Talking Race in the Suburbs

Discussing race in classes where white students outnumber students of color? Strategize, acknowledge, and check in

January 26, 2018
Chalkboard illustration of three students at their desks

Every racially inflammatory incident that hits the news brings a reminder that young people urgently need to be learning about race — reading books by writers of color, studying America’s history of oppression, and discussing the privileges and limits experienced by people of different backgrounds.

But for teachers, facilitating these lessons can feel uncomfortable. In one common scenario, a white educator in a suburban school stands in front of a classroom that has one or two or maybe a handful of students of color, surrounded by white students. How can you lead a high-level, authentic conversation that doesn’t isolate, offend, or spotlight those few students of color, and that’s inclusive of everyone?

This question was posed to us by a teacher at a largely white middle school who was acutely aware of these dynamics during a recent class discussion on race and equity. We asked Domonic Rollins, who leads diversity and inclusion efforts at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to offer insight and strategies. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

How to prepare students of color and their families for the conversation:

There’s nothing worse than a kid coming home from school and saying, “Dad, we talked about Jim Crow today,” and the parent not being prepared to have that conversation. So I’d suggest that teachers call home and say, “I want to make sure you and your child are prepared for this upcoming unit.” And be honest. Explain, “Your child is one of only two in our class that I perceive as students of color, and I can imagine that this content is going to impact her.” It’s possible that the parents might want to take the lead from there, and just prepare their child on their own.

But I think a lot of teachers might also want to talk to the student about it. That could sound like, “Danielle, later this week, we’re going be talking about race, and I know a lot is going on right now in our world and our country around race. I imagine that this could be challenging or uncomfortable for you as the only black student in our class. But, I wanted to check in with you. What do you need?”

This conversation could then go in a lot of different ways. The student might express she doesn’t need anything. Or she might want to take on a leading role in the conversation. Or this might be the time when she lets her teacher know that she’s been facing discrimination at lunch or in her math class. That’s a learning moment for the teacher about what her student is facing. In that case, the teacher might want to hold off on the larger unit until he or she has a better sense of your classroom and school dynamics.

The student might express she doesn’t need anything. Or she might want to take on a leading role in the conversation. Or this might be the time when she lets her teacher know that she’s been facing discrimination at lunch or in her math class.

Talking about what it means to be white, too:

People often assume a conversation about race is a conversation about people of color. But what would it mean to have a parallel conversation about what it means to be white? Talking about whiteness, and asking every student in the room to think about his or her race, could mitigate the feeling many students of color often have in these conversations of, “Okay, now I feel like I have to represent what it means to be black, or Latino, etc.” Find ways to have conversations about what it means to be all different racial identities.

This is especially important because very few white folks are taught to think about what it really means to be white in America. We might talk about European immigrants, or different traditions and foods, but we don’t talk about what it means to not think about your race. The good news is that it’s an easier lift now to make that conversation meaningful than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago. No kid in America can turn on the television or walk about in the world and not see something happening connected to race.

It’s also helpful for teachers to be able to move the conversation from the personal to the systemic. One thing I’ve seen students bring up is the idea of affirmative action: “Well, I’m white, so I’m going to have a harder time getting into a good college.” That feeling of loss students are relating to is a very real feeling, but they also need to understand that the system should not have been set up to guarantee them a spot at their first-choice school in the first place. Most white folks never have to grapple with that sense of entitlement that’s given to them or fully understand the history that is being addressed.

Acknowledging the imbalanced racial makeup of your classroom:

Again, go from the personal to the systemic. Seventh graders might know that their classroom is majority white, but they probably don’t know what that means or how it connects to other institutions. Yet, there are readily available examples of both racial composition and impact in the world, like government and corporations. Teachers can give students an example that is familiar to them: “Our classroom is actually similar to, for example, Congress. What do you think that means for the people making the laws?” Once they’ve understood one connection about how race may shape interaction and experience, they’ll have an easier time making others. They’ll be able to see both how the makeup of their classroom might feed into other areas of life, and how their classroom makeup stems from those outside dynamics.

Find ways to have conversations about what it means to be all different racial identities. This is especially important because very few white folks are taught to think about what it really means to be white in America. We might talk about European immigrants, or different traditions and foods, but we don’t talk about what it means to not think about your race.

Helpful communication techniques for the middle school space:

The conversation norms needed for this conversation don’t have to be abstract norms. If you have a talking stick for academic discussions, use that. If your class has been practicing turn and talks, this is a great opportunity to try them out. If you frequently talk about “listening ears,” bring that up, too.

And use the social and interpersonal dynamics that students are already thinking about. Middle school especially is a time when friendships take on a very heightened role for kids, but they’re also becoming more independent. Teachers can bring that up. Say, “How many of you have experienced something hard with one of your friends, and you really wanted them to listen? How did they show you they were listening? Those are the same ways we want to be showing we’re listening in this conversation, too.”

How to check in throughout the discussion:

For a student of color, if he already feels like he’s being treated in a special way, then multiple one-on-one check-ins with the teacher could be his worst nightmare. So, norm checking with the whole class can be useful. You can use a “thumb-o-meter” — thumbs up, thumbs down, thumbs somewhere in the middle — to get a sense of how everyone in the class is feeling during a conversation. For a longer unit, pass out quick surveys for students to fill out at the very end of class. Have them write down how they’re feeling, and how they think today’s conversation went. Pay attention to those responses: notice trends in the class across race, across gender, across socioeconomic status. Keep checking in on how students are feeling.

Takeaways for Teachers
  1. Talk to students of color and their families before this conversation happens — and then let them take the lead on what kinds of support (if any) they need.
  2. During the class discussion, talk about what it means to be white, too. Explain systemic privilege.
  3. Establish classroom norms for the conversation that emphasize good listening, respect, empathy, and honesty.
  4. Check in with your students periodically to get a sense of how they're feeling.
See More In
Civics and History Diversity and Inclusion K-12