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Teaching Anti-Racism in the Classroom: Strategies for Educators

An elementary school teacher stands with a group of students.

Racism in any form––interpersonal, structural, institutional––is antithetical to education. It harms students, promotes mistruths, robs opportunities, and damages learning environments. Teachers counter racism when they engage in its opposite: anti-racism.

What Is Anti-Racism?

Anti-racism is an active process that requires an everyday commitment to analyzing self, systems, mindsets, ideologies, practices, and policies to dismantle white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Anti-racism acknowledges that passive opposition to racism––simply “not being racist”––amounts to complicity with racism, because it allows racist systems and institutions to exist and grow.

Just as racist systems are the result of purposeful actions and decisions, anti-racist systems involve the active creation of practices and policies that promote racial equity. Educators practice anti-racism by teaching students how to advocate for equitable treatment for themselves and others, by engaging students in discussions that foster empathy and diverse perspectives, and by creating more equitable learning environments.

Addressing the equity of learning environments includes confronting issues of race and racism in the classroom. Rather than teaching a curriculum that minimizes or ignores injustices, anti-racism lessons confront them. Students gain multiple benefits from this approach:

  • Exposure. Combating racist ideas requires empathy. Students can only understand and empathize with social injustices if they are exposed to those injustices and their effects.

  • Acknowledgement. A failure to address the personal, institutional, and structural racism that students of color are subjected to amounts to tacit approval of those injustices. Acknowledging discrimination and taking steps to address it sends the message that all students are valued.

  • Knowledge. A curriculum that turns a blind eye to race and racism fails to fully educate students. For example, a US history curriculum that minimizes slavery gives students an inaccurate portrait of the country’s development and omits context that could help them understand current issues such as racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Anti-Racism Training for Teachers

Learning about racism and its effects provides a foundation for teaching anti-racism in the classroom. Being knowledgeable about the ways that racism has shaped societal views and narratives––including the lessons we teach children––allows teachers to recognize bias in traditional curricula and make corrections.

Being an anti-racist educator also requires teachers to be aware of structural and institutional racism in the education system. Reviewing just a few of the ways that racism impacts schools in the US highlights the importance of being an anti-racist:

  • Racial disparities in funding. Nonwhite school districts receive $23 billion less than white districts despite serving the same number of students, according to EdBuild. Issues including housing segregation and the gerrymandering of school district boundaries establish and perpetuate these conditions.

  • Racial disparities in discipline. Students of color face harsher discipline than their white counterparts. For example, Black students accounted for 15 percent of the student body but 31 percent of students arrested, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection released in 2018.

  • Racial disparities in opportunity. Black and Latinx students experience inequitable access to advanced coursework, according to the Education Trust. This includes placement in advanced classes and placement in gifted and talented programs.

Armed with knowledge about the ways that race and racism influence education, teachers can pursue professional training that strengthens their cultural competency, raises their awareness of diversity and inclusion, and develops skills in trauma-informed teaching and social and emotional learning (SEL). Development in all of these areas can inform anti-racism curricula and pedagogies.

Learning about systemic racism in education prepares teachers to examine their own practices and answer difficult questions:

  • How inclusive are your ideas about student aptitude and performance, and how does that affect your grading and behavior management?

  • Do the learning materials you use represent people of color fully and accurately?

  • What steps have you taken to seek input from people of color, including students, colleagues, and parents?

Taking responsibility for the answers to these questions and being open and willing to change represents a critical first step toward dismantling racism. Additional actions might include:

  • Analyzing grades across your classes to identify patterns that suggest racial disparities in teaching efficacy or assessments

  • Forming working groups or task forces to assess data, identify problems, and create new programs and policies to address inequities in areas such as hiring or resource allocation in your school or district

  • Partnering with social justice organizations in the community that can provide teaching and learning resources that address racism

How to Talk About Race in the Classroom

Anti-racism principles can inform academic lessons; for example, a study of the Civil War should not shy away from the history of slavery and its role in the conflict. Anti-racism can also take the form of direct discussions about racism and its effects; a classroom conversation might cover current events involving racially motivated violence.

Any conversation that confronts racism can be uncomfortable for teachers and students alike. Educators can prepare themselves to speak with students about race by first confronting their own discomfort and taking steps to address it:

  • Educate yourself about issues of race and racism in both current and historical contexts.
  • Identify colleagues who can coplan or even coteach anti-racism lessons.
  • Understand that you won’t always have answers to students’ questions about race that feel acceptable to them or to you.
  • Explore opportunities for anti-racism and diversity training through your school or district.

Teachers can prepare students to talk about race by acknowledging that they will feel strong emotions. Setting expectations for behavior––for example, assuming good intent and following the golden rule––can foster a safe environment for difficult topics. Teachers should also check in with students periodically to see how they are managing their emotions, and allow for time to debrief or process information after hard discussions.

The Importance of Teaching Anti-Racism at Different Grade Levels

The principles of anti-racism cannot be taught in a single lesson or unit. Being anti-racist is a lifelong commitment, and teaching anti-racism requires ongoing instruction throughout students’ time in school.

