We Need to Talk: The Case for Making a Place for Race in Schools

Fall 2018

By Sheri Lyn Schmidt

A school administrator recently asked for my perspective on a conversation he’d had with a parent. The parent seemed frustrated about an uncomfortable interaction about race that occurred between his white child and a child of color. While expressing dismay that this encounter had happened at the school, the parent declared, “Race has no place in school.” The administrator knew this parent to be bright, successful, and caring—and also knew that this parent was not alone in this belief. We talked about how common this sentiment is, how hard these conversations are to navigate, and finally, our desire to move schools past the discomfort that often comes when issues of race arise.

Many days after our conversation, I couldn’t get that phrase “race has no place in school,” out of my head. It’s not that the statement surprised me—in my 25 years as a social justice educator I had heard similar statements many times. It lingered because it seemed to encapsulate a barrier that I had bumped into throughout my career. A barrier that I believe we must finally push through. Reminded of Demand the Impossible!: A Radical Manifesto, in which author Bill Ayers encourages educators to ask “what if?”—a humble question that has the potential to “blow open the spectrum of acceptable possibilities.” I started to wonder what would happen if we could actually make a place for race in our schools. What if we embraced the notion that schools are the perfect place to talk about race because, in actuality, race is always present in our schools, race matters in every aspect of our lives, and if we are truly committed to educating future leaders, students must understand the impact of race and specifically the consequences of systemic racism?

Race Matters

While I disagree with this parent’s belief that the topic of race has no place in school, I can completely empathize with why he said it. I imagine that this parent, like me, and most other white people of our generation, was raised to believe that it’s not polite to talk about race. Most likely, he was told, as I was, that at one time people were judged by the color of their skin but now, we are all equal and so “seeing” race is wrong. And that when we do, we are in fact promoting racism. In short, as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva says, we were raised to be colorblind. I’m convinced that the socialization we received about the need to be colorblind did us a terrible disservice. In their Summer 2014 Independent School magazine article, “What White Children Need to Know About Race,” Ali Michael and Eleonora Bartoli describe how the silence about race throughout our childhoods, which was intended to teach us that race shouldn’t matter, instead, led us to believe that race doesn’t matter.

What if this parent—and the entire school community—had a deep understanding of the profound ways that race matters? What if the research about racial outcome disparities was common knowledge and we all understood that the discrimination that accompanies the identity category of race impacts where we live, our access to quality education, healthy food, or clean air. That it impacts whether we are more likely to be called back for an interview or arrested. That it has shaped the amount of wealth our families have been able to accumulate and pass on to us. And, perhaps most critically, that it shapes our health, the birth weight of our babies, and even our life expectancy.

In School Every Day

Even if I agreed that race has no place in school, not talking about it doesn’t make it go away. Race is in every classroom and in every interaction in our schools. It is present even when there is not a single person of color in a room. I understand this can be a hard concept to grasp. As someone who grew up rarely thinking about race and the impact it had on me, it took me awhile to recognize the ways I have been shaped by my racial identity. I am still working to understand the ways that my race—as well as my class, gender, and other identities—walk into the room with me and show up in my decisions, my interactions, and aspirations. I am still learning to recognize the ways that the experiences of my students both on and off campus differ based on their race. And although I may not always see them, I work to remind myself that the dynamics of race, class, gender, and so on are constantly present in school, whether I choose to acknowledge them.

More than 20 years of extensive research outlined by Mahzari Banaji and Anthony Greenwald in Blindspot: Hidden Bias of Good People makes it clear that no matter how well intentioned we may believe ourselves to be, we are impacted by implicit racial bias. The research shows that 75 percent of Americans have an automatic white preference and that preference can show up in discriminatory behavior even among people who believe they are not at all influenced by racial identity.

What if we could all learn to approach the concept of racial identity through a lens of courage and curiosity so that we could come to understand the ways our identity— and subsequently our worldview—has been shaped by race and racism? We know adolescents are grappling with understanding who they are in the world, so what if we provided positive and productive opportunities for students to think deeply about all aspects of their identity, including their racial identity? What kinds of insights could a positive racial identity provide? How much more aware of themselves and the world around them could they become?

Learning to Talk About It

Because race is always present and racism has a powerful impact on each of us, we must be able to talk about it. But because a belief in the value of colorblindness has led us to think that talking about race is racist, and because we have so ardently avoided the conversation, my generation has never developed the skills to do it well. I desperately want our students to have the skills that my generation lacks. It appears that our students do, too. In a 2014 MTV survey on millennials and race, a national representative study of 14- to 24-yearolds, 73 percent said they would like to be able to talk openly about racial bias and felt that doing so could help reduce prejudice. Unfortunately, only 20 percent felt comfortable having those conversations, and 79 percent worried that being unprepared to address the issue might make the situation worse. Our youth recognizes the need to acquire these skills, so why shouldn’t we teach them?

