Learning to Talk About Race: One School’s Journey

Right now our schools are closed and we are facing a national crisis that is exposing inequities in education like never before. Teachers are struggling to maintain relationships and engage students. Students are struggling to find the motivation and the resources to succeed. When this pandemic is over, schools will have to rebuild their communities, their relationships and readjust their expectations. To successfully rebuild authentic relationships, we must recognize the role race plays in our society, in our schools and in ourselves. And we must know how to talk about it.

I work for a school in which 100% of students are former high school dropouts. Over 80% of our students are of color and over 60% of our staff is white, including myself. We have spent the past year using Glenn Singleton’s Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools (2015) as a guide for discussing systemic racism, internalized oppression, bias, microaggressions and more within the context of our own stories.

Addressing race with staff has been anything but easy. There are people who are disgruntled with our school’s new path and there are often moments when I fight my own white savior complex. My self-work has brought up painful realizations of all the ways in which I’ve oppressed marginalized students. But I have not made this journey alone and it is through the strength of my equity team that the joy has been greater than the pain. Together we have engaged our colleagues in introspection and difficult racial conversations that have allowed us to understand ways in which we have either perpetrated or been a victim of oppression. Our work has allowed us to reexamine long-held beliefs about our students’ potential and the ways in which our expectations and assignments serve to either empower or disenfranchise our students. We have been able not only to begin these discussions, but to sustain them. Throughout this year, I have learned some hard, valuable lessons about what it takes to be successful leading this work.

Share your why. Figure out your personal why, gather the whys of others who are committed to race work, talk to students about why schools should talk about race, and share the whys with everyone. Make your message clear and strong about why this work matters. Follow it with action. 

Action: As you do your self-work (see below), take notes on why you are pulled to this work. Why are you engaging? Why does this matter to you? Transfer these notes into a coherent “why” statement to share with your staff. This is the first step to modeling vulnerability as a leader. Explore some examples here: JMCS equity team video, JMCS administrative voice recording.

Gather a team. Working with others challenges you to be honest, vulnerable and to stay the course. It also ensures you are not the lone voice and helps to build a core group of support that you will need to lean on and learn from. You will fail in these conversations and it feels better when you fail with a safety net. If you are a white school leader, working with colleagues of color is essential to developing a balanced perspective and understanding of experiences in order to ensure your whiteness does not impact the work in a negative or unbalanced way. There is strength in numbers and even more strength when the numbers represent many different races.

Action: After your first PD day, send an invitation to staff asking for volunteers who are  interested in supporting this work at your school. Follow up with respondents to arrange your first meeting. At this first meeting, establish shared goals and meeting protocols.

Self-work comes first. I’m not the first to say this, but I can tell you why it’s true. I can’t expect others to be vulnerable and reflect deeply if I can’t model that. And I can’t model that without figuring it out for myself first. If I am leading a group in reflecting on oppression, I cannot lean on colleagues of color to share ways they’ve experienced oppression. I have to own that – as a white woman, how have I oppressed others? My honest reflection and sharing will set the stage for others to share and think deeply. If I can’t do it, I can’t expect others will either.

Action: Choose a book and start reading. If you are white, your work is to understand your privilege and learn to listen to the stories and experiences of people of color in our world. If you are of color, your work is to prepare to share your story and to learn about whiteness and the ways in which it permeates all aspects of society, including communication norms. Here are suggested resources for getting started.

Who you are today is not who you were yesterday – and it’s not who you will be tomorrow. This simple statement from Courageous Conversations About Race equity trainer Marcus Moore allows people to be vulnerable, to speak their truths and share their stories because it assures us that what we share does not define us. We can share ways we’ve oppressed others in our past because we know – and others know – that’s not who we are today. We can share our questions about systemic racism because we know – and others know – we can learn new things and see the world differently tomorrow than we do today.

Action: This statement is grounded in Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset – the idea that ability and intelligence are not fixed traits but that our brain is constantly growing and changing. We can impact that growth and change, including changing habits and thinking patterns, with concerted effort. Here is a short compilation of growth mindset resources for framing this type of thinking.

The best moments are interpersonal. The most meaningful learning comes from talking with peers. Content input is important; people need to understand where race comes from, what systemic racism is, what whiteness is and how it impacts relationships. This is not where transformation will come from though. Transformation will come when two people have a chance to talk, when they feel safe enough to be vulnerable and strong enough to share things they may have never shared before. Transformation will happen when people connect deeply with other people and learn to understand and accept other people’s truths.

Action: Consider using a Racial Autobiography or Life Map activity with constructivist listening dyads as meaningful first activities.

There is no clear road map. The road to developing racial literacy and being culturally responsive isn’t actually a road, it’s a sand dune. As long as your drive and willingness have the right wheels, your only job is to get to the top of the dune to see beyond it. There’s no one way to get there, you will sink and you will get stuck. Your drive and willingness will get you where you need to go. For those who like to plan and who have clear endpoints in mind, this will be the trickiest thing to navigate. Meaningful conversations will not happen if you stick to your plans.

Action: Return to your why and your favorite reads. What is your motivation for seeing this through? Why are you engaging in this work? Lean on your equity team or a close confidant and share your struggles with them. Power and strength come from leaning in to the work and being vulnerable with those who are in this work with you.

Systemic racism is a helpful starting point.  While there is no clear road map, it helps to begin with systemic racism. People must believe systemic racism is real and unknowingly perpetuated. Without this understanding, conversations turn too easily to income, gender and other inequities. To focus on race, we have to accept systemic racism and recognize its impacts on our society. 

Action: This diagram from Lindsay Hill is a great framing tool as are the Courageous Conversation protocol instructions to define and isolate race. Julian Weissglass’ definition of racism is helpful in that it implicates systems and structures over people. Here are some resources for allowing staff to explore systemic