Are You Ready To Talk Race?

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The recent and tragic events of Charlottesville, Virginia have captivated the country, creating the environment for talking about race with friends and family. But the news coverage will inevitably shift to other topics and unless America has the courage to continue the discussions of race and racism, the conditions that led to Charlottesville will persist.

Whatever the news does, you can be certain that Charlottesville will be on the minds of children across the country at the start of the school year. So, teachers have a unique opportunity, indeed responsibility, to continue those discussions.

But before doing so, they should be aware of the implicit biases they have, which may influence how they grade; choose topics and perspectives in history lessons; call on students to answer questions; punish children for misbehavior; and, even praise kids for a job well done.

These were discussed by a group participating in a workshop at Teacher College's four-day Reimaging Education Summer Institute, organized by Amy Stuart Wells, and in response to the "systematic way our educational system has tried to ignore the central role of race and culture in solving the ills of American schools."[1]

As students return to school and teachers contemplate ways to talk about race with their students, here are four ways to be sure teachers are ready:

  • Unconscious Bias: An attendee at the Reimagining Education Summer Institute noted that, "[i]f teachers aren't engaged in conversations about their own experiences with race and power, they're in no position to initiate them in the classroom." Are you, unknowingly, part of the problem? Do we perpetuate systems that create racial tension? Discussing race as adults and staff lay the foundation for similar discussions with students. Specifically, a discussion on the difference between "doing" something racist and "being" racist is the first step in clarifying that there is a difference between something you do and something you are.
  • Cultural Competency: Diversity in the teaching ranks has been a national issue. Though minority children account for the majority of public school students, the teacher workforce is still more than 80% white[2], according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Students need teachers with exposure to their culture and an understanding of role and impact of race on their daily lives. How well do you know your communities in which your students live?
  • Waiting for Superman: Teachers who consider themselves "saviors" concede to the premise that something is wrong with their students-- that they need to be saved. In his book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y'all Too Dr. Christopher Emdin, says "the savior complex is problematic because it reinforces the notion that the teacher is the hero." [3] Dr. Emdin's advice to new educators in schools with predominately marginalized students of color is to understand "you are not there as a savior, but as a revolutionary" and that education is a responsibility.
  • Systems Matter: The study of race will lead to a better "understanding of how racism created a system that hurts , damages, and kills people, and how you may have benefited from that system", according to a Reimagining Education Summer Institute attendee. Topics like educational achievement gaps, racial profiling, food deserts, and access to healthcare should be researched and discussed amongst fellow educators.

While preparing oneself to be the best facilitator of a discussion on race is important, a discussion is just the beginning. Learning must include opportunities for students to address the root causes and impact of race and racism.

As a teacher, you can help mobilize students to become advocates for their own communities. Help students utilize multiple skills to write a member of the school board, a state representative, or organize a Day Of Service in a their community. Let the learning and action, begin - the future of our country depends on it!