This post in one in a series dedicated to 22 days of anti-racism lessons that can be used in your classroom. Each of the 22 blog posts are dedicated to the 22 victims of them 2019 racially-motivated mass shooting in El Paso, Texas by a 21 year old male.
This post is specifically dedicated to Leonardo Campos, Jr., a husband, father, brother, and son who was a tragic victim along with his wife and 19 other innocent people.
The shooter was 21 years old. Let that sink in. Just a few short years ago, he was sitting in a classroom where he certainly learned about nouns, verbs, and dividing fractions. But what did he learn about tolerance, privilege, or oppression? Maybe his school experience shaped his racist views? Or maybe it just did nothing to combat them. We need to ALL be speaking out against both of these possible scenarios.
Let’s start by talking about the concept of being COLORBLIND. I grew up with well-meaning parents and teachers who tried to spread the message that not seeing color is a solution to the tragically complicated and far-reaching roots of racism. I clung to this for most of my life even when BIPOC were emphatically saying it’s destructive. It’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve been able to start reflecting on how it is a deeply harmful way to participate in the institution of racism.
Not seeing race means we shield ourselves from the effects racism. The strategy of ignoring racism by claiming to be colorblind has backfired and is responsible for new abuses against people of color. For example, even though we incarcerate African Americans at more than five times the rates of whites, those in power in the criminal justice system insist they don’t see race, so they couldn’t be racist. See how the colorblindness strategy perpetuates racism?
It’s taken me too long to realize that we need to move WAY past colorblindness. In fact, we need to move past “not being racist”. We need to be anti-racist.
“Anti-racism is the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably.” – NAC International Perspectives: Women and Global Solidarity
As teachers, we are in the position to be anti-racist in one of the most important cogs in the wheel.
These are some steps I’ve been trying to work through in an effort to move myself from the harmful position of colorblindness to anti-racist.
Ask yourself hard questions. How do you navigate race? Who are your work friends and colleagues? Does you discuss race with your family and friends? How do you approach race in your classroom? What conversations do you have with your students about racism? Take Harvard University’s “Implicit Bias” test to examine your own beliefs.
2. Promote Empathy With Real Life Examples
Unfortunately, there is a nearly infinite supply of experiences from targets of racism. Listen to BIPOC experiences and be sure your students hear them as well. Provide opportunities for students to hear the thoughts and feelings of people impacted by racism through books, in-person conversations or interviews, videos, photos and recordings. Give your students an opportunity to reflect on these experiences and focus especially on the feelings of others. In this way, you help students be sensitive to what people go through in these situations in addition to promoting empathy.
3. Talk About Race and Racism
You need to be talking to your colleagues and students about race and racism. Ignoring both, doesn’t magically make everything better.
“When you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou
4. Books Can Be a Powerful Lead to Important Discussions
At all times, messages are shared by the material we use in our classrooms, so it is important that the messages we share present positive and healthy images for ALL students. Are your books and classroom materials culturally relevant to a wide sampling of the population? Or are they mostly centered around one race and one general economic position? Students can learn implicit bias from the books they read, and the classroom materials they use.
A diverse classroom library generally doesn’t just fall into the lap of most teachers. You have to seek out books and materials written by BIPOC and others that shares the experiences of people from a wide spectrum of races, lifestyles, and socio-economic status. This just doesn’t help your students who recognize images of themselves in the books. It also promotes empathy and diversity of thought in ALL of your students.
Looking for a lesson to start some powerful conversations?
(Lesson adapted from Teaching Tolerance, a website dedicated to helping teachers educate students on how to be active participants in a diverse democracy.)
Grade Level: 3rd-5th
- Understand the definition of “hate” and be able to use alternate words.
- Reflect on the harm caused by hateful words.
- What is hate?
1. Introduce the lesson with a short exercise.
– People often use the word “hate” casually. Reflect on the things you say you “hate”. (Write a list of things that students say or have said that they hate, i.e. broccoli, chores, sister making messes, etc.)
– The definition of the word hate is: “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.” (Let students reflect on how using the word “hate” is an exaggerated word in many instances that probably don’t come from fear, anger, or a sense of injury. Using the word, “hate” is a gross exaggeration that diminishes the power and danger of actual hate.)
– Turn to a partner and practice rephrasing your “I hate” sentences so that they are a more accurate representation of the feeling. (For example, “I don’t like the taste or smell of broccoli.” “I would rather be doing something else instead of chores,” “It’s frustrating when my sister makes messes in my room.”
– Have you ever said you hate people? (Let students turn and talk to a partner so that they can reflect on if they have ever said they hate a person.)
– We need to be careful with the words the word hate and other hateful words. Hateful words are harmful to people. Sometimes hateful words are used to hurt others based on their race or religion, which is racist and something that none of us will allow.
2. Introduce and read Desmond and the Very Mean Word by Desmond Tutu
– Throughout the story, give students time to reflect on how Desmond felt when someone said a hateful word to him. Emphasize the feeling of hurt he has. Give students time to think of when they’ve been hurt by being called a mean word. The goal of the discussions will be to focus on fostering empathy.
– After finishing the text, give students time to reflect on how the hateful words affected everyone in the story.
3. Get started with REALLY talking about race and racism.
The lesson above is a great way to START the conversation. But then it’s time to go further. There are some really amazing books by BIPOC that highlight the ways in which race and the roots of racism are intertwined in every facet of life. If you are just starting these discussions with your students, an excellent book to start with is Let’s Talk About Race, by Julius Lester.
It’s a book that can open up opportunity for productive dialogue with your students about race and how racial identity affects the way we view one another. You can expect open conversations with your students where you don’t have to simplify language or concepts. Start by defining words and the language of race and bias so that you have a shared base of understanding of the meaning of the words prejudice, bias, discrimination, racism, and implicit bias.
In the beginning, establish the fact that we all have a race, and that we are all are included in that. Sometimes white students think that race doesn’t apply to them and includes only people of color. With the realization that race applies to all of us, we can really get started with talking about how we’ve benefitted or suffered because of the prevalent role of racism in our society.
My most important takeaway is – THE WORK IS NEVER OVER.
Keep learning. Keep talking. Keep asking difficult questions. Putting myself out there on this post was not easy. But I am trying learn and to do better. I hope you are also continually trying to learn and do better.
This post is from a blog post series on racism. If you would like to read some other posts related to race and its intersectionality with the classroom, click here.