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Engaging With Students in Conversations About Race

(This is the 12th post in a series that has appeared over the past 10 months.  You can see all of them here.)

The question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to respond to educators who say they "don't see race" when they teach?

One would hope that recent events will reduce the number of teachers who take the position that they "don't see race," but I think it's a safe bet to say that many will continue that way of thinking.  Though the responses in this post were written prior to the death of George Floyd, the educators' advice is certainly still relevant.

Krystle Cobran , Dr. Mara Lee Grayson, and Dr. Felicia Darling "wrap up" this 12-part series.

When we're afraid we'll say the wrong thing

Krystle Cobran creates conversation about race that opens the doors of connection. Her work begins with listening—to you. You can drop Krystle a note and purchase The Brave Educator: Honest Conversations about Navigating Race in the Classroom by visiting krystlecobran.com:

Teaching that connects doesn't start with having all the answers. About anything. Including how to navigate conversations about race. But the reality is that many teachers feel pressure to know how to effectively navigate conversations about race in the classroom without ever having learnt how to do it. This pressure is real, and one of the ways humans tend to react to pressure is by getting defensive and making a quick escape.

Getting defensive is an understandable reaction, but when we shut down conversations about race in the classroom, we aren't just avoiding a potentially awkward moment. We're denying ourselves the opportunity to connect with the everyday realities our students live. Every student in the classroom is affected by race, regardless of how that student identifies. Every student. It's a painful thought to consider, but the reality is that every person in the classroom is affected by race—including teachers.

Which gets us just a little bit closer to what's lurking at the root of the statement "I don't see race" in the classroom context. This is about a fear of saying the wrong thing. A fear of inflicting more pain or causing accidental harm by diving into a conversation we feel ill-prepared to navigate ourselves.

When we teach from a place of fear, it's difficult for us to meet our students where they are. It becomes challenging for us to connect with the stories, experiences, and perspectives our students bring to the table. And as we cling ever more closely to what we think we know, the trust we've built begins to erode, and our ability to meet our students' needs decreases.

Feeling fear when conversations about race come up in the classroom isn't the problem. Reacting to that fear by dismissing our students' lived experiences is.

We need to engage our with students. Create shared understanding with our students. Build clear pipelines of communication with our students. And in order to do any of these things, we have to be willing to wrestle with the reality that race is much more than an abstract concept—it's a reality that both teachers and students live daily.

So instead of dismissing out of fear, engage with listening. Try replacing "I don't see race" with:

I want to learn from you. Tell me more about how you feel. (And then pause to intentionally listen with the goal of connecting, not judging/dismissing.)

Or

Your voice is important to me. I'd like to do some research on ______________ [insert student question here] so that we can dive deeper. Can we revisit this conversation on ______________ [insert specific class meeting day and time here]? (And then make a physical note of your student's question so that you can carve out time to educate yourself and return to the conversation a bit more prepared.)

And if neither of these options is a good fit, remember this: Conversations about race are conversations about real human pain. Dismissing unfamiliar perspectives because we aren't sure how to cope with the pain of race separates us from our students and can shut down learning. Choose to engage. Choose to discover. Resist the urge to dismiss. 

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Three actions teachers can take

Dr. Mara Lee Grayson is an assistant professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills, whose work explores race rhetorics and equitable composition instruction. She is the author of the book Teaching Racial Literacy: Reflective Practices for Critical Writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, English Education, English Journal, The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, St. John's University Humanities Review, and numerous edited collections. She is currently completing her second book:

Many white people in the United States have been taught, implicitly or directly, not to talk about race. Though race scholars now know better, at one point, colorblindness was framed as something to strive for, especially if you were white. I suspect that a lot of teachers who say they don't see race mean that they don't discriminate based upon race, but what they're really saying is that they don't acknowledge the distinct lived experiences of the students in their classrooms. Race is a social construct that has real, material effects; teachers who pretend not to see race are ignoring its impact on students' lives. 

The majority of teachers in the U.S. are white; the majority of students are not. White teachers who "don't see race" are likely to base their pedagogies and practices on their own experiences and beliefs, which are informed by their positionalities as white people in a white hegemonic society. In other words, if we don't see race, we risk applying universally these situated-white ways of teaching and knowing through our instruction. This perpetuates the notion that whiteness is the norm and further marginalizes students whose experiences and ways of knowing are not grounded in whiteness.

So what can teachers do instead?

