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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Race & Racism Are Not ‘Merely Curricular Topics’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 18, 2018 19 min read
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(This is the second post is a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question of the week is:

What are the biggest mistakes teachers make when approaching race and racism issues in the classroom and what should they do instead?

In Part One, guest responses come from Marian Dingle, Sydney Chaffee, Raquel Rios, Rinard Pugh and Dr. Kimberly N. Parker. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Marian on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s contributors are Dr. Tehia Glass, Dr. Erin Miller, Eddie Moore, Jr, Ali Michael, Marguerite Penick-Parks, Dr. Chezare A. Warren, Brian L. Wright, Ph.D., and Leah Wilson.

Response From Dr. Tehia Glass & Dr. Erin Miller

Dr. Tehia Glass is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Elementary Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Dr. Erin Miller is an Assistant Professor of Literacy in the same department. They both conduct research projects and teach courses that examine race, racism, and racial identity. Dr. Glass and Dr. Miller co-designed and run the 100% online Anti-Racism in Urban Education Graduate Concentration/Certificate Program:

In our work with teachers and teacher education candidates around issues of race and racism, we see three common mistakes:

Mistake #1. Maintaining an ideology of color-blindness, or a refusal to recognize how race and racism impacts the lives of individuals. When teachers and teacher-candidates say they don’t see race, it means they don’t see the importance of one’s racial identity or the ways that racism impacts the educational experiences of their students. For example, children of Color are three times more likely to be referred for disciplinary action than their White peers. It is imperative that teachers acknowledge how race and racism impact the personal and academic trajectories of their students in very real ways.

An Alternative: Race related conversations are imperative if color-blindness is to be challenged. In our work and in our personal lives, we see that families of Color begin discussing race and racism with young children early, but many White families do not have those discussions until much later, if at all. Begin having conversations about race early and often and have them integrated in the school curriculum. For example, Early Childhood teachers begin having conversations with children about skin tone (or melanin) as early as Age 2. In Elementary classrooms, teachers can bring in multiple perspectives to consider the ways systems, not just individuals, contribute to racial disparities. For example, analyzing statistical data trends around race - in age appropriate ways - can address mathematics standards while considering how contemporary social issues are rooted in the racism of our nation’s past can address both literacy and social studies concepts. And, all of this helps confront color-blindness and teaches racial literacy.

Mistake #2. Also related, we see a tendency to locate racism in individuals rather than using a system analysis approach. It is emotionally easier to associate racism to individual people and extreme actions they take to exhibit their racism because we can distance ourselves from them (and from racism) in doing so. But, racism would thrive even without individual racists because it is endemic to the very systems that govern our society. Because of this, we believe it is important that teachers and teacher-candidates develop an understanding of how we can, even if we are not overtly prejudiced toward others, contribute to racist systems.

An Alternative: Learn to see how racism exists within and impacts every system in society. Some scholars call this developing racial literacy. There are many national and local groups and faith centers hosting ongoing workshops on examining institutional racism. For example, Race Matters for Juvenile Justice and Brownicity.com are two local organizations we have found helpful to promote the development racial literacy.

Mistake #3: An avoidance of teaching how racism is pervasive today and has real and harmful outcomes across all aspects of our lives. Often, racism is approached through social studies and literature as bad behavior that is safely located in the past. While we are encouraged by the increase in children’s literature that addresses historical racism, this shouldn’t be the only context in which racism is discussed in the curriculum.

An Alternative: Integrate learning about the contemporary movements. An organization called “Rethinking Schools” recently published an anthology entitled “Teaching Black Lives Matter” that is filled with examples of how teachers have integrated contemporary issues related to race and racism into classrooms across all age groups. We also urge teachers and teacher candidates to explore literature about the lives of young people dealing with racism today, such as the award winning book, “The Hate You Give,” by Angie Thomas for middle and high school students.

