Earlier this month I led a workshop for teachers who want to create inclusive classrooms and avoid microaggressions. It didn’t go well, at least not for me. Part of the problem is a rather common situation: As the facilitator, I arrived with a broad framework to support teachers’ long-term knowledge, skill, and capacity building around issues of race and identity development. The participants, on the other hand, wanted a concrete list of actions they could implement right away.
Distance between what is needed and what is desired is evident regularly within diversity, equity, and inclusivity work. The truth is that plenty of lists are available. I could have easily downloaded and brought lists from social media and blog postings that tell teachers the Do’s and Don’ts of anti-bias teaching. These teachers could have done that search on their own.
I recognize the battle I am in against the quick and dirty list. It comes down to a fundamental problem; Effective use of those easy-to-digest lists generally requires one to be clear, nuanced, nimble, and confident about race issues, all with a clear sense of who one is in terms of racial identity development.
My emerging metaphor is the varied approaches people take to weight loss. I want to offer something like a regimen, an approach to overall racial health that includes exercise (practice) and modified eating habits (habits of mind). It’s a pathway toward overall success and well-being. My participants often want the equivalent of diet pills that immediately reduce hunger pangs (the fear and anxiety they feel about race). It’s not as simple as that, though. I know that, and this is my new insight; I need to find a middle ground, something of a both/and within this persistent struggle.
What about the individual who needs a list in order to feel some sense of empowerment and hope, but who is also willing to work hard? I think of my father who needed gastric bypass surgery (a helpful crutch) along with a solid medically-overseen program of dieting (hard work) in order to create a workable lifestyle that supports him to be healthier than he once was.
I’m beginning to recognize that standing solely on my side of the chasm, chastising the desire for a simple list, is not productive. To locate a middle ground, this post offers a list of 10 things teachers can work to get better at doing, over time. It’s a starting place that allows initial attempts to begin right away, but with the caveat that success will develop over time and only with consistent attention.
10 things white teachers should build capacity to do in their classrooms
1. Contextualize yourself. Become a model of a white person who talks about personal racial identity as part of your personal introduction. Name who you are in terms of race, how it has shaped how you see the world, and what it means for you now. Do this without guilt or shame clouding the expression. Be confident in expressing yourself as a white teacher who strives to works toward racial justice both in your classroom and in the world. This capacity can open the door for future conversations with students. If done well, it demonstrates that you’ve thought about these issues and might be safe to approach if something comes up throughout the coming weeks.
2. Take responsibility for your learning. Once you’re able to admit you’re white and that you don’t know everything, be sure to deliver the message that you are seeking out more knowledge on your own, that you’re in process. Then, do that. Do NOT to ask your students of color to be the ones to help you learn. Once your own responsibility to make progress on your journey of self-discovery is established, then it’s perfectly fine to invite feedback and state the value and importance of voices of people of color. Just be sure you’re not giving the impression that you’re relying on people of color in your classroom and on campus.
3. Build a community that recognizes various privileges. As part of classroom community building, ensure that students know and understand that we all have multiple and intersecting social positions (such as race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, education, citizenship status, language, etc.). Some of our various identities/positions involve unearned advantage (privilege) and some do not. Take the shame and guilt away from the acknowledgement of privilege by highlighting that there are many ways to have privilege, and that we don’t individually ask for them. We did not set up the system in which we live. Demonstrate how we move through the world better when we recognize our privileges and work together for a just society. In other words, build a team around rooting out privileged behavior, and engage everyone in recognizing the work we each have to do around being sensitive to each other’s intersectional experiences.
4. Explore microaggressions. Easy to find online, there are concise, two-page publications that explain why many common phrases carry unintended meanings and undermine inclusivity. Engage in discussions to better understand why some statements are microaggressive. For example, if you are conflicted about why saying “The U.S. is a melting pot” or asking “where are you from?” are problematic, do some additional reading or ask questions of those who recognize the historical context and harm. Work with colleagues to find solutions for your campus. Listen to those who are affected and raise awareness within your community about why these microagressions injure.
