Talking About Race in Mostly White Schools

Bridging the divide by giving young people an entry point into the painful realities of race in America

By Leah Shafer, on April 20, 2017 3:32 PM
Talking About Race in Mostly White Schools: Bridging the divide by giving young people an entry point into the painful realities of race in America #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

In past articles (here and here, for example), Usable Knowledge has explored the dynamics of talking about race in schools, especially in the aftermath of incidents of bias or trauma. The assumption has been that race is a pressing and relevant topic, one that educators and students are, or should be, actively seeking to confront. But in segregated schools where most people are white or majority-identified, are those conversations happening? We wanted to take a look at how to give young people in those schools a point of entry.

When racially charged controversies dominate the news cycle, some young people may feel disconnected — or even uninterested.

The reality is that many neighborhoods and schools in suburban and rural America are not diverse and are largely white. Students may not see many people who look different from them. Conversations about race can feel personally irrelevant, and therefore obligatory and rote. And teachers may feel stymied, worried about finding the right words.

A Necessary Step

So why have the conversation at all? As the 2016 election emphasized, there are deep racial and geographical divides in our country, leading to “a profound lack of creative empathy,” says Kathryn Short, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) who is interested in ways to talk to young people about racial injustice. Many white Americans were unable to envision the struggles and desires of marginalized people or of people whose lives were vastly different from theirs.

“We have to start asking kids, ‘How do you hold true to what you have experienced while holding what other people have experienced as truth as well?’” says Short. Teaching children from a young age how to understand disparate perspectives can begin to repair today’s widespread divisions.

And from an academic standpoint, Short explains, talking about race is an important lesson in critical thinking. When students learn about the history of housing, job, and education policies in the United States, they can begin to understand why their home community looks the way it does — is everyone mostly the same, or is the community more diverse? — and to question whether today’s policies are similarly discriminatory or more inclusive.

Opening Up the Discussion by Getting Personal

To open up a discussion on racial injustice, students — no matter their race — need to be able to talk about their own racial identity, says Domonic Rollins, who leads diversity and inclusion efforts at HGSE.

Teachers can use questions to frame the discussion:

"How have you been impacted?"

Many people are uncomfortable talking about race — especially white people, whose skin color insulates them and offers privileges, Rollins says. When news reports detail racially charged incidents, he recommends that teachers start the discussion by simply asking, “How have you been impacted by what’s happening in the news?”

And if there’s no response, says Rollins, that’s significant. It’s a window to ask, “Why don’t you think you’ve been impacted?”

If the classroom includes different races, cultures, or socioeconomic classes, these questions can be especially powerful. When white students see how differently people of color may hear and react to racialized rhetoric or violence, says Short, they may be able to better understand the severity of the situation. It’s important for students of color, too, to understand how and why some white people, particularly in rural or segregated areas, might have a hard time envisioning their struggles.

"When have you thought about being white?"

But if students in the class are mostly white, Rollins suggests that teachers can probe that, too. Teachers can ask, “When or how have you thought about being white? When was the first time you interacted with someone who wasn’t white?” This line of questioning can help young people recognize how their lived experiences might be different from those of people of color.

"What does discrimination feel like?"

At the same time, students need space to imagine and emotionally connect to discrimination, rather than learn about it theoretically from a lecture. Rollins recommends that teachers encourage white students to authentically wonder what it might feel like to be profiled by a police officer, called a racial slur, or always have your name mispronounced. When students raise their own questions, he says, they’re more likely to internalize how discrimination looks and feels.

Teachers can ask students to share times they’ve felt excluded or vulnerable — whether it was because of their sex, gender expression, religion, or sexual orientation, or because they were in a less popular social group. Students can then imagine how that marginalization would feel if it were entrenched in history, structures, and laws.

The message isn’t that all oppressions are equal, Rollins says, and teachers should also be cautious about turning the conversation into a kind of “Oppression Olympics.” Instead, “What you want is to give folks an entry point” into the pain or difficulty that can come along with living as a person of color, a queer person, a woman, a disabled person, a refugee — or anyone whose experiences are marginalized and different from your own.

Moving the Conversation into the Curriculum

These personal conversations provide a vital foundation to grappling with race in America. To continue developing that understanding, though, students also need to be exploring race through academic coursework and civic engagement. Short and Rollins provide several suggestions:

  • Schools should ensure that students are exposed to diverse perspectives. Curriculum should include books by writers of different races. Teachers can show students how different news outlets cover the same event, or assign documentaries that expose inequities.
  • Teachers should connect history to students’ lives. Students need to understand how the makeup of their classroom, school, and town are a product of historical policies and events.
  • Teachers should connect students to civic engagement and community service opportunities. Students who are just entering a conversation about race and becoming aware of lasting injustices may feel angry or hopeless, but if they recognize how these issues of race are present in their local community, they may feel empowered to work for change. “If you can find some nugget that’s connected to what’s happening in the city, the town, in which you are teaching,” Short says, “students will see they have real power to take action.”

Additional Resources

Usable Knowledge has published several articles in the past year on talking about race in schools. We invite you to read more:

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We Want to Hear from You
Our country is polarized: How is that showing up in your school? What are you doing to protect students, confront discrimination, prevent bullying, and foster inclusion? Usable Knowledge would like to hear from you. Join us on Facebook and Twitter, using #OneAllHGSE. Send your advice and resources to uknow@gse.harvard.edu, and we’ll share as much as we can. Read more at One and All.