How to support race talk in K-12 classrooms

It’s bad out there right now. Even if you’ve been following the anti-”CRT” backlash closely, the sheer volume of activity might still be surprising. As reported recently in Ed Week, PEN America did a national scan of the 2022 legislative session so far, looking for bills that restrict K-12 classroom conversations or staff training about racism, gender identity or sexual orientation. 

They found:

  • 137 bills total, which is a 250% increase from 2021
  • 23 of those targeted LGBTQ+ identities specifically. In 2021, there were 5 such bills. 
  • Also compared to 2021, the 2022 bills are more expansive, reaching beyond classrooms into school libraries, extracurricular opportunities and even field trips.
  • The 2022 bills are also more punitive- in 2022, 55% of the bills included explicit consequences for schools, an increase of 11% from 2021. Consequences include civil litigation, loss of state funding, or loss of accreditation, as triggered recently in two Oklahoma districts

Perhaps equally surprising, but in a good way: out of all 137 so far in 2022, only 7 have passed, according to the report. This means that there might be more space for race talk than one would assume based on the public attention to this issue. Either way, in this environment, it’s critical that we learn more about how to support race talk in K-12 schools, both for the places where it’s possible and for a future that will quite hopefully include more victories like this one

Recent research takes up this challenge. For #BannedBooksWeek (this week!), this post features guest authors who summarize key points from recent research showing how, beyond concerns about whether they will be supported by school leaders, concerns about appearing or being called racist functions to curb teachers’ willingness to engage in race talk with students.  

Before turning to their summary, I want to highlight a complementary piece. Christopher Martell – a professor at UMass-Boston – followed 4 white elementary school teachers for 6 years, tracing evolutions in their approach to race talk with students. Martell specifically looked at whether teachers adopted a tolerance approach (race talk focuses on individual beliefs and prejudices) or an equity approach (race talk focuses on structural racism and large historical trends). His study found that the following factors were more conducive to equity-oriented race talk: a supportive school culture, autonomy that allows teachers to develop “a repertoire of lessons” focused on racial/social equity, and instructional time specifically for social studies (which is under attack especially in elementary schools). You can read more in this twitter thread or in the full text.

As evidenced by one teacher – who retreated from an equity approach to a tolerance approach – Martell cautions that “without more support, some teachers may not sustain their equity-oriented beliefs or related practices.” The research featured here picks up on that point, and it’s written by two leaders in this field. Linda Tropp from the University of Massachusetts Amherst has published extensively on the benefits of intergroup contact in diverse schools (see this earlier post), and Christina Rucinski is the Research-to-Practice Manager at EmbraceRace, a fantastic organization that is dedicated to facilitating healthy race talk at home and in early education classrooms. In addition to offering more insight into appropriate teacher supports, their summary includes direct links throughout and a resource list at the end that is directed toward moving the research to action. 

Beyond bias: Does concern about appearing racist prevent teachers from engaging in classroom race talk with their students?

This post is written by Christina Rucinski and Linda R. Tropp. Christina is the Research-to-Practice Program Manager at EmbraceRace, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting caregivers and educators in raising children who are thoughtful, informed, and brave about race. Linda is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she studies how members of different groups experience contact with each other, and how group differences in status affect cross-group relations, toward the dual goals of promoting positive relations between groups and achieving ever-greater levels of social equality and justice. This research was conducted with support from Perception Institute and funding from Raikes Foundation and Schusterman Family Foundation.

It is well-known that race talk in classrooms is now under attack. Conservative lawmakers and media outlets are seeking to stoke fear and pass legislation severely limiting teachers’ ability to engage students in conversations about race. It is also clear that the current “anti-CRT” fervor was strategically organized and framed in response to the racial reckoning that emerged during the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd. As more people of all backgrounds have become more aware of the need to remediate structural racism, educators and scholars have advocated for honest, open, and developmentally appropriate conversations about race and racism in the classroom.

At the same time, there has been no shortage of unsettling headlines about teachers’ racial biases and their real impacts on children of color–from problematic lessons and microaggressions, to disproportionate suspensions and expulsions, to grading, tracking, and classroom placement.

So where does all this leave teachers?

On the one hand, we have conservative pundits and parents insisting that talking about racism is racist. On the other hand, we have growing recognition of the role of teachers’ racial biases in student’s educational experiences and development. Meanwhile, research suggests that greater awareness of our own potential for bias – while important for behaving more equitably – may be related to heightened concerns about being perceived as prejudiced by others. With current DEI-focused teacher training and professional development programs often centering implicit bias awareness, we wondered whether concern about appearing racist might constitute another, potentially overlooked barrier to teachers’ willingness to facilitate race talk with their students.

Our Study

As researchers in developmental and social psychology, we set out to study this question from an empirical standpoint, relying on teachers’ survey responses: How concerned were educators that their students would perceive them as racist? That their intentions would be misunderstood? To what extent did they intend to engage students in race talk, and how confident were they in doing so? We also used teachers’ scores on an Implicit Association Test to estimate their levels of pro-White/anti-Black bias at an implicit level.

We suspected that implicit racial bias and explicit concerns about appearing racist would each uniquely predict teachers’ intentions to engage in race talk with students. We tested our hypotheses in two large samples of K-12 teachers – one including more than 1000 teachers from around the country who received emails from the anti-bias education organization Learning for Justice, and a second sample including more than 1,000 teachers from a single large, urban school district. Within each sample of teachers, we found the same pattern of results:

  • As expected, greater implicit racial bias corresponded with lower teacher intentions to engage in race talk with students. But, that wasn’t the whole story.
  • Also as expected, greater levels of concern about appearing racist were also related to lower teacher intentions to engage in race talk with students.
  • Plus, greater concerns about appearing racist were related to lower confidence about engaging in race talk with students (whereas implicit bias was not related to teacher confidence).
  • These trends persisted even when statistically controlling for many other school and teacher factors that could potentially shape these trends–such as teachers’ own race, prior diversity training, and motivations to be unprejudiced, as well as the grade level they taught and what percentage of their students were children of color.

