This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: 10 things every white teacher should know when talking about race in the classroom
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room–why I am talking only to white people? Isn’t that racist?
(Hold that question in your mind, because I want you to ask yourself that same question again after you’ve read my words here, and see if your thought process has changed.)
I’m specifically addressing white people in this episode because around 83% of teachers in the U.S. are white. Most of you reading my blog are in fact, white. Conversations about race are super prevalent right now and for many white people, it feels like stepping into a minefield.
They have literally no idea what to say, or feel like they don’t understand the history of people of color enough to contribute much to the conversation. Or, they say something they think is totally valid but inadvertently offend people of color in the discussion. Or get their own feelings hurt because they feel “attacked,” vowing to never, ever enter another conversation about race again.
This can’t happen, teacher friends. It really hurts my heart to see so many misunderstandings in our country around race right now, particular when it’s among white teachers who are shaping the next generation of minds. Teachers are smart, thoughtful people tasked with raising up young people to be leaders. We cannot be ignorant about race or avoid talking about it.
Now, I am no expert on race relations in America. And I can’t presume to speak on behalf of people of color. I don’t know their full experience. But I also don’t think it’s fair to ask a person of color to be the spokesperson for his or her race, or to make him/her not only bear the burdens of marginalization but also educate white people on why it happens and how it’s so harmful.
People of color have no choice but to think about and understand race on a daily basis. It’s really up to us as white people to educate ourselves to the same level. So while teachers of color are certainly welcome to listen to this episode, I probably don’t have much to teach them. They’re miles ahead of me and most of us as white people, because their survival and success is dependent upon them understanding the racial “rules” in this country.
But I’m going to start here, today, by sharing what I know now as best as I can, because if I wait until I understand everything fully, there will never be an episode about race on Truth for Teachers. And this can’t wait. I want every white teacher, particularly those who teach black and brown students, to understand some fundamental truths. These principles can completely transform your relationship with your students, their families, and the community you teach in, and I hope you’ll be open to my words in light of that.
So this episode is for those who are frustrated with conversations about race right now, and also for those who want to have hard conversations, support their students, and step up as advocates and allies, but just don’t know how to talk about racial issues and are afraid of saying the wrong thing. I hope the information I share today will help you feel more confident in having those tough conversations that are so, so important, and empower you to be a more culturally responsive teacher.
Click play to listen to the episode, or download it to listen on the go:
1. Racism is not necessarily about holding hate in your heart toward other people or consciously believing you are superior because you’re white.
99.9% of people do not describe themselves as racist because they think that means being a Neo-Nazi or KKK member. However, the racism you keep hearing people talk about these days is far more than some limited dictionary definition, and we need to look at the bigger picture.
Racism is about contributing to or looking the other way in the face of acts or systems that marginalize people of color. Racism is a systemic issue. So, if you are complicit in policies and systems that are oppressive to people of color, you are contributing to racism in this country. If you look the other way or deny that these systems exist, you are part of the problem.
Just as a man can be married to a woman and still hold sexist beliefs, you can subconsciously hold ideologies of white supremacy even if you have Black friends.
You can know in your heart that you don’t hate anyone but still contribute to their oppression.
You can love Black culture, music, and slang while benefitting from systems that are designed to elevate you above Black people in social status.
The worst thing you can do is take a knee-jerk reaction to any mention of racism and assume it doesn’t apply to you. We all have a lot to learn and examine in that area. No white person, including myself, is exempt. We ALL need to do the work in uncovering and rooting out bias and internalized anti-Blackness.
2. There is no such thing as reverse racism.
It’s just not possible, because as we’ve established, racism cannot exist without a history of systemic oppression and marginalization. Racism is rooted in privilege and power.
People of color may hold prejudice toward white people or be biased against us. But prejudice and racism are very different things–it’s not just semantics.
You have to look at which groups of people have historically had the privilege and power in this country in order to fully understand how racism works.
Racism is rooted in a SYSTEM of white supremacy, so it’s about more than just how individuals treat one another. I think this article explains it much better than I could.
That’s a deep topic, but for now, it’s enough to know that encountering a student or parent who says something rude to or about you as a white person does not make you a victim of racism. Their actions—while unkind and harmful to your relationship—may be the result of frustration with white privilege and constant marginalization on a daily basis.
