We talk about race everywhere but the classroom. Why?

Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame are co-authors of  “Let’s Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender Identities in the Classroom.”

They teach at the Paideia School in Atlanta and are co-founders of iChange Collaborative, where they train teachers and students in inclusion education, cultural competency, social emotional learning, and ethical leadership.

In this piece, they explain why schools need to be willing to talk about race in the classroom. In view of the recent controversy over the use of a classroom simulation to teach Cobb fifth graders about the Underground Railroad, I thought this was timely.

By Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame

Sabrina, an African-American eighth-grader, was perusing the jewelry aisle in a department store when she noticed the sales clerk was following her.

“She was watching my every move, but she wasn’t paying any attention to my white friends,” said Sabrina. “I’m pretty sure she was watching me because I’m black, and she thought I was going to steal something.”

Experiences like Sabrina’s are routinely shared in African-American communities where surveillance while shopping is relatively common, but Sabrina was telling her story at school, and not casually at recess or lunch. It was part of a larger conversation about race that takes place regularly in our classrooms.

Why? Because we have discovered in our work with adolescents on race, class and gender that when students share the ways their experience is shaped by how the world perceives them and how they perceive the world, the results can be profoundly unifying. We see stronger identities emerging, more productive learning, and safer schools.

Race is one of the first things we notice when we meet a person. And while race is only one component of identity, it often drives conversations about individuality and diversity. Everyone in the nation is talking about race outside of school, from the Olympics to Milwaukee to Snapchat.

So why aren’t we talking about it in the classroom?

If we want students to think critically about solving persistent social problems related to race, we have to help them examine the issue and investigate its roots.

Some teachers, however, tell us they feel ill-equipped to discuss race with their students. What if the conversation goes awry and devolves into confrontation? Avoiding conflict feels safer, yet in avoiding the issue we are missing out on real educational opportunities. The key lies in leading these discussions with the same thoughtfulness that guides other curriculum choices.

Racial identity is a lived experience for everyone, but particularly for students of color, and having teachers and peers acknowledge that racism is a problem validates their experience and strengthens their identities. Researchers have reported 75 percent of bullying is bias related, and when bullying is related to core components of a student’s identity, the effects are even worse. Having a forum to talk openly about aspects of identity can address bullying and mitigate its effects.

We know supportive relationships with teachers help students learn, but so do relationships with peers. Healthy relationships in the classroom keep students engaged, and the benefits transfer into academic achievement. Yet students need to master a set of prerequisite social, emotional and communication skills to keep their exchanges respectful and forge compassionate relationships. Clear ground rules for respect are needed, and these guidelines can, and should be taught.

When students feel safe enough to express their differences, they find they can be accepted and esteemed for them, rather than disparaged. Sabrina felt gratified that her classmates listened and understood her feelings. A Latino student told about something similar that had happened to him while shopping with his friends. A white student was surprised and dismayed because she had no idea Sabrina (and other people of color) experienced the sting of negative stereotypes.

When students hear each other’s stories, they realize that underneath their apparent differences, there is far more that unites than divides them. They learn that expressing rather than suppressing the characteristics that make them unique nurtures authentic relationships. They benefit from direct discussions in the classroom about their personal experience with prejudice and/or privilege, and their differences are transcended through friendly and engaging exchanges.

Learning to talk respectfully about race, and other categories of identity, improves school cultures. In a Nashville public school, students who participated in such conversations took the initiative to stop harassment, intervening on behalf of other students to create a dynamic that resulted a positive change in the school environment. After a similar unit at an Atlanta KIPP School, 7th graders initiated an anti-bullying support group.

To rise to the challenge of an increasingly global community, students need to develop the skills to forge relationships across differences. Through listening to their own voices and hearing the voices of others, they not only gain appreciation for diverse cultures and life experiences, but such conversations increase empathy, perspective-taking, and critical thinking skills, which transfer into greater academic performance.

Reader Comments 0

29 comments
AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

"Talking about race" is code for white folks being accountable for their racism.  And the root of this accountability lies in the fact that white people traveled to Africa and enslaved Africans, and then brought them to America for centuries of slavery/servitude.


