Talking to students about race – A difficult balance

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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.

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