Last year, my colleague LaShawn Routé Chatmon and I wrote this piece in EdWeek — “5 Steps for Liberating Public Education From Its Deep Racial Bias.” We made the case that in order to support the social and emotional well being of our students, we need to acknowledge and confront the legacy of racism and exclusion in our schools and communities — and its continued impact on all of our students. Doing so provides us with the opportunity to develop what Rob Jagers at the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) calls “Transformational SEL” — engaging our young people in a critical exploration of the issues that confront them and nurturing their sense of agency to lead positive change.
As we prepare to welcome students back to school it is critical that we take time to consider what has happened in the world, in the United States, and in each of our communities since our students were last with us. Our students are paying attention; they watch and listen to what we say and what we don’t say. Many of them will look to us for guidance and a safe space to make sense of the painful, frightening, and confusing things that have been happening in our country, at our southern border, in El Paso, Gilroy, Dayton, and in so many of our racially segregated communities plagued by violence.
Over the last year, I have had the opportunity to hear from young people from across the country about what they need from us now. In every instance I’ve heard students asking for space to have meaningful dialogue, learning, and debate about the issues that impact their daily lives. One student shared her discomfort at going through an entire school day without a single adult mentioning the bombing of a synagogue in Pittsburgh last October. Another shared her upset that the use of the “n-word” went uninterrupted and undiscussed in her school. Yet another wished there were spaces to talk about the racial segregation within his own school.
Our young people have so much to say and we have so much to learn from them.
It is certainly true that our students of color and their families are more directly affected by the violence of systemic racism. These students need us to prioritize making the structural changes in funding, resources, tracking, and discipline policies necessary to create a more equitable system of education. They need us to create learning environments that embrace diverse perspectives, affirm who they are, and build on the assets they bring to school for learning. Those impacted directly by violence need time and space to grieve and to heal.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that it is only those most proximal to the violence or targeted by racism who are impacted. Most middle and high school students, including our white students, take in a steady stream of images and news through their phones and Instagram feeds. And most have little opportunity to process what they have seen and read. Without structured opportunities to do so, they are not learning to question and think critically about the systems of oppression that give rise to the hateful and violent acts we have witnessed, the current inequities in their schools and communities, or their role in it.
Our white students are watching to see how or if we will mention what has been happening in the world around them and in their own schools. If we don’t, they are left to assume it is either unimportant to adults in school, not relevant to their education as white students or worse, that it is not relevant to their lives — that conversations about hate, race and racism are only important for students of color.
“There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.”
– Ibram Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist
Systems of oppression are reinforced by harmful narratives and stereotypical depictions of people of color that go unchallenged in our homes, schools and classrooms, by the narrow history that we most often teach, and by the textbooks we choose and from whose perspective stories are told. For those of us who are white and raising and educating young people who are white, not talking about the atrocities of separating families at our southern border, the unrelenting racism coming from the highest offices of our government, and the steady uptick in hate crimes in schools is not a neutral decision. Not acknowledging the effects of historic and current racism sends a message that these issues are not white people’s problem — when in fact, the hateful violence we have witnessed and the inequities that exist today in our schools and communities are directly tied to our shared history as white people. And, the health and future of our communities, are, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “inextricably linked”.
As Dena Simmons points out in her piece, “Why We Can’t Afford Whitewashed SEL,” students need the skills to navigate unjust realities. This includes our white students. Talking about race, racism, and acts of violence brings up strong emotions for adults and young people. White students in particular are unlikely to have had many opportunities to build their muscle for having difficult conversations about race and racism and for engaging in productive cross-race dialogue and learning. As adults who are raising and educating white students, we have a responsibility to model honest and productive conversations about the history and effects of racism and all forms of systemic oppression and to teach our young people how to tackle tough issues.
White students need to learn our history as white people, the way that “whiteness” was constructed to advantage those who were designated as “white” and disadvantage people of color — systematically denying people of color the right to vote, the right to own property and build wealth, and the right to live in communities with well-funded schools, transportation, green space. They need to understand the way that government policies created and sustain the racial segregation and systemic inequities we see today and they need opportunities to confront these truths in ways that support them to be curious, to acknowledge their emotional responses and not fall victim to the defensiveness, guilt and white fragility that often arises when white people come into consciousness about our true history.
“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious… My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.”
– Dr. Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Engaging our white students in learning about race and racism takes commitment on the part of adults to go against the grain. As Dr. Peggy McIntosh notes, white people are taught to not notice systems of unearned advantage and this not noticing has negative impacts for both white people and people of color. We need to engage in our own learning and critical self-reflection to understand how our lives and views have been shaped by our unearned advantage and experiences as white people and actively build our knowledge of how the legacy of race, racism, and systemic oppression are operating in our schools and communities today. As Dr. Ibram writes, “one either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.”
Doing our own work as white educators will prepare us to meaningfully engage our white students in rigorous learning and dialogue about race and racism in their own lives. This will increase their self-awareness, develop critical thinking skills, and build emotional stamina for talking about hard issues. Providing students with opportunities to reflect on complex topics impacting their lives supports healthy adolescent development by nurturing what researchers at the Chicago Consortium for School Research have identified as key factors for young adult success: agency, competencies, and integrated identity. In teaching about systems of oppression and talking about current day inequities, we can also highlight stories about white allies and co-conspirators who have stood up for justice throughout history and lift up stories that emphasize our shared humanity. It is our responsibility to provide our white students with opportunities to explore their role and responsibility for interrupting racism and all forms of oppression in order to create more equitable schools and just communities within which we all belong and thrive.
Resources for Learning & Teaching About Whiteness, Race, and Racism in the Classroom
- Robin Di’Angelo, White Fragility
- Safe Space Radio: Talking to White Kids about Race & Racism
- How Well-Intentioned White Families Can Perpetuate Racism
- The 1619 Project Curriculum
- Teaching Hard History: American Slavery
- How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
- Classroom Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum
- Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum
- Scene on Radio: Seeing White podcast
- Follow #ClearTheAir and #EduColor on Twitter