A Guide To Discussing Race With Your Students

Guest Writer: Ali Andrews

The reluctance to discuss racism in American public schools actively harms students of color. 

While structural racism shapes their lives, the topic goes largely unaddressed in schools, often by educators who simultaneously enact discriminatory policies. Opening up discussions of race in the classroom is essential for engaging with students’ realities and enabling them to understand and cope with trauma.

Students of color deal with American racism on a daily basis, living “under a survival mentality” (PDF, 277 KB) that schools fail to acknowledge and support; this is described in the First Book Social Issues Impact Survey (PDF, 277 KB). According to the report, children most often initiate discussion in school on the topics of racism, immigration policies and police enforcement, all of which teachers feel ill-equipped to address. 

Additionally, students of color face active discrimination within school, with harsher discipline and disproportionately high suspension rates. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (PDF, 2.1 MB), Black students account for 16 percent of the student population; however, they make up 32–42 percent of suspended or expelled students and are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than White students. 

Interventions are clearly required at a macro level. Public school teachers—who, according to the United States Department of Education, are approximately 80 percent White—often don’t feel they have the proper teaching materials to adequately assist with concerns regarding race, even when public school populations are about 50 percent students of color. Efforts should also be focused on diversifying the teacher population (PDF, 1.2 MB), particularly through adjustments to structures that prevent undergraduate students of color from reaching teacher certification. 

However, while larger scale changes are still to come, current teachers can address the long-neglected needs of students of color by initiating conversations about race. A guide about classroom conversations about racism from the USC Rossier Master of Education in School Counseling online program breaks down the process into four tenets: 

  • Be Honest

Educational strategies evoking the concept of “colorblindness” do not work. Students are aware that racial categories have meaning in our society, and ignoring this only fails to prepare them to live with the injustices of reality. Ignoring color assigns an objectivity to the current power structures, which actually overvalue whiteness. Psychology Today race and culture columnist Mariel Buque opened up to USC Rossier about the value of being transparent with children about racial inequalities. 

“We’re just trying to eradicate the damage that has been done already,” she said. “Being able to socialize a child around their racial identity in a positive way can mitigate the effects of trauma and racial discrimination that they’re likely to encounter throughout the rest of their lives.”

  • Brace for Impact 

Be prepared to receive blowback for speaking frankly to students about race, but remember the ultimate goal is to improve the lives of children. Don’t let fear of obstacles or mistakes stop you from acting at all, and reach out to friends, co-workers or experts who can help inform your approach.

  • Walk the Line

Create a supportive space without dictating how students must think or feel. Teach them critical thinking skills and avenues into deconstructing racist societal myths. Allow students the space to vocalize feelings and thoughts around racial identity if they so choose to, but don’t require it. Chicago teacher Dwayne Reed plays devil’s advocate with his fifth-grade students to elucidate new ways of thinking and conceptualizing. 

  • Engage in Self-Reflection 

It’s difficult to effectively serve the needs of students of color without clearly grasping your own prejudices, biases, and understanding of and experiences with racism. Take the time to self-reflect so you’re approaching these topics from the most empathetic perspective possible. Olsen Edwards, an anti-bias consultant for K-12 schools, says children connect to an honest and solution-oriented approach: “This is really interesting how we are different. And it’s really heartbreaking that people don’t treat each other well. And what are we going to do about it?”

Ali Andrews is a Digital PR Coordinator and supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s mental health, education and business programs. Find her on Twitter: @alisandrews

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