Let me begin by saying that a ‘non-racist’ classroom is not the same as an actively anti-racist classroom.
Since biases are often inherent/unconscious, a ‘non-racist’ classroom is often unfeasible. It is possible, however, to actively combat racism on a daily basis.
1. Be an Interrupter! Even if it means challenging your fellow staff.
Interrupters are the opposite of bystanders. In order to actively combat racism within the classroom, it’s important to question systems that perpetuate racism and to speak out when you come into contact with them. If you hear comments from staff or families that make you uncomfortable, figure out the most respectful and professional way to make it clear that you do not agree with their assertions.
For example: if a teacher says, “There is such a low turnout for parent-teacher conferences, they must not care about their own kids’ education!”
This might be a chance for you, as an interrupter, to say, “Many of our parents work in the evenings, and without being able to determine their hours, it might be hard for them to get to conferences. That doesn’t mean they don’t value education”.
Along with challenging racist ideas from others, it is crucial to allow yourself to be vulnerable and introspective. Continually examine your own biases and how they may interact in your own classroom.
2. Learn to correctly pronounce the names of students and their parents
Do NOT, and I repeat, do NOT judge the names of your students or members of their families. Understand that encountering names that are culturally different than what you’re used to is NOT the same as children today hearing names like Ethel and Martha and finding them outdated. When people mock old-fashioned names, they do not insinuate a lack of education in the same way as when someone mocks the name of an urban youth. Take the time to learn how to pronounce children’s names the correct way. If you find yourself judging a student based on their name, take some time to realize what that really means about your own biases.
3. Don’t assume things about families of color. Get to know the families and honor their differences
As teachers get to know the families of the children in their classroom, many assumptions can be made. As a teacher, you may find yourself assuming that your class is full of children who come from broken homes.
Think about what it means to believe that stereotype without having any real information about the families [read: bias]. Imagine how negative stereotypes can be perpetuated if this is the message that you, as a teacher, are sharing with your friends and family about the place you work and the people you work with. When the school year begins to get stressful, make sure that you are not engaging in frustrated discussions (venting) that involve students or families. This is not productive or healthy, and perpetuates negative stereotypes as well. Along with getting to know the families, be sure to recognize and respect the differences.
4. Fill your class with multi-cultural children’s books
Do NOT try to be “colorblind” – this is erasure, which is a form of racism. Find texts and materials that represent a wide range of cultural backgrounds, and show your students that each culture should be valued! Teachers who read books about all white kids in white neighborhoods are likely to lose student interest more quickly than those who include diverse characters and settings. This may mean searching beyond the local bookstore or best-seller list on Amazon to find books that portray a variety of races and ethnicities, and show an appreciation for the cultures presented.
Ignoring race and culture is ignoring an essential part of a human being.
Some examples of multi-cultural books are: Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto; From Miss Ida’s Porch by Sandra Belton; Meet Danitra Brown by Nikki Grimes; Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters by Patrick McKissack; One Afternoon by Yumi Heo; Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear by Lensey Namioka; The Stonecutter by Demi; The Good Luck Cat by Joy Harjo; The Arrival by Shaun Tan; Listen to the Wind by Greg Mortensen; Papi’s Gift by Karen Stanton; Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman; and Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts.
5. Focus on ‘restorative justice’, rather than punitive measures
Research shows that students of color are disciplined more often than White students. If you notice as a teacher, that you are more frequently punishing minority students, it is time to critically examine where these differences are stemming from. Are children of color more likely to act out in a classroom setting? Or are your own biases unconsciously contributing to your interpretations of student behavior?
Children who are reprimanded and punished for their behaviors are more likely to resent others and feel ostracized, and less likely to understand the consequences of their negative behaviors.
Teachers can use discipline systems that focus on community building, rather than punishment and rewards. When the focus is on problem-solving and addressing interpersonal issues, students can be held accountable for their actions and words, as well as how they affect the classroom dynamics and culture.
Compared to a disciplinary system where children are given arbitrary teacher-directed consequences for inappropriate behavior (ie: time-out, loss of privileges, phone call home), restorative justice consequences may be an opportunity for collaboration between the teacher and students. The students can begin to feel positively about their ability to contribute to the community in a successful way, even if they have previously disrupted the classroom culture. All students will learn that each person has value in a community, and it requires teamwork to bring it out of some people. Creating a sense of community where ALL children feel welcome, regardless of their past mistakes, is critical to create a classroom where children learn to accept all people
6. Take some time each week to examine your own personal relationship with race, as well as your own possible biases
As a white person, I have often taken for granted the fact that my name, (as well as the language I speak at home) is regarded as “normal” for the community I live in. Since this is not something I think about often, it can be seen as a privilege. [read: white privilege]. White teachers must actively examine their privileges, as well as unconscious biases they may hold.
This may come in the form of calling on particular students more than others, or making assumptions about families and certain children’s academic potential. Even people who are extremely vocal about wanting to bring about change in regards to social justice have inherent biases. Instead of getting defensive and assuring others that you’re definitely “not racist,” take some time to critically examine preconceived notions that you might not realize you have.
Header image: Big Word by Frank Morrison