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Anti-Racism in the Classroom: Tips and Resources for Teaching About Racism

A teacher leads a group discussion.

Some educators have spent their careers working to address racism in the classroom. For others, the principles of anti-racism represent a new framework for thinking about––and taking action against––discrimination and bias. Both groups recognize that the status quo fails many students.

Growing awareness of inequities in learning environments has elevated interest in anti-racist curricula and pedagogy. Such resources help teachers to uphold the right all students have to equal educational opportunity.

What Is Anti-Racism?

Anti-racism is actively resisting and dismantling actions and systems that oppress people of color. Teachers promote anti-racism in education by utilizing lessons that acknowledge the effects of racism in our society––currently and historically––and teaching students to reject racist beliefs and actively work against discrimination.

The following resources provide a deeper exploration of the concept of anti-racism:

The Role of Schools and Educators

Schools and educators play a vital role in promoting anti-racism because they are positioned to shape the beliefs and perspectives of young people. Several factors underscore the importance of their role:

  • Racism is a learned behavior. The work of anti-racist educator Jane Elliott, for example, has demonstrated that discrimination is a learned phenomenon. In her 1968 “blue eyes, brown eyes” exercise, she separated children in her classroom into two groups based on their eye color. Students were told that children with blue eyes were superior to those with brown eyes and deserving of better treatment. The exercise demonstrated that such indoctrination causes children to turn on one another and display discriminatory behavior.

  • Racist indoctrination can happen early. Children conceptualize race and racism very early, according to the American Psychological Association. Infants are aware of race, children as young as three can associate negative traits with racial groups, and race-based discrimination is common among children by the time they enter elementary school.

  • Racism in schools is prevalent. A survey of educators conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center suggests that incidents of hate and bigotry in US schools are disturbingly common. Respondents to the SLPC’s questionnaire reported 3,265 incidents involving racial slurs and symbols, bigotry, and harassment of minority children during fall 2018; those incidents were reported by only 2,776 respondents (1.2 incidents per respondent).

Teachers can learn more about how to take an anti-racist approach to education with the following resources:

Addressing Racism Head-On

Anti-racist actions and systems actively counter racist actions and systems. This binary formulation––something is either racist or anti-racist––rejects the passive position of “not racist.” Being anti-racist results from conscious decisions and actions that confront racism.

Anti-racist teachers address systemic racism with direct instruction and an informed curriculum:

  • Teaching anti-racist lessons. This includes direct discussions about racism and its effects, and teaching students how to be anti-racists.

  • Incorporating anti-racist principles into curricula. This involves seeking out and implementing educational resources that acknowledge racism, its role in history, and its current impact on society.

Teaching Anti-Racist Lessons

Educators can teach students about anti-racism by modeling anti-racist behavior and developing an anti-racist curriculum.

Modeling Anti-Racist Behavior

To model anti-racist behavior, teachers must first educate themselves about race and racism and explore their own biases. Teachers who advocate for individuals or groups who are marginalized demonstrate behavior for students to follow. Educators can also teach students to be allies, helping them understand when it is best to take action, amplify the voices of others, or simply listen.

Teachers create safe environments by discussing race openly and frequently. Diverse representation among authority figures is also important; bringing in nonwhite academic, business, and community leaders to speak to students can promote such diversity.

Teaching an Anti-Racist Curriculum

An anti-racist curriculum can address race and racism directly with lessons that explore racial stereotypes and discrimination. Asking students to share their own experiences with race and racism can encourage personal engagement.

Teachers might also encourage students to engage in anti-racist activism. Classroom activities could include organizing around a social justice cause and taking action with a petition or art project aimed at raising awareness.

Teachers have a wide variety of media and resources that can be used to highlight anti-racist issues. Incorporating books and films that depict people of color and the impact of racism on their lives can augment class discussion.

Talking to Students About Racism

Talking to students about racism can be difficult. Acknowledging uncomfortable feelings that may arise and setting expectations for behavior and interactions among classmates creates a safe environment. The following resources provide further guidance on talking to young people about race and racism:

Incorporating Anti-Racist Principles into Curricula

Teachers can counteract bias and stereotyping by identifying anti-racist resources and incorporating them into the curriculum. Much of the work of anti-racist curriculum developers has focused on creating history lessons that acknowledge the impact of race and racism, particularly as they relate to US history.

Changing the way that history lessons are taught in US schools––and specifically addressing the ways that the oppression of people of color has been denied, omitted, or minimized in history lessons––dismantles a major component of systemic racism in education. Teachers can do this by basing their curricula on resources that acknowledge the early presence and contributions of Black Americans in the US, and particularly the role that slavery played in the nation’s rise to power.

History is not the only subject for confronting the legacy of racism in the US, however. Racism is interwoven through all aspects of life, and all school subjects present opportunities to highlight the contributions of people of color and acknowledge the ways that they have been exploited and discriminated against.

For example, a computer science lesson could highlight the contributions of Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, the Black engineer who revolutionized video gaming when he developed the first home gaming console to utilize interchangeable cartridges. A music lesson could chronicle the contributions of the Black jazz musicians who invented an art form while suffering constant discrimination in a segregated country. A science lesson could acknowledge the contributions of Henrietta Lacks, the Black cancer patient whose cells were used––without her consent or compensation––for research that led to major scientific advancements, including vaccine development and the study of the human genome.

  • Black Scientists Who Changed the World. The New York Public Library recommends this collection of books about Black scientists.

  • Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. This four-hour documentary series from the Public Broadcasting Service chronicles the experiences of former slaves and free Black people seeking out their rightful place as equal citizens under the law.

  • The 1619 Project. This collection of interactive content developed by the New York Times Magazine reframes US history by tracing the country’s beginning to the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia.

  • Zinn Education Project. Focused on the ways that people from marginalized groups have shaped history, the Zinn Education Project provides downloadable lessons and articles.

Conclusion

The work of dismantling systemic racism requires vigilance, a commitment to action, and a willingness to continually listen and learn. Educators share in this responsibility, and the enormous influence they have in the lives of students positions them to make lasting change. When teachers help young people develop into caring adults who value diversity and justice, they create a more equitable world.

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