George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Teaching for Justice: 10 Ways To Unravel Systemic Oppression

September 24, 2013
Image credit: iStockphoto

In my last blog post, I suggested that by seeing the film, Fruitvale Station, you could be taking one step towards creating a more just and equitable society. Educating ourselves is an important starting point in this effort, and here are some more actions you can take to unravel systemic oppression and its offspring, bias and prejudice.

1. Learn, learn, learn: Continue educating yourself about issues of systemic oppression. If you work in schools, it's essential to understand the school-to-prison pipeline, as that's a forceful reflection of systemic oppression. Start with reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

2. Gather data in your classroom: In whole class or small group discussions notice patterns of participation. Who speaks more? Who never speaks? Do male voices dominate? Are English Learners silent? Spend a few weeks noticing and tracking this data.

3. Analyze the data: Disaggregate and examine all of your classroom data: Who is successful in your class? Who is praised and rewarded the most? Who has missed the most number of days? Are there any groups of students who are sent to the time out chair or the office more than others? Ask yourself hard questions and look for patterns that reflect those found in our society of who succeeds and who is marginalized.

4. Teach holistically: When teaching students about other groups who have been oppressed, don't define those "others" by their oppression. There is more to being African American than slavery, more to being Jewish than the Holocaust; find those stories and representations that depict people in their full humanity and share those. Furthermore, go "beyond heroes and holidays" when teaching about other people. Mexican (and Mexican-American) history can be addressed at many points throughout the year, not just on Cinco de Mayo.

5. Interrupt inequities in the classroom: If you notice inequitable patterns in an area that you have some control or influence over (such as within your classroom), do something about it. Use a random method for calling on kids or giving them airtime, and then track what happens.

6. Get another perspective: Invite a coach or a trusted colleague into your classroom to observe for the manifestation of any unconscious beliefs that might value one group of students over another. Ask your colleague to raise difficult questions about your practice, to push you. We can't see our own blind spots.

7. Know yourself: Explore your own biases and consider how they might impact your decision-making in the classroom. Racism is learned and we can unlearn it. We all have biases -- it's near impossible to not acquire some. As Beverly Tatum says, it's like smog in the air we breathe. Unlearning starts with uncovering what we might not want to look at.

8. Listen to Learn: Reach out to the students, parents, and colleagues who come from different backgrounds and experiences to your own. Don't ask them to teach you about who they are or "their people," instead, shorten that distance between you and look for ways to authentically connect, and listen to learn about who they are. Ask for their opinions and perspectives on your teaching, your curriculum, ways of engaging with students, and so on.

9. Interrupt unproductive dialogue: If you hear colleagues express views that stereotype other people or reduce their humanity, or if you hear colleagues say something that might reflect a pattern of systemic oppression, respond. You don't have to respond in the moment; you can take a time out and reflect, compose your thoughts and words, confer with someone else if necessary, and then return to speak with the person. But don't let things slide. If you get that gnawing feeling of, I should have said something, go back, and say, "Hey, a few weeks ago you said... Can we talk about that?"

10. Manage your discomfort: Talking about race, class, and privilege isn't easy. Know that it will be uncomfortable, and perhaps painful, and recognize that this discomfort also emerges from a system of oppression. Systems of oppression perpetuate by keeping many members of the system silent. Breaking that silence puts us one step closer to dismantling it.

In what ways do you break the silence with your colleagues and in your classroom? Please share with us in the comment section below.

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  • Curriculum Planning
  • Education Equity

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