As an educator creating antiracist classrooms, I have wrestled with how to teach children about race and race relations since far before our country’s recent racial reckoning.
I’m also a curriculum designer, as well as a Black Cuban immigrant and the mother of two Black daughters.
And I believe that, to catalyze systemic change and create a better world for our children, we need to elevate race education, not restrict it. The typical net worth of white households is about 10 times that of Black households. The poverty rate for Black Americans is more than double that of whites.
Black people have higher rates of chronic illness, like diabetes and high blood pressure, yet Black workers are 60 percent more likely to be uninsured than white workers. Unarmed Blacks are killed at three times the rate of unarmed whites. Black students account for 47 percent of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions, but represent only 19 percent of preschool enrollment.
And since George Floyd’s murder, more than 270 Black men, women and children have been killed at the hands of police across the country. By the time this op-ed is published, that number will — likely, horrifyingly — be higher.
Unarmed Blacks are killed at three times the rate of unarmed whites. Black students account for 47 percent of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions, but represent only 19 percent of preschool enrollment.
These disparities exist because of racism and a litany of racist policies that exclude, exploit and suppress people of color. The place to start to enact change starts in the classroom with the development of our future leaders. And I believe the way to teach children to see the humanity in others starts with an inclusive classroom, where students develop empathy and hear about experiences both similar to, and different from, their own.
Yet this work faces many obstacles. Lawmakers across the country are advancing legislation banning the instruction of certain concepts related to race in public schools.
The most recent legislation, passed in Tennessee, actually allows districts to be fined up to $5 million for knowingly violating “state restrictions on classroom discussions about systemic racism, white privilege and sexism.”
These bills forbid teachers from providing instruction that wades deeply into social justice topics.
The only way to deconstruct disparities that have been normalized for centuries is to bring race education to the forefront of our classrooms. Teaching children race literacy should be a top priority of every educator in the United States.
It is imperative that students develop awareness of the ways race impacts our lives and society. This is not a supplemental, nice-to-have skill. It is an important, change-the-worldview skill.
How do we build this skill to ensure that students take these lessons outside the classroom and into adulthood? How do we empower students so that they will be able to use their voices on behalf of the many who have for far too long been marginalized?
We can begin by embracing and teaching the experiences of people of color in our classrooms. Creating an antiracist school and classroom environment is complex and taxing work.
Of course, there are ways that teaching about racism can go wrong. Stereotypes can be perpetuated. Folks of color can be traumatized. Students may feel guilt when acknowledging racist systems.
To do this work right, teachers need support from their administrators, colleagues and other educators. They require programs and resources that address these challenging topics. And they must teach from content written by authors of color that includes the experiences of children of all racial and cultural backgrounds.
My education nonprofit, Teaching Matters, has always prioritized racial literacy as a means to strengthen culturally relevant teaching and reach educational equity.
Many schools around the country are doing this well and supporting their teachers in creating antiracist classrooms. Schools in Charlotte, North Carolina; Paramount, California; and Seattle, Washington, are providing teachers and students with support like the supplemental literacy K-12 curriculum I created with Teaching Matters, called Elevating Voices.
It’s being used in New York City, the nation’s largest and most diverse school system; in a Brooklyn district, all 27 schools are using it.
Teaching children race literacy in the classroom should be a top priority of every educator in the United States.
The program is designed to “elevate” the voices of historically marginalized people and has a goal of having students complete social justice action tasks. It includes educator support in the form of a teacher guide, curated resources and professional development. The student lessons are specific to grade-level bands. Parents are guided through the program and given support, resources and tools to help them discuss race and racism with their children. We are convinced that learning that occurs in the classroom should also be supported at home.
We believe that these and similar antiracism efforts can help bring about change.
We are in a moment when we can respond to the desperate need for race literacy in this country. Our educators’ hands can’t be tied. Let’s stand together against racism with all our students and teachers in the hope of breaking its grip on our society.
Maria Underwood is a senior educational consultant and director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for Teaching Matters. She is an expert in literacy and has 30 years of experience in education.
This story about antiracist education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.