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:
- Being Antiracist. This resource from the National Museum of African American History and Culture provides an overview of anti-racism concepts, including elements of anti-racist education.
- “Not Racist” Is Not Enough: Putting in the Work to Be Anti-Racist. This article and audio segment from National Public Radio explores what it means to be anti-racist.
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:
- Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University. Resources provided by this cross-school research initiative include videos of events sponsored by the organization that explore topics such as racial equity in education.
- How to Be an Antiracist Educator. This article presented by ASCD lays out five actions for teachers to take to be anti-racist educators.
- Racial Justice in Education Resource Guide. The National Education Association provides information about racial equity, guidance for talking about race, and tools including race equity impact assessments and action plan guides.
- What Anti-Racism Really Means for Educators. This article from Teaching Tolerance explores the emotions and motivations of teachers who work to dismantle systems of oppression.
- American University’s Big Ideas in Education Speaker Series. This video series created by American University’s School of Education focuses on exploring innovative ways to resolve long-standing inequities in education.
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.
- 9 Resources for Teaching Anti-Racism. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) provides this list of organizations that offer materials that educators can use to address racism.
- 21 Anti-Racism Videos to Share With Kids. We Are Teachers recommends these videos to help explain complex topics to young audiences.
- Anti-Racism Tools. This compilation from Trying Together includes links to anti-racist resources, including curricula and other tools for educators.
- Books With Latinx Characters. Common Sense Media’s recommendations for books featuring Latinx characters.
- Coretta Scott King Book Award Winners. Common Sense Media provides a list of books that have won the award that honors Black authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults.
- Lessons. This resource from the Anti-Defamation League includes K-12 lesson plans that address diversity, bias, and social justice.
- Professional Development. This collection of resources from Anti-Racist Art Teachers includes webinars and links to professional learning communities.
- These Books Can Help You Explain Racism and Protest to Your Kids. A compilation from the New York Times includes recommendations for different age levels.
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:
- 9 Tips Teachers Can Use When Talking About Racism. This article published by the Conversation lists issues for teachers to consider when talking to students about racism.
- How Should I Talk About Race in My Mostly White Classroom? The Anti-Defamation League offers guidance on talking about race in predominantly white classrooms.
- Let’s Talk! This guide from Teaching Tolerance provides strategies for talking to students about such issues as economic inequality, mass incarceration, police violence, and white privilege.
- Talking Race With Young Children. Aimed at parents, NPR’s 20-minute audio lesson discusses how to talk to young children about race.
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.
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.