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Teaching Opinion

Educators Must Challenge Racist Language & Actions

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 01, 2020 14 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

As we all know—or should know—racism is a major problem in our society.

And research shows that racism is just as present in teachers’ attitudes and actions as it is in the general population.

This series will examine strategies we can use in the not-unusual situation when we witness one of our colleagues demonstrating that kind of bias with us, with other educators, or with students.

You might also be interested in the many other columns that have appeared here on Race & Racism in Schools.

Today, Ixchell Reyes, Gina Laura Gullo, Cheryl Staats, Keisha Rembert, and Dr. Denita Harris offer their suggestions.

“Call out racist actions and racist comments”

Ixchell Reyes teaches English for specific purposes and is the co-host of the DIESOL podcast (Digital Integration in English as a Second or Other Language):

Now, more than ever, it is important for educators and administrators to call out racist actions and racist comments. The problem is sometimes we do not know how to do it when the individual that needs to be called out is a person close to us or someone who is “such a nice person.” The trick here is to be prepared with a list of possible statements to respond to. We should practice saying these so that we are not caught unaware and stay silent because we do not want to be caught not doing something. In thinking of my own “plan of action,” I narrowed down giving an immediate response. In the same way we prepare for emergencies, we need to have a response ready to give. I have seen some possible responses floating around on the internet, and the ones I find most useful are on a list to interrupt racism from the site FromPrivilegetoProgress.org:

  1. “Hold on, I need to process what you just said.”
  2. “What did you mean by that?”
  3. “I didn’t realize you think that.”
  4. “That’s not funny.”
  5. “I’m not comfortable with that.”
  6. “That’s not OK with me.”
  7. “I’m sorry, what?”
  8. “What you said is harmful.”

By being prepared with three or four phrases that communicate we are not OK with racist remarks or racist actions, we can immediately call out a person who may easily dismiss their actions as “just a joke.” The goal is to cause the offending individual to take a step back and reconsider their racist actions. It is also important to have an article or a resource on hand for these situations as the goal is ultimately for an individual to educate themselves and to change. Educators can find resources at TeachingTolerance.org. By holding even our closest colleagues or friends accountable this way, we can begin to work toward fighting racism and learning to become anti-racist.

“Racist remarks challenge equity and inclusion”

Cheryl Staats is an education author and researcher with a background in implicit racial/ethnic bias.

Gina Laura Gullo is an educational equity consultant with GLG Consulting and a researcher of unintentional bias and interventions that serve to lessen the impact of such biases. She also adjuncts and mentors in educational leadership at several Mid-Atlantic universities:

Racist remarks challenge equity and inclusion. Addressing offensive comments might provoke feelings of uneasiness, but it remains undeniably important. To dismantle racism, educators must speak up against racist language. The many response strategies that aim to empower teachers with approaches for further dialogue are not one-size-fits-all in nature but rather options that vary based on personal conversation styles, situational contexts, interpersonal relationships, and power dynamics—among other factors. Below we discuss three strategies to begin your anti-racist work.

Questions and “I” Statements

This approach responds to colleagues making racist remarks by asking further questions and responding with “I” statements. A simple “What did you mean by that?” allows colleagues to explain themselves, mitigating potential misunderstandings. The response can provide information on a colleague’s perspective and intent, positioning you to thoughtfully and meaningfully reply. Further questions allow assumptions undergirding racist comments to surface, providing a foundation for gently redirecting or correcting behaviors. Pairing this strategy with “I” statements, or sentences that begin with phrases such as “I think” or “I feel,” allows you to share your perspective without discrediting the experience of your colleague. An “I” statement can share anti-racist beliefs or name discriminatory behaviors without making the colleague feel attacked, hence avoiding potentially defensive reactions.

For example: “Let’s put that new Asian kid in Gifted and Talented next year!” You can ask: “What do you mean by that? Can you help me understand your logic?” This allows your peer to explain themselves in a way that can confirm or clarify potential biases.

Colleague: “Asians always do well in science and math. It makes sense for him to take advanced courses.”

You: “Do you think that Asians have an inherent ability for certain subjects? I think such a blanket statement could be a disservice for such a diverse population. I don’t think it is appropriate to make a Gifted and Talented recommendation based on an assumption. How are the student’s scores?”

Asking questions and using “I” statements in a manner that fosters a sincere dialogue can meaningfully disrupt racist dialogue without harming interpersonal relationships.

Institutional Values

This strategy focuses on the school culture by referencing the values of the institution, which are often explicitly equity-focused. When a colleague makes a racist remark, you can remind them of the values of the school and acceptable behaviors. This directly recognizes the inappropriate behavior and, in many cases, states the expected behavior. Furthermore, it acknowledges that the individual’s beliefs might differ from that of the community, but they have a responsibility to act in a way that reflects institutional values while working as a part of that community.

For example, in response to an anti-Black comment you say, “In our school, we don’t talk about students that way.” You might explicitly name some of the values. “Anywhere High School values equity and celebrates student differences. When you said that, I felt that you were putting down Jayson based on his race. At AHS, faculty use differences to uplift students.” Here, you reference the institutional values, use an “I” statement, and name the appropriate behavior, invoking an anti-racist response that works toward changing behavior.

Intent Versus Impact

Educators can address some racist comments by directly naming that the intent, or how a speaker meant a statement to come across, might not align with the impact, or how a statement actually affected the recipient. For example, after hearing a racist remark, you could reply, “I don’t think you meant to racially stereotype anyone when you said that, but I think it’s important to realize that others might interpret it that way.” This technique frames the remark and speaker as well-intended, preserving the interpersonal relationship and minimizing potential defensiveness, while naming the comment a racial stereotype. This promotes further dialogue regarding the statement’s impact and underlying biases (see link), regardless of the original intent.

