Discussing Race in the Classroom

As a teacher you never know what type of question you’ll get. Regardless of the grade level, scholars ask what they will when the spirit hits them. Sometimes we have quick answers, or can give the “we’re not talking about that right now” speech. Other questions require more thought, and many times a pause in the daily lesson. My students have asked “Why do the police hate us?” “What will happen to us if Donald Trump is elected?” “Why are some Latinos darker than others?” Answering these questions was certainly not apart of my teacher training, but definitely a necessity. This post includes some of the strategies I use when discussion race with my students.

Regardless of the population you teach, it’s important to recognize that there are differences among students. All of my students are Black America, Latino, or Afro Latino. I believe that it is critical for me to acknowledge that they are all students of color, but their walk of life varies greatly. There are so many factors that play into the how students identify that it’s important to stop and acknowledge the nuances. 

Expect and Accept Discomfort
Before engaging in a conversation about race, it’s important to recognize that we are all on this journey, and none of us has all the answers. Additionally, talking about race is difficult and something society has trained us to shy away from. I talk about race because there are times when it comes us during class. Despite being a woman of color, I am NEVER comfortable. Just this week one of my students used the n-word to address two of his peers, and they were offended. It wasn’t an easy conversation to facilitate, but I jumped right in and did the best I could. 
Be Curious 
When my students bring up race, I always lean on asking questions first. Some of my go to questions include:

Why do you feel this way?
How do you identify?
What can I do to help?
Can you please give more details about XYZ?
How long have you been thinking about this?
What do you see as a solution? 

Be Honest 
We cannot pretend to be something other than what we are, and students appreciate our honesty. Talking about our own experiences (or lack there of) with racism makes us vulnerable. Modeling our vulnerability can help students expose theirs. If you don’t know, say so. If you need more information, ask. If you aren’t comfortable, let them know. If you have to get back to them, give a date. 

Know Your Triggers 
How do you identify yourself and what does that identity mean to you? Where do you struggle when it comes to prejudice and discrimination? What types of emotional reactions do these thoughts bring up? What can someone (even kids) say to trigger real and raw emotions? For me, it’s the n-word. I was called this by a Subway employee when I was 16, and it literally causes a visceral reaction! I have to recognize this because I teach an age/group of students who like saying the word. Knowing its a trigger led me to think about ways to address it, and reflect on what I can do when triggered.  If you need to know more about triggers, click here. 
Create a (Relatively) Safe Atmosphere
I do not believe it is possible to create a space where all students, or teachers feel comfortable when talking about race, class, and privilege. However, we can set parameters to ensure that students are being respectful to one another. It can be useful to share with students the assumption that while we are not to blame for the racism in society, we can assume responsibility for working against it. Some nonnegotiables in my classroom (regardless of the conversation) include no: 

laugh at a peer 
sucking teeth/rolling eyes at a comment
calling out after a comment 
talking over a peer

These are in norms that are in place all the time because as a team we have to respect each other, and treat one another how we want to be treated. No one wants to be laughed or yelled at. 

Follow and Facilitate
When conversations about race come up, I try to step back and take on the facilitator role. I recognize the limitations of my own perspective, and while my background is similar-ish to my students, the differences matter. I want my students to guide the conversation. 

A Few Resources:
Identity Safe Classrooms
Talking About Race

NPR Uncomfortable Conversations 



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Picture of Tanesha B. Forman

Tanesha B. Forman

I'm a current middle school administrator who loves breaking down complex topics and providing opportunities for educators learn, reflect, practice, and implement methods that foster equity and anti-racism. I believe we win together!

Behind the Blog

Hi, I'm Tanesha.

I’m a current middle school administrator who loves breaking down complex topics and providing opportunities for educators learn, reflect, practice, and implement methods that foster equity and anti-racism. I believe we win together!




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