As a white person, you may bear the brunt of that frustration from a couple of individuals on occasion. You are not, however, the victim of reverse racism. There is no systemic oppression happening or larger patterns of mistreatment that are based on you having less power and privilege than people of color.
That is why racism does not “go both ways.” It goes in one direction: from the group who holds the power and privilege toward the groups who do not.
That’s a very simplified statement, of course, and doesn’t account for intersectionality (a term meaning that oppressive institutions are interconnected, so it’s important to consider how racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on are related.) Individuals hold privilege and power in many varying degrees, and we’ll explore that in a future episode.
EDITED TO ADD: I’ve seen several comments from white people who said they shut down after this section and refused to keep reading, because they found it so invalidating of how they’ve been mistreated by other races. If your own experiences as a white person leave you unable to read an article about how systemic racism affects people of color, I’d encourage you to skip ahead to number 8, and check out the part about centering whiteness.
3. There are different rules for white people and people of color when talking about race.
No, you’re not imagining this. There ARE different rules, and this is not a secret. It’s because of these systems of power and privilege I explained previously. The rules for survival and success in this country are not the same for all groups of people, and therefore the way different groups of people talk about race is not the same.
Don’t frustrate yourself by trying to figure out why Black people can say the N word and white people can’t. Focus on trying to understand the bigger issues of privilege and race, and the smaller details like that will make a lot more sense to you later on.
When you hear people of color talking about race (or just talking about life in general amongst themselves), the least helpful thing you can do is to try to police their tone or correct the way they express themselves.
Instead, accept that their lived experiences are different than yours: they are treated differently and see the world differently. The rules for how to talk and behave for people of color have never been the same as the rules for those who are white.
4. It is not racist (nor is it “creating division”) for people of color to talk about how they experience the world differently than white people. Colorblindness is not a thing to aspire to.
I see a lot of white people try to shut down these conversations by saying, “Why do we have to make everything about race?”, as if brown and black people need to pretend race doesn’t exist and stop focusing on our differences.
Those differences have always been there, it’s just that for most of our country’s history, people of color weren’t allowed to publicly voice their experiences.
You may not have been aware of the differences or problems, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen…and not talking about them now doesn’t mean those issues will go away.
Yes, it can be very uncomfortable to witness or participate in these conversations about racism as a white person. I’d imagine it’s far more uncomfortable to actually live with that racism as a non-white person. The bare minimum we can do is avoid invalidating their experiences and silencing them by trying to ignore or deflect any mention of race.
Don’t defend your point of view by claiming to be colorblind and saying “I don’t see color!” You do see color, unless you have a literal visual impairment. And you should see color, because a person being brown or Black is not a shameful attribute we have to pretend we haven’t noticed.
Even if your intention is to communicate that you love and treat all people the same, please know: a) That’s probably not true because we all have unconscious biases, and b) Your personal inclusiveness doesn’t mean that systemic racism no longer exists.
5. If you have been told that it IS racist to see or talk about color, that was probably in a situation where you were pointing out race in a completely irrelevant context.
For example, if you tell a story about one of your students and say, “this little Black boy in my class today said the cutest thing,” someone may object to you using that as a descriptor. But it’s not because there’s something wrong with being Black and therefore you were supposed to pretend that he isn’t.
The reason it’s inappropriate to mention race in this context has to do with the presumption that white is normal and anything other than white is different and needs to be specified. What you may not realize is that when you say, “this black boy in my class” in one anecdote, and then in the next anecdote, say “this other boy in my class”, the message you’re conveying is that you and the person you are talking to should automatically assume the child is white, unless you specify otherwise. You’ve made white the default.
By only pointing out race for people of color and not ever saying “this white boy,” a subtle message is sent that white is the norm and a person of color is an “other” or “different.” So when race is irrelevant, don’t mention it.
Here’s a slightly similar example. If you’ve ever had a student refer to you as “that white lady” then you know how uncomfortable it can feel to have your race pointed out when it seems irrelevant, and how it makes you feel like an outsider. It feels like you got an unnecessary, unexpected reminder that the student and his/her friends are all the same race and they see you as different from them. It’s not a good feeling, so don’t make people of other races feel that way.
