When discussing race and ethnicity with students, listen to their voices, remain open to opportunities, and facilitate thoughtful conversations.
Recess was over, and my students rushed back to class in hopes of being the first to tell me what happened over their break. As we entered the room, I heard their rumblings and murmurs with the word black dispersed throughout. As an African American woman, I was more than curious to know what all the excitement was about. All I was ever taught growing up was that “Black is beautiful.” And while that was my truth, I was about to be introduced to what being called “Black” meant to my Latino/Latina students. They took me on a history lesson that I had not learned from my elementary textbook about the differences between White and Black Latinos/Latinas.
Fifteen minutes passed and the board was covered with a circle map of every word that came to mind when my students heard the word black. Brainstorming about its meaning led us into an organic, deeper conversation in which my elementary students began to eloquently deconstruct that word. “Black is just a color,” said one student. “Black is more, I am Black,” said my one African American student. The dialogue continued, and I simply facilitated it with questions like:
- What if you were called a different color?
- How does it make you feel when...?
- How would you feel if...?
Thirty minutes later, I began to understand that the intangible ideas which historically plagued relationships between people within my own culture were prevalent in the lives of my students.
I truly felt heavy as we transitioned into the next lesson that I'd planned for the day. Coincidentally, this discussion occurred during the month of February—Black History Month. So I left our circle map on the board and carved out 15–20 minutes a day for reflections and the sharing of new thoughts. The natural segue into a meaningful, timely, and necessary discussion about Blackness led me to consider a new approach to discussing race matters with my future students. Although I recognize that every classroom will contain a different racial and ethnic makeup, teachers must be unafraid to broach these uncomfortable conversations. Conversations about Blackness and race do not have to be limited to the month of February, or to elementary classrooms. I’d like to offer four thoughts to ponder as you consider deconstructing Blackness (or race) in your own K–16 classroom.
1. Accept What You Know
Be careful not to assume that you know what your students may be feeling or that your experiences are their experiences. Accept what you know about them based upon what they share with you, and be ready to learn more about them and yourself along the way. Remaining open to learning who your students are by the words that come from their mouths will establish an environment of trust in your classroom. Over time, they will become keenly aware that when they talk, you listen.
2. Allow Their Voices to Be Heard
Consider how your students may feel when they are not allowed to express their angst or disdain for something. Remember that allowing students to use their voices will establish trust and open the door for continual dialogue. Their voices belong to them (student voices aren’t ours to give back), so allow them to be heard, and offer multiple opportunities to pick up the conversation on a new day.
3. Let It Flow
Your classroom’s deconstruction of Blackness (or race) may be written in your plans for the week, or you may encounter the unexpected as I did. Relax and embrace the organic occurrences of conversations related to race. Understand that your opening dialogue may lead to a meaningful project or lesson. Be flexible and let it flow. Remain thoughtful about next steps after your deconstruction process. Dr. Raina Leon, assistant professor at St. Mary’s Colleges of California, seeks to use poetry in teaching about race. It is important to consider your grade level and population of students when approaching the expected or unexpected conversations related to race.
4. Facilitate Thoughtfully
A circle map worked well for my third- and fourth-grade students, and this introductory approach may work well for your students, too. Regardless of the method you choose, keep in mind that there is not always a perfect answer to the many questions that may arise. Facilitating is an art that is not often mastered. However, refraining from one-liners, clichés, and repetitive statements often leads the discussion in a positive direction. Sometimes it is better to say, “I don’t have the answer,” than to quickly spew out a response for the sake of answering a student’s query. When saying, “I don’t know” does not seem appropriate, ask a question like “Why do you...?” or “How do you know...?” Or consider bringing in a guest speaker who may have a voice in dealing with issues of race.
Accepting what we know without making assumptions, listening to our students’ voices, remaining flexible when opportunities to discuss race arise, and facilitating thoughtful conversations are all steps in the right direction. After three years of deconstructing Blackness with my students, the process is not always the same. Yet the beauty of it all is in the outcome—transparency, understanding, and a greater sense of unity among my students.