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.