It had taken a bit of back and forth, but I had finally understood the root of the parent’s concern. “My parents raised me to believe everyone is the same no matter the color of their skin. All this talk about race is racist because it highlights differences,” the parent further explained. And I came to understand that growing up; he did not talk about race and believed doing so was, itself, racist. He was afraid he would “mess it up” and took statements such as ‘we need to teach our children to be anti-racist change agents’ as code for ‘It’s your fault for being white, and your child will be held responsible.’ These powerful concerns are not unique to this parent; they are held by many and serve as barriers to necessary exploration, education, and the incorporation of updated understanding. On repeat, we see these concerns and other similar conflations on the news, in parent meetings, in restaurants. With so much divisive rhetoric occurring outside of our control, how can we best respond to these concerns? How do we engage in practical and partnered equity work?
My core belief is that shamed brains cannot learn. As a result, teaching equity through shame will negatively impact the conversation and cause harm. At the same time, parents need to know that though they fear discussions will cause embarrassment for their child, vital equity education is in direct contrast to doing so. We, educators, want children to see themselves are part of the change and know the keys to focusing on agency and advocacy. Working together, educators, parents, and students need to build skills developing the capacity to support heavier conversations. Kids need to look back upon accurate history and learn about themselves in the present to effect change in the future.
I call capacity-building strategies’ HUB strategies’ or Help Us Begin. HUB strategies support being able to have meaningful conversations even when a topic challenges us. Imagine a bicycle wheel: the center of movement comes from the wheel’s hub. It holds the gears in place and creates force, allowing the wheel to turn. Imagine each wheel spokes connects to both the HUB and the rim as strategies specific to that discussion. For example, a spoke might be strategies for talking about race, the rim is the adult relationship with the student/child, and the edge supporting the tire is the child’s sense of self.
With this framework in mind, I invite you to consider the following ten HUB strategies that might help us constructively talk about race in our school communities:
ONE: Base the work on the belief that all students (and all adults) should positively relate with their identities, including race, gender, beliefs, and more. We can only become change agents when we believe we can have an impact. That belief requires a positive relationship with our identifiers that allows us to find strength in ourselves. It requires a healthy relationship with our social identifiers, the labels we give ourselves. Components of programs that develop positive identity relationships include:
- Information: This entails looking at history through multiple perspectives, defining words, and using age/stage-appropriate language. Truly listen to what the student is asking. If they request the identity equivalent of 3×3 =9, we will not help by answering algebraic equations.
- Empathy: We can prioritize valuing learning about the experiences of others, seeking to understand perspectives, and tapping into emotions.
- Understanding we all have a role: Racial, gender, and more identities are not limited to those from historically marginalized groups. Every person has many identities.
- Providing mirrors and windows. As described by Emily Style in her 1988 work Windows and Mirrors, “[There is a] need for [education] to function both as window and as a mirror, in order to reflect and reveal most accurately both a multicultural world and the student herself or himself…education needs to enable the student to look through window frames in order to see the realities of others and into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected.”
TWO: Focus on the capacity skills needed to hold the heavier conversations. Jeff, a 7th-grade teacher, felt confident in his curriculum and the skill development of his class. Still, like many teachers, he wondered if he affected change with his students if he wasn’t talking directly about race, gender, and more. His civil discourse units focused on the skills for talking across differences, listening for learning, and debating ideas, not the value of a person. Jeff’s teaching the skills to talk and listen even when they disagree see differences of opinions as opportunities to learn and differ without dismantling each other is essential for identity-based conversations. These are capacity skills serving almost as parts of a basket that create a solid foundation for heavier topics when woven together. By talking about curriculum together, Jeff and the other teachers taught both the capacity-building skills and how to apply them to learning about inequity, privilege, and more.
THREE: Understand differences are additives, not dividers. Kids need to see adults and peers in disagreement while remaining able to be in a positive relationship. When absent, the unintentional message can be that we can’t interact if we have a difference of opinions, contradicting the powerful psychosocial drive for preadolescents to fit in.
FOUR: Ensure equity education connects to school values and mission, drawing upon this connection regularly for parents and students.
FIVE: Train the trainers, providing ongoing education for teachers with similar goals of gaining best teaching practices while examining their areas of bias.
SIX: Educate the caregivers (the adults responsible for your students) in conjunction with faculty and students. Often the kids are ahead of the faculty and staff ahead of the parents in their learning. This parallel learning leaves room for misunderstanding, misinformation, and resistance. Tips for connecting with parents:
- Connect to the values.
- Provide resources for independent learning.
- Listen for learning.
- Create opportunities for kids and parents to learn from and with each other by interviewing one another, perhaps through assigning activities for joint reflection and research.
- Preview for upcoming lessons for parents. Previewing invites partnership but does not mean asking for approval.
