Racial Literacy: A Call to Action for Teachers

The recent uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police and the worldwide reaction demanding racial justice represent a wake-up moment for schools. For the last decade, schools have provided a glimpse into what the nation is slowly realizing—that as we become a more racially and ethnically diverse nation, equal opportunity and protection under the law is a must. Talking about race will be essential if we are going to serve all students well.

This moment has taught us many things, in particular the need for a spotlight on racial literacy in schools. Our students deserve it, the nation is demanding it, and schools must provide it. Racial literacy refers to educators having the knowledge, skills, awareness and dispositions to talk about race and racism. How do we think about race? How do we talk about race? How do we teach issues of race? The answers to these questions will define education for the foreseeable future.

One of the biggest challenges to discussions about race and racism in the classroom is that approximately 80% of teachers are white, according the U.S. Department of Education, and many white teachers are uncomfortable talking about race. Social justice educator and author Robin DiAngelo describes the problem this way: “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.” This is what DiAngelo calls white fragility.

White fragility makes many teachers afraid of discussing race, claiming they “don't see color.” They either avoid race altogether, or feel emboldened to say stereotypical or hurtful things, like “I am a woman, so I know how it feels to be a minority!” Others think that if they do not have many students of color, there is no need to talk about race. On the contrary, racially homogeneous schools can benefit from increased racial literacy. The times demand that white teachers step up and increase their racial literacy. Students of all races need you to do this.

In a multiracial nation like the United States, examinations of race are most critical within the domain of democracy. So what topics need to be part of a school curriculum that is focused on racial literacy? The systemic removal and elimination of the Indigenous peoples of North America would be a good start. The inhumane enslavement of Africans in the United States for over two centuries and subsequent Jim Crow laws would be a must. The cruel treatment of Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II has to be discussed, as does the economic exploitation of Chinese immigrants, and the geographical and cultural ramifications of the colonization of Mexico.

Race has always played a critical role in the evolution and advancement of democracy in the United States. But what this moment has taught us is that, given the widespread protests, there is a particular need to focus on the history and circumstances of Black people. An integral part of racial literacy is awareness of anti-Blackness. Educator Michael Dumas argues that by understanding Anti-Blackness, we can fully comprehend “the depths of suffering of Black kids and educators in predominantly white schools.” What is becoming increasingly apparent in school districts across the nation is the way persistent and chronic underperformance of Black students has become accepted and normalized. Whether the districts are small-rural, large-urban, private or public, the disparities between Black students and their counterparts has become even more dire. School districts have been taking a more-focused approach on the challenges of students of color where opportunity gaps are concerned. But I would contend that there is a pressing need to examine the schooling experiences of Black students in particular. Districts need to examine the racial representations in areas such as:

  • Suspension and expulsions
  • Enrollment in Gifted & Talented Education (GATE) Programs
  • Enrollment in Honors, Advance Placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses
  • Retention
  • Leadership opportunities
  • Extracurricular participation
  • Enrollment in Algebra by 9th grade

Racial literacy also requires teachers to engage in serious self-reflection about their feelings on race, diversity, and opportunity for students of color. For white teachers to begin this process, they should consider these questions:

  • Am I aware of the racial composition of my classrooms?
  • What is the racial make-up of staff at my school?
  • Am I familiar with racial microaggressions and do I commit them?
  • Do I acknowledge my own racial privilege? (Please know that you can work hard and still have white privilege.)
  • Do I discipline students of color more than white students?
  • What were the messages that I received growing up about people from different racial backgrounds?
  • Do I recognize the myth of meritocracy?
  • What is the racial make-up of my social circle of friends?

Developing racial literacy is not an easy process. It does not happen overnight. But given the racial realities in today’s schools it is essential. Many teachers may think that this is not necessary, and that they see all students as the same. A colorblind approach is part of the problem. Inherent in “colorblindness” is a belief that students of color are the same as their white peers. A colorblind approach says to students that you fail to see or acknowledge an integral part of who they are, their racial and ethnic background.

Let us pay attention to this global moment. The world is saying “Black Lives Matter.” Let teachers build on this movement to say the same thing when it comes to schooling. Let us also be clear, saying “Black Lives Matter” is not a zero-sum game. Lifting up Black lives does not mean that we are neglecting or overlooking other students. For centuries, we have overlooked and underserved Black students, and we now seek to right this wrong. All students win when racial equity is realized. We must respond. We have to keep the conversation going. Our students are going to press us to be leaders and exemplars. Let’s not fail them.

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