Preparing to Explore Racism and Racist Events in the Classroom

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Multiculturalism by Pug50 on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseCurrent events in the U.S. focus far too regularly on activities driven by racist (and antiracist) views and actions. These events are nothing new. Racist acts happen every minute of every day in the U.S. What is perhaps new is the wide media coverage that some events receive. With the rise of citizen journalism, events that would never have made it out of local newspapers become high profile examples of the state of racism in America, and they come not just with first-person accounts, but also with images, videos, and audio recordings that document the prejudice and, frequently, the accompanying violence.


As I reflect on the summer’s events, I am acutely aware that I haven’t done enough to counter and fight against the prevalent racism that I - that we - see every day. With my post today and others over the coming weeks, I hope to begin correcting that shortcoming. To do so, I have been brainstorming writing and discussion projects that ask students to critically examine racist events or racist artifacts and actions. In future posts, I’ll share some of those ideas, but this week, I need to say two things about preparing to explore these issues in the classroom.


First, though we may wish to, we cannot force students to accept and support a particular viewpoint. We cannot require an ideology, but we can ask questions and encourage analysis that persuades students to consider the issues more clearly. The activities that I will share in the future ask students to consider the factual aspects the issue they are exploring, but not to judge the facts or their presentation as good or bad.


Second, when we introduce such topics, we have to recognize that some students will not share our perspective, that they will fall on the “wrong” side of the issue. We have to be prepared then to guide students through fair but honest discussions in ways that avoid emotional or highly-charged confrontations. These resources suggest strategies to manage these conversations:



The most important suggestion these resources make is to be sure that you are well-prepared for the conversations and that you have prepared students as well. Specifically, create classroom discussion guidelines and practice following them in less contentious conversations before moving to more difficult subjects. You cannot guess everything that can go wrong, but you can have classroom management strategies in place that will help you defuse problems before they spiral out of control.


Finally, I want to recommend the AAUP article “Eight Actions to Reduce Racism in College Classrooms,” from the November–December 2016 Academe. The article offers a candid outline of typical ways that racism appears in higher ed as well as some concrete suggestions for self-examination. It urges readers to “recognize your implicit biases and remediate your racial illiteracy,” to “meaningfully integrate diverse cultures and peoples into the curriculum,” and to “responsibly address racial tensions when they arise”—excellent suggestions all. These recommendations are supported by climate studies the authors conducted at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s short and well worth your time.


That’s all I have for this week. Next week, I will be back with some classroom-ready activities on these issues. In the meantime, if you have questions or suggestions about discussing racism in the classroom, please let me know by leaving a comment below. I’ll see you next week.




Credit: Multiculturalism by Pug50 on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.