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November 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 3

Helping Students Discuss Race Openly

School Culture
Helping Students Discuss Race Openly thumbnail
Credit: © Stefanie Felix
In the November after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a national news broadcast showed two combined classes of high school students discussing the incident, the police, and the protests. The combined class was evenly distributed among Latino, African American, and white students. Two teachers, one black and one white, sat with the students.
Even when they heatedly disagreed, these students clearly respected one another, understood there would be differences, and listened to their classmates make their points. Each teacher stood just a few times to remind someone when he or she was monopolizing the talk or to introduce a question or alternative way of thinking. These teachers were clearly comfortable with their students' ability to participate in a provocative discussion. As I watched this discussion, I realized how much work must have gone into preparing for this emotionally laden exchange about race.

It Doesn't Just Happen

It takes time to create a class where students feel visible, heard, and respected. It takes a firm belief in the importance of making students—their stories and their voices—central all year. And it takes work—on the part of white teachers especially, who must come to understand how their whiteness plays a part in how students perceive them and how the dynamics of discussions play out.
Teachers need to be ready for the subject of race to come up, not only within their subject area or lessons, but also when racially tinged events happen outside school, when race comes up in a student's writing, or when students notice inequities in how school is structured. Being ready for these spontaneous events, as well as scheduled talks about race, requires a confidence that comes with experience and reflection. We must set guidelines for respectful discussions and prepare ourselves—and our students—internally.
No matter what kind of school you teach in, discussions about race are vital to each student's development and vital to our democracy. Today's K–12 students are aware of inequities in their schools, neighborhoods, and country. This current group of young adults often has open, accepting attitudes toward marginalized groups (from GLBTQ peers to recent immigrants). Students want to have discussions about differences and conflicts, led and encouraged by a trusted adult who will guide the conversation without restricting it. As one high school student noted (Mitchell, 2013, p. 112), "Adults … make assumptions about our abilities to build cross-cultural relationships. They think that just because we're together in class, in school, or on the team, that we don't need bridging support. We do. … With extra emotional support [from teachers], we can go the extra mile" (p. 112).

Considering Your Own Identity

To prepare for discussions of race and class, privilege and inequities, educators need to think about their own biases. Several tools can help, including Glen Singleton and Curtis Linton's (2006) book Courageous Conversations About Race and Peggy McIntosh's (1988) work addressing how she came to understand the privileges she holds as a white woman. Educators might use the Intercultural Development Inventory (available at a cost at to find out where they fit on the scale of acceptance and understanding of other cultures. In preparing groups for frank talk, I sometimes ask participants to construct and share their own racial autobiography.
It's helpful to have educators as a group look at their own school and identify where racism exists (often called an Equity Survey). Do whites take gifted or AP classes while students of color are predominantly in regular classes? Are students of color suspended more frequently? Are black kids asked for a pass while white students walk freely in the halls? Where and when are parent conferences held, and how does this affect families from different cultures? Such items may surface when you talk about race in your classroom.
Working on race and racism, especially for white teachers, means understanding that in the United States, having white skin confers unearned privileges. It means not being the only "knower" in the room, but appreciating that many students in a discussion will know things you can't. It can mean listening more intently to colleagues of color. It means being aware of assumptions, mistakes, and generalizations we all make about people of color or people in poverty.
Two teachers I've collaborated with, Rebecca (who is white) and Kim (who's black and Asian), suggest that white educators try answering the question "Who are you, and who are your people?" One way to gauge this is to look at your Facebook friends: If they're all white, that says something about whose perspective you are exposed to.
Kim and Rebecca advise peers who want to broaden their network to "walk right into it" without shame or blame, to engage directly and be ready for provocative dialogue. As a white teacher, I know this isn't always easy. It's helpful to build a support group of like-minded white teachers with whom you can debrief and discuss. Consider that our colleagues of color have had to engage with European American culture—to be bicultural—all their lives.

