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Teaching Opinion

Six Truths About Racism That White Teachers Must Know

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 05, 2020 11 min read
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(This is Part Five in a multipart series on this topic. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four here.)

The question is:

What should teachers learn from the killing of George Floyd?

In Part One, Antoine Germany and Lorie Barber shared their thoughts.

In Part Two, Dr. Tracey A. Benson and Holly Spinelli contributed their commentaries.

In Part Three, Joe Truss and Janice Wyatt-Ross made their recommendations.

In Part Four, Jeffrey Garrett, Keisha Rembert, and Erika Niles wrote their responses.

Today, Denise Fawcett Facey and Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., offer their voices to the conversation.

One or two more posts in this series will appear over the next few days.

You might also be interested in numerous past posts appearing here on race and racism in schools and how to combat it: Race & Gender Challenges

“Educators must be willing to look at these hard truths”

Denise Fawcett Facey was a classroom teacher for more than two decades and now writes on education issues. Among her books, Can I Be in Your Class offers tips and techniques for whole-child education that makes learning more engaging and relevant:

George Floyd’s killing in broad daylight, and in the presence of multiple witnesses, has exposed several ugly truths about U.S. society. White privilege, systemic racism, the toxic relationship between law enforcement and people of color, the many microaggressions with which people of color must contend daily, and the unique dilemma of being black and male in the United States are among the combination of societal factors at play in this killing. Now, educators must be willing to look at these hard truths, not averting our gaze from the most difficult ones, to understand how each impacts students of color and to seek ways to eliminate these racist practices from schools.

Here are six truths to consider:

  1. White privilege is not only real but also impacts students of color every day. A case in point is the huge disparity in disciplining black students versus white students, a fact borne out by statistics. In addition to being disciplined more often, African American students are disciplined more harshly. This disparity is the foundation of the school-to-prison pipeline, so named for the propensity of school officials to call police for behaviors such as a 1st grader’s temper tantrum, which would warrant a simple timeout for a white student. While there are numerous other ways in which white privilege impacts students of color, what educators need to understand is that students of color are just kids like any other, deserving of the same disciplinary measures you would want meted out to your own child.

  2. Systemic racism is so entrenched in our society that it is codified by tacit agreement in schools. The treatment of students of color described above reflects this unspoken yet universally understood agreement. Essentially, anything that differs from white expectations, and even some that are identical to those of white students, are deemed aberrant in students of color and likely to be met with punishment. Dress codes, for example, are used to assign derogatory assessments to natural hairstyles that don’t comport with white standards, resulting in suspensions and even students’ prohibition from attending their own graduation ceremonies. Such racially discriminatory practices are so pervasive that racism becomes intricately entwined with the school system. Educators need to understand that different is not wrong, merely different. Developing an appreciation for and acceptance of differences, not mere tolerance of them, is beneficial to everyone concerned. It’s also essential to dismantling systemic racism.

  3. The toxic relationship between police and people of color has deep roots that affect students of color daily. Hearkening back to the Reconstruction period in this country’s history, policing as it relates to African Americans has been a matter of racial profiling and hunting. From being followed in stores to being stopped by police because they “fit the description” or simply for driving at night, students of color have repeated negative encounters with law enforcement. Moreover, the outcome can be detrimental to them, as the George Floyd case illustrates. This is not to say that good cops and positive encounters don’t exist but rather that the prevalent experience for students of color is not positive. So, understand that inviting law enforcement into your classroom for situations involving students of color may not only exacerbate students’ existing trauma but also potentially endangers them. Instead, learn and use trauma-informed teaching techniques, including providing compassion, genuine caring, and a safe environment for students to share their lives.

  4. Microaggressions based on race are an insidious fact of life for students of color. These brief everyday encounters with racial hostility occur multiple times a day, affecting these students in many ways. In school, for instance, teachers may not attempt to pronounce students’ names correctly, may not call on black students in class, or may call on them only to present “the black perspective.” Teachers also may insinuate that the high-quality work submitted by a student of color must have been copied. Counselors steer students of color away from their college choices because “they won’t get in.” Just a few examples of negative interactions based on race, when combined with racially charged peer interactions and equally virulent experiences outside of school, they become oppressive. Educators need to see each student’s humanity. See them not as a member of a group but as a singular human being. Respect their abilities, respect their culture, respect


  5. While racism impacts all people of color, your African American male students are specific targets. Perceived in stereotypical terms as dangerous, frightening, inferior, and potentially criminal, black males often are treated as if they are guilty of wrongdoing. This societal mindset is common among educators as well, and the darker the student, the more likely he is to encounter it. From illegitimate blame to false assumptions, African American males face large-scale prejudice and discrimination both inside and outside of school. As a result, educators need to understand that their fears cannot define someone else’s character. Try operating on the premise that everyone has something of worth to offer and that you want to find it in each African American male just as you would expect to do with white students.