What if, instead of avoiding these hard conversations, we learned how to have them, practiced them and became proficient? What if every member of a school community felt comfortable participating in discussions about race and racism? For that matter, what if they were able to actively engage in conversations about gender, class, religion, or any of the other critical aspects of identity that might come up during a class discussion, a club meeting or a lunchtime conversation? What kind of learning environment would that create? How much more confident might our students feel to tackle the problems in our society head on?

Toward a Systemic Analysis

The recent increase in overt displays of white supremacy has reminded us that racism is alive and well. And while most people agree that such explicit racism has no place in a just society, we must also recognize that the implicit forms of white supremacy are more pervasive, go largely unchallenged, and arguably, do much more to perpetuate systemic racism. Subscribing to a colorblind ideology leads most Americans to think about racism primarily as individual bias and discrimination without recognizing its larger systemic nature. Our students must learn that while individual prejudice is a part of racism, it is simply one piece of a much larger, complex, interlocking system of inequality that is also deeply embedded in our institutions and the cultural ideology of our society.

When students don’t have a systemic analysis—including an understanding of past and current institutional discrimination— they rely on racial stereotypes to explain disparities in things such as unemployment rates, incarceration rates, wealth accumulation, and deadly encounters with police. If we don’t provide information about institutional racial discrimination, the pervasive myth of the United States as a meritocracy in which all people have equitable access and opportunity, leads students to blame people of color for the inequality they experience. This only exacerbates problems and impedes our progress toward racial equity.

Just as our schools are recognizing that traditional modes of learning are not sufficient to meet the needs of students who will lead in a 21st century economy, it’s time to recognize that traditional pedagogy concerning race no longer meets the needs of our students. So as we work to incorporate design thinking, project-based learning, and other innovative approaches into our curriculum, what if we also were to retool our curriculum to incorporate a systemic analysis of racism and other aspects of systemic inequality?

School courses that deal with racism can present students with the kinds of cognitive conflicts, contradictions and dissonance that are important for the development of more complex, structural thinking. What if we shifted from a focus on “diversity and inclusion” toward a focus on understanding systemic oppression? And, what if we no longer relegated learning about racism to the annual Martin Luther King Day observance, and instead grounded it in classrooms where the scholarly work of oppression theory took a place beside other social science theory? What if all of our students were equipped with an understanding of the conceptual frameworks of racism so that informed and nuanced discussions about systemic inequality became a common part of our economics, history, civics, literature, and science courses? How could enhanced critical analysis skills further prepare them for college and beyond? What other aspects of society could become visible to them through an informed and critical lens?

The Power to Change Society

Built into the mission statement of most of our schools is the noble goal of producing students who will take action to make the world a better place by reducing inequality. Many of our schools provide important opportunities for students to learn about the ways that social movements and activism have shaped change.

What if we widened our scope and coupled those efforts with helping students, through a systemic analysis, study the ways that public policy and institutional decisions have created and sustain inequality. What if they understood the ways that racial ideology justifies inequality making it appear natural? What if they understood that it is not naturally occurring but is human-made—and therefore can be un-made? What if our students truly knew that they had the power to re-make our society?

I started learning about race much too late in life. If the next generation is to successfully address these issues, they must fully understand the complexity of racism and the impact it has on each of us. Our schools have the responsibility to proactively help our students understand systemic racism, develop a positive racial identity, and acquire skills to talk about and actively work toward racial equity. I can empathize with the feeling that race has no place in school—and I completely disagree with it. It is time for a radical re-envisioning of how we approach the topic in our schools. As Bill Ayers reminds us, “When ‘what if?’ is taken up collectively, it can be forged into a powerful tool with the potential to crack open the given world and provide previously unthinkable alternatives.” It is time to push through this barrier and embrace the chance to move all of us forward together. 

Course of Action

To help students navigate issues of racism and other forms of inequality, in 2009 The Ethel Walker School (CT) instituted a required social justice seminar for ninth graders. The eight-week course is part of a yearlong seminar series that all ninth-grade students take. The credited course has two primary objectives: provide opportunities for students to acquire the skills and confidence to actively engage with peers about issues of race, class, and gender; and achieve a foundational understanding of racism, sexism and classism as systems of oppression.

Enthusiasm for the course during its initial year resulted in the development of an active social justice student organization and the creation of a popular elective course titled “Inequality in the United States” for juniors and seniors.

Both courses move beyond a focus on prejudice and are based on the scholarly literature of oppression theory. The curriculum encourages students to grapple with the contradictions of structural inequality in a society that claims to be a meritocracy--providing opportunities to strengthen both critical thinking and dialogue skills. Because all ninth-grade students participate in the seminar, a common language and knowledge base is available campuswide as students approach difficult conversations about racism and other forms of inequality.
Sheri Lyn Schmidt

Sheri Lyn Schmidt is currently an independent social justice educator. She is co-facilitator of the Equity and Inclusion Institute at the Nueva School in San Mateo, California, and previously served as Director of Equity and Social Justice at The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Connecticut. Contact her at [email protected].