If you want a conversation about race to end in catastrophic failure, bring up the fact that the underlying story of white Europeans hopping off the boat on the coast of Africa to run around snatching up innocent Africans ("Roots" perpetuates this) is an absurd canard.


The Atlantic Slave TRADE constituted Africans enslaving other Africans, bringing them to slave trading ports on the west coast of Africa, and selling them to white Europeans for manufactured European goods.  

White Europeans traveled to Africa and traded guns, ammunition, and other manufactured goods for slaves.  They then sailed to the New World, sold their slaves, and bought cotton, sugar, tobacco, etc.  and returned to Europe to sell those goods.  

All of this to say that, if African-Americans want to confront the scoundrels who originally enslaved their ancestors, they have to return to Africa to try to find the guilty parties.


Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Most white teachers are not going to have a candid discussion about race because they know they put their jobs at risk in this hypersensitive, politically correct era.  Let's take the "Sabrina" example:


Teacher:  "Well Sabrina, what would you say if the clerk told you that 75% of the shoplifters they caught in that store were black?"

"Dat's racissss"


Then, Sabrina goes home and tells momma that the racisss white teacher told her that blacks "ain't nuttin but a bunch of thieve'n n-words".  Next day, Channel 2 News is interviewing a crying Sabrina and how she can't bear to go back to school because of the racisss teachers.  The teacher gets put on discipline, if not fired, and the entire staff has to go through diversity training where they get fed a bunch of propaganda about "white privilege".


A couple of months later, Sabrina gets arrested for shoplifting, but the teacher's career is already destroyed.


And THAT's why white teachers are not going to have a candid discussion about race.

DrProudBlackMan
DrProudBlackMan

@Lee_CPA2


"Dat's racissss"


That's a stereotype.


"And THAT's why white teachers are not going to have a candid discussion about race."


No that's why bigoted white folk like yourself like to troll anonymously...

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

@DrProudBlackMan @Lee_CPA2

"No that's why bigoted white folk like yourself like to troll anonymously."


Said the bigoted poster who trolls by the prejudicial anonymous name of "proud black man"


AceptableName
AceptableName

This would be a horrible idea. We keep thinking "race" = "black vs. white", but we COMPLETELY ignore other "race divides." 


Russia vs. Chechen.

Korea vs. China.

China vs. Japan.

Non-Muslim vs. Muslim (GOD forbid!) - especially in places like the Netherlands where Turks and Moroccans have made a mockery of EU government handouts.


So do we - should we - talk about it in the USA? Hell no.

Let people continue on their merry way, let black athletes take "African studies" classes at major universities, and let the south side of Chicago continue to rain down bullets as police just keep out of their way.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@AceptableName 

Those are ethnic divides, not racial divides; and they aren't relevant ethnic divides in this country. Asia...Europe...maybe.  But not here.

Starik
Starik

@AceptableName In the USA we're going to talk about it. Race has been part of our conversation since the blacks became involuntary immigrants, and weren't allowed to assimilate until the late 1960s. We don't have a "race" problem; it's really about class and culture.

weetamoe
weetamoe

A student who is a true critical thinker would be pilloried in  such a classroom.

JovanMiles
JovanMiles

The issue with the discussion is the relative discomfort and lack of willingness to listen with an intent to learn from the experiences of people of color by White teachers (White persons in general).

Talking about race is decentering Whiteness and challenging what we as a society have accepted as "normal" or "objective", two ideas that are constructed socially and politically.

When I taught in APS I did tackle issue of race on an as needed basis, because as a Black man who taught Black children it was nearly impossible, and would have been irresponsible of me, not to do so...because for many of my students the issues of race, class, policing, housing, and economics are matters of life and death.

Kudos to the teachers in the article for being proactive...but I venture to say that the comments section from this article will be reason enough for them to continue their work.

Astropig
Astropig

@JovanMiles


I generally call out bigotry when I see it and I see it in your comment.

cuppa
cuppa

@Astropig @JovanMiles 

Yes, along with a complete disregard for the children sacrificed to his/her liberal agenda.

