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?