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racism in schools
A student heads to class. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

I am one of few African-American educators in a predominantly white school district.

After I reported witnessing dozens of white students in a group using the N-word on school property, an administrator said to me, “I’m sure that was awful for you. Why don’t you speak with the students and tell them how that made you feel?” I was stunned.

Essentially, I was told that this incident was offensive only to me and that it was my responsibility alone to confront their behavior. The onus to address racism rests upon the shoulders of all educators in my district, not simply the African-American teacher.

I rejected his offer and instead co-founded the Race Matters Committee (RMC) — named after Cornel West’s Race Matters, which passionately and urgently addresses racial tensions — in our district.

In the United States, I envision RMC to be a place where committed educators, from all grade levels and content areas, meet to focus specifically on issues related to race and racism.

Educators will join the RMC to have courageous conversations, to seek out and provide quality professional development for ourselves and our colleagues, to develop anti-racist and anti-bias curricula and, most importantly, to implement racial justice work in our classrooms of mostly white students.

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Recent events have resulted in an awakening for many educators that they simply must do more to combat racism — and it is critical that this work happens in predominantly white spaces. If we continue to normalize discussions of racism and bias, and lean into, rather than away from, our discomfort, the silence will eventually become uncomfortable. Practices that dismantle institutional racism will become the rule rather than the exception.

The onus to address racism rests upon the shoulders of all educators in my district, not simply the African-American teacher.

From the spate of mosque fires to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, 2017 was marked by a string of violent events across the United States that put a spotlight on issues of race and racism.

Whether or not they’re invited, these issues enter our schools and our classrooms —and teachers have a responsibility to address them.

Although some educators are eager to facilitate these critical conversations, many others are skeptical, resistant or indifferent. Particularly in predominantly white K–12 schools, teachers often take a colorblind approach when teaching historical and current events, silencing conversations about race and racism. However, a racial justice approach in schools and curricula can educate students in profound ways that help them grow as informed, active participants in a democratic society.

Research shows that by preschool age, children recognize and understand that whiteness is more valued in U.S. society. Therefore, to deconstruct and disrupt powerful and harmful narratives about race, it is essential that schools cultivate anti-racism curricula and prioritize anti-bias education from the beginning. This may be challenging, especially in predominantly white schools.

A major roadblock to racial justice work in schools is discomfort. In a 2017 survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center, 22 percent of educators said they find it “somewhat” or “very” difficult to discuss issues of race and ethnicity in the classroom. Moreover, about 82 percent of elementary and secondary teachers in the United States are white. These data suggest that in many classrooms around the country, conversations about race simply aren’t happening. When discomfort begets silence, students don’t acquire the tools necessary to develop racial literacy skills.

Related: History of civil rights movement gets short shrift in Mississippi classrooms

Many white educators believe that racial justice work isn’t important for white children. They view discussions about race as polarizing and potentially harmful to children who may experience feelings of shame or guilt. This mindset becomes a rationale for shielding students from these challenging conversations.

Finally, most schools do not provide the anti-racist and anti-bias professional development that educators need to break through the boundaries of racial justice work. Teachers need sufficient training in this specific area of education to feel confident and prepared when delivering these lessons.

Educators looking to disrupt silences in their own schools can start with these five steps:

  1. Build a safe space: Work with other concerned educators to create a judgment-free zone where you can learn together, give voice to the challenges of racial justice work, and discuss ways to overcome those challenges.
  2. Establish a unified vision: Craft a mission statement that highlights your committee’s purpose. Describe who you are and what you hope to achieve.
  3. Create an action plan: This working document increases efficiency and accountability among changemakers. Goals become concrete when documented and revisited often.
  4. Identify goals: Identify short- and long-term goals to address the specific needs of your school district. Possible focus areas include professional development, curriculum, school structures and hiring practices.
  5. Partner with parents: The staying power of any new initiative in a school district relies on the support of parents and the community. If administrators know that parents care about race-related issues, it behooves them to prioritize and support your efforts.

A version of this article originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Literacy Today, the member magazine of the International Literacy Association. It is reprinted here with permission.

Sonja Cherry-Paul, a teacher for 20 years, is an author and a consultant. She is currently working on her doctorate in curriculum and teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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