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 snicker,
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 funny?”
  • 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/ Asian/Black/Hispanic, impoverished/affluent, heterosexual/homosexual/transgender, able-bodied person?”
  • “It’s been my experience that… Is this something you’ve experienced?”
  • “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/ faith/beliefs?”
  • 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 children’s welfare?”
  • 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 problem?
    • 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/ race/gender?
    • 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 view….
    • 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 resolved—the issue?
    • “If this problem were solved what would it look like?” (Toll, p. 32)
    • What would a respected colleague do in this situation?
    • 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 and practices.

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 transform thinking:

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 whole self.
— Makeda Brome, instructional math coach at Fort Pierce Westwood Academy in Fort Pierce, Florida, St. Lucie Public Schools Teacher of the Year 2019-20

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 sophomore English

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 populations.

[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 for nothing.”
  • “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 Correctness Police.”
  • “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 Conversations

  • 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 respect visible.
  • 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 complexity.
  • 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, Oluo
  • 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. 210, Oluo
  • 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.

Recommended Resources

Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, Second Edition by Margaret Wheatley, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009

The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation by Elena Aguilar, Jossey-Bass, 2013

Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction by Jim Knight, Corwin Press, 2007

Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), www.splcenter.org/teaching-tolerance, www.tolerance.org/publication/chapter-1-civildiscourse- classroom-and-beyond

Mayorga, Edwin; Picower, Bree. What’s Race Got to Do With It? How Current School Reform Policy Maintains Racial and Economic Inequity, Peter Lang Publishers, 2015

Pollock, Mica; SchoolTalk: Rethinking What We Say About – And To – Students Every Day (Laying a Foundation for Equity), The New Press, New York, 2017

Stevenson, Howard C. Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference, Teachers College, 2014

Tatum, Alfred W. Reading for Their Life (Re) Building the Textual Lineages of African American Adolescent Males, Heinemann, 2009

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all, Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher Emdin, Beacon Press, 2017

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, Beacon Press, 2018

Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, Second Edition, by Paul C. Gorski, Teachers College Press, 2017

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Spiegel & Grau, 2015

Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It, Second Edition by Shelly Tochluk, R&L Education, 2010

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, One World, 2019

Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education by Noliwe Rooks, The New Press, 2017

Culture, Class, and Race: Constructive Conversations That Unite and Energize your School and Community by Brenda Campbell Jones, Shannon Keeny, and Franklin CampbellJones, ASCD , 2020

Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race, Sue, Derald Wing, Wiley, 2016

Sources cited:

Ferlazzo, Larry – Blog, “Saying ‘I Don’t See Color’ Denies the Racial Identity of Students, “February 2, 2020 10:34 PM, https://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/classroom_qa_with_larry_ferlazzo/2020/02
/saying_i_dont_see_color_denies_the_racial_identity_of_students.html, Twitter: @Larryferlazzo.

Oluo, Ijeoma; So You Want to Talk about Race, Seal Press (Hachette Book Group), 2018

Toll, Cathy A. Educational Coaching: A Partnership for Problem Solving. ASCD. 2018.