Discussing Race in the Classroom
-- Contributed by Karla Vigil, Social Justice Educator and Education Strategies Specialist at the Highlander Institute - Providence, RI
This year, after what seems like a long hot summer of racial tension and violence, many educators and administrators should expect race related topics surfacing in their classrooms. Students in your class who identify as African American may come in with feelings of hurt and confusion. Or you may have a student who dad is a white cop that may be angry and sad. You may also have a student who comes in and supports the Black Lives Matter movement and another student in your class may challenge that student with “All Lives Matter”. Regardless of who your students are, race-related questions involving police relations and violence may arise. Discussing race, like sex and religion, can be tricky for teachers. So how do we begin to have these conversations with our students or children?
First, it is important to remember that these conversations should be guided by your students. When questions do arise, take a moment to gather your thoughts and formulate a response. Your intention should be to guide students away from internalizing one narrative and steer them away from categorizing a group of people.
After the Philando Castile shooting, my 10 year old son asked me, “Why did the police shoot him? Why didn’t the policeman think before he shot him?” After taking a moment to gather my thoughts and formulate a response, the best I could give him was “I’m not completely sure, but you’re right ...maybe he should have thought a little more before shooting him.” I then asked him, ”Do you believe ALL cops shoot people?” He said, “No, they’re not all the same.” I agreed. My intention in this conversation was to make sure that my son did not internalize one narrative to categorize a group of people. If he did, and we didn’t have the discussion he would have developed stereotypes and biases against specific groups of people. I use this same approach in my classrooms.
As an educator and mother, I want to help my children and students understand their own identity and how it relates to the world around them. In doing so, topics of race and identity can be easier to facilitate. When developing and implementing curricula and lessons, be sure to turn to experts like James A. Banks Five Dimensions of Multicultural Education. You should intentionally provide learning opportunities that push students to think critically about the content while at the same time unpacking stereotypes and biases. Students begin to understand different perspectives and respect various identities including backgrounds, social class, gender, sexual orientation and religion. This allows them to reflect about their own identity while also learning about others.
Depending on where you teach and what population of students you serve, the transition into this new school year may be extra challenging. Race should be up for discussion and teachers should be prepared to hold deep, thoughtful, and meaningful conversations. As leaders, we must be culturally responsive in understanding students’ cultural backgrounds and experiences to create learning opportunities that are reflective of students. Perhaps, we can then start developing students as citizens who are understanding of differences and can view the world from multiple lenses. Perhaps then we can stop using labels that divide us and end the hate that fuels violence. Perhaps then we, as teachers and leaders, can begin to take the first step in dismantling systems that too often perpetuate inequities and racism. The change can all start in the classrooms.