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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Confession: I spent most of my formative years wrestling with the idea of "acting white."

The term "acting white" is often used against children of color who either still struggle with their self-concept or have taken on characteristics in their personalities that may not seem original to their ethnic background. Many of the people who know the present me always say that I don't look like I've ever had an issue with race, or that I handle race well. It's not that I never saw race; it's that I had to learn how to handle it at an early age. Negotiating the different worlds that I occupied, from the hood to the exclusive high school, I quickly learned that the best way to deal with race is to take on the norms and biases that come with it.

I learned how to work with the idea of race through experience, and lots of help from a book every educator ought to have in their bookshelves: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum. In this book, she clearly defines some of the words we use freely in our discussions and gives us a framework for how to discuss race, culture and ethnicity in a constructive manner and in layman's terms.

Unfortunately, America still has a hard time working with race in a constructive way. Educators particularly find themselves at the center of the discussion. It's not just because we have the opportunity to speak daily to our students on this subject, but also because of the racial breakdown of teachers in our schools. When 83% of all teachers are white (non-Hispanic) with an ever-increasing student body of color, we can no longer stand by and expect the race discussion to solve itself.

It's a big monster. Students cross lines. Teachers get upset and ignore. Principals avoid at all costs. Here are five tips I've learned about having these discussions.

1. Discomfort is the Starting Point, Not the End Goal

Discussions about big ideas like race, religion and politics necessitate some discomfort. By discomfort, I mean that people who participate in the discussion have a degree of soul-searching and reassessment about their own perceptions and biases. For instance, does one person find that their opinions get listened to more readily than those of certain school colleagues? Do they always sit with people of similar interests, or does it go deeper than that? How often do they interact with people that don't look like them or speak like them? As long as people begin with a clear understanding that the discussion won't start off with warm, fuzzy feelings, then the next few steps become easier.

2. Proceed with the Best Intentions

The power of positive thinking works even in spaces where controversy arises. Despite our various experiences, we have to be willing to listen and not react immediately. The person speaking may say things in error, and usually speaks from exposure or lack thereof. We also have to keep in mind that, when we do get a chance to speak, we can't assume complete ignorance. If someone just doesn't understand an experience, we have to try our best to explain the experience with as much clarity as possible.

3. Be Honest and Inclusive

When it's your turn to speak up, you should come into the conversation with an understanding that whatever you say comes from a place of wanting to learn. Not everyone has the same understandings about race. We also have to keep in mind that those most affected negatively by race inevitably do most of the teaching. We shouldn't take this to mean that they also get to dominate the conversation; if anything, we all need to make sure a true exchange of ideas happens.

4. Facilitation Matters

With any discussion, having a good facilitator matters. Let's be honest: people can get carried away with their opinions. At the center of the discussion, we need to have someone or a collection of people who can set the norms for how the discussion goes. That person does not necessarily require special expertise in matters of race, but they should have a clear sense of how to ask questions, clarify thoughts, rephrase when necessary, and help bring some solutions or understandings to the fore.

5. Solutions Include Confronting Racism Wherever We Can

Having conversations is not enough anymore. Plenty of us have attended consortia on racism and other forms of prejudice, and rarely do the conversations end with some form of resolution or actionable item. In the 21st century, we have to get better at doing the small things that contribute positively to our environments. Things like including more people within our circles, recognizing how we sit during faculty conferences, and addressing how we speak to children who may or may not look like us (and how we teach them to approach others) all go a long way towards deconstructing racism.

Many of the solutions start with us. We can apply some of these tips as needed. While principals should take the lead, sometimes they neither have the tools nor the sense of self to hear these discussions. Some leaders may take personally the fact that a race problem exists in a school, or they might see it as a reflection of the person pointing out the issue. In other environments, an educator may not see the importance of discussing race because they consider themselves color-blind, despite the fact that research has disproven such an idea. (For an in-depth look at color-blind racism, I recommend Racism Without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.)

Let's sit down and have a conversation instead of looking for reasons not to. In these times, achievement without social justice is an injustice for all.