And again, don’t get hung up on why people of color can say certain things and you can’t. The onus is not on marginalized groups to be inclusive of us. Or to be really blunt: it’s not the job of minorities to make white people feel normal and like we belong. In this country, we’ve always seen ourselves front and center…in movies, award shows, commercials, leadership positions, government, everywhere.
We’ve always known we belonged and were valued and held power and authority. That’s the basis of white privilege.
Our viewpoints and accomplishments have never been in danger of being overlooked and ignored, so we don’t need any special protections, recognition, or careful consideration for being white.What white teachers need to know when speaking about & to students of color Click To Tweet
6. Use descriptors of race that are both inclusive and empowering.
Sometimes in conversation, you may need to use race as a differentiating factor, and it may feel awkward to avoid mentioning it. In those situations, say it, just don’t make it the sole factor. So if someone says, “Which student is being dismissed early today?” don’t say, “the Hispanic girl right there.” Give the child another attribute rather than defining her only by her ethnicity: “the tall Hispanic girl in the red sweater” or better yet, just “the tall girl in the red sweater.”
When it’s appropriate to mention, try to use race as an adjective, not a noun. Though you’ll commonly hear people saying whites, Blacks, Asians, etc., it’s better to say white people, Black people, Asian people, etc. Their race/ethnicity is just part of who they are as people, so we don’t want to reduce others to ONLY their race. Put more simply, it conveys greater respect to say “Black people” than “blacks” (or worse, “the blacks.”)
You may have noticed a subtle shift in recent years about which terms are preferred. Saying “minorities” isn’t necessarily accurate, and that’s a term I tend to stay away from. (After all, if a school is 90% Latinx, then THEY are the majority.) Plus, people of color are actually the global majority.
The term “minority” points out diminished status and power. It conveys: “There are fewer of them than there are of us.” That’s not a subtle reminder that we want to continually reinforce.
How about African-American? While certainly not an offensive term (and in some cases it’s even the preferred term), it can be perceived as inaccurate. The choice to pair an ethnic description with the “-American” hyphenation is increasingly used only for immigrants or first-generation Americans. If a person’s family has had no ties to Africa for centuries, they may prefer not to be called African-American. Of course, individual preference matters. Black Americans aren’t a monolithic group and some may identify strongly with the term African-American because of the term’s empowering history.
Similarly, “indigenous people” is a common term now for American Indians or Native Americans (even though neither of those two terms are necessarily outdated, and may still be the preferred term for individuals.) “Indigenous people” is simply a more accurate term, since it acknowledges that this land was theirs to begin with, long before America existed.
When you’re not sure which term to use, consider “people of color” (which is abbreviated as PoC.) It’s an all-encompassing term that is inclusive and generally regarded as empowering. So you might say things like, “we have many people of color in our school community” or ask “How will this regulation affect students of color?” And of course, if you mean Black people specifically, say “Black people.”
If you find yourself feeling frustrated as you read this, keep in mind these are not arbitrary rules made up for the sake of “political correctness” that will be impossible for you to remember. Language is always evolving. When you understand the reasoning behind the shifts in language, it will be easy for you to keep up, and instinctive for you to use respectful terms.
As a teacher, we know that words matter. It’s not unreasonable to ask that we affirm our students’ and families’ dignity in the language that we choose. If you’re unsure of what a person’s preferred term is, ask.
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7. Develop a listen-first ethic when a conversation turns to race, rather than insisting that race is irrelevant.
Remember that YOUR perception of when race applies is going to be different than a person of color’s perspective.
I know this is hard to understand, but maybe if you’re a female, you can relate to another example. How many times have you heard men say things that are dismissive or subtly disrespectful toward women and they don’t even realize what they’ve said is cringe-worthy?
We as women tend to see sexism much more clearly than the average man, because we’ve experienced its harmful effects, often in very subtle, hard-to-prove ways every single day. Sometimes these are called micro-aggressions, and they happen with racial dynamics as well.
Men have the privilege of “not seeing” misogynistic undertones in certain situations because misogyny doesn’t affect them personally (hence the term ‘mansplaining’ was invented.) White people have the privilege of “not seeing” race in an issue because it doesn’t affect us personally. That does not mean it doesn’t exist and people aren’t really experiencing it. Avoid whitesplaining.