Preparing the Ground

The next key step is building a trusting community. I can't stress enough the importance of giving students time to reflect and write about elements of their lives and to share these reflections. Highlighting student voices is essential in making the connections that lay the ground for fruitful discussions. One high school math teacher has students write in journals so he can connect with them and how they're feeling about his class. A literature teacher asks a different student each day to bring in lyrics to a favorite song. Each morning, she plays the selected song and devotes 10 minutes to discussing its lyrics—and ties what students observe about the characters or mood of that song into a class text.
Another way to set a trusting atmosphere is to bring people of color who are experts in their field (engineers, poets, or biologists) to speak to the class. Our public school teaching profession is 83 percent white, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics (2016). It's vital to have people of color in our schools so nonwhite students see people who look like them in positions of authority. It's also important for all students to know that some white people have devoted much of their lives to working for equal rights. You might bring in such activists to talk about their work and what it's taken for them to understand other perspectives.

How-To's for Powerful Discussions

Once you've established a classroom atmosphere in which students—and sometimes the teacher—share their voices and stories, honest talks about race feel possible. Six actions help make it happen.

1. Establish Guidelines

Courageous Conversations About Race spells out four agreements group members can make when having discussions of race.
Stay engaged. Remain morally, intellectually, and socially involved in the dialogue. Before the dialogue begins, make sure phones are turned off, books put away, and no one is having side conversations. It's worth the time to spell out what it means to be morally present and social and intellectually involved. It is worth the hour spent on doing this work.
Experience discomfort. This is something many of my white colleagues find difficult. Often, people define safe spaces as spaces free of tension, disagreement, or even frustration. We—and our students—need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. And we all need a safe place to express our discomfort.
If a student says she doesn't feel comfortable talking about a topic, I ask that student to keep listening and write down her thoughts. At the end of the session, I ask if she wants to share what she wrote. Often, by then, she will have heard others express similar questions or thoughts. The next time, she may not hesitate to speak, even from a place of uncertainty.
Speak your truth. In other words, be honest about your thoughts and feelings. I often introduce a "pause of respect" after a student has spoken something especially honest or hard, asking participants to let a few seconds go by before responding. Sometimes we even take a full minute before going on with a discussion. After a few weeks, students themselves will "ask for a minute" if they need it. Another good activity is to go around the circle of students and ask for a check-in—one word or sentence to signal their concern or mood at the moment.
Never ask students to speak for anyone else but themselves. Often, teachers ask students of color to explain to others what black, Latino, or Hmong communities feel when an incident involving their community occurs. Black students have told me they feel nervous when a Civil War unit approaches because they don't want to be asked to explain how it feels to read about slavery and know such history. We don't ask white students to explain how European Americans feel when something unusual happens in a predominantly white community.
Accept non-closure. At the end of a conversation, students may feel frustrated that the problem isn't "fixed," that they don't know the answer to a situation or a difference of interpretation. This agreement asks them to hang out in uncertainty and not rush to quick solutions, especially in relation to racial understanding. Remind students that you'll be returning to the topic the next day, or soon.
Use guidelines that fit your situation. I used four easy-to-understand guidelines with my middle-school classes: be physically considerate, be verbally considerate, respect classmates' feelings and space, and be willing to try new things. Setting up routines that emphasize respect before discussions on race minimizes tension in such discussions and even around race-sensitive content. One teacher whose class read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn asked students to write an essay about their experience with the N-word. Students shared powerful reflections about this highly charged word before their reading—and said this was one of their most meaningful assignments.

2. Follow Up

Each teacher will develop his or her own ways of ending a dialogue about race. Some encourage students to begin taking actions that might change inequities revealed during a discussion. I've heard teachers say, "I know it is hard to be left without a solution right now. Remember, we're developing a list of social justice projects we can do that will change our school. Let's continue finding ways to make things different."
They then—or soon—give kids time to do something on that list, like write a letter to the editor of their city newspaper. A teacher might offer to go with a representative group of students to talk with the principal about the way students are being treated.
I've heard other teachers say, "I suspect some of you are feeling ashamed or even guilty about what you have heard. If so, come see me, and we can talk about that. I've gone through similar feelings. They are the beginning of action."