Resources we like and use:






Response From Eddie Moore, Jr, Ali Michael & Marguerite Penick-Park

Together, Eddie Moore, Jr., Ali Michael, and Marguerite Penick-Parks are authors of The White Women’s Guide to Teaching Black Boys (Corwin, 2017). Founder/Program Director for The White Privilege Conference, Eddie has pursued and achieved success in academia, business, diversity, leadership, and community service. He is one of the nation’s top motivational speakers and educators for his work with students K-16. Ali Michael is the co-founder and director of the Race Institute for K-12 Educators, and teaches in the mid-career doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, as well as the Graduate Counseling Program at Arcadia University. Marguerite W. Penick-Parks currently serves as Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, where her work centers on issues of power, privilege, and oppression in relationship to issues of curriculum:

One of the biggest mistakes teachers make in education is approaching race and racism issues as if they are merely curricular topics and not real, lived issues among the humans in the classroom. Because more than 82.7% of the teachers in the US are White, issues of race and racism tend to be between White teachers and students of color (Moore, Michael, & Penick-Parks, 2017). When teaching children of color, educators often make the mistake of utilizing sanctions or punitive responses first, rather than building a caring relationship in which they use inquiry to locate an understanding of the relationship--and work to develop responses that are not punitive.

This tendency towards valuing (or at least employing) punishment over connection leads to another, bigger denial--the denial that one’s own racial background and subsequent racial socialization has anything to do with one’s teaching or classroom. When teachers don’t connect with students, when students misbehave or seem disinterested, teachers assume it must be the student’s fault. They don’t wonder, first, if they might be to blame, if their unconscious bias--and that of their colleagues--could be creating a climate that leads to disconnection and disinterest. Teachers, and predominately White teachers, insist race has nothing to do with it.

There is currently no requirement that teachers demonstrate any fluency in issues of race that they understand, respect, or connect with their students of color. It is assumed that if education works for the majority of White students, it should work for everyone. It is not a requirement for teachers of Black students, for example, to have any fluency in Black cultural styles, Black linguistic styles, or even connection to the Black community. While such requirements may seem preposterous, most White teachers of White students have exactly those qualifications with regard to White cultural and linguistic styles.

Because many White teachers were raised to be colorblind, few are willing to engage in authentic conversations around race and racism. Because they don’t feel comfortable talking about race, they cannot explore the very factor that might be standing in the way of connection with students. Many teachers may have participated in only one course on “multiculturalism” their entire preservice career and do not feel prepared to engage in lessons steeped in controversial content. The result is they tend to brush over ideas instead of engaging with their students in these rich and important conversations.

As a team, we believe it is essential for all educators to have the competence and the confidence to engage in honest conversations with their students about issues of race and racism. To not do this is dishonest. The skills to engage in these conversations are not always easily learned, they come from teachers engaging in difficult and honest reflection and conversations with their peers. However, if teachers do not embark on the journey of gaining the necessary competence and confidence to have courageous conversations about race, then how will students ever have an opportunity to also learn these skills? Is it difficult? Yes. But it is essential if this country is ever going to come to grips with its racialized past, a past that is always present in the classroom, regardless of whether we recognize it or talk about it.

Response From Dr. Chezare A. Warren

Dr. Chezare A. Warren is assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. He also holds faculty appointments in African American and African Studies, Mathematics Education, and the Center for Gender in Global Context. His 2017 book, Urban Preparation: Young Black Men Moving from Chicago’s South Side to Success in Higher Educationis the inaugural text published on Harvard Education Press’ new “Race and Education” series. For more information, visit www.chezarewarren.com:

When I lead professional development sessions with math teachers, I invite participants to name a time or circumstance when math is not relevant in their everyday lives. Colleagues always agree that no such situation exists when the concepts and logics of mathematics do not in some way deepen our understanding about the world around us, and/or give meaning to the mindless, routine tasks we so easily take for granted. Similarly, I begin my response to the aforementioned question by affirming that there is no time or circumstance when race and racism are not in some way impacting our/students’ way of life. The biggest mistake--and by biggest I mean the mistake I find to be most common in our profession--is treating kids as if (their) race doesn’t matter to their learning or their experiences/interactions in the social world, both inside and outside of school. Statements like, “I don’t see skin color” or “It doesn’t matter where you grow up if you just work hard” negate the legacy of racism in United States public (education) policy. The historical record reveals, for instance, Black, Latinx, and Native peoples have long been systematically disadvantaged primarily because of their race.

