Many educators avoid topics surrounding race and racism in their classrooms. Topics as these can be seen as scary, controversial, or inappropriate for the educational environment. Many teachers may feel it is “not my job” to bring up or discuss issues of race in their classrooms. But why? When research indicates that children as young as 3 years old “begin to show signs of being influenced by societal norms and biases and may exhibit “pre-prejudice” toward others on the basis of gender or race or being differently abled” (Derman-Sparks, 1989, p. 2), and teachers begin to display their own implicit bias towards students of color beginning in preschool (Young, 2016); it seems imperative that teachers must address issues of race and racism in their classrooms because, like it or not, it’s already there.
As a kindergarten teacher I have been witness to many issues that revolve around race and racism in my own classroom and my school and district. I have witnessed students telling another that they can’t play because they are “black;” making fun or teasing because someone’s skin is a different color; even refusing to use dark skin color paper (even when it applies) because they think it’s “too dark.” I have witnessed conversations between teachers about the reasons their students of color are struggling in their classes. With reasons that range from a perceived lack of parental involvement, lack of ability, lack of motivation, or cultural deficit, how did these students and teachers come to these conclusions about race? The constant negative messaging from media, news, and television is the number one culprit (we’ll address that in more depth later). Combine that exposure with the lack of preparation from our teacher prep programs in cultural responsiveness and the persistent lingering of the false perception of “colorblindness;” it’s no wonder we can’t “see” the negative effects these elements are having in our classrooms. We are ill-equipped! Instead of being “blind” or pretending we don’t see the issues presented in our schools, let’s tackle them head on. Instead of the usual silence and avoidance surrounding race and racism in our classrooms, let’s give ourselves and our students space to safely and productively address misconceptions and replace them with authentic, more accurate, and positive understandings of race and the racial differences we see. Here are a few tips to do just that.
1. Create a racially affirming and positive atmosphere in the classroom.
a. Provide a variety of positive images of all types of people from different races, cultures, abilities, age groups, socioeconomic statuses and families. Make it easy with these Multicultural Alphabet Posters.
b. Read multicultural literature that reflects the authentic realities of the diverse students in your class throughout the entire year (not just on holidays).
2. Review your curriculum and resources for racial bias by asking a few questions.
a. Are people of color represented in this resource?
b. Are people of color represented in stereotypical or authentic ways?
c. Whose perspective is this resource from?
d. What messages does this resource send about the value of my diverse student’s histories, cultures, and perspectives? (the same can be done for gender and abilities)
3. Help students address, understand, and evaluate any negative racial assumptions and help them replace them with more accurate and positive information.
a. Correct students when they use racially insensitive words to describe people of color: Native American and Indigenous peoples are not “Indians.” Asian and Pacific Islanders are not “Orientals.”
b. Provide them with positive language to describe the differences they see in skin color. This book is a great way to encourage this.
c. When students make negative remarks about differences in people engage them in reflection to find out why they have those views. When a student says “Black people are bad,” ask them “Why do you think that?” You may find that students don’t really believe these things, they only repeat what they have heard.
4. Teachers must check their own biases about racial differences.
a. Reflect on how you view the histories, cultures, and perspectives of those different from yourself.
b. Reflect on how you treat students who may not act, think, or speak in ways that fall within your own cultural norms.
c. Be open to growing your own cultural competencies regarding people that are different from yourself. No one knows it all, there is always something new to learn!
As educators, we are entrusted with the task of educating our students so they will be prepared to live and work in our society. Not only must we teach the foundations of all things academic, but we are also responsible for their social and emotional development as well. As our world becomes increasingly more diverse, teachers need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to help students not only navigate that world, but be able to communicate and interact positively across cultures. Discussing differences with student’s should be a natural part of our classroom environment. Not only does it open them up to embracing the differences in each other, but it will lead to them being more open to the differences they see in the world.
Derman-Sparks, L. (1989). Anti-bias curriculum: Tools for empowering young children. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.