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Exploring Equity: Race and Ethnicity

The role that racial and ethnic identity play with respect to equity and opportunity in education
Colorful profiles of students raising hands in class

The history of education in the United States is rife with instances of violence and oppression along lines of race and ethnicity. For educators, leading conversations about race and racism is a challenging, but necessary, part of their work.

“Schools operate within larger contexts: systems of race, racism, and white supremacy; systems of migration and ethnic identity formation; patterns of socialization; the changing realities of capitalism and politics,” explains historian and Harvard lecturer Timothy Patrick McCarthy, co-faculty lead of Race and Ethnicity in Context, a new module offered at the Harvard Graduate School of Education this January as part of a pilot of HGSE’s Equity and Opportunity Foundations course. “How do we understand the role that racial and ethnic identity play with respect to equity and opportunity within an educational context?”

>> Learn more about Equity and Opportunity and HGSE’s other foundational learning experiences.

For educators exploring question in their own homes, schools, and communities, McCarthy and co-faculty lead Ashley Ison, an HGSE doctoral student, offer five ways to get started.

1.    Begin with the self.

Practitioners enter conversations about race and racism from different backgrounds, with different lived experiences, personal and professional perspectives, and funds of knowledge in their grasps. Given diverse contexts and realities, it is important that leaders encourage personal transformation and growth. Educators should consider how race and racism, as well as racial and ethnic identity formation, impact their lives as educational professionals, as parents, and as policymakers – whatever roles they hold in society. “This is personal work, but that personal work is also political work,” says Ison.

2.    Model vulnerability.

Entering into discussions of race and racism can be challenging, even for those with experience in this work. A key part of enabling participants to lean into the challenge is being vulnerable. “You have trust your students,” explains McCarthy. “Part of that is modeling authentic vulnerability and proximity to the work.” This can be done by modeling discussion skills, like sharing the space and engaging directly with the comments of other participants, as well as by opening up personally to participants.  

“Fear can impact how people feel talking about race and ethnicity in an inter-group space,” says Ison. Courage, openness, and trust are key to overcoming that fear and enabling listening, which ultimately allows for critical thinking and change.

3.    Be transparent.

Part of being vulnerable is being fully transparent with your students from day one. “Intentions are important,” explains McCarthy. “The gap between intention and impact is often rooted in a lack of transparency about where you’re coming from or where you are hoping to go.”

4.    Center voices of color.

Voice and story are powerful tools in this work. Leaders must consider whose voices and stories take precedence on the syllabus. “Consider highlighting authors of color, in particular, who are thinking and writing about these issues,” says Ison. Becoming familiar with a variety of perspectives can help practitioners understand the voices and ideas that exist, she explains.

“Voice and storytelling can bear witness to the various kinds of systematic injustices and inequities we are looking at, but they also function as sources of power for imagining and reimagining the world we are trying to build, all while providing a deeper knowledge of the world as it has existed historically,” adds McCarthy.

5.    Prioritize discussion and reflection.

Since this work is as much about critical thinking as it is about content, it is important for educators to make space for discussion and reflection, at the whole-class, small-group, and individual levels. Ison and McCarthy encourage educators to allow students to generate and guide the discussion of predetermined course materials. They also recommend facilitating small group reflections that may spark conversation that can extend into other spaces outside of the classroom.

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