When I was in 6th grade, my teacher set aside our scheduled lesson for a discussion on what was going on in the world around us. A young man in Baltimore named Freddie Gray had just died while in custody of the police. The only other two Black boys in our class and I were the first to speak, as I would learn would be the norm in most discussions about race for the rest of my time in school. Our voices wavered as we each broke down in tears, expressing the same hopeless questioning of why this was still a threat we would have to worry about in our lives—being killed by the police.
The most powerful moment came when my teacher broke the silence from the rest of my classmates and said, “Do you see your classmates? They are afraid. They see themselves in Freddie. It is not fair that we have to have this conversation, but think about how unfair it feels to be in their shoes: to have to worry about your safety every single time you walk outside.”
For the first time, I saw a look of empathy register on my classmates’ faces. Rather than sneer or snicker at the vulnerability I and my other Black classmates showed, there was a palpable sense of connection, an eagerness to learn, and a desire to be part of a solution.
As I begin my freshman year of college this month, I look back on this conversation as a pivotal moment in my education—one that helped prepare me for life after high school. Far more than any academic lesson I had, this conversation gave me the confidence to talk openly about my opinions and experiences, to engage in frank discussions with classmates, and to turn despair into resilience and action—all skills that are crucial to success in college and growth throughout life.
All students, of every race, deserve the opportunity to have honest discussions in school about race and racism. Doing so encourages empathy for others and prepares students for life as a young adult and later.
Unfortunately, my experience in 6th grade was an outlier. Far too many students do not have opportunities to open up about race and racism, according to a recent national survey of high school students by America’s Promise Alliance. As a student and trustee of America’s Promise, which seeks health and opportunity for every American child, it concerns me that young people are not benefiting from the types of experiences I have had. If some lawmakers across the country get their way, these conversations will be even rarer. Just over half of states have recently passed or are considering legislation or other measures that would restrict classroom discussions of race and racism.
Far more than any academic lesson I had, this conversation gave me the confidence to ... turn despair into resilience and action.
Results from the high school survey also bear out my experience that discussing race and racism helps prepare students for life after high school. Students who had opportunities to learn about race and racism were more than twice as likely to feel a sense of postsecondary readiness compared with students who did not have those opportunities.
Some people argue that discussing race breeds division or even resentment. Yet according to the America’s Promise survey, students who had more opportunities to learn about race and racism in school were significantly more likely to believe that all people should be treated equally compared with peers with fewer opportunities.
While these data points alone are not enough to show direct causation, they are consistent with findings from previous studies on the benefits of classroom discussions of race and racism.
At a time when getting students back on track for high school graduation and postsecondary success is a top priority for schools and states, these findings are worth serious consideration as a critical part of education recovery plans.
Rather than stifle discussions of race and racism, teachers should have the support and training they need to facilitate honest and open conversations in which students can share their experiences and learn from one another. Workshops alone will not transform teachers’ readiness to have these conversations—that will take ongoing training and political backing from school and district leadership, teachers listening to and learning from their students, and, in the long term, a more racially diverse teacher workforce.
At a minimum, we must take action against measures that restrict teaching about race and racism at school or attempts to control how teachers address these topics. As a young Black man, after the first day of school, my father usually asked me which teachers “get it.” The term “getting it,” I believe, is a common one among Black Americans who live in very white spaces. “Getting it” means understanding racism’s history in shaping this nation and the way our lives and the privileges we have are influenced by race. If teachers are restricted in how they talk about race, even the ones who “get it” will be unable to facilitate conversations like the one in my 6th grade classroom.
Efforts to avoid confronting race and racism today and in our country’s past may seem politically convenient now, but in the long term, it is a disservice to all students. Engaging in hard conversations about race and racism, being open to new ideas and perspectives, learning from others—all are critical life skills. Especially amid a global pandemic and a national reckoning on race, every student deserves the opportunity to develop in these very important ways.
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2021 edition of Education Week as A 6th Grade Class on Racism Got Me Ready for the Rest of My Life