Talking to students about race – A difficult balance

IMG_0116 (2)

It is 20 something years since I began to teach – I usually roll my eyes when people begin sentences with statements like that, but bear with me. For 20 plus years I taught subjects that involve conversations about race – badly. Social justice, personal and social ethics, Christian ethics, morality, English literature, West Indian Literature, Afro-Caribbean literature.  Theatre studies, drama, play writing, I once taught a class of 11th graders Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. I am white; I had one white student and 23 students of African descent, Bahamians. I did a terrible job. 

Three years ago I observed a teacher I respect and admire discuss Mockingbird much more effectively than I ever did with her class of sophomores. Until one of the students, a Black student asked the teacher why she said “the N word” instead of the word “Nigger”. Silence fell – we looked at each other and she said very calmly “I could never say that word, not here, not with my friends, not in private or public, never”. It was a powerful moment as an observer I was privileged to experience – and humbled to admit, I did not have the answer. We- the teacher and I spoke to her supervisor, also a master teacher, well qualified and well-educated and we all had different answers and perspectives. He said, rightfully one could argue, and that the teacher had to do what she was comfortable with. Between the three of us we had not had a class, a course any aspect of our education that prepared us to ‘teach about race’. My dissertation topic was crystallized.

How we talk to students about race, how we use language in our classroom, if we ignore topics of race, if we don’t discuss national events that shock and hurt us we fail as teachers. I am not saying this teacher failed – far from it. But I would have.

Three years later having immersed myself in the topic of education for justice specifically the experience of our Black, Latino and LGBTQ students I am more convinced than ever that we – educators MUST discuss race with our students. It’s a difficult balance but has to be done, otherwise this perpetual cycle of racial violence, segregation, disparity and injustice will never end. Ever.

It’s a balance, I get that – we may fall off but we have to move forward.


Some resources I recommend are:

Talking About Race in the Classroom by Jane Bolgatz

Courageous Conversations by Glenn E.SIngleton & Curtis W.Linton

With gratitude to the student and his teacher for pushing me in this direction.

Published by Jane Bleasdale PhD

Jane.Bleasdale, PhD is Assistant Professor and Department Chair of Leadership Studies in the School of Education at the University of San Francisco (USF). Dr.Bleasdale has lived and taught in the United Kingdom, The Bahamas and the United States, Her career as an educator now spans three decades. Dr. Bleasdale previously served as a high school administrator focusing on equity and inclusion through personnel and student development Her doctoral research focused on equity and inclusion in high schools and specifically the experience of Black, Latino and LGBTQ students. She has recently conducted research on social and emotional wellness of students, the impact of school leaders on creating inclusive communities and critical feminist perspectives on leadership.Current research focuses on the experience and impact of women leaders with intersectional identities. Dr.Bleasdale is the principal investigator on a participatory action research project at USF collaborating with 10 doctoral students on a new paradigm for equitable leadership focused on critical feminst perspectives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: