Specific, Candid, and Helpful Responses to Expressions of Racism and Bias
Tools for rehearsing responses to expressions of bias and racism in ourselves and others
Martin Luther King, Jr reminds us that, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” George Floyd’s death, along with so many other individuals of color, pierced something deeper this time, with despair and anger swelling with each passing day. Those of us claiming to teach all students and seeing each of them as infinitely valuable, yet cocooned in unrecognized bias, racism, and indifference, wonder at our own role - and competence - in what comes next. It’s time to do the unsafe thing, educators: To join those already doing the heavy lifting, to humble ourselves in the service of remedying injustice, to put ourselves and political expediencies on the line: to confront and dismantle racism both personal and systemic. We’ll need tools to start, however. Here are a few. – Rick Wormeli, June 2020
An hour later, I had a list of all the things I should
have said but didn’t. My colleague had failed to notice
racist elements in her comments in the department
meeting. In the moment, though, I was stunned,
then angry: How could she not see it? How could she
perpetuate the very thing we promised to eliminate?
With rising adrenaline, I knew if I spoke, I’d stammer,
my eyes watering a bit, and it would be an incoherent
spew creating defensiveness from the offending
colleague. So, I bit my tongue, wallowed in self righteousness,
and promised myself to vent with a
trusted colleague in another department. I heard and
processed nothing else during the meeting.
It was not a proud moment.
We navigate many constituencies in our education
lives: our students, their parents, administration,
public opinion, researchers, political expediency,
social media, and our own moral compasses. As
a result, our world is full of regretted instants of
would’ve-could’ve-should’ve. Sometimes, or a lot of
times, we succumb to self-preservation at the expense
of professionalism and students’ rights. T.S. Eliot
captures it in, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
…But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat,
And in short, I was afraid.
— Collected Poems 1909-1962 (1963),
To say the right thing at the right time, especially
with something so urgent and affecting as bias and
racism, is on conscientious educators’ daily radar, but
it can be difficult without rehearsal or versatility. So,
let’s rehearse our responses to expressions of bias
and racism in ourselves and others so those responses
are at our mental fingertips in the moment when
they are needed. And let’s build that wide collection
of constructive responses so we are flexible and
strategic in our statements. Consider the following as
a starting point:
Invite Deeper Conversations
- “Some people would see that as a racist comment.
Is that what you intended?”
- Play “innocent” and ask, “I don’t get it. How is that
- As needed, give people the benefit of the doubt
- Maybe you heard it differently or just didn’t
understand: “I’m sorry. Can you say that again? I
may have misheard you.”
- “Is this something you would have said to a white/
- “It’s been my experience that… Is this something
- “Tell me more about that.”
- Ask questions of integrity and authenticity:
- “Where does that thinking come from? Is that an
unrecognized, inherited narrative?”
- “Does that comment come from a place of nurture
and support, or something else?”
- “How does that align with your school/family/
- Paraphrase — When responding to someone who
questions our ideas or believes differently than we
do, it helps to start with a clarifying question, not a
re-defense of our opinion:
- What I hear you saying is…
- Let me make sure I have this correct…
- In sum, then, you are worried that…
- Do I have that right?
- Did I hear that correctly?
- It sounds like you’re saying that…
- Change the frame/box/reality the biased/racist/
sexist person assumes is in play: “There are
more elements here that take the issue beyond a
binary classification: liberal/progressive, male/
female, black/white, Christian/Muslim, affluent/
impoverished, heterosexual/homosexual. It’s an
intersection of at least four factors…”
- Connect the offensive comments to larger, systemic
causes of racism:
“[After seeing a racial slur used by a teacher on
Facebook] This behavior is linked to the increased
suspension, expulsion, and detention of Hispanic
youth in our schools and sets a bad example of
behavior for the children witnessing the teacher’s
racism that will influence the way these children
are treated by their peers, and how they are treated
as adults,” [and,] “That’s racist and it contributes to
false beliefs about black workers that keeps them
from even being interviewed for jobs…”
— p. 34-35, Oluo
- Raise bias awareness, suggest a change of wording:
“How would that perspective be different if we used
different words? For example, “What if we said,
‘our employees,’ instead of, “the Chinese in our
company? How about, “retired veterans” instead of,
“old geezers?” or, “our software engineer” instead
of, “that autistic hire?”
