Preparing to Discuss Race in the Classroom | Facing History & Ourselves
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Preparing to Discuss Race in the Classroom

Use this lesson to help create a classroom environment in which students can discuss the potentially challenging topic of race in brave and constructive ways.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance



English — UK


One 50-min class period
  • Culture & Identity


About This Lesson

This is the first lesson in a mini-unit designed to help teachers have conversations with their students about race in a brave, sensitive and constructive way. Use these lessons to help your students reflect on race and racism – their history and present day impact – and help them consider what needs to be done to create a society in which everyone, regardless of their perceived race, is able to thrive.

Students and educators bring personal experiences and feelings into discussions about race, particularly those who have been discriminated against on account of their skin colour. This lesson begins with a teacher-facing activity prompting the educator to reflect on their identity and feelings around race, so that they are aware of the perspective that they bring to the classroom and are mindful of creating space for the perspectives the students bring. The student-facing activities give students an opportunity to reflect on the emotions that they and their classmates feel when discussing race, and invite students to create a class contract to help ensure the classroom is a safe and supportive space.

  • What feelings do I experience when we discuss the topic of race in class? What feelings do other students in my class experience? 
  • How can we work together to create a brave, sensitive, and reflective learning community?

Students reflect on feelings around discussing race before working together to create a classroom contract to foster a brave, sensitive and reflective learning environment.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 2 activities
  • 1 video 
  • 3 teaching strategies
  • 1 classroom-ready PowerPoint

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts.

The first set of activities are designed for educators to complete independently before the lesson begins.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching each lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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The process of starting with yourself involves reflecting on your individual identity (and considering how this may impact your engagement with certain topics and interactions with students), and then becoming aware of your beliefs, values, biases, politics and emotional responses. This is particularly important when discussing challenging topics like race. When educators start with themselves, they can help develop classroom communities that are centred around relationships and care, and in which students feel safe to discuss challenging issues.

Reflect on your identity using the following questions:

  • Who am I? What factors make up my identity?
  • What parts of my identity are visible and what parts are invisible?
  • How is my identity shaped by power and privilege?
  • What parts of my identity have the greatest impact on how I interact with my students?
  • Create an Identity Chart. Notice which identities grant you membership and privileges in certain groups with power, which ones deny you membership, and which ones shift depending on the context.

Next, take some time to independently engage with the topic of race. 

Consider the following questions:

  • How do I feel about discussing race in class?
  • Complete the following phrase: ‘I mostly feel ____________________ when discussing race because ___________________________________.’
  • Then, consider the following:
    • How might my emotional response to this topic be similar to or different from my students’ emotional responses?
    • Could my emotional response make it challenging to facilitate a reflective conversation?
    • How can I respect the perspectives students bring to the conversation?

Then, reflect on Dr Beverly Daniel Tatum’s smog analogy:

Cultural racism – the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color – is like smog in the air. Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in. None of us introduce ourselves as ‘smog-breathers’ (and most of us don’t want to be described as prejudiced), but if we live in a smoggy place, how can we avoid breathing the air? 1

Now, respond to these questions:

  • What does Dr Tatum’s smog analogy suggest about how racism operates in our society?
  • How does the smog analogy impact how I view my own relationship to racism in our society?
  • How, if at all, does the smog analogy impact my feelings around discussing race in the classroom?
  • How, if at all, does the smog analogy impact how I will engage with the topic of race in the classroom?

Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the PowerPoint for this lesson.

  • 1Dr Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations about Race, revised and updated (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 86.

We believe that conversations about race should be conducted in a safe space. The following activities are designed to create that space in your classroom.

Start with a journal prompt: Students will respond to the same prompt that teachers reflected upon above. Tell students that the following writing exercise is a private journal entry that they will not be asked to share with anyone, so they should feel free to write their most honest reflection. Have students take several minutes to complete this sentence:

‘I mostly feel ____________ when discussing race because _________.’

Now that students have gathered their thoughts, tell them you are going to do a group brainstorm. They should not make ‘I’ statements or share how they feel or what they wrote.

Tell students: Let’s put words on the board that represent the feelings that we think may be in the room when we discuss race. At this point, we will just list and not comment on them.

It is important for teachers and students to acknowledge that these feelings are in the room and that they need not be afraid of them. Each person should be allowed to enter this conversation wherever they are without being judged or shut down. Everyone needs to feel free to participate without fear of being called racist or given any other label.

Follow this discussion with the short video How to Tell People They Sound Racist by New York City hip-hop DJ and blogger Jay Smooth. Give students an opportunity to discuss their responses to the questions, in pairs or as a group.

You may also want to share the definition of racism by Dr Beverly Daniel Tatum, or another definition you have used in the classroom, and discuss students’ responses.

In her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Dr Tatum does not characterise racism as overt discrimination or individual acts of hate. Rather, she defines it as one benefiting from a system of privileges based on race that are subtly ingrained in the surrounding culture, making them difficult to detect. It is possible for people of colour to be prejudiced on the basis of race, but the social system is never in their favour. This is racism. She compares racism to smog: ‘Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in.’

Now create a classroom contract. Acknowledging that these complicated feelings are in the room and considering what Jay Smooth said, ask students:

You can use our contracting guidelines for creating a classroom contract or another procedure you have used in the past.

  • Now look at the list. Ask students:
    • What do the words have in common? (Students might observe that the words are usually mostly, but maybe not all, negative.)
    • What else do you notice? (Students might observe that the words are not just surface observations; they are deeply personal feelings.)
    • Do you have any other important reflections? (Students might observe that the words represent a wide and varied range of responses.)
    • Which of these feelings are most valid? (Stress that they are all valid. You may want to acknowledge that this is a rhetorical question, but it is important to validate everyone’s feelings.)
    • Where do these feelings come from? (Student responses might include personal experiences, stereotypes, social structures, etc.)
  • Ask: What does Smooth mean by the ‘what they did’ conversation? How is that different from the ‘what they are’ conversation?
  • Ask: Do you agree with what Smooth suggests when he says people should focus on ‘what they did’ versus ‘what they are’? How is the difference important?
  • What do we as a community of learners need from each other to have a safe yet courageous conversation about race in this classroom?

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Materials and Downloads

Resources from Other Organizations

The resources below are used throughout this lesson.
How To Tell People They Sound Racist
Jay Smooth's Ill Doctrine

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