Teaching Anti-Racism in the Elementary Classroom

Research suggests the lessons about racism cannot start too soon. The American Psychological Association reports that children’s conceptualization of race and racism starts very early:

  • Children begin to be aware of race when they are infants.
  • Children as young as three months have demonstrated preference for faces from certain racial groups.
  • By age three, children in the US associate some racial groups with negative traits.
  • By age four, children in the US associate whites with wealth and higher status.
  • By the time children enter elementary school, race-based discrimination is already widespread.

The prejudice and discriminatory acts that define racism are not inherent, however. They are learned beliefs and behaviors that result from exposure to racism. Therefore, exposure to anti-racism lessons at an early age is critical.

Elementary School Lessons

Lessons for young children acknowledge that people are treated unfairly based on their race, as described in these lessons suggested by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL):

  • Casting of The Little Mermaid Brings Pride and Prejudice. This lesson gives students an opportunity to discuss the casting of a Black actress to play the title role in the popular children’s movie The Little Mermaid. Students can discuss the lack of diversity among Disney princesses and how that lack of diversity in media impacts the people who consume it.

  • Lonnie Chavis of This Is Us Writes About Racism. This lesson uses an essay written by child actor Lonnie Chavis about his experiences with racism to explore the topic from a perspective that is relatable to young people.

Teaching Anti-Racism in Middle and High School

As children mature, they can more readily connect lessons of anti-racism to their own lives and choices. Students of color can better contextualize challenges they face, and white students can develop awareness of their privilege and the ways that it contributes to or perpetuates inequities. Teachers can reinforce this development by incorporating age-appropriate lesson plans that explore race and racism.

Middle School Lessons

The lessons that students learn in middle school give them a language to talk about race and prepare them to grapple with more difficult and challenging topics when they are older:

  • Mask, Identity, and Bias. This lesson uses the practice of wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic to explore issues of racial stereotyping and biases. It includes discussion of how racial stereotypes and racism affect how different racial and ethnic groups experience the practice. For example, students can discuss how some Black men have expressed discomfort about wearing a mask when they enter a store for fear of being mistaken for an assailant.

  • Experiences with Race and Racism. This lesson asks students the question, What is your earliest experience dealing with race? In addition to introducing students to concepts of bias and racism, the lesson gives students an opportunity to share their stories and learn how race and racism affect their peers.

High School Lessons

Other suggested lessons from the ADL provide a platform for older students to talk about racism and violence:

  • On-Screen Diversity: Why Visibility in Media Matters. This lesson examines disparities in representation in television and film. For example, it notes that less than 20 percent of Hollywood films have people of color in lead roles. Discussions can center around the importance of representation and the ways that systemic racism and bias obstruct equal representation.

  • Black Lives Matter: From Hashtag to Movement. This lesson for high school students traces BLM from its origins on social media to becoming an international activist movement that protests racially motivated violence. In addition to being a history lesson, the exercise provides an opportunity to discuss the controversies surrounding the phrase “Black lives matter,” and how racial identity and prejudice influence different viewpoints.

Children’s Books About Race and Diversity

Teachers can promote anti-racism by using books that feature diverse characters or include social justice themes. Featuring the work of authors of color provides additional opportunities to celebrate diversity and promote greater representation.

Books for Elementary School Students

The following books are appropriate for children age five to 10:

  • Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, by Vashti Harrison, profiles 40 Black women who changed US history.

  • Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice, by Veronica Chambers, highlights the inspiring strength of leaders such as Frederick Douglass and John Lewis.

  • The Day You Begin, by Jacqueline Woodson, explores feelings of “otherness” and depicts students overcoming unkind treatment by peers.

Books for Middle School Students

The following books are appropriate for children age 11 to 13:

  • Betty Before X, by Ilyasah Shabazz and Renée Watson, is a fictional account of activist Dr. Betty Shabazz, coauthored by the daughter of Shabazz and Malcolm X.

  • Just Mercy (Adapted for Young Adults), by Bryan Stevenson, explores injustice in the US criminal justice system.

  • The Undefeated, by Kwame Alexander, uses poetry to tell the history of Black Americans.

Books for High School Students

The following books are appropriate for children age 14 and up:

  • All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, examines police brutality and racism in America.

  • Black Boy, by Richard Wright, chronicles the author’s upbringing in the American South during the 1920s.

  • Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, traces the history of anti-Black racism in the US.

Creating More Equitable Learning Environments

American University’s School of Education provides educators with the skills they need to promote equity in education.

The Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership program develops knowledge and skills in policy, leadership, law, economics, and research. Students learn how to transform school systems so families and communities have equal access to education.

The Master of Arts in Teaching prepares students with critical competencies to apply toward a teaching license. They learn how to create inclusive classrooms that serve all students.

The EdD in Education Policy and Leadership prepares educators to effect widespread, progressive change in education through instruction, organizational leadership, and policymaking.

All three degree programs reflect American University’s commitment to equitable learning environments and social justice. Learn more about how American University’s School of Education is creating informed, anti-racist leaders both in and out of the classroom.

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