Below are a few recommendations to avoid errors commonly associated with approaching race and racism in the classroom:

  • Actively acknowledge the United States’ history of white supremacy, settler colonialism and antiblackness. This acknowledgment simply means conceding that cisgender, heterosexual, Christian, English-speaking, monolingual, able-bodied, wealthy white men used race as the fulcrum upon which to dispossess Native peoples and establish multiple hierarchies of power, privilege and oppression in the United States. Teachers must recognize the lingering impacts of slavery and settler colonialism on American’s way of life. Studying these concepts in community with other colleagues is incredibly valuable for learning to competently broach issues of race and racism in the classroom.

  • Appreciate racial and ethnic difference (and all student diversity) as an asset to learning, not a barrier.

    Society has long standardized how we interpret what should be deemed as good and what is not good, what is beautiful and what is not beautiful. These are messages the public has internalized and reproduced over time. Teachers must be intentional about promoting and stewarding diversity. By doing so, they actively oppose the imperialist logic at the core of ideological stances like “make America great again.” Learning to enthusiastically engage the difficulties associated with embracing racial and ethnic difference is an important first step towards realizing a truly pluralistic society where each citizen’s humanity is valued.

  • Never let fear of the unknown limit your understanding of race and racism in everyday life. It is scary to fully embrace something you feel you know absolutely nothing about. It is also intimidating to be “othered”. Most of us just want to fit in. It is not an excuse, however, to be silent, or avoid meaningfully engaging with the very thing that causes you some trepidation. For those who would admit that approaching race and racism in the classroom causes you some anxiety, my recommendation is to start where you are. It is okay to acknowledge, “this makes me uncomfortable.” But don’t stay there. Find a critical friend who looks like you, who has permission to correct and mentor you. Read books and blogs, watch videos, and be an observer and listener more than you are a participant and speaker. If you’re white, have conversations with other white people more regularly about white supremacy, settler colonialism and antiblackness. Be flexible to ambiguity while learning to shoulder the burden of your embarrassment and guilt with confidence and humility.

Response From Brian L. Wright, Ph.D

Brian L. Wright, Ph.D. is an assistant professor and program coordinator of ECE at the University of Memphis. Brian’s is the author of The Brilliance of Black Boys: Cultivating School Success in the Early Grades:

Approaching race and implicit bias in the classroom can be difficult for teachers in general, White teachers in particular in large part because many who enter teacher certification programs have little knowledge about diverse racial-ethnic groups in the United States. Specifically, they know little about the histories and cultures of varying groups in the United States and the discrimination and disenfranchisement that they have encountered. As a result, these teachers begin their careers without the deep knowledge and robust skills and dispositions necessary to respond to the wide diversity of learners in their classrooms specifically as these relate to the interplay of race, class, and gender.

When teachers are not culturally competent the damage that can be done as a result of the absence of such knowledge, skills, and disposition is the perpetuation of deficit-oriented attitudes, beliefs, and practices that harm all students, but especially those students from non-dominant and historically marginalized groups (e.g., Black and Latino students). Based on this reality, my first recommendation is that teacher education programs must be intentional about the opportunities they provide teacher candidates through critical coursework and field experiences in a variety of settings (e.g., urban) with diverse students. Second, at the heart of the coursework and experiences out in the field there must be opportunities to become aware that their expectations of [future] students are affected by the ways they have been socialized as individuals and teachers. By this, I mean, helping teachers understand that like their students, they occupy distinct race, class, gender and other positions that profoundly shape their life chances in ways that are not natural, voluntary, or random. This understanding is critical to challenging the myth that access and opportunity are equally distributed across these social position factors of race, class, and gender. Disrupting the myth of the meritocracy is a necessary step in how teachers can approach race as a social construct with real consequences both in and outside of the classroom.

According to DiAngelo (2018),

“race will influence whether we will survive birth, where we will are most likely to live, which schools we will attend, who our friends and partners will be, what careers we will have, how much money we will earn, how healthy we will be, and even how long we can expect to live.” (p. 4).

Building on this quote and starting from the premise that racism and implicit bias are alive and operating inside classrooms I offer additional recommendations.

