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How White Educators Can Approach Antiracist Work

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Striving to understand the origins of the concept of race and the effects of implicit biases are good initial steps.By Beth PandolphoAugust 13, 2020

Woman reading a book on her couch

Eva-Katalin / iStock

Although we may not feel adequately trained to become antiracist educators, for me, remaining silent isn’t an option. I believe that, as Dr. Ibram X. Kendi says, we are all “either racist or antiracist; there’s no such thing as ‘not racist.’” Moreover, as painful as it may be to admit, I believe that each and every one of us has deeply held racial biases as a result of growing up in a society that privileges Whiteness.

I think that Whiteness affords educators like me advantages we might not have even realized we had, and recognizing this leads to many questions to ask and assumptions to challenge. Together, we can partner with our students to critically examine ourselves and the society that has shaped us in order to dismantle unjust systems and create a more equitable environment for people of color. I’m still becoming aware of my own deeply held prejudices, and while I certainly don’t have all the answers, here are some ways I think we can attempt to bring about change.

EDUCATE YOURSELF AND LISTEN TO YOUR STUDENTS

First, we need to have a solid grasp of the origins of the concept of race to uncover the false assumptions upon which our society was built. It can be uncomfortable to realize that the fact of our Whiteness limits our understanding of racism in ways we cannot begin to comprehend, and calling ourselves “progressives” or “allies” is an inadequate response to a mission that requires action.

We can broaden and deepen our understanding by reading Black voices like Austin Channing BrownTa-Nehisi CoatesClaudia RankineResmaa Menakem, and Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, and listening to podcasts like Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air1619, and Still Processing. We can also benefit from the wisdom and uncomfortable truths expressed by other White people, like Brene Brown and John Biewen.

As we grow in our racial literacy, we can share our knowledge and resources, engage in critical conversations, and guide our students in the same work. In turn, our students can share with us the vocabulary and conversations of their generation.

CHECK YOUR EGO AND YOUR BIAS

I believe that we must be careful not to center ourselves in antiracist work or seek praise or approval for engaging in that work. Similarly, I believe that we also should avoid feeling overly confident in our approach to antiracism, since the work is, by its very nature, reactive and continuous. Rather, we should humbly acknowledge that none of us are immune to the deleterious effects of living in a racist society, and although confronting our biases can bring up feelings of shame, it is necessary.

As White educators, we can begin to examine our implicit biases, knowing that we cannot effect change if we don’t first work to change ourselves. We can have structured conversations with our students about our thoughts, words, actions, and lack of action—including things we may be ashamed of—in order to model the safety and trust required to engage in the discomfort that comes with engaging in meaningful antiracist work.

This vulnerability isn’t always easy, and I’ve looked for ways to scaffold the process, for both myself and my students. One strategy I’ve used successfully is encouraging students to anonymously write down on an index card a thought or bias they’d like to examine further. After students hand in the cards—face down—I shuffle the cards, redistribute them, and have students read aloud a selected card. This anonymity creates the space to work together to find solutions, and students are heartened to hear that many of their peers struggle with the same issues, conflicts, and biases they do. I believe that change begins with telling the truth, and that this is one way to open the door to honest conversations.

ENSURE THAT ANTIRACIST WORK IS EVERYDAY WORK

I believe that Black voices need to be celebrated beyond Black History Month, and Black authors, scientists, scholars, and leaders must be represented throughout our curricula. Slide presentations, posters, and classroom design should represent all races, and I believe that the words antiracist and microaggression should be woven into the vocabulary of our classroom: We should just as easily be able to ask “In what ways does this book support our work as antiracists?” as we ask “What is the main idea of the text?”

Additionally, I believe that we need to do more than simply stand by when we hear racist remarks, because our silence can convey tacit agreement. Professor Howard C. Stevenson, who works to promote racial literacy in schools, offers what he calls “healthy comeback lines” to use in the face of racial trauma, such as “Excuse me?” and “Can you explain what you mean by that?” When we confront racism with a question, we not only express our disapproval, but we shift the responsibility to the perpetrator to explain his or her actions.

There is much work to do, and we can’t do it all ourselves or all at once. The concept of collective teacher efficacy is a powerful one: We can partner with other similarly minded White educators to help us unpack some of our biases, expand our understanding, and help us develop new strategies in our continued work as antiracists.

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