Teachers: Making Space to Talk about Race by Marissa McGee

Updated: Jun 30

“My students are too young.”

“It’s not my place, parents probably prefer to talk about this at home.”

“We don’t have time; it’s not in the scope and sequence.”

Perhaps you’ve heard these arguments for not talking about race and racism in the classroom. Perhaps you’ve uttered some of these things yourself. With the recent events that are impacting the Black community, a lot of people are talking about race and racism right now. Many are wondering how to talk about it. As a teacher, race is something that isn’t specifically outlined in our lesson plans, but it’s everywhere. Conversations about race and racism can be daunting, but I’m here to say, your students aren’t too young, we can collaborate with parents, and race should be in the scope and sequence.

Studies show that children start to notice differences at a very young age. Not only do they notice differences, but we all know that kids are super curious. Students are truly like sponges. We should capitalize on the opportunities to help them soak up all that they can in a learning environment that is both safe and brave. Plus, teachers have an opportunity to help students go from sponges that soak up information, to sparks that can use that information to ignite change.  

As educators, we can engage in two-way communication with families about our plans to discuss race. Ask caregivers what they’ve already discussed. Share questions that students have posed. Then, share your plans to address those questions. Be prepared to hear that some parents might not want their children to participate in these discussions. 

Finally, it might not be in the scope and sequence for the year, but it should be. When we don’t talk about race, or talk about it occasionally, what are we communicating to our students? We should talk about race outside of a month or a holiday. Zaretta Hammond refers to the practice of talking about race and culture only around holidays as a tourist curriculum. Our students’ racial identities don’t cease to exist outside of a holiday or a month. Plus, a tourist curriculum is often celebratory in nature. While it is important to celebrate and acknowledge all of the contributions by people of color, we must also discuss the oppression that people of color in this country have experienced. 

When we don’t talk about race, are we actively helping students build their identities? Does our silence help students become anti-racist co-conspirators? If you answered “No” to those questions, then you might agree that we should talk about race and racism in class. Now, how do we talk about it? I have three words for you: just do it. 

Just start reading.

Just start listening. 

Just start responding. 

It can be difficult to engage in these discussions with students if we don’t first unpack our own beliefs and emotions. We might discover that we have some beliefs that cause us to experience discomfort. Keep going, keep digging. We must look in the mirror before we can look out the window. 

After you’ve done some work alone, you might consider collaborating with your colleagues. Perhaps you can establish a professional learning community that focuses primarily on ways to be an anti-bias educator. If you are a White educator, please don’t rely solely on your colleagues of color to do all of the heavy lifting. Not only do your colleagues of color not have all the answers, but they might be dealing with the racial fatigue that comes with being a person of color in this society. All that to say, make sure you offer as much as you ask, and remain aware of the burden that you might be placing on your colleagues of color.

Now let’s think about what to do when we’re student-facing. Consider starting with a KWL chart. Find out what students know, and what they want to know. Not only will this honor how students are feeling, but this will allow you to follow students’ leads. Let the KWL chart guide your approach. Use what students want to know to select developmentally-appropriate read alouds. Books should be mirrors where students can see reflections of themselves. We also need books that serve as windows, allowing students to see beyond their own perspectives and lived experiences. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the stories so you can anticipate questions and misconceptions. 

Give yourself grace because we can never be 100% prepared to address students’ curiosities. Kids like to inquire, and they’re great at asking the tough questions. If you don’t know an answer, be honest. My favorite line, “I’m not sure, but I’ll do some research and get back to you.” That honors students’ curiosities while letting them know that adults are lifelong learners.

When engaging in conversations about race with students and colleagues, we run the risk of inflicting harm. When people tell you that your words had a particular impact, listen to them. Even if that impact did not match your intentions. Acknowledge the harm that was caused, and figure out how to learn from it and let that inform your next steps. Don’t let the fear of inflicting harm deter you from engaging. 

You don’t have to be an expert, but you do have to start somewhere. We can’t afford not to have these conversations. We must talk about racism in an attempt to disrupt it. Talking about race and racism cannot be covered neatly in a single mini-lesson. As anti-bias educators, we have to be brave enough to engage in ongoing dialogue.

A co-conspirator friend of mine recently sent an email titled, “Where do we go from here?” In it, she outlined ways that she is living into her commitment to equity and racial justice. So I’d like to leave you with a few things that I’m reading, watching, and doing to help me live into my commitment.

Reading:

  • "So You Want to Talk about Race" by Ijeoma Oluo

  • "Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves" by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards

Watching:

  • "Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools"

Following:

  • "The Conscious Kid" on Instagram

  • "Woke Kindergarten" on Instagram

Doing:

  • Using my voice to talk about race even when it’s uncomfortable

Marissa has spent her career in communities that have been historically underserved due to systemic inequities. She taught kindergarten, first, and second grade in Washington, D.C. for nearly a decade. She now serves as an instructional coach in Oakland, CA. marissateachablemoments.com


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