SEVEN: Create intentional norms. Norms exist in all spaces. Moving out of the way when someone gets off an elevator or sitting in the same place every day are examples of unintentional norms. In contrast, intentional norms are assigning seats, establishing an order, etc. Intentional norms might focus on how we respond when we or someone else makes a mistake or disagree with each other without causing harm.
EIGHT: Acknowledge previous understanding. Many adults believe they should not talk about identity, specifically race, with statements like ‘if you talk about race, you will mess it up, and you will be labeled a racist.’ Demonstrating how understanding words such as privilege, bias, racism, white supremacy, and more have shifted in experience serves all. For example, I am in my 50s and grew up thinking about bias as the pejorative belief about and actions toward others. Being biased meant you were racist, sexist, ageist, and more. I also conflated being a good person with being unbiased. I now know being human means I have preconceived ideas about others. Being a good human does not eliminate or remove bias. It means working to identify my biases and to reduce the space between my intentions and impact. I thought I had no connection to white supremacy culture because limiting thoughts that white supremacy culture is a Ku Klux Klan member. And did not attach white or Black to people believing words to describe race were racist and hurtful, and phrases such as “I don’t see color” were considerate. I now understand “I don’t see color,” though intended to signal “I see us as equal,” the impact was not seeing people for their whole, authentic selves. In so doing, I caused more harm.
One more, of many, shifts is in thinking about privilege. In the past, I would have described privilege as an intentional assertion of power over another person, associated with entitlement, wealth, gender. In short, I believed privilege was a choice. I also thought lack of privilege in one area automatically eliminates privilege in another. For example, I grew up poor (no running water, indoor plumbing, or electricity), and because of that, I did not believe I had the racial privilege of being white. I thought admitting you have privilege equated to an admission that you were a bad person.
Now, I have learned privilege is the absence of fear of harm because of who you are. It is access and opportunities and unearned advantages individually or in combination. Privilege is in two categories assumed and ascribed. Ascribed are those given to us by society about which we have no control. Assumed privileges are when we know we have ascribed privileges and we access or accept them. Assuming privileges is benefiting from them or accessing them to break down barriers between groups. Having a lack of privilege in one has no bearing on the presence of privilege in another identifier. Growing up poor meant I had fewer opportunities, which impacted my health and education but did not reduce having white privilege.
NINE: Accept mistake making. Educators make 1,000s of decisions each day. There is no way to avoid mistakes. Yet, the fear of making a mistake, particularly about identity, is a common reason for not engaging in conversations. If one of your students said, ‘I am worried I will get a problem wrong,’ you probably wouldn’t shame them or allow them to get out of the assignment. You might work with the student, ask colleagues for strategies, focus on confidence, and more. These supports should also be available to you. Some tips for managing mistakes include:
- Focus 10% or less of your time, energy, and words on your intentions and 90% or more of your time, energy, and remarks on the impact you had on others.
- Know what you don’t know and be comfortable saying, so ‘that’s a new word to me, can you tell me what it means to you?’
- Name in the time and space, even if you unpack later and in a different location. A student makes a hurtful comment about religion in class, acknowledging that it happened at that moment and in front of the class while unpacking later might sound like, ‘That statement has an impact on everyone in the room. I need a little bit to think about it, and we will come back to it.’ This type of statement notices it happens, lets the other students know you are aware and will respond, allows the speaker to have a few minutes to reflect, reduces opportunities for shaming, and gives you time to think.
TEN: Embrace this time as the era of co-construction for adults and students to work together determining what ethos and culture we seek, learning from and with each other, and allowing for vulnerability.
These suggestions will not meet all of your needs, address every situation, or provide a how-to guide and nor should they. Every school, teacher, parent, student, is different and there is no secret set of books with all of the correct answers. The hope is these ideas generate discussion with colleagues, thinking to yourself, and provide access points to necessary, though sometimes challenging, conversations.
TEN+: Listen to the kids. Education and childhood are for and about the kids, not the adults. We have had our childhood.
- What do they know, and what it means to them?
- What do they want to know, and how can you learn together?
- What words do you want to hear more often?
- What do you believe the adults in your life need to learn?
- What do you think adults misunderstand?
If these questions seem too direct, you might ask:
- What do you think other kids your age know, and what do you think it means to them?
- What do adults need to learn from kids?
- What words should adults use more often?
- If kids were creating a workshop, determining books to read for the adults, what do you think would be at the top of the list?
Justice is the process of breaking down the barriers that separate different groups. It requires equity, which is a state in which everyone gets what they need. Equity is not the same as equality, which is when everyone gets the same thing. Diversity often refers to the presence of people with differing identities. Diversity is necessary, not in place of inclusion when the invitation for diversity is explicit and active—extending an invitation. Ideally, inclusion leads to belonging, where everyone feels welcome to show up as their whole and authentic self.
Each of these states exists through access. Social identifiers (the labels we give ourselves, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, beliefs, and more) through the lens of identity, we see significant changes in the last twenty years alone. Our children are growing up with a fundamentally different understanding of the world and its place in it.