  6. Educators must honestly assess their own biases. Even educators who perceive themselves as nonracist harbor biases that are simply part of the fabric of America. Be willing to assess yours and move beyond them. In the current U.S. climate, being merely nonracist is tantamount to being complicit with racism; educators must be anti-racist. Work against the status quo that keeps students of color aliens in their own school. Work to ensure their inclusion in advanced classes and STEM programs. Speak out against racist comments and actions that you might previously have ignored. Be willing to offer the benefit of the doubt rather than the rapid judgment of students of color. Don’t ask educators of color what you can do. Genuine willingness to work for change requires you to determine the methods. Students of color are depending on you.

“Do the work of developing your racial consciousness”

Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. He is the author of Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom: An Equity Framework for Pedagogy (2019):

I am infuriated.

I am wounded.

George Floyd was afforded none of the dignities guaranteed under the law of the land. His story was ended—on camera, in broad daylight ... in the United States of America.

As I’ve processed the events of this moment in history, I’ve returned to a memory, a story I’ve told before from several years ago, about a bright, polite, delightful 1st grader named Roy.

I was co-teaching in his classroom when the school went into a dreaded lockdown drill. Mrs. C. and I hurriedly gathered the students into a corner away from the locked door, and—as we had been directed—within view of the uncovered outside window. Roy, one of a few Black students in the class, quietly tugged at his teacher’s elbow to ask if we should close the window blinds so that we could better hide. My colleague, with a calm, steady whisper, answered that we needed to keep the windows clear so that the police could see us when they arrive at the school. Roy responded with expressive surprise and discernable confusion: “But I thought we were hiding from the police.”

At 6-years-old, Roy was already familiar with the notion of police as threat. And now, many more kiddos are aware on some level that there is enough tension in the relationship between law- enforcement entities and Black people to spark nationwide protest and civil unrest.

And therein lies the charge for teachers. We must draw from this a commitment to honor the life and death of George Floyd—to make it make sense—by ensuring that every one of our students is able to have their humanity seen, to tell their own unique and individual story ... a story free of the biases that we and the systems we animate assign to them.

What should teachers learn from the killing of George Floyd?

We should learn that teaching is profoundly human. We should learn to feel the pain, and yes—the rage—in facing America’s original sin of racism. We should learn to find agency in that pain and rage. Through the pain and rage, we can find inspiration to revise our schools and instruction to center the stories and humanity of our students.

To White teachers, your guilt is mostly useless. We need your agency. You must do the work of developing your racial consciousness, and as you do so, share with other White people what you’ve discovered. More modelling, less preaching.

The only way that we can have a fair and just society is if we commit to uprooting racism as an arbiter of American opportunity. We must put our beliefs about fairness and our commitment to anti-racism into action. It must live in our practices. Roy and the rest of our students are watching, and if our conviction for a fair and just society isn’t clear, our instruction will be perceived as fraudulent—and rightfully so. Or worse, we’ll be responsible for continuing the traditions of hate through the tacit endorsement embodied in silence.

I suspect those Minneapolis police officers wanted to humiliate Mr. Floyd ... to remind him of his place as an inferior to their law-enforcement authority ... to commandeer his story. The officer who pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd was indifferent to his humanity. Many of our students experience a similar indifference in school.

Our society cannot continue to exist with unchecked systemic injustices particularly as it pertains to the disproportionate killings of unarmed Black people at the hands of the police. This issue strikes at the very heart of our democracy because when any group of people feels as if it is unfairly attacked by the law-enforcement entities of the state, they will eventually take up various forms of civil disobedience and social disruption.

What we’re experiencing now is an enormously important chapter in our story—the story of the quest for fairness and justice. We have learned that there is a common thread that connects us all as human beings living together in a society, and no society can be said to be fair and just if any groups are denied the opportunities guaranteed to privileged others. What we are learning in this historic moment is that if there is no justice, there can be no peace.

We are learning not to merely get through this chapter. We are obligated to use it to create a fairer and more just America because I cannot fathom that George Floyd’s story will have ended in vain. Teachers, I implore you; let’s learn these lessons well.

Thanks to Denise and Adeyemi for their contributions!

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