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Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
Blogger

As an urban educator in a school that is 99% African American with only one African American teacher, this conversation is the elephant in the room that it seems no one really talks about. I find that I have to prep my students before we watch videos or view images of students and people that do not look like them. If we don't have a candid conversation about how the people they are about to see do not look or talk like them, the learning is usually derailed by either giggles and laughs or too much focus on what the people in the video or images look like. These candid conversations are important, though it is sad to me sometimes that they are so necessary.

In addition, I am sure that many of the suburban-born and raised teachers in the school have not broken down and reflected on their own assumptions and stereotypes (that are part of life) based on preconceptions and based on their own experiences with the school community over time. It is also important that these conversations include families, who often unknowingly influence their own children through their own assumptions and statements they make at home.

I would never pretend to be color blind, and I won't pretend that I don't hold some stereotypes in my own view of the world (is it possible not to have stereotypes?), but I find that being completely aware of my own biases is the first, important step in the process of being the best person I can be.

Thanks for this important advice!

Brett's picture
Brett
Primary school teacher from Buffalo, Minnesota

I have to agree with you that racism needs to be confronted and it takes more than just simple conversations to do so. It would be nice if such a thing as racism were a thing of the past. The separation of individuals in a school setting can be seen from a student or teacher standpoint. I work with several other teachers from around the world at my school. It seems that we have joined together because of a similarity we have in common, speaking English. Looking back I can't imagine what it would be like to not have had the opportunity to work with my colleagues, perhaps if we were in one of our home countries things would be different. We are all too familiar with racism, it seems to be present no matter where you are in the world, though in some places it is more evident than others, it seems to always make itself known.

I have found that as outsiders in a foreign country there are many aspects which set us apart from the majority of the other teachers. We are always the last to hear about aspects from within the school and are always excluded. Although we all have well-grounded educations which provide us with considerable insights to be gained, our opinions are never heard. Though we would enjoy eating with the other teachers, we must leave the school grounds to eat during lunch time, and despite learning about the culture, speaking the language, and respecting every aspect of life in this country, we are always viewed as outcasts. I have to say that if these things were experienced in one's own country, these things would be much worse.

I cannot say that I do not have my biases at times; it seems that there are things we hear or experience through life which have an impact on us. I have said things about others that I come to regret. I try to learn from my mistakes and see people as people, but this too holds its biases. Some people want to be known for their unique cultural heritage.

I must make it sound that I do not enjoy being here, but that is wrong, I do enjoy it. Even though there are many biases and aspects of racism which I see and experience day to day, it does not come from everyone. Some people are aware and respect individual differences. It has however been an eye opening experience and it has been through these experiences that we, in the English department at my school, decided to take matters into our own hands.

I think to begin to deconstruct racism people need to learn more about the cultures and values of others from around the world. We are unique but we are also all here together on this earth, so why not learn from one another. For these reasons we decided to use several lessons to discuss cultures and values of a diverse range of ethnicities. We felt that it was important for our students to learn that there is a much larger world out there full of people who are very different from them. Rather than just following the usual curriculum it was decided that this issue needs to be addressed so that our students could grow up knowing about different aspects of cultures from around the world.

To do this we try to establish what our students know already about certain cultures, trying to incorporate at least one or two cultures from every continent of the world. We must teach ourselves as well so that we can address any questions which may arise in the discussions. It would be nice to have a whole unit devoted to the study of race and racism for that matter, but our students are very young, and we do this outside of the established curriculum, thus we are limited to our approach.

Through trying to teach young children about different cultures, we hope to promote a new generation of people who are more willing to accept differences between people and who want to learn more about the rich and diverse ethnic backgrounds from people from all over the world. It is as you mentioned the 21st century, it is time for a change, and it needs to start small at the individual level.
On one final note, the school administration has finally decided to begin to promote cultural awareness within the students. We have begun the process on a school level of teaching the children about other Asian countries outside of Thailand, in an attempt to be a part of the ASEAN community. Perhaps in the near future this will expand outside of Asia and the children will learn that there is much more to the world than one culture, being here has surely helped me to realize this, I now know what it is like to be the minority, and I hope that I can help to make a difference.

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