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Talking Race and Ethnicity

How to go below the surface and engage students in meaningful conversations about race, ethnicity, and identity
Talking Race and Identity

Every year, the United States grows more racially and ethnically diverse, making the term “racial minority” soon a thing of the past. Preparing students to celebrate the nation’s diversity, rather than fall into patterns of tension and conflict, is crucial. But how can educators do it, especially when talking about race can be so, well, awkward?

Over the past two decades, there’s been an uptick in research about the importance about talking about race with students, and the most effective ways to do it — ways that affirm students’ identities and help them celebrate and negotiate difference. Adolescence is an especially fruitful time to engage in these conversations, as students in this age range are increasingly aware of inequalities borne of racism and have the maturity to grapple with complex ideas.

In a new book, Below the Surface: Talking with Teens about Race, Ethnicity, and Identity, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Adriana Umaña-Taylor and University of Michigan professor Deborah Rivas-Drake translate that research so it becomes accessible for teachers. Here, Umaña-Taylor shares some of the key takeaways.

Think about your own identity. Many of us did not have the benefit of these conversations in our own childhood and adolescence, but it’s not too late. Before engaging in these conversations, think about your own identity, and how it’s shaped your experience in the world. Do your homework on cultural competency. Umaña-Taylor and Rivas-Drake draw on social work scholar Shirley Better’s definition, which centers on practices and attitudes that allow for positive relationships among people who come from different backgrounds.

“We wouldn’t give a math curriculum to a teacher who has no knowledge or comfort doing math. We want to make sure we’re giving teachers the strategies and the tools to have these conversations,” Umaña-Taylor says. “That involves engaging in self-work.”

Don’t shy away from talking about differences. Children start noticing phenotypic differences like skin tone at a young age. By early elementary school, they’ve also likely noticed that people are sometimes treated differently because of these phenotypic differences. Don’t hush them. “It’s OK to notice difference; it’s OK to talk about it,” says Umaña-Taylor. “You’re recognizing that it doesn’t make anyone worse or better.”

Older students can engage in deeper conversations about the historical and systemic reasons differences in treatment based on skin tone exist. Giving them a strong sense of how race and ethnicity have shaped their own lives reduces anxiety about interacting across difference.

Help students reflect on their own racial identities. Young people who have explored their ethnic and racial background have a better understanding of the world in which they live and are able to draw on this when they experience or witness racial discrimination. By thinking deeply about who they are, they can consciously dispel stereotypes that are all too easy to internalize. Research has shown that students who feel more positively about their ethnic-racial identity are buffered against some of the deleterious mental health effects of discrimination. And ethnic-racial identity can’t just be for students of color.

“All of us are developing racial-ethnic identity,” Umaña-Taylor explains. “It’s just for some of us, this is a very salient part our identity, we’re very aware of it, and for others of us we are not aware because we’re living in a society where the identity we do have is the mainstream, the norm, so we don’t think about ourselves that way. In fact, that is an identity being developed in and of itself.”

“Affinity groups” can be constructive spaces. Affinity groups, in which students share racial or ethnic backgrounds, can be a helpful construct for students talking about race. “You can go a little more in-depth in terms of these experiences you might share,” says Umaña-Taylor. Such groups can be a space for community-building and support.

But heterogenous discussion spaces are helpful, too. Early in her career, Umaña-Taylor did research on Latinx students in Arizona. Students who belonged to the minority racial group in their school had more positive racial identities than students who attended schools that were almost 100 percent Latinx. Since then, over and over, Umaña-Taylor has heard from students that one of the things that made them think about their ethnic-racial identity in a positive light was being exposed to friends who were different.

Interactions between different racial groups are usually more positive than expected, for people of all backgrounds. Conversations about race that represent different identities are key to building empathy and understanding across groups, helping students learn about themselves and others.

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