1. Attend diversity conferences specifically workshops/sessions to learn that racism is a systemic issue found not only in “acts of meanness,” but also in the practice of looking the other way, being complicit and denying acts or systems that marginalize and oppress people of color.

2. Study examples of privilege (e.g., Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege,” Ruth Anne Olsen’s “White Privilege in Schools”).

3. Be open to constructive feedback. For example, even if the term “minority” is accurate, when told that the use of this term is problematic because of its pejorative nature in that it represents diminished status and power, avoid any further justification in the form of argumentation.

4. Immerse self in community to learn about the community cultural wealth/capital (e.g., gifts, talents, strengths, experiences) students of color bring to the classroom.

5. Acknowledge social injustices in schools and society.

6. Talk with students and families about their feelings and experiences with racism and discrimination.

Response From Leah Wilson

Leah Wilson, NBCT, has taught English, English as a Second Language, Philosophy, and Theory of Knowledge to students from grades 6 - 12 in England, The Bahamas, and several schools in the United States. She has served on the Standard Setting Panel and as a Content Validation Reviewer for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the International Baccalaureate Organization’s (IBO) Theory of Knowledge Curriculum Review Panel and as an IBO Examiner in Theory of Knowledge and English Literature. She’s also a proud union member formerly elected to represent MCPS HS teachers as Chair of the MCEA High School Council on Teaching and Learning and currently serving as English Department Chair at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, MD:

There are so many mistakes we make when approaching race and racism issues in the classroom that it’s difficult to know which one to address first- which gets to the most important piece of all: Don’t let the overwhelming nature of race and racism issues in the classroom and any doubt about how to approach them cause you to ignore, minimize, or avoid them. When issues are explicit, perhaps the solution seems simple.

For example, when a student uses overtly racist language, it’s clear that this is not ok and that the teacher must intervene. But what about racist language in a novel? I know in my distant past I have had conversations with (mostly white) classes full of students about “the N-word” and whether, if reading out loud, it’s ok to say it in the classroom. At the time, I thought this was a fairly courageous conversation, considering that I was teaching in a relatively conservative, predominantly white school that did not have a culture of open communication about such issues. Looking back on those conversations, I am still glad I facilitated them; awkward as they were, they did bring to the surface some deeper feelings that were important to wrestle with, as learners and English literature students, sure, but also as people, and I did get some pushback for being “political,” which I wore as a badge of honor.

However, in hindsight, I am downright embarrassed at my own naivete and insufficiency, which brings me to another mistake teachers make, which I have also made, namely being satisfied, or even proud, of what is- obviously to me now- an entirely inadequate response to the pervasive, systemic, institutional racism that affects students and staff in schools every day. Sure being (or feeling like) the only one in a department or school who fosters this kind of conversation maybe feels good in the moment, but it is nowhere near enough. What I should have been doing is asking the bigger questions- for example, rather than discussing whether or not to read that word out loud, I should have been asking why we were reading that book at all, whether its presence in the curriculum or its inclusion in “the canon” at all was due to its so-called literary merit or, perhaps, to some different and, possibly, lesser reason, such as tradition (“we’ve always taught it”), teachability (“the imagery and symbolism are great to write about in an essay”), availability (“this is what’s in our book room”), etc. I should have been asking to what extent its inclusion precluded our teaching of other texts, other voices, other worlds. I should have been facilitating conversations within my department about what constitutes literary merit at all.

We make so many mistakes in approaching issues of race and racism in the classroom, but this example illustrates a few of them: thinking too small, asking the wrong questions, treating the superficial issues but ignoring the deeper, foundational problems that come from having a teaching force in this country that is overwhelmingly white, and the default assumptions many of us make about what we’re really teaching our students when we fail to evolve in our knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a culturally proficient teacher who is compassionate and confident enough to acknowledge our own discomfort and ignorance around issues of race and racism in the classroom.

Thanks to Dr. Glass, Dr. Miller, Eddie Moore, Jr, Ali Michael, Marguerite Penick-Parks, Dr. Warren, Brian L. Wright, Ph.D., and Leah Wilson for their contributions.

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