What are the implications of these findings?

Overall, these findings (full text here) suggest that while teacher bias and institutionalized racism in schools are hugely important problems to tackle, we also have to contend with educators’ anxieties and concerns about how their classroom practices may be perceived – by students, colleagues, administrators, and parents. To our minds, this means:

1. Teachers need support.

We propose that teacher concerns about appearing racist be recognized as a new focus for teacher training and professional development activities to promote their effective facilitation of race talk. Alongside raising awareness of implicit bias, supporting teachers in addressing concerns related to others’ perceptions may enhance teachers’ willingness and confidence in discussing important racial issues with students. Insight into helping teachers manage such concerns might come from research on intergroup interactions, suggesting that using structured guidelines for conversations or forming contingency plans for persevering through anxiety might be useful, or could integrate mindfulness strategies that have been shown to reduce teacher stress. The goal need not be eliminating teachers’ concerns about being perceived as racist or prejudiced, but instead, minimizing the impact of such concerns on their instructional practice.

We also can’t underestimate the importance of support from school administrators and school policy in helping teachers overcome concerns related to race talk. Institutional support is key. Teachers are more inclined to engage in race talk with students if they can be assured that their colleagues and supervisors will support these efforts. Providing teachers with opportunities to engage in race talk with one another can also provide them with greater experience and insight and better prepare them for facilitating similar discussions with students in their classrooms. Establishing support for race talk within the entire school environment can further support teachers by creating space for them to receive constructive feedback and guidance from peers, rather than feeling like they need to “go it alone.”

Teachers’ conversations about race might be facilitated locally, within a school or neighborhood, or by connecting educators with others from around the country. For example, at EmbraceRace, we bring both educators and family caregivers together to share experiences and learn from each other about how to address racial issues and to support children of color. Some of these conversations may take place among people from the same racial background, to create a space where they can feel comfortable sharing experiences and expressing concerns associated with raising racial issues in their classrooms. Other conversations may occur in multiracial spaces, so that educators can learn from the experiences of others from different backgrounds and gain insights into how to facilitate race talk effectively and engage  in non-biased, antiracist teaching practice.

2. We must defend teachers’ efforts to engage in open teaching and learning about race in their classrooms.

We cannot ignore the current efforts to silence and censor that are likely increasing teachers’ concerns and effectively suppressing their propensities to engage in race talk with students. Particularly for educators who are already uncertain about their ability to facilitate such discussions, the current political climate is likely to deter them from taking the risk and push them toward silence, to the detriment of their students’ intellectual, civic, and social-emotional development.

Protecting educators’ incorporation of race talk into their pedagogy and helping to assuage potential threat associated with being perceived as racist will take organizing and coalition-building among parents, educators, students, and policymakers. Check out initiatives like Race Forward’s H.E.A.L. Together (which includes a great community organizing toolkit) and EmbraceRace’s ongoing webinar series on racial learning in schools.

3. Not only is race talk important, but how we engage in race talk is also important.

Engaging in race-related conversations and doing so with confidence doesn’t necessarily mean that doing so will promote student learning or growth, and poorly facilitated race conversations can inadvertently cause harm. Like others, teachers need not only training dedicated to the importance of race talk, but also explicit instruction, guidance, and modeling in how to investigate race and racism with their students. 

Luckily, we are not starting from scratch when it comes to learning how to teach effectively about race and racism from an anti-bias, anti-racist perspective. For decades, researchers and practitioners alike have documented effective and developmentally appropriate practices growing from bodies of work on multicultural education, culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy, anti-bias early childhood education, and race-related dialogue. Until these topics become fundamental parts of teacher training programs, we must be persistent in translating this knowledge into easily digestible guidance for educators and families. One way EmbraceRace seeks to promote good practice among educators is via virtual, public conversations with skilled anti-bias, anti-racist educators sharing their experiences: like this one focusing on elementary classrooms, and this one focusing on early childhood classrooms.

Building skill in engaging students in race talk requires practice, and requires adults to adopt a learning orientation or growth mindset. Such an approach could potentially alleviate teachers’ concerns, in that they would only need to serve as a thoughtful guide and facilitator of race talk, rather than assuming the role of expert or all-knowing authority. Yet adopting this role also requires a certain degree of vulnerability to engage students in meaningful and authentic discussions about race, and the need to practice in a psychologically safe environment. The larger context – school climate, political climate – needs to allow for that vulnerability, so that teachers can dip their toes into race talk without excessive fears of being labeled as racist, threatened, or run out of town.

4. We must shift our understanding of children’s racial learning.

More broadly, it’s past time to update our common understanding of when and how children notice and learn about race. “Color-blindness” (also called color-evasiveness—a preferred and less ableist term) is deeply embedded in our society and in our schools. It makes sense for teachers to feel some uneasiness about “going there” and talking about race. But both research and experience show again and again that children notice race early and quickly pick up on patterns related to race in their social worlds. If we remain silent, we leave them to draw their own conclusions about what race means and why inequities exist, and reinforce the idea that race is a taboo topic that is wrong to notice or talk about. By recalibrating our shared understanding of when and how children start to notice and learn about race, we may help alleviate educators’ concerns that simply acknowledging race with students could spark accusations of racism.

Resource List

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