- Start with common ground: “Most of us want to
feel like we have something to contribute, that
we belong, would you agree?” “Neither one of us
wants to be diminished by the other…” “What’s our
goal here – to be heard? To vent and move on? Our
- If it’s easier, start with discussions of the challenges
with gender and religious discrimination, then move
to racial discrimination.
- Ask permission:
- Would you mind if I shared an idea that comes to mind?
- May I ask a question that may seem off topic but
that may be helpful?
- Would you care to work together to solve that
- I’d like to ask a someone else about how she
handles such situations. Would that be okay with
you? (based on – Toll, p. 75)
- Give testimonials about what you believe. Choose
not to remain indifferent. Realize you are modeling
for others how to demonstrate courage of conviction,
standing up for what you believe is morally right.
- Borrow from educational coaching questions as you
work through a concern with a colleague:
- How do you feel the conversation went?
- Would you have said anything differently?
- What was your goal there?
- What do you mean by….?
- Are we diminished or threatened in some way by
the elevation of someone else’s priorities/religion/
- Is there another way to…?
- How does that further your goal?
- Describe a time when this was successful for you.
- Let’s consider the situation from his/her point of
- What does that tell you?
- Is there anything to that?
- Can you give an example of….?
- Can you describe that further?
- Let’s rehearse that moment
- What do you recall about your own behavior
during the conversation/lesson?
- And what else?
- How could we re-phrase that to better
communicate your intent?
- What did you do/decide that added to—or
- “If this problem were solved what would it look
like?” (Toll, p. 32)
- What would a respected colleague do in this
- Let’s brainstorm some possibilities together.
- Challenge statements of, “I’m colorblind,” and,
“I don’t see race.” Start the conversation with,
“You may not be aware of this, but such a mindset
actually is a form of oppression of students of color.
Could we talk about that for a moment?” Later,
you may want to add, “When these statements are
made by those in power, usually white teachers,
they immediately diminish any student of color,
declaring that their full identities and all that
shapes them isn’t worth perceiving. I get that you’re
trying to demonstrate that you see your students as
individuals separate from any racial generalizations
and stereotypes and thereby, you think you are not
biased, but this very sentiment, let alone the act,
comes from a place of privilege, being the majority
race in power. It denies all that makes students of
color full individuals. I wonder if we could use our
privilege to confront and dismantle such thinking
In February 2020, high school teacher, author,
and Education Week blogger, Larry Ferlazzo posed
the question, “What are the best ways to respond
to educators who say they don’t see race when
they teach?” He invited experts and classroom
practitioners to weigh in on the constructive
responses. You can find the full, five-part series of
blogs with dozens of responses at Larry’s Education
Week blog site listed in the citing sources below.
Here are a few of the compelling responses that
have considerable power to spark conversation and
How can you (an educator) have a relationship with
me (a student) if you do not acknowledge all that
makes me who I am? Diverse relationships should
be sought out with the intention to honor one's
— Makeda Brome, instructional math coach at
Fort Pierce Westwood Academy in Fort Pierce,
Florida, St. Lucie Public Schools Teacher of the
The impetus to pretend that one is colorblind when
it comes to race is a misguided attempt to treat all students the same, when all students, even within
any racial group, are different. The impetus to
pretend that one is colorblind is essentially racist.
It is wielding the power to erase the identity of
students. To refuse to see.