5. Teach both negative and positive aspects of history related to each discipline area. Reflect on your curriculum and consider the following: What groups are missing? Which underrepresented groups might have been stopped from entry in the past? How have those groups contributed in valuable ways? How can you incorporate this history into your curriculum throughout the year, not just during particular heritage months? An essential message here is to show not only what has been bad, but what is possible in order to provide hope and direction. In short, study the history of racism as well as anti-racism/inclusion for each discipline area.
6. Demonstrate vulnerability. Allow yourself to be a work in progress. Push back against the idea that you’re supposed to be the “sage on the stage” in the classroom. Admitting that you don’t have all the answers and might “fail” at something may be counterculture at the school, but making this a norm is something to work toward. Modeling risk-taking to enter difficult dialogues without necessarily knowing all the right answers can be empowering to students. Your ability to respond with openness when you realize an “ouch moment” has occurred will make all the difference. The ability to apologize when injury occurs (without explaining your intent – usually perceived as a justification) is part of this.
7. Develop both/and thinking and language. Counter the either/or approach to the world and intellectual discussions. A both/and approach in the classroom can look like a white student saying “Yeah, but I was just kidding around” when a joke is made among a multiracial group of friends (whether or not the students of color seem offended). The response on the teacher’s part might be, ”Joking can be really valuable in a lot of ways, and it’s fun. And, it’s important to weigh that value against the injury that can occur when stereotypes are invoked through what is said.” The both/and approach attempts to validate the positive intent of a student while highlighting something new to learn that disrupts the easy narrative. Over time, your language can become more revealing and complex about exactly how it is harmful.
8. Treat everyone as an individual, while acknowledging group differences. This concept requires a level of “both/and” thinking. It is essential because it allows for the fact that very few people sit perfectly within their cultural group. We all have different likes, dislikes, backgrounds, and opinions on sensitive issues. A key to living this out in a classroom is to approach race with curiosity and allow for difference. We can’t tell someone who they’re supposed to be in terms of their racial identity, so we can’t automatically treat people differently just because of their background. The important part is to be open, ask questions sensitively, and be ready to make change as needed.
9. Recognize that “equality” and “equity” are not the same thing. In terms of race and many other diversity issues, the same (colorblind) approach for everyone might not be the best thing to do. Some groups might need different support structures. For example, many schools have begun offering race-based affinity groups. Some also see that providing a space for white students to discuss racial identity/anti-racism issues is important. Recognize that affinity groups for students of color and white students aren’t for the same purpose and have very different issues to address. It may be true that every group is injured by living in a racist structure, but the damage is different in terms of both scope and severity, and the pathways toward healthy navigation are often different.
10. Stand in your own anti-racism. Avoid falling into the white savior mentality of thinking that inclusivity and equity work is being done simply to “protect” students or colleagues of color. Anti-racism is undertaken so that we ALL can live in a more equitable and inclusive society. This is something that we, as white people, want for ourselves. When we recognize the damage done by a Eurocentric curriculum, obliviousness to dominant white values, or microaggressions, then we engage the conversation so that all of us can advance in our thinking. We don’t need a person of color to raise the issue in order for us to take action. Even if the student of color says it’s all fine, it doesn’t have to be fine to us. (Please note that when one is new to this, ensuring that one’s analysis is on target is important. Standing too solidly, too quickly, demonstrates arrogance and may reveal errors of thinking. So, developing the capacity for this takes time.)
As with most things, there are pitfalls to pressing forward with any new task before one achieves readiness. However, it is also true that in regards to these subjects, we often learn by doing. Our voice becomes clearer the more we use it, make mistakes, and then allow those experiences to be learning opportunities. I still believe in the larger and more complete framework for development I offer in workshops, one that more fully lays the ground for building knowledge, skills, capacity, and community so one can become more adept at actually doing the things mentioned in this list. But, I recognize that lists such as this one can offer something that can be attempted now as well as a set of skills to be developed over time.