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Discussing and Teaching About Race in the Classroom

A fascinating panel discussion this morning built on the premise that we must, as educators, discuss race in the classroom. “If you’re still debating this issue, then this session is not for you,” quipped the moderator, Tierney Oberhammer, with a smile.

Her three panelists, whom I’ll refer to by their last names (Gross, Tackie and Jones) delivered their remarks with backgrounds in early childhood, curriculum development and secondary school education, respectively. The takeaways:

1) Educators – regardless of race, gender, class, religion, etc – have an essential role to play in teaching about race. Remember, Gross pointed out, this simple fact: students of color (SOC) must learn about the realities of navigating American life as a survival strategy; students in the norm (e.g. white students, majority-culture students), as she put it, need to learn about these realities with intention. Learning about this in the classroom provides structure and standing for all involved. And what is that intention?

2) Teaching about race without intention, Jones pointed out, risks reifying privilege all over again. Discussions about race have be grounded in facts with the goal of opening students’ eyes to their own agency in making the world more just. We learn about the social construct of race not to reinforce the divisions it creates (i.e. well, that’s just the way it is), but to create a more just society where MLK’s dream can be realized (i.e. we learned about this, and this is what we chose to do with this knowledge).

3) How does it feel for teachers to take this project on? Tackie and Gross likened it to puberty: it’s uncomfortable, but we’re all better looking on the other end of the process. Gross proposed an acronym: AWARE. Teachers, she said, must be Aware, Willing, Authentic, Knowledgeable and Empathetic. Being yourself is especially important for white educators, Jones maintained, because of the desire of many white teachers involved in this work to be hip or cool. Just be yourself, he said said. That never goes out of style.

4) Especially as students reach middle  school, teaching about race as a social construct must be strongly connected the facts of history, especially American history and its role in the shaping of today’s notions of race and culture. “Call it slavery,” Gross encouraged the audience, “But don’t talk about slaves. Talk about ‘enslaved peoples,’ which reminds us of their humanity first.” Linking systemic issues of redlining, voter disenfranchisement and the full extension of property rights in general to African-Americans – a people whose former status as property is overlooked by those wishing to live in a ‘post-racial society’ (that phrase brought out some snickering in the crowd) – allows students to explore how slavery transformed in the decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction.

5) All three panelists agreed on how crucial it is to view difference in the classroom as an asset, not a deficit. Tackie, an immigrant herself born in Paris who grew up in Ghana, arrived in the U.S. in 1987 to a classroom whose teacher skillfully wove learning about her and other immigrant students’ cultures as part of the curriculum. “I am who am today, an educator, because that teacher, Mrs. Olson, helped me feel at home.” Gross, as well, discussed how dialectical differences in expression and vocabulary broaden the learning for all students, describing a recent experience of having had to translate a Caribbean student’s expression of delight at a class spent in a nearby park to an affluent, non-immigrant teacher unfamiliar with the vernacular. “She had to come to me to ask, what is he saying, and that was ok. It’s ok not to know. It’s important to ask.” Giving staff and students the space to be who they are, in all of their differences, allows classes to learn to celebrate difference.

Jones made a final point: most often, these discussions start off in classrooms obliquely, by way of a discussion of social class. Students relate to the notions of haves and have-nots; from there, one can migrate to questions about how race is constructed as an identity – apart from ethnicity – and how students have lived and experienced those ideas.



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