If you don’t see how race is related to a topic when others bring it up, ask yourself, “What am I not understanding about how race is connected to this issue, & how can I learn more?”
8. You can prevent knee-jerk defensiveness by actively working to de-center your experiences as a white person in conversations about race.
White people enslaved millions of Africans for hundreds of years. Having this fact pointed out should not make you immediately proclaim your personal innocence or start citing evidence about Black people who also owned slaves.
Don’t deflect. Don’t get defensive. Don’t cry. You didn’t enslave people. You’re not responsible for that and if you listen or read closely, you’ll find that no one is trying to hold you responsible for that.
You are, however, responsible for not perpetuating white supremacy now. Remember, you’re not off the hook because you denounce the KKK.
It is not enough to be pro-diversity. We need to be anti-racism. We need to be actively dismantling systems that oppress and marginalize those who are not white.
You are not responsible for what other white people have done, but you ARE responsible for whether you are currently upholding the systems that elevate white people over people of color.
No one is claiming that white people can’t be poor or have a hard life. But, your life won’t be hard BECAUSE you’re white.
If you think that white privilege does not apply to you because you’re not rich and your life hasn’t been easy, you are responsible for educating yourself on how you benefit on a daily basis from the racial caste system that still exists.
You are also responsible for your reaction to hearing people of color discuss oppression. That’s actually the easy part. All you have to do is listen.
You don’t have to insert your opinion or experience into every story a person of color is telling about his or her life. This is often referred to as “centering white people,” as in, we are so used to being at the center of every story, the hero in every book and movie, the victor in every battle, that it’s hard for us to hear about narratives that center the experiences of people of color.
The very best response–and also the easiest, because you don’t have to come up with anything brilliant to add–is LISTEN, and amplify the experiences of people of color by sharing them.
That’s it. Not clarify that “all white people aren’t bad” or shift the conversation to how YOU aren’t like that, you’re one of the good ones! (See how tempting it is to center ourselves?)
Listen. Learn. Empathize. Relate.
If you are truly doing those things, a person of color talking about problematic experiences with white people or history will not feel like an attack on you. I promise you that, and I’m speaking as a fellow white person who has heard and read thousands of these conversations over the years and has truly never, ever been offended by the even the harshest remarks about white people.
It only feels like an attack when you are shut down, in denial, or centering your feelings in the conversation.
The “privilege walk” shown here was conducted by participants who were paid to create a video as a teaching tool. Please do not replicate this experiment with students or even adults. The visible representation of privilege could be painful for participants and we don’t need to ask people of color to participate in things like this in order for us to learn about privilege.
9. When someone hits a sore spot and you realize you’ve said, done, or felt something that you didn’t realize could be insensitive, avoid rationalizing your actions.
I’ll give you an example that happened to me a couple weeks ago.
You know how it’s a trendy thing to talk about spirit animals? As in, “Oh, such and such celebrity is my spirit animal” or “that laughing baby gif is my spirit animal!” It’s a common expression in popular culture meant to convey that a person or thing resonates with you.
I’ve used that expression on occasion…until I read the Twitter feed of someone who identifies as an indigenous person. She explained that having white people appropriate the term spirit animal is super offensive, because spirit animals are a deeply sacred aspect of a culture which has been almost completely erased by a white nation state. So to have white people–or anyone, really–trivialize something that means so much in her culture, a culture that has a long history of being devalued, censored, and systematically wiped out, is hurtful to her.
My gut reaction upon hearing this was to think, “Oh. Crap. I have totally said that and had no idea it could be offensive. Ugh. That’s embarrassing. Well, at least now I know not to ever do it again.”
I realized I have made jokes that could be offensive, and now that I knew better, I wouldn’t do it again. It’s really that simple.
I’m not a terrible, hopelessly racist person for saying it. I’m not going to berate myself endlessly for having said something offensive.
I’m not going to launch into the whole “it’s not my fault I’m white” mode and excuse my ignorance, as if Google doesn’t exist and I couldn’t have learned about these issues on my own without someone having to hold my hand and walk me through why my comments were problematic.
I’m also not going to make excuses about how it’s just a joke and everyone says it so people should stop being offended by everything. Remember, the offense is rooted in systemic oppression and marginalization over hundreds of years.
