New Focus on Race in America Presents Opportunity – and Challenges – for Educators

talking_about_raceThe national reaction to the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York at the hands of police exposed racial tensions still simmering across the United States. More recently, the shocking video of white University of Oklahoma students singing a racist song while traveling on a bus placed racism and race in America front and center once again.

For most educators, grappling with these issues in the classroom has always been a challenge and recent events make their role all the more important, says Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Costello recently spoke hit NEA Today about how recent headlines have affected teaching about race and what educators should and shouldn’t do to ensure that discussions in their classroom are constructive.

What impact have the recent racially-charged incidents had in our classrooms?

I think the events have led to a greater willingness to discuss issue of race, racism, racial divisions and privilege. The fact that it’s in the news and that students are interested helps teachers to justify spending time on the topic.  But teachers — about 80 percent of whom are white — don’t always feel confident or comfortable talking about race.  That doesn’t make them unique, but there’s a greater need for educators to talk about race than, say, for baristas to do so. We’ve published a number of articles and blogs about Ferguson, including “Talking to Students about Racism and Ferguson,”which has been read and passed around a lot.  Generally I can take the temperature of the country by looking at our website traffic and social media activity.  While interest in the topic is more or less always present, I can definitely report that it’s increased.

What is the role of the educator in handling racial tensions or racial questions? Who does the educator share this role with?

Educators share the role with everybody!  In the school setting, though, it’s important to build community agreement around the subject.  Sure, a courageous lone teacher might tackle the subject in her classroom, but if that’s the only place it’s happening, and the message from everyone else is that the topic is taboo, little gain will be achieved.  The entire school community — administrators, teachers, counselors, cafeteria staff and bus drivers— have to be aware of the ways the community has decided to address racial issues.  Few American schools are immune to the racial divides that run through our nation.  Too many African American students go to schools that are nearly completely segregated; in schools with more diverse populations, too many students of color are assigned to special ed and too few are in AP or gifted classes.  The evidence of racial divides is right in front of every student, and the educators who fail to confront it are seen as sticking their heads in the sand.

What are some ways to address these issues in class?

Generally it’s easiest in social studies and ELA courses.  Social studies, of course, can approach the topic as current events or as important issues in American life — how does the Constitution come into play, or what role does the media play in how we think about Ferguson?  But English teachers have a terrific opportunity to bring real texts that speak to different experience and perspectives to open up conversations about race.  And the advantage to using readings — literary or nonfiction — is that they are at a remove and can allow a class to safely explore issues that might feel too personal otherwise.

Racial conflict can occur in a classroom when one student denies that racism is still a problem. How can educators respond?

It’s a chance to help students understand that their experience isn’t normative — an important lesson for everyone.  Depending on the age, the subject and the time available — factors every teacher has to juggle — an educator needs to help the student understand that not everyone experiences the world the same way.  One way is to gently ask questions about the claim — is this from your experience? Do you think everyone experiences the world the same way?  Teachers need to always help students see multiple perspectives.  If that’s routine, then it shouldn’t be too hard to get them to consider that other people might experience American life differently.

What a teacher shouldn’t do is to turn to the other students and put them on the spot — they might step up to the plate and tell the kid he’s delusional, but no one should be asked to “stand in” for their group.  Instead, a teacher needs to be able to pull the lens back — and apply the problem to the material the class has been studying.  An English teacher might talk about racism that was present in a work the class read; a social studies teacher might talk disparities in wealth or educational opportunity.  But every teacher needs to be prepared to counter the inevitable claim of meritocracy that often hides privilege.

Is the state of race relations getting worse, or are we just hearing more about tensions through media reports?

I think we’re entering a difficult time and the lack of understanding — and tensions — around race are getting worse.  No one wants to be considered racist, and outright ugly bigotry is increasingly rare and socially unacceptable.  But what remains is stubborn stuff: on one hand, we haven’t come to grips with our implicit biases, which we all have.  And we’re not very good at recognizing the structural racism that is our historical legacy.  Widespread economic hardship and lack of mobility plus the demographic shifts are a perfect recipe for making tensions worse.