Teachers are having to find ways to talk about race and in doing so have to come face to face with their own biases

By Claudette Soler

On March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by white police officers in her home. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes, with three other officers present. These are two out of dozens of black Americans who have died at the hands of law enforcement in the recent past.

Their deaths triggered a series of national protests against police brutality, police racism, and lack of police accountability towards black Americans.

Discussions about these protests and the incidents of police brutality have made their way to classrooms all over the country, from kindergarten to postsecondary institutions. 

“There wouldn’t be a black lives matter movement if black lives mattered in the classroom,” said LaGarrett King, director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education in an interview. “We need more black voices within the classroom.”

Teachers have had to find ways to talk about these topics and doing so, have had to come face to face with their own biases.

Across the United States, 79% of public school teachers are white, while 7% of teachers are black.

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the video of Floyd being suffocated became viral and caused public outrage, leading to the protests.

“We were hit with what I call the second pandemic,” said Maria Underwood, senior educational consultant and diversity, equity and inclusion leader for Teaching Matters in an interview. “Another black man was murdered in front of us. We all now have the view of an execution in our face.”

In response to the murder Floyd, Teaching Matters, a national professional learning organization with the goal of providing equitable access to education, hosted a series of webinars titled “Race Conversations: Teaching Ideas for the K-12 Classroom.” Almost 3,000 teachers attended.

“The idea was not to just discuss what is happening on the news,” said Underwood, “but to gain racial literacy to be able to unpack and think critically about identifying social justice issues.”

Underwood said that teachers were worried that if they ignored these conversations and acted as if nothing was happening, they were retraumatizing their students.

“It’s like a child being bullied,” said Underwood, “and the adults around pretend the bullying is not happening, that could be worse than the bullying itself.”

Underwood says the first step to having these conversations is to take inventory of our own biases. Educators need to understand power and privilege and how decisions are made.

“Teachers need to do identity work,” said King. “White people sometimes don’t see themselves as racialized. They need to understand themselves as racialized beings and then move to unlearning because they have had years of miseducation.”

In addition, history textbooks have traditionally not been accurate in their representation of slavery and other aspects of black history.

“The social studies curriculum is all about power and many could argue that the history curriculum is racist,” said King. “We need to understand racism as prejudice plus power, it is prejudiced because there is a Eurocentric curriculum.”

According to Underwood, it doesn’t just apply to history books. “If you are a teacher teaching English Language Arts, why not use literature that provides a voice of somebody of color about a lived experience?” she said.  “Children should see themselves in the books that they read.”

According to King, the teaching of slavery shouldn’t be solely violent because that situates black history into a notion of suffering that reinforces the dominance of whiteness over blackness, but it shouldn’t be avoided.

“Kids can handle it,” said King. “In Christianity, they teach about the crucifixion of Jesus, in Sunday schools I haven’t heard people say, ‘let’s not teach this because it’s too violent’. If they can handle that, they can handle learning about slavery.”

American University is in its third year of teaching the AUx2 course to talk about systems of power and oppression and the ways it shows up in education, popular culture, justice and law, and other aspects.

 “The curriculum committee have been more conscious about the authors they are choosing,” said AUx2 Instructor Amanda Dowd, who has taught the course twice. “We are choosing more authors of color, but specifically black authors because that was really missing.”

“It was bumpy in the beginning,” she said. “The feedback that we received from students is that that space was more harmful than it was helpful. It was centering whiteness in many ways.”

According to Dowd, we need more accurate content and integration of these conversations into all the different disciplines. It needs to be more comprehensive both at AU and elsewhere.

“My desire is that there will be primary source documents that will be looked at and these have to come from black people,” said King, “because you can’t understand black history without understanding those voices.”

“This is not the teaching job that I thought it would be, but it is the teaching job that I needed it to be,” said Dowd, “because I have had to do a tremendous amount of unlearning and confronting my biases.”

Some school districts have taken individual action to make changes in their curriculums. In New York, the Department of Education has committed to instituting culturally responsive-sustaining education practices in schools. However, many other districts have not even started exploring the possibilities of adding these changes to their curriculums.

King says there need to be teacher education programs that approach what racism, white supremacy, and anti-blackness means. 

 According to Underwood, we are not as willing to talk about race as other places.

“You don’t go through Germany and see statues of Hitler, we don’t have schools named after Hitler,” said Underwood, “yet in this country, we continue to fantasize all of the confederate leaders and make them heroes.”

 “If those four police officers [at the Floyd murder] had been in classrooms where teachers had gotten them to understand the lived experiences of somebody else and see those others as human,” said Underwood, “it would have been possible that they would have seen him as a human being.”

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