3. Step in When Abusive Language Occurs

Nothing is as frightening to students as feeling that they won't be defended when they are called names. Black students have told me that when teachers let homophobic slurs go by without interference, they become afraid that they can't trust their teacher to respond firmly if someone were to call them the N-word.
I responded to students who used any kind of offensive language in class by saying, "I don't allow that term in my classroom. I need to talk with you after class about that." It was of utmost importance that I reminded the student to remain behind when the bell rang. Students watch teachers. They know when we follow through and when we can be trusted. That's what makes the classroom feel safe.
In my private conference with the offending student, I talked about hurting others, and asked him or her, "What do you think it feels like to be hurt?" I've asked students to write about their feelings, I've written about mine, and we have discussed our writing together. I have always made sure to talk with the student who was offended as well, often asking him or her to write about how she or he felt at the time. In some incidences, when a student showed anger toward someone's perspective, I would ask both students to remain after class. We'd arrange a time for a longer talk about their conflict, at which time I often asked another adult to join me. In these small-group follow-ups, I often discovered things I didn't know about students. And when two students listened to each other one-on-one without the audience of their peers, it was enlightening for everyone involved.
Restorative justice techniques can be helpful, and if I have a relationship with the student's parents I get in touch with them—not for punitive reasons, but to let them know I have had to talk with their son or daughter about language and what can hurt others. The response to such a situation has to depend on the situation itself and the students involved. If teachers are willing to include students and their solutions in responses to these situations, we can reach some surprising results.

4. Be Present for Students

When students talk openly about race, they can feel some anxiety. It's essential that students know this is not what the conversations are for, and that you're there for them to work through these feelings. This means being available for short talks before and after school or in the hallway between classes.
I try to convey this message: This is tough work. I'm not always sure I'm doing it right. The most important thing you can do is to keep responding and learning. Come to me when you need to.
When one Minneapolis high school teacher saw serious fights happening between African American and Somali American students, she first became a listener, letting students air their perceptions. Gradually, students from both groups formed a Peace Committee, which brought about real cooperation and conflict resolution. It had to start with listening.

5. Prepare for Parental Reactions

To do this work, a teacher must be confident in her belief that such discussions are essential for students' development, that they are part of her curriculum, that they're important for helping students understand their world and giving them hope that they can change this world. Teachers need administrators to back them up, and they need their colleagues' support, too. This might take an institutional shift.
Most teachers I observe these days make sure that their plans and activities tied to addressing racism reflect state standards. They also send a letter to students' parents or guardians, outlining what students will be doing. Often, parents of students of color are relieved that these discussions are happening.

6. Keep Your Love of Teaching

One danger in holding these discussions is that you become so intent on doing or saying it right that you lose your easy exchanges and your jokes. Keep creating wild, wonderful projects and lessons. Keep enjoying the kids. As Kim and Rebecca said to me, "Be willing to laugh at your own faux pas!"

A Profound Gift

Classroom conversations about race—whether in response to a word problem, a presentation, or a story about how a shop owner treated a student—can happen when we establish an atmosphere of respect and openness. When we help students navigate issues of history and justice, right and wrong, we give them a profound gift—and a sense of hope. Although it's often the hardest work we can do to close the opportunity gap, it's the most important.

McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women's studies. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.

Mitchell, E. (2013). "Letter from a High School Student #1." In S. Grineski, J. Landsman, & R. Simmons, III (Eds.), Talking about race: Alleviating the fear (p. 112). Sterling, VA: Stylus Press.

Singleton, G. E., & Linton, C. (2006). Courageous conversations about race. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Julie Landsman has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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