A North Carolina teacher tells students that killing all black people is on her bucket list if she only has 10 days to live. The principal of a middle school in Brooklyn, N.Y., promotes learning a foreign language to prospective students and their parents with a reminder that “if you don’t speak Spanish, you’re going to clean your own house.” And third-grade teachers at an Atlanta-area elementary school assign homework math problems about slavery, beatings and picking cotton.
The stories make the rounds on social media, and the outrage peaks and fades. Yet there is a huge cost to having educators like these—inept at teaching and leading racially diverse learners—in our schools. The overt racism of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door and the National Guard escorting black children through taunting and jeering crowds is from a bygone era.
Still, racial prejudice in public education is alive and well. A more subtle form, perhaps unintentional but still damaging, persists in large part because of white educators with unexamined racial biases. Factor in the large and growing racial and ethnic gap between students and teachers, and the sense of urgency is palpable.
With this backdrop, the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education recently convened a summit led by researchers and scholars from its Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. About 80 educators from across the country—teachers, administrators and instructors from teachers colleges and alternative certification programs—gathered to wrestle with questions concerning race and begin the process of building racial and cultural competency in their classrooms and schools. Over the course of the day, several basic tenets emerged:
Talking About Race Is Not Racist
Especially thorny is the belief that mentioning race equates to racism. Race and racism are not synonymous. Racial talk provides the space for greater understanding—fear of racial talk and silence provide the space within which myths, stereotypes and bias abound. This is destructive for students of color and fosters the miseducation of white students. Teachers’ skills can be grown and cultivated, but teachers must be willing to do the work.
“It’s not a case of either you are racially competent or you’re not. We’re trying to support a growth mentality around race issues, not a fix,” said Ali Michael, director of the Race Institute for K-12 Educators and author of Raising Race Questions: Whiteness & Inquiry in Education.
Affirming and supporting students’ racial identity requires teachers who have a positive racial identity themselves. A positive white racial identity, says Michael, is merely understanding how racial context is informed and how it connects to the world we live in. The goal isn’t making white teachers feel bad about being white. The goal is reaching wholeness. And providing a learning space that feels safe and welcoming to all students.
Racial Literacy Matters
What leads to the epidemic of suspensions imposed on black preschoolers? Why are black boys seen as less childlike than their white peers? Whereas the obvious culprit might be racism, Howard Stevenson, a professor of urban education and the author of Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference, pinpoints another cause: racial stress. The anxiety is compounded by the fear of saying or doing something racially offensive, when it’s a lack of racial literacy—not talking about race—that heightens that likelihood.
Racial literacy hones teachers’ ability to resolve racially stressful encounters by strengthening their skills to recognize when they’re overwhelmed so they don’t revert to “fight or flight” behaviors.
Stevenson explains that racial stress is a matter of competence, not character: “I don’t need to have teachers who are overwhelmed by my son or children who look like him be a bad person. I just need to know if they’re so overwhelmed that they’re going to do something that’s not in my child’s best interest. That’s what [racial] competency is about.”
Good Intentions Are Not Enough
As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So are the academic lives of students of color, which can be hellish experiences of racial missteps when teachers are racially incompetent. Student testimony at the conference was raw and absolutely riveting. They reported running out of class, feeling distracted the rest of the day as well as a general disgust with polarizing racial incidents in the classroom. Regardless of teacher intent, the students were seriously harmed. Hurt feelings. Crying to parents. Marginalization. Disempowerment.
There’s research on teacher expectations. What’s missing is research that examines the effect of racially incompetent teachers on student achievement. How much of the “achievement gap” can be correlated to the lack of racially proficient white teachers? Inquiring minds want to know.
Disrupt the Cycle
Building a racially proficient pool of teachers demands professional development for those in the classroom and reimagining the training and preparation of teacher candidates still learning the ropes. Among the recommendations to disrupt the cycle: Require courses on racial proficiency in schools of education; thoughtfully integrate the subject into all teacher-education classes; critically examine textbooks through a racial proficiency lens; and create formal opportunities for students to share their thoughts on sending racially unprepared teachers into public schools.
“My students are racialized by the police every day,” said Krystal Martinez, who teaches at Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School in the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood of Crown Heights. “Not talking about race isn’t just detrimental to their education; it’s a disservice to them as individuals. I can’t be a good teacher without supporting them holistically in all aspects of their identity.”
Melinda D. Anderson is a Washington, D.C.–based education writer and parent activist with a special interest in race, class, educational equity and educational justice. She is a founding member of EduColor, a collective that cultivates and promotes diverse voices in the public education conversation and policymaking process. Follow her on Twitter.