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Teaching Tolerance: All Students Need Anti-Racism Education
Schools across the nation are committing to the all-important work of anti-racism. Schools with predominately white or privileged students should be no exception.
By Christina Torres
As more and more teachers, administrators, schools and organizations are questioning their practices and looking at the racist history of their institutions, many are finally asking, “How we can listen to and support Black students, teachers and communities who have been systemically silenced for too long?”
This question is essential; and examining anti-Blackness in our practice is something we all must be looking at. Looking at anti-Blackness or inequities brought about by systems rooted in white supremacy and racism is something all students should be doing. While more institutions, including primarily or historically white ones, are committing to this work, white teachers with primarily white students can feel hesitant to discuss these issues since they may not feel it affects them. This idea is a fundamental misunderstanding of what anti-racist work actually is.
Anti-racist work means acknowledging that racist beliefs and structures are pervasive in all aspects of our lives—from education to housing to climate change—and then actively doing work to tear down those beliefs and structures. Those beliefs and structures don’t just exist in primarily white/and or privileged institutions—they thrive there.
Schools that house mostly students and teachers who have benefited from white privilege can lack the perspective to push back on institutional malpractice or racist mindsets that may be present. In addition, it is difficult to convince those with power and privilege to give those privileges up without clear education and work to understand why doing so is a necessity for true justice in our society.
Doing the work in spaces of privilege may look different, but educators cannot pretend that anti-racist work doesn’t exist simply because their student body isn’t directly harmed by racism. There are clear aims that primarily white and otherwise privileged institutions must work toward in the fight against racism.
Teachers must re-evaluate their curriculum.
When teaching standards and core curricula have been developed for your students, it’s easy to simply follow along. However, it’s important to remember that our education system has been founded on historically racist practices, including silencing those from disenfranchised communities.
It’s not just BIPOC who need to see themselves in the literature or history they study. White students need to hear those perspectives as well, just as straight and cisgender students need to read LGBTQ+ stories. This is because students need not just mirrors but also windows into other cultures, as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop notes in her essay “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors.”
Students from communities with white privilege need to hear voices from other perspectives in order to grow their own thinking. Those perspectives need to be diverse and empowering as well—only showing Black suffering or slavery does not begin to break down problematic beliefs about Black people. Instead, students coming from positions of power need to see and understand the power and agency of those who have been historically disenfranchised, particularly since society frequently tells them otherwise. This will allow white students and teachers to have a more accurate and nuanced understanding of our history, while also ensuring they can center BIPOC voices and be allies and accomplices instead of “saviors.”
Students need to understand privilege and rethink power.
Students from privileged communities can struggle to understand privilege since they may feel that they have had to work hard or struggle at times in their lives. Teachers must help students understand how privilege works at a systemic level that may have given students an edge that, while it may be one they didn’t ask for, is still very real.
The work does not stop there, though. It can be easy in teaching privilege to fall into the trap of “white guilt” or “privilege guilt” (or even “survivor guilt” for BIPOC who have moved up socioeconomically and have internalized the belief that their communities were something to be “survived”). While guilt can be an important emotion to notice and process, educators should help students move through it to a place of action. Beyond “feeling bad” about generations of oppression, how can they use this knowledge to advocate for change and begin breaking down their own racist beliefs? How can they also reframe their understandings of privilege so that they stop prioritizing hegemonic ideas of success and worth?
Some of that will mean teaching students to analyze and reframe how they see values and stories from other cultures. Most of us were taught to praise white-dominant cultural ideas: financial success, rugged individualism, paternalism. Because of this, cultures with different priorities may not be seen as “successful” or “valuable” in our eyes and in the eyes of our students. We need to teach students with privilege not to be “saviors” for historically disenfranchised communities, but rather to listen to, value and stand in kinship with them so we can work together toward justice.
Schools must interrogate their practices and how they gained institutional privilege to begin with.
Anti-racist work cannot be done on an individual or classroom level. Administrators, faculty and staff at primarily white or otherwise privileged institutions must question how this has affected their school, students and community. If you don’t have any Black students, why is that? If your school primarily serves folks with high socioeconomic status, what policies and events led to that? Schools need to consider how they can help create more integration in their community by having open and honest discussions with their parents and caregivers about the benefits of diverse schools (including for white students) or questioning policies (such as requirements regarding tardiness and truancy and dress codes) that have made it historically difficult for more diverse populations to join their school community.
This also means making students from historically disenfranchised communities feel included when they do attend school. It’s not enough to simply have representation—students must feel that their identities are validated and that their school is a place that accepts them completely. In addition, schools must hold educators and students accountable when they say and do things that make school unsafe for those they claim they want to support. Only when students feel they will be supported by their schools will they be able to fully become a part of that school community.
As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi notes in his work How to Be an Antiracist, “There is no neutrality in the racism struggle. ... The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism. ... An antiracist is someone who is supporting an antiracist policy by their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”
This means we educators have important questions to ask ourselves: Will I work to be anti-racist? Or will I continue thoughtlessly breathing in what Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum calls the “smog of racism” and allowing that to affect my classroom, school and conduct in our larger world? We must actively take a stand against racism with all our students if we want to truly fight its systemic grasp on society.