“She was watching my every move, but she wasn’t paying any attention to my white friends,” said Sabrina. “I’m pretty sure she was watching me because I’m black, and she thought I was going to steal something.”
Experiences like Sabrina’s are routinely shared in African-American communities where surveillance while shopping is relatively common, but Sabrina was telling her story at school, and not casually at recess or lunch. It was part of a larger conversation about race that takes place regularly in our classrooms.
Why? Because we have discovered in our work with adolescents on race, class and gender that when students share the ways their experience is shaped by how the world perceives them and how they perceive the world, the results can be profoundly unifying. We see stronger identities emerging, more productive learning, and safer schools.
Race is one of the first things we notice when we meet a person. And while race is only one component of identity, it often drives conversations about individuality and diversity. Everyone in the nation is talking about race outside of school, from the Olympics to Milwaukee to Snapchat.
So why aren’t we talking about it in the classroom?
If we want students to think critically about solving persistent social problems related to race, we have to help them examine the issue and investigate its roots.
Some teachers, however, tell us they feel ill-equipped to discuss race with their students. What if the conversation goes awry and devolves into confrontation? Avoiding conflict feels safer, yet in avoiding the issue we are missing out on real educational opportunities. The key lies in leading these discussions with the same thoughtfulness that guides other curriculum choices.
Racial identity is a lived experience for everyone, but particularly for students of color, and having teachers and peers acknowledge that racism is a problem validates their experience and strengthens their identities. Researchers have reported 75 percent of bullying is bias related, and when bullying is related to core components of a student’s identity, the effects are even worse. Having a forum to talk openly about aspects of identity can address bullying and mitigate its effects.
We know supportive relationships with teachers help students learn, but so do relationships with peers. Healthy relationships in the classroom keep students engaged, and the benefits transfer into academic achievement. Yet students need to master a set of prerequisite social, emotional and communication skills to keep their exchanges respectful and forge compassionate relationships. Clear ground rules for respect are needed, and these guidelines can, and should be taught.
When students feel safe enough to express their differences, they find they can be accepted and esteemed for them, rather than disparaged. Sabrina felt gratified that her classmates listened and understood her feelings. A Latino student told about something similar that had happened to him while shopping with his friends. A white student was surprised and dismayed because she had no idea Sabrina (and other people of color) experienced the sting of negative stereotypes.
When students hear each other’s stories, they realize that underneath their apparent differences, there is far more that unites than divides them. They learn that expressing rather than suppressing the characteristics that make them unique nurtures authentic relationships. They benefit from direct discussions in the classroom about their personal experience with prejudice and/or privilege, and their differences are transcended through friendly and engaging exchanges.
Learning to talk respectfully about race, and other categories of identity, improves school cultures. In a Nashville public school, students who participated in such conversations took the initiative to stop harassment, intervening on behalf of other students to create a dynamic that resulted a positive change in the school environment. After a similar unit at an Atlanta KIPP School, 7th graders initiated an anti-bullying support group.
To rise to the challenge of an increasingly global community, students need to develop the skills to forge relationships across differences. Through listening to their own voices and hearing the voices of others, they not only gain appreciation for diverse cultures and life experiences, but such conversations increase empathy, perspective-taking, and critical thinking skills, which transfer into greater academic performance.