Together these strategies offer initial responses to facing racist actions while maintaining the integrity of professional relationships. These techniques represent a preliminary, yet pivotal, foundation for further anti-racist efforts in your school.

“I want the perpetrator to focus on their actions”

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:

When a colleague does or says something that is racist, it is imperative that it be addressed. First, I think it is important to restate what was said or summarize what was done with the colleague. This gives the person an opportunity to hear and see their words and actions. Next, I try to pose a question that gets the person thinking. It is also important to use I statements and to do your best to highlight the harm. The ultimate goal is for the person to see why what they said or did was racist. It is not my job to convince the person that they were wrong but for them to see the impact of their actions.

As a Black woman, there are some nuances to the way I approach colleagues about this topic. I want the perpetrator to focus on their actions and not make this about me being angry or me being aggressive as a means of distraction and deflection. Therefore, my interaction with that colleague must be in the presence of others, even though this is not ideal, and I must engage in a matter-of- fact tone and maintain a consistent tone throughout, not engaging in any emotionality regardless of the colleague’s demeanor. It is important to note that the way I handle the situation has to be measured and methodical to ensure the situation is not flipped on me as a Black person speaking to a colleague about racism.

Five ways to address racist comments and actions

Dr. Denita Harris is a curriculum coordinator for the MSD of Wayne Township, Indianapolis. She has over 20 years 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:

With the entire world being fully exposed to the detrimental impact of racism in our society, many educators will need to be equipped on how to respond to colleagues who say or do something that is overtly or covertly racist.

As the lead equity facilitator for our corporation, I have created a process to help educators address these conversations head on:

How to Readily Address Racism in a PR System (A Process Framework)

Process One: Pragmatically Reject

Dealing with anyone who is being racist is difficult. If you are a BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, People of Color— who has personally dealt with racism or witnessed any form of a racist act of another BIPOC, you know you deal with a range of emotions: hurt, anger, confusion, anxiety, awkwardness, embarrassment, physical pain, fear, sadness, etc. If you are one who considers yourself an ally or an accomplice, there are still levels of emotion, you, too, will face when it is necessary to address a colleague about his/her racist views or act.

The first step is to reject the racist words or actions by your colleague. You have to refuse to accept racism in your school or corporation. You have to openly reject the racist behaviors of your colleague so your silence is not misconstrued as acceptance.

Pragmatically rejecting racism means you are able to openly reject the racist behaviors by taking a realistic approach about when and/or where you choose to engage your colleague about their actions; however, you must be sure to not delay this PR step.

Addressing the racist behaviors as soon as you encounter them, if possible, is best. If a delay is inevitable, it should not go beyond that day.

Process Two: Persistently Reveal

It is necessary for the educator to reveal to his/her colleague exactly what was said or done that was racist. The educator cannot afford to beat around the bush or make light of the situation just because the individual is a colleague or is afraid of making him/her uncomfortable. It is important for the colleague to hear what they did, as well as the damaging effect of their racist actions.

Persistently revealing the racist language or act may be necessary, not in all cases, if a colleague is in denial. The educator must understand that just because the colleague denies their racist language or act, or attempts to minimize what was said or done, it does not negate the fact that he or she engaged in a racist manner. The colleague may need to hear his/her words and actions again so they can fully process the impact of what the educator is communicating.

Process Three: Promote Professional Resources

Racism has existed in our society for over 400 years, particularly for Black Americans who were enslaved. One would think that everyone would know racism still exists and how all BIPOC still experience systemic racism in every area of their lives: education, criminal justice, government, housing, financial institutions, etc.

After you reveal to your colleague his/her act, he or she will need to be directed to resources to learn more about why what they did or said was unacceptable. We can only presume that if your colleague would have known better, they would not have engaged in their racist act, but instead they would have chosen an anti-racist approach, free from words and actions that would be offensive toward BIPOC.

As the educator engaged in this framework, you will want to promote professional resources that will enlighten your colleague while challenging their thinking, preferably a resource that you have read (book, professional journal), watched (documentary, movie, YouTube video), or listened to (podcast) yourself so you can follow up with how your colleague’s learning is impacting their thoughts.

There is an accountability requirement in this step for both the educator and the colleague. Educators have to hold their colleagues who perform racist acts accountable to make the necessary changes for the students, parents, staff, or community who they have negatively impacted by their words or actions. This accountability can only come through their agreement to learn about systemic racism and how it has impacted us all.

Process Four: Peacefully Reconcile

Anyone knows these conversations can be extremely difficult and can take both a mental and physical toll on the educator who pragmatically rejects their colleague’s actions, especially if you are the one who has a sincere burden to address the injustices that racist views and actions have caused BIPOC. Depending on the relationship you have with your colleague, there may be a need to peacefully reconcile your relationship. This responsibility does not rest on the shoulders of the educator who initiates Process One, but it rests on the shoulders of those who committed the racist act.

Your colleague’s racist actions have been exposed, and professional support has been promoted with accountability. The ultimate goal is for your colleague to learn the error of his or her ways and take immediate corrective action to restore any broken relationships and change their thinking and actions which resulted in their words or deed.


Process Five: UnaPologetically Report

At any time, Processes One - Four may be skipped and you may have to go directly to Process Five. This framework is not intended to be a step-by-step process as to how one should engage in a conversation with someone who has exhibited racist behavior. In fact, if your colleague refuses to engage in a meaningful, productive conversation when their comments, actions, or allegations are pragmatically rejected, you should unaPologetically report him or her.

As educators, we have to hold one another accountable for building up children who are BIPOC. We can no longer make excuses for racist behavior. We have to agree, once and for all, that those days are over

Thanks to Gina, Cheryl, Exchell, Keisha, and Denita 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.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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