Like Asa, kids of color often tell us that they are tired of being the “racism police” at school, and get little support when they are targets of or witnesses to racism. Many school systems, including the New York City Department of Education, are providing implicit bias training. Still, teachers can often feel unsure how to build mutual understanding, foster equity, and effectively address both overt and more subtle forms of racial conflict.
Educating ourselves is a good place to start. “Acknowledging that we all have biases and do racist acts is a difficult but positive first step,” says Anthony C. Conelli, who chairs the Bank Street Graduate School of Education’s Leadership Department and was a New York City public school teacher and principal. “It challenges our perceptions of ourselves; we want to believe that we are bias-free, but we’re not. Who wants to acknowledge that they’ve been contributing to racist beliefs? Or that we hurt a student by mistake? But look at it this way: This work gives you the opportunity to self-correct.”
Recognizing our own roles in racism and calling out racist behavior is hard but important work. Here’s how you can better support your students of color and respond more effectively to racism in your school.
Confront your own biases. Everyone has unconscious biases that we learn or internalize. “It’s easy to get defensive if we’re called out because most of us don’t think of ourselves as racist or intend to be hurtful,” says Conelli. In fact, when our words or actions cause a microaggression, it’s usually unconscious, rather than coming from a desire to inflict harm. Take a constructive approach by viewing this work as a good opportunity to grow.
Engage in collaborative learning. Seek out a diverse group of colleagues who are interested in talking about and sharing strategies for confronting racism. Group work can help us become more aware of our unconscious biases than if we work solo. “To develop racial consciousness is to challenge our assumptions, and thus build our funds of knowledge through actual lived experience,” Glenn Singleton writes in his book Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools.
Speak up when students say something racist in class. In another YCteen story, a Black teen writes: When an Asian student jokingly told another Black student that he would lynch her, she didn’t even bother telling her teacher, assuming, based on experience, that nothing would come of it. “You might think, if I just ignore what I heard and don’t acknowledge it, it diminishes it, but the opposite is true. Ignoring a comment is read as condoning it,” says Conelli. So how should you respond?
Regardless of whether you feel it’s best to address the comment with all parties in the moment or privately, say something like: “I heard you say this to Asa and I want us to talk about that. Do you understand the implications of your words? Let’s talk about what they mean and why they are offensive.”
Establish and enforce zero tolerance for racism in your classroom. Teachers don’t hear or see every racist comment or act in the classroom, or anywhere in school for that matter. Therefore Asa’s teacher might not have been aware of the “minstrel character” drawing and conversation. But because Asa didn’t feel like she could tell her teacher about it, she kept her feelings to herself.
Introducing group agreements surrounding racism and respect on the first day of school opens a space for students of color to speak to you. The message you are sending becomes: please come to me and I will support you. And the same should be true when you are the one being inadvertently racist.
In Asa’s story she writes: Some of my teachers still call me by the names of the four other Black girls in my grade, although we look nothing alike. If a student makes you aware of behavior like this, you can apologize and use mediation skills and “I” messages to take a constructive approach. A student might say, “This creates the appearance that you can’t distinguish between the four of us, although all we have in common is our color.” A response can be, “I never thought of that. I can understand how this gets perceived and I will pay closer attention.” If you feel uncomfortable facilitating this kind of conversation, seek out help from a guidance counselor, assistant principal, or someone who may have more experience with mediation techniques.
Practice. Learning how to self-monitor, intervene, and choose our language carefully takes practice. With time and effort, we build up our own repertoires of responses and become more comfortable delivering them.
Books to Help Educators Create Equitable, Supportive Schools and Classrooms
Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools by Glenn E. Singleton
We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina Love