  • Bring students' experiences into the classroom. Invite students to share their languages, literacies, and ways of knowing in the classroom. Don't push and don't put students on the spot—forcing students to share can be a major violation, especially for students who feel marginalized. Instead, build opportunities for students to use their own discourses and existing funds of knowledge in your classroom. Assigning a personal narrative encourages students to make connections between the classroom and their lives outside of it. (Bonus: This helps you get to know your students better.) A Think-Pair-Share about a "controversial" topic can highlight the differences among students' beliefs and perspectives and help students explore where those differences (and similarities) might originate. Older students can do hands-on qualitative research in their own communities. These are just a few examples. Pedagogical approaches to honoring student experience will differ depending upon the class subject, the grade level of the students, the resources available, and other contextual factors. 

  • Talk about race explicitly. Research shows that very young children are already aware of race, and pedagogies to encourage racial literacy have been shown to be effective as early as 1st grade. However, having so-called "courageous conversations" isn't enough if those conversations perpetuate inequity. Academic protocol tends to dictate the flow of classroom discussion, but the norms of that protocol (such as hand-raising and dispassionate, logical verbal contributions) don't do justice to the complexity of race talk and often wind up shutting down students of color. So, let students, particularly students of color, talk about race in the ways that make sense for them. Acknowledge emotions when they arise. Invite students to interrogate where those emotions come from. Share a list of readings and other resources available to help students engage in productive race talk and self-reflection. 

  • Learn with your students. As a racial literacy educator, I believe that we must continue to learn, reflect upon our practice, and revise our curricula. For those of us who are white, if we believe ourselves to be nonracist, we must explore the implicit biases and assumptions we bring to the classroom. There are amazing resources out there, such as in-school and online implicit-bias trainings. Finally, to move beyond simplistic solutions like pretending to not see color, we must take on an anti-racist stance that challenges the systems that maintain racism. Notice what's happening in your school: Who benefits from the structures and policies put in place? Who is oppressed or marginalized by them? It can be difficult to do this work alone, so find allies and accomplices on campus or join a regional or national professional network. Think about this as group work—some projects are so big that they require a lot of hands on deck. Working with others toward anti-racist education is a far more inclusive and equitable endeavor than simply pretending race and racism don't exist, and this sort of work helps to model for students ways that they too can work to effect change. 

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Six questions

Dr. Felicia Darling is a first-generation college student who has taught math in grades 7-14 for 30 years. She leads workshops for K-14 educators and is the author of Teachin' It! Breakout Moves That Break Down Barriers for Community College Students:

A 7th grade class of 35 students in Northern California might have 16 Hispanic students, nine White students, five African American students, three Asian students, one Pacific Islander student, and one Native American student. "Not seeing race" in this classroom is problematic for three reasons. First, ignoring students' ethnicity/race is ignoring an integral part of their overall identity and heritage that is likely a source of pride and personal power. Second, rendering race invisible is an act of oppression for students from ethnicities/races whose personal narratives may include their roles in the U.S. history of colonialization and discrimination. Third, teachers miss opportunities to build upon students' unique cultural perspectives to teach all students.

Ethnicity/race is not just what we can see on the outside. It cannot be separated from less obvious characteristics of cultural identity like family values, core beliefs and assumptions, attitudes about learning, prior knowledge about the subject matter, concepts of justice, sense of humor, and codes of behavior. To overlook what we see on the outside discounts what is happening on the inside and overwrites the funds of knowledge that students bring to class. We want to illuminate, not overshadow, students' assets. We want to help students draw from their prior experiences to co-construct knowledge with their peers.

Perhaps, the following series of six questions can help a teacher who espouses that "they don't see race" realize how important it is to build upon students' self-concepts around ethnicity/race instead of ignoring their ethnicity/race.

  1. Can you tell me a little bit about who you are? Which identities are most important to you?" (e.g., ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, class, language, beliefs).

  2. What are three core values or customs related to your identity that would not be immediately evident to others upon meeting you? (e.g., I am a survivor of sexual assault; I am Christian; I lived in foster care).

  3. What are some aspects of your identity or your narrative that make you feel powerful and might be assets when learning? (e.g., I inherited my work ethic from my German-immigrant grandmother; I come from a long line of entrepreneurs).

  4. What are some aspects of your identity that might make you feel less powerful and might be considered challenges when learning? (e.g., I did not go to a college-prep high school; I am a first-generation college student; I had a speech issue when I began school; I take a long time to write).

  5. Do you think that a Latinx student might be proud of their ethnic/racial identity? What do you think would motivate this student more: for their teacher to ignore or to acknowledge their heritage about which they feel pride? Why?

  6. Do you think that it would motivate or demotivate an African American student to disregard the reality of their daily struggle to navigate a system that does not treat them fairly? Why?

Hopefully, considering these six questions will help a teacher who espouses colorblindness to realize that this ideology is not harmless.

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Thanks to Krystle, Mara, and Felicia for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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