— Jamila Lyiscott, co-founder/director of the
Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged
Research, author of Black Appetite. White Food:
Issues of Race, Voice, and Justice Within and
Beyond the Classroom
“Not seeing race” is an easy way out because if
those educators saw race, they would see how
systemic racism has affected every aspect of the
education system. When educators tell me that
race doesn't matter, I say that they've erased an
opportunity to be anti-racist. They've squandered
the moment and made it about them and their so called
forward way of thinking instead of actually
doing what's best for their students…
— Julie Jee teaches 12 Advanced Placement
English Literature and Composition and
The statement, “I don't see race,” represents the
height of selfishness particularly when made by
an educator. It says essentially, “I don't see your
entire-life perspective as meriting my consideration.
I will tell you how I think you should experience
your existence.” …[It] is a selfish sentiment because
it requires that students suspend their worldview
in favor of vantage points that are more consistent
with your own. It says, I will value your perspective
given the extent to which it agrees with mine….
This is…a form of cultural imperialism.
— Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., works with
districts around the country to identify root
causes of achievement gaps and formulate
pedagogy and policy-based efforts to redress
the under performance of vulnerable student
[A]n important part of my response is to feel
where I myself am still shaky as I engage with this
person…Do I stumble or hedge when I…need to
respond to an argument that blames marginalized people for their own marginalization? …So much
of what I encounter every day as a white person
will lead me to think that I am what's normal, and
things are essentially as they should be. In the face
of that, it is hard and sometimes lonely work to
acknowledge that the world is wrong.
— Sarah Norris works with educators across the
country to create more equitable spaces for
teaching and learning
Racial history emerges as a source of pride when
seen through the lens of resistance and survival
against difficult odds…. Research shows that
avoiding the topic with children serves to create
racist mindsets, while investigating race correlates
to higher self-esteem, increased self-confidence,
academic achievement, and ethical leadership…
Until racism can be seen, it can't be addressed.
Until it is addressed, it can't be undone.
— Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame, authors
of Let's Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and
Gender Identities in the Classroom, and co founders
of iChange Collaborative
Express Direct Desists
- Stay silent, make steady eye contact.
- Be direct: “I find that racist, and I’m not okay with
that. It’s inappropriate.”
- “You may not have meant to offend me, but you did.
And this happens to people of color all the time. If
you do not mean to offend, you will stop doing this.”
- P. 173, Oluo
- “You just assumed that without evidence. Let’s take
a look at the evidence and correct that perspective.”
- Explain that your being upset at the racist/
prejudicial comment or joke is not a matter of
political correctness. It’s an indication that society
has evolved and what was once funny or acceptable,
is no longer so.
- Walk away. Wait 24 hours. If possible, and no one
will be harmed, wait one day, think clearly, then
bring up the subject again with the offending person.
Avoid Blaming, Deflecting, Generalizing,
or Being Dismissive
Examples of these unhelpful statements include:
- “It’s your fault because you’re a racist.”
- “No, it’s your fault because you expect something
- “If __ people weren’t so self-centered…”
- “If __ people weren’t so crime prone…”
- “They can just get used to using the bathroom
associated with their birth gender. It’s not the end
of the world.”
- “I didn’t intend it as a racist comment, they just
took it that way.”
- “This is just more liberal clamoring from Political
- “There are already enough books on LGBTQ
students. You’re just pushing your social agenda.”
- “But these white, male authors are canon. To not
teach them is not preparing them for society.”
- “You’re such a conservative, you have no heart for
the struggles of these people.”
- “I can’t be racist: I don’t hate any people of color,
I’m not in a white supremacist group, I don’t read
those webpages, nor do I do any act of prejudice
or racism with anyone I know.”
Helpful Dispositions During the
- Give every clue that you value time with those of
other cultures/orientations/faiths/politics as well
as those with whom you disagree. Honor what the
other person brings to the conversation. Make that
- Avoid publicly searching for a diplomatic way to
word something before saying it: “Let me put this
in a way you’d understand….” “How shall I put
this?” This is demeaning of the other person, like
he’s simplistic and incapable of understanding
- If giving feedback in the moment, comment on
decisions made and their outcomes: “I noticed you…
As a result, we… Is that what you wanted?”
