How to talk about race in the classroom

Discussing race in class is difficult. Such conversations are never easy. This has been exacerbated with the fear and anxiety of being judged, or in the worst-case scenario, being labelled a ‘racist’. Being misunderstood or getting it wrong are real fears that discussing race can elicit in teachers. Whilst these anxieties can never be overlooked, the importance of educating students about race is crucial. 

The teacher’s role

Teachers have an integral role in ensuring such conversations are taking place, to allow the exchange of ideas, to question perceptions, and to address assumptions that continue to impede social change in schools and the society at large. Students who understand the history of their country, such as South Africa, will have a better grasp of the effects of the racial divide and this can really aid them to understand their school experiences. Such knowledge will assist others to call out injustices and whilst the students are not able to change events of the past, they can affect the future if equipped with the right tools. 

The most important tool a teacher needs is an understanding of race and privilege for themselves. Without a thorough understanding of race as a social construct, as well as knowledge of their personal position and self-identity (established using self-assessment tools), in the ‘system’, a teacher would not be able to hold spaces for real learning for the curious minds who feel its presence in the class daily.  

Understanding the historical context of race

Race, as a social classification of the population, dates back to the 16th century. It is linked to the slave era where a distinction was needed between the conquerors and their subjects. Centuries later, race still matters today and continues to impact students both in small personal interactions and structurally in the school environment. 

Without unpacking one’s very own biases and blind spots, teachers may fall into the trap of attempting to ignore race to adopt the colour-blind stance in the hope of encouraging equality, or worse still, repeat the same prejudicial socialisation on their students.

Guidelines for starting the discussion

To fully understand race, the teacher must include reflections and studies on whiteness and privilege. Through these studies, one can understand the link between power and privilege, and how these structures impact race. 

The next step is to engage with the parents and bring them onboard as your allies. Informing parents of your aims and outcomes with regards to the conversations that will take place in your classroom is important to troubleshoot any backlash or gross misunderstandings that may take place, if the context of the conversation is relayed differently by the students. This becomes very important as such conversations should never be the sole responsibility of the teacher alone. 

Back in the classroom, a clear set of guidelines must be drawn to ensure that both the teacher and the students feel safe in discussing the content. Discomfort for both teacher and students during such conversations is normal. It is important to be brave, lean into the discomfort, and lead by example. Showing your vulnerability also allows the students to learn empathy – a crucial quality in these conversations that often includes sharing difficult personal stories. This in turn indicates to the students your willingness to learn with them, especially if you invite them to correct you when you err.

Awareness of the students’ race composition should not be taken for granted as this aids the teacher to ensure that teaching resources displayed in the room and other resources, such as videos, TED Talks, and so on are varied with different perspectives. Critical analysis of different examples of media helps to highlight the different voices for the students. Encouraging open-ended questions warrants in-depth reflection from the students to unpack the perspective of the writer or artist – what has influenced their perception, what is implicit and explicit in their work, and how race features. 

The students themselves are an invaluable resource for information but it’s vital not to make your students of colour the experts when discussing race. Teachers need to ensure that they are literate in language relating to diversity and that the correct terminology is always used. If a teacher’s class is not a demographic representation of the general society, it would be valuable to invest in relationships with other teachers and students, and participate in Skype or Zoom online meetings for experiences that encourage different insights and perceptions. In such circumstances, it is important to educate white students that race also pertains; it is an identity like any other and to debunk the myth that race only applies to people of colour. 

Seizing teachable moments in class regardless of the teaching method is an opportunity to highlight life skills on navigating recurring situations that will take place in society. Avoiding to address an incident creates an ‘elephant in the room’ and teaches the students that certain topics are taboo. Always connect the past to the present. Understanding the historical context helps students understand the present and aids them to anticipate possible future interactions with their friends and families. 

Teaching tools for early childhood development

Teachers involved in early childhood development have an even greater role in this regard. Research has shown that children as young as three years can code human groups through race. They ‘naturally attribute positive traits to their own ethnic or racial groups’, writes Kelley R. Taylor for School Library Journal. It is important to acknowledge that each human being has a race. To avoid speaking about race with young students with the aim of achieving a ‘colour blind’, equal society is detrimental as this leads to confusion. Physical attributes such as tone of skin, colour of eyes, and hair texture exist. Noticing such differences does not equate to bias. The judgement and discrimination of others because of those differences is what is problematic. 

Whilst the theme of honesty and linking the past to the present when conversing about race remains the same as with the older students, it goes without saying that inappropriate information and graphic resources are unnecessary in this phase. Be aware that they are being barraged with information in the media, just like us. It is always a good idea to ascertain how much they already know about race by probing them with open-ended questions. When addressing a racial incident that may have taken place, always speak in a warm, inclusive manner of all diversity amongst people.

The most effective teaching tools on race will be the use of diverse books and storytelling. Storytelling fosters an understanding, respect, and appreciation for other cultures and also encourages students to have a positive attitude towards people from different countries, races, and religions. Books from Ethnikids educate on matters of diversity and the beautiful illustrations encourage student engagement, as the students can identify themselves in the stories. 

When choosing texts or reading material, teachers are encouraged to avoid stories that highlight a particular race with the same narrative. Students want to read books that showcase activities that they can relate to and diverse books should avoid only highlighting the oppression of people of colour. Threading lessons on bias and prejudice in all lessons is imperative for the emotional and social development of the students during this early phase. Teachers can be caught off guard by the questions posed to them at this phase but it is important to avoid overreacting and shutting the conversation down. Instead, encourage them to feel comfortable to continue asking you such questions, even if you may not always have the answers right away and are on the journey with them to co-learn. 

You don’t need to have all the answers

Conversing on matters around race with students is a journey that requires numerous ongoing engagements with oneself and others. It requires teachers to reflect on their personal experiences around race, which may very well be painful. Self-regulating when triggered is often a very difficult but important life skill to teach, especially if students learn from the teacher’s lead. Removing unnecessary pressure (such as that teacher’s need to have all the answers) can alleviate anxiety and give both students and teacher the permission to have messy conversations that do not require final agreement by all as an outcome. 

A single conversation will not suffice. ‘If you can’t talk about [race], you can’t understand it, much less fix the racial problems that plague our society,’ says Monnica T. Williams, a clinical psychologist. In educating the youth we can inspire hope and activism, and work towards an antiracist society. 

Have you developed teaching resources that address race? If you register as a seller, you can share them with other teachers on the Teacha! resource marketplace.

About the Author:
Sheillah Muchauraya is an educator with 19 years of experience in teaching, leadership roles, and executive management in South African schools. She’s an advocate for social justice in school communities and is passionate about promoting equity, access, and creating safe spaces for dialogues in diversity. As an associate consultant responsible for Cohesion Collective (CoCo) schools, she also provides Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) training and facilitation to students and staff, and leads the curriculum development for CoCo schools.

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