Facing Race

Strategies for leading an honest classroom conversation about race in America

August 8, 2016
Facing Race

As racial violence and protests upset the nation, it feels disingenuous (and will likely be impossible) for teachers to avoid the subject or miss the chance to provide support. But when the moment comes, educators may realize that they’re unsure of the right words to use. How do you talk to children about race so that they are prepared for the future, and not just mindful of the past?

How Do We Talk about Race?

Meira Levinson, a political philosopher and Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, says there’s no choice: a peaceful and democratic future will depend on schools facing issues of race head-on. "From the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States to global discussions about immigrants and refugees, issues of race and ethnicity are incredibly prominent these days,” says Levinson. “Neither adults nor children can avoid them — nor should they. As events in recent months have shown, race and racism will not 'go away' if we simply refuse to talk about them."

These conversations won’t look the same in all schools, and that’s OK. As Levinson details in her 2012 book, No Citizen Left Behind, talking about race necessitates bringing students’ own racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds into the conversation. Middle- and upper-class white students may need help recognizing their own racial status and the privilege it affords them. Minority students — particularly black and Latino/a students who live and learn in homogeneous neighborhoods — may need assistance understanding white communities and how to navigate them.

To cultivate racially conscious thinkers, Levinson advises educators to:

  • Realize that children will see and learn about race regardless of whether they discuss it in school. Even when the 24-hour news cycle isn’t commenting on police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests, many children attend segregated public schools and live in segregated neighborhoods. They hear about race in movies and songs and from friends and family members. While these factors don’t necessarily create biased outlooks, they do make it difficult for most children to view the world through a “colorblind” lens.
  • Recognize, consequently, that children need time and space in school to reflect critically about what they already know about race. Rather than remind children, especially middle and high schoolers, of the basics of racial divides in the United States, teachers should lead discussions on how these divides have occurred, what consequences they have generated, and what students can do to fight against institutional racism. “This sort of critical thinking is a key feature of civic education,” writes Levinson. “American civic life will be better for it.”
  • Show children how to maintain multiple personal perspectives. Children need to be taught to be proud of their culture and identity, while also realizing that others may view that identity in a different way. This type of double perspective can help children of all races navigate contexts in which they are the minority, and help them be more empathetic toward all people.
  • Help white children understand how power is distributed and exercised in American society. Many white students may not recognize how much power the color of their skin gives them, and those from advantaged backgrounds might not realize how much more power they have from speaking standard English, being well-dressed, having the financial stability to work unpaid internships, or being related to college graduates. When students recognize the sway these characteristics hold, they can better respect how and why peers of different races may have different perceptions of teachers, the government, or law enforcement officers.
  • Teach minority students to express themselves using mannerisms that the majority group understands — but in ways that still grant minority students civic power. Teachers at an all-black, urban school, for instance, might need to help students learn the vocabulary, narrative forms, and body language that they would use in predominantly white settings. These shifts in behavior, called codeswitching, can aid students in being successful as job applicants or as political activists. But significantly, says Levinson, educators should teach codeswitching in addition to, not in the place of, the students’ own cultural forms of knowledge and power. Students should learn that every community has a language of power, and their home dialect and cultural references should also be taught and celebrated in school.
  • Use U.S. history lessons as critical opportunities to reinforce these ideas. Without history, students will not be able to contextualize the current state of racial relations in America. But educators also need to be careful of the way they teach history. Students need to understand that the history of the United States does not follow one single narrative, such as “triumph over oppression” or “struggle, opportunity, and obligation.” Rather, they should learn that different racial groups in the United States have historically had very different experiences. Writes Levinson, children need to learn why others “legitimately see and experience the world differently from them.”

Additional Resources

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