- White silence in racist or biased situations or
policies is consent. Say or do something if at all
possible. It’s the same with other situations of bias/
prejudice against certain religions, gender, sexual
orientation, or socio-economic class.
- Avoid backing people into a corner unless their
statements were unusually egregious. People don’t
hear the message when they have to protect their
honor or status. Help them find a road back to respect.
- Speak in such a way as to continue thoughtful
dialog, not prove that you are right or the problem is
solved. It’s not about you providing the solution, it’s
about the person arriving there.
- Accept the fact that these conversations rarely tie
up into a nice, neat bow where everyone sees the
light and has come to their senses. We’ll have to be
tolerant, at least at first, of messy human progress,
ambiguity, unseen changes in perspective, irritation/pushback as a way to sort one’s thinking, and
unresolved issues from the other person’s past—and
our own!—affecting the current conversation.
- Sit or stand next to the victim of someone being
attacked for his or her race, gender, politics, or socioeconomic
standing to assure them that they are not
alone, and to communicate clearly to the offending
person where you stand on the issue.
- When considering whether or not to come to the aid
of a person of color receiving racist or discriminatory
comments, take the lead of that person and do it
only if they are already engaged in it. (based on an
idea in Oluo, p. 174)
- Ask yourself if you’re deflecting to another topic
rather than hearing and addressing the one raised
by the other person.
- “If you’re white and being called a racist, remember
that you are not the only one being hurt.” p. 222,
- We fight systemic racism not because we’re doing
people of color a favor, but because this is what
decent people do. “[We] are not owed gratitude or
friendship from people of color for [our] efforts. We
are not thanked for cleaning our own houses.” p.
- Not everyone in our place of employment shares our
views regarding politics or race. Avoid assuming
they do simply because they are members of this
same group as you.
- Use the first person, plural, we, not I or you as you
can. It’s more inclusive, like we’re in this together.
- Use tentative language (seems, might) and open ended
questions that come across as a mutual
partner in resolving the problem.
- Breathe several times before responding.
- Forgive yourself and others for making mistakes
in these conversations, including inexact wording,
unintended use of stereotypes, muddled thinking,
and outright offending others.
- Discuss systemic racism with people of our own
color, and not just when there’s an upsetting racial
incident. We’re able to respond more constructively
when there is a racial/homophobic/religion-phobic
incident when we already have the tools and
perspective for the conversation.
With Prufrock, T.S Eliot had us sincerely wonder
who we were to disturb the universe. Dylan Thomas
admonished us to not, “go gentle into that good
night,” and to instead, “rage, rage against the dying of
the light.” Let’s draw from this welling moral outrage
and our all-consuming desire for a just world and find
the courage to react in a timely and effective manner
to bias and racism, whether it be subtle or overt. Let’s
care enough about our students and our colleagues to
extend candor and to walk with them –and our own
limitations—as we share the path ahead. This courage
comes more readily when we have specific and
practiced tools, so to simply read a few paragraphs of
an article and promise to do better doesn’t cut it. Let’s
say these challenging statements aloud and in front of
colleagues in rehearsal and in real use, making them
our own. Let’s find meaning in those conversations,
and with that, the stamina to dismantle our own biases, and the strength to confront that which
would oppress another. No more, would’ve-could’ve-should’ve
– we’re ready to respond.
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Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and
author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected
Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff
I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available
from www.amle.org/store. His book, Fair Isn't Always Equal
(second edition) (Stenhouse Publishers), was released in
2018, and his latest book, Summarization in any Subject:
60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student
Learning, (second edition) (ASCD), co-authored with Dedra
Stafford, was just released.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2020.