schools, which will open in 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City, who is African-American, said his general view is that you can’t ban a theory. He’s more concerned about classroom activities associated with critical race theory, such as one that might ask students to publicly confess their oppressive tendencies.

Tatiana Dalton-Spilca, a 16-year-old student leader with the Youth Celebrate Diversity group in New Mexico, who is Black, said she welcomes more conversations about race and racism both in terms of historical context and present-day issues.

“I think it’s important for all of my fellow students to learn about slavery, and things that have happened in the past and all the terrible oppression that Black people have faced,” she said. “But it’s important to recognize the amazing strides we’ve made throughout history as well, and currently.”

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