It’s not about the one joke or term. These are issues that affect generations and aren’t just things you can “get over” when they impact your daily life.
So instead, I’m just going to own it: Welp, I said something many times that was insensitive. It’s never my goal to be insulting or hurt people, so I’m going to be careful not to do that again.
The end. No defensiveness or denial. Owning it. Moving on.
10. The solution is not to “stop making everything about race” and just all come together as one. We have to be anti-racism, not anti-talking-about-race.
Avoiding all mention of discrimination and oppression does not mean those things stop happening. It just means you as a white person don’t have to deal with it anymore.
As a teacher, you have a responsibility to understand that people of color don’t have the privilege of not thinking or talking about race.
We can unite as a nation when we acknowledge problems do exist, and they exist because our systems were never designed to treat all people equally. In nearly every state, our founding fathers determined that only white men who owned property could vote and have a say in how the country operates.
The system was never, ever designed to give equality to the poor who didn’t own property … or women … or indigenous people the land was taken from … or Africans who were brought here in chains and forced for generations to provide free labor that created financial prosperity for white families.
The system is unjust, but it’s not broken. It was built this way.
Unity and healing come when we dismantle the current system and build a new one. We can heal when we acknowledge the reality of people of color and other marginalized groups in this country.
Healing comes when we as white people start to see our own privilege and dismantle systems built on white supremacy that hold our lives and rights as being greater than those of other people.
That’s going to be a long, painful, messy process, because when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. We have to be up to that challenge.
This is not about hating white people, it’s about hating white supremacy.
It’s not about taking white people down, it’s about elevating people of color. We as white people are not more deserving of human or civil rights than anyone else.
My challenge to you today is to move beyond the conception of yourself as being colorblind or pro-diversity. Instead, start being anti-racism and do the work. Examine yourself and your biases. Know your blind spots.
Listen to people of color and teachers of color. Have the hard conversations even if you might not say exactly the right thing. Step up to fight the everyday racism you encounter. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.
UPDATED SEPT. 2017: A lot of people have commented asking what they should do next. What exactly is the solution?
- Start with self-examination and begin the lifelong habit of rooting out your own biases. I’ve linked to about 15 articles in this post that will help with that. Everything I’ve said in this article has already been written about in countless other blog posts and books. Don’t wait for someone to hold your hand through the journey: Google a specific topic or phrase that really hit home with you, and go from there. We ALL have internalized anti-blackness (even people of color!) because our ways have thinking have been influenced by living in a white supremacist society. Therefore understanding and working through your own limitations and prejudices is the MOST important thing you can do, and will better equip you to begin doing the actual work of fighting for racial justice.
- Make racial justice a normal part of your conversation with other white people. Be cognizant of inequity and white supremacy, and speak up when you see it. Don’t be afraid to call out micro-aggressions and lend an additional perspective in conversations that leave out issues of equity. Challenge fellow white folks when they make “colorblind” remarks. This is difficult to do with close friends and family, but your opinion means the most in those arenas, so it’s imperative to speak up.
- Look for activists who are people of color, and follow their pages on social media so you can hear their perspective on a regular basis about a variety of issues. (EmbraceRace and Raising Race-Conscious Children are a good start on Facebook, Educolor on Twitter, and this list by Tamara Russell for Instagram.) This is a particularly important step if you feel like you are in a bubble and all your Facebook friends talk about the same things from the same perspective. Diversify your feed, read, listen, learn.
- Amplify the voices of those already doing this work and support them financially. Resist the urge to center yourself and rushing to “do” something when you’re still in the beginning stages of becoming conscious about racial justice. Instead, look for people who are further along and find ways to support them by sharing/talking about their work within your sphere of influence, and donating to the cause. Give money directly to organizations run by people of color so they can continue the work.
Here are more anti-bias and anti-racist resources you can explore.It includes a list of people who have pushed my thinking in this area, as well as books you can read and organizations you can donate to. In the meantime, I encourage you to keep seeking out this info on your own. The resources are already out there and their creators would love your support!
The internal work of self-education and self-examination is the foundational piece that many white people skip in an eagerness to “fix everything” and begin righting wrongs. Make it your goal to instead self-examine and understand how you benefit from, support, and uphold white supremacy; only then will you be equipped to help dismantle it.
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