Embracing Conversations about Race in Schools.

By Anthony Hubbard


Discourse about race dominates American life

‘Race’ is the ugly word that dominates American life in a near complete negative manner despite the fact that large portions of the country voted twice to elect an African American president. The term race forces us to confront horrid factors such as institutionalized discrimination, widespread poverty and paranoia, distrust and despair, criminal justice failings, police brutality, and widespread racial discrimination.

In the current scenario, conversations about race extend well beyond the plight of millions of blacks. It covers Latinos, Asians, Muslims, and several persecuted minorities. Open up a prominent national newspaper or switch on cable news, and you’ll find several horrific news stories that ensure that racism remains an omnipresent conversational topic and with good reason. At most schools and colleges, we fail to sensitize America’s children about race issues at an age when their minds are very vulnerable to internalizing subtle forms of racism. Successful classroom engagement is essential to reducing problems related to race in our society.

Educators must engage in race-related topics objectively

In urban settings, at times, it can feel like America exists as a post-racial society, and this is often the first myth that educators should dispense off with an evidence-based approach. Before engaging the classroom on the topic of race, teachers must gather all the facts that support their argument and methodically incorporate it into their classroom environment. Interracial conversations about race are bound to be dangerous and can go off track very quickly, hence, it is essential to be prepared with as much care as possible.

Engaging in conversations about race in your classroom could impact generations of individuals, as education is the only way we can end the racial differences at the core of our society. Colleagues may not be enamored about an educator’s desire to talk about race, and confronting your colleagues about its importance requires a significant degree of courage and education.

Your courage could shape the way students think about race forever

Educators must understand that opening up a dialogue about race is far better than leaving it unsaid or unspoken. Having a direct, objective, and courageous conversation about race could positively impact the life of all your students. At the least, bringing up the topic in the classroom will provide it with legitimacy, and convey the importance of discussing it with students of all races.

It is important to repeat your points in a clear, lucid manner that definitively reiterates the core of your message. Repetition is one of the most important tools in the hands of educators, and it is vital to ensure that students hear what you are saying instead of what they think you may be saying. Clarity and engagement are the best things educators can provide to their students in such discussions. Reinforce factual information without resorting to gross generalizations and statement of biases. Provide students with the platform to air their views and encourage arguments that steer clear of emotional agitation and name-calling. Allow all students, not just minority students, to state what they feel so that you can understand how incorrect opinions can be altered for good.

Expect discomforting discussions and arguments

One factor educators cannot control is a student’s previous engagement with racism, picked up from the world around them. Naturally, discussion of such a controversial topic is bound to lead to awkward and discomforting situations. As individuals, we are constantly socialized into differing views on race based on our external environment. This can lead to excessive degrees of cognitive dissonance when one person’s opinions do not align with the opinions of the surrounding others. As an educator, you must allow students to argue with you and each other without ‘otherizing’ the opposite views or views you may completely disagree with.

Educators may need to set basic standards for decorum before proceeding with a discussion about race. Elucidate to the students the importance of rational conversations based on facts and logic instead of emotional conversations based on inherent stereotypes and biases. Educators must strive to normalize the presence of differing perspectives before clearly imparting the fundamental mistakes behind certain views. When you are trying to explain to a student why, for example, constantly passing jokes about all blacks being thieves, is incorrect, you should not belittle a student, but expose the dangerous statements and very real statistics behind such statements. Make the intellectual appeal and not the emotional appeal.

Speak the truth and encourage students to do the same

Beyond all else, the truth requires absolute courage. Share your experiences with racism and its impact on individuals in your life. Share your truthful opinions even if it may be unpopular with colleagues and students. When educators share their honest opinions, their colleagues and students may be able to point out inherent misconceptions and mistakes.

Conversations about race can be a two-way learning experience and you may become aware of your incorrect beliefs and misconceptions, which may have seemed based on facts. The truth is capable of setting both you and your students free. Addressing honest misconceptions and incorrect opinions are much easier once heartfelt sentiments have been shared.

Accept a lack of closure

Conversations about race will typically provide no conclusion, and at the very least, competent educators can encourage students to think differently about long-held beliefs. As an educator, your primary job is to ensure that students are aware of the severity of the problem at hand and encourage them to empathize with the problems of millions of people around the country.

At the end, students should be able to realize that, classroom discussions cannot provide closure for burning issues that are not closed in the real world. At the very least, students must be sensitized to the plight of racial minorities, and as a result of your discussion, they could be encouraged to seek tangible solutions to the multi-faced problems at hand.