RexHavoc
RexHavoc

I wish we could focus on reading, writing, arithmetic, etc.  If you want to work on race, gender, and religion then do it in social studies.  Prayer, racial discussions, and gender issues have a small and isolated place in school.  The rest is for curriculum.  

JovanMiles
JovanMiles

You could only feel that way if race played very little part in your day-to-day.

Schools are places where we transmit culture and the things we value to kids every single day. In this day and age, by not attending to issues of race and class you imply that those things don't matter, which the news reminds us on a daily basis, is a false conclusion.

Astropig
Astropig

@RexHavoc


Couldn't agree more.This "mission creep" is outside the competence of most teachers anyway.It would be hard to imagine a teacher doing this for any length of time without becoming a target for the hateful bigots on either side of any discussion,no matter how well intentioned.God knows that teachers don't need that.

Starik
Starik

@JovanMiles Unfortunately, the news exposes people to the problems of the black underclass which produces most of the crime in Metro Atlanta.

eulb
eulb

"Some teachers ...  tell us they feel ill-equipped to discuss race with their students. What if the conversation goes awry and devolves into confrontation?  Avoiding conflict feels safer ...."  

The Paeidea School's classroom discussion did not devolve into confrontation. The experience was "unifying."   I'd like to know how that happened and whether other teachers can learn how to replicate that result.   Did Sabrina's teacher plan in advance to raise this topic in the classroom?  If so, how did s/he introduce the topic and guide it? 

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

Step 1: White person mentions high rate of single-parent families in black community, or the fact that black males constitute 6% of the US population, but 42% of US homicide victims.

Step 2: White person in step 1 above becomes toast.

Astropig
Astropig

@AlreadySheared


Agree.Look at what happened to that teacher that tried to teach about the Underground Railroad in a way that students could relate to,given their age and limited understanding of the complexities of the subject.The PC police fricasseed her with the help of every grievance peddler in the country and an opportunistic media,desperate for eyeballs.


This proposal should be in the "Dumb Ideas Hall Of Fame" with its own wing,snack bar and gift shop.

Starik
Starik

@OriginalProf @AlreadySheared That generally depends on the neighborhood. How many kids in the neighborhood have seen a dead body in the street, shot to death. For them it's reality.

Starik
Starik

A serious discussion in the classroom is impossible. Padieia is a very liberal, expensive private school so I school and I doubt discussion would stray too far from a celebration of political correctness.  In a public school where kids, and parents, have a variety of opinions on the subject it would be asking for trouble.

Theresa Pinilla
Theresa Pinilla

As an experienced educator, with years teaching students with disabilities, I am absolutely appalled. This is shameful action by Texas. USDOE should have no problem and waste no time pputtinga stop to this abuse and violation of federal law which GUARANTEES the RIGHT of students to receive a FREE and APPROPRIATE PUBLIC EDUCATION!

speccie
speccie

Any talk about the problems of the black community couldn't begin without discussing the origins: the 72% of black children growing up without a father in the home.

Think that will ever be discussed frankly in the average public school classroom?

Or even here in this blog?

Astropig
Astropig

@JovanMiles


Your response is exactly,precisely why this subject matter should be left to institutions outside the public schools.The curricula would soon fall under the control of hateful zealots like yourself and would become another wedge between races,ethnicities and faiths.

Starik
Starik

@Astropig @JovanMiles Mass crime results in mass incarceration. Policing should be focused on where the crimes occur. Housing discrimination and segregation started going away withe passage of the civil rights legislation of the 60s. Teach these subjects by all means, as part of a history class.

JovanMiles
JovanMiles

We can talk about that if you address mass incarceration, policing based on race and geography, federal and local housing policies that discriminated against Black people, segregation as law, etc....

Don't be a troll.

Anedith Clark
Anedith Clark

Yes let's talk about it! It baffles me we don't have any formal culturally relevant or Antiracist pedagogy here. Oh and I get followed often here in certain stores. I guess I'm used to it that I forget to mention it. Probably for the same reason people assume I have Medicaid.