Culturally Responsive Teaching

An Antiracist Roadmap for Discussing Tough Topics in Class

This long-term strategy for guiding conversations on topics like racism requires prep work to ensure that the classroom is truly inclusive of all students.

September 2, 2020
Stígur Már Karlsson / Heimsmyndir / iStock

Discussions about racism and how to proactively address it are happening among White educators, and that’s a good thing. There’s no perfect formula for becoming an antiracist teacher, but on the Damascus road toward antiracism, the first thing is to understand the terms racism and antiracism.

Dr. Ibram Kendi, founder of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University and author of the book How to Be an Antiracist, defines racism as the “marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.” Antiracism is the opposite—measures that eliminate racial inequity on the basis that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.

For Kendi, you cannot identify yourself as “not racist” absent identifying yourself as an antiracist—being an antiracist is the only alternative to being a racist. Simply being neutral isn’t enough for Kendi: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “the hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral during times of great moral conflict.”

Exploring These Definitions in Action

With these terms defined, you can explore how racism plays out within society, the community where you live and work, and your school. Racism is designed to maintain White supremacy, which Dr. Crystal Fleming defines as the social, political and economic dominance of people socially defined as “White.”

Some people define racism as something within a person’s heart rather than policies and ideas that shape the experiences of racial groups, but Fleming says that White supremacy is maintained from one generation to another through socialization, the process through which our families, peer groups, and social environments shape our behaviors, beliefs, and identities. For Fleming, it’s not what’s in your heart that matters because we live in a racist society and racism is all around us.

Teachers seeking be antiracist can next explore the connections between how racism in society informs racism within their school and how racism within their school helps to maintain racism within communities—and how these things maintain White supremacy.

For example, aggressive criminal legislation, in addition to racist ideas, is the foundation of mass incarceration, a policy under which Black people have been disproportionately imprisoned. And in an effort to deter Black children from walking down the wrong path, or to gain their compliance, zero-tolerance policies based on the “broken windows theory” have been adopted by schools.

Exploring racism in real time to understand how it works is critical to the ability to speak on it. This only happens, however, when terms are clearly defined.

Assessing Your Classroom

Having defined key terms and examined them in action, the next step is to determine whether your classroom—instruction, assessment, content resources, and discipline management—is a racist or antiracist classroom. To determine that, you must ask yourself some key questions:

  • Is your method or philosophy of teaching student-centered—accounting for your students’ strengths, needs, culture, and experiences, in addition to what they learn and how they learn it? Or is it teacher- or administrator-centered—focused only on students achieving benchmarks in a one-size-fits-all approach? Concern for what and how students learn is important, but a benchmark is incomplete when it is centered only on the display of a learned skill rather than on a display of the skill and its acquiring under an equitable set of circumstances. If you’re not factoring in how a student’s history of experiences and culture informs their classroom experience and performance, you’re doing a disservice to the student.
  • Does your teaching utilize culture and community as a foundation for collaboratively building new knowledge, using core content knowledge for the purpose of building skills like critical thinking and problem solving in order to empower students and strengthen communities? Or is your teaching limited to lecturing, memorization, or reading aloud, whereby you talk and identify what students need to know and your students are to listen and obey? That may seem archaic, but I’ve seen teachers who continue to teach this way. Even if teachers use engaging techniques that make learning fun, education must involve a greater purpose rather than simply conveying information. Learning the game of basketball may be fun, but it is without purpose if I never play the game—we must likewise encourage students to see a purpose in their schoolwork.
  • Are you utilizing resources such as texts, artifacts, images, documents, and stories that are reflective of the racial and ethnic demographics of your classroom, school, community, and society at large in order to affirm the identity, history, and humanity of your students? Or are your resources limited to items that reflect a Eurocentric framing of intelligence, history, beauty, and humanity?

Establishing a Classroom Centered on Community

When I taught, I frequently engaged my students in conversations about racism, police brutality, and income inequality. I did this with students from grades 7 through 12. To do that, we established a community in which we established and protected our sacred space as one of shared ideas, transparency, intimacy, respect of truth and all voices.

For tough discussions, we would use these norms:

  • Organize desks in a circle and provide yourself a seat in that circle. This creates a community among your students and brings you in as part of that community.
  • Introduce debating rules and facilitate organized debates. This framing normalizes discourse procedure whereby procedure becomes culture.
  • Ask your students to address each other by their last name—Mr. Smith, Ms. Jones—and you do the same. This reminds all within your community that everyone is of value and worthy of respect. This was a norm of my classroom culture at all times, not just during debates.
  • Prime students for discussions with questions for which they must read and do research to get informed prior to the discussion, establishing that facts and evidence must inform interests and passion-driven opinions.
  • Never excommunicate anyone from the circle or community. Always reprove in love, then rectify or remedy the violation and restore the student. This establishes your community as one not of punishment but justice.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s no perfect formula for becoming an antiracist teacher. Nevertheless, these action items are critical to becoming the person you hope to be and the teacher all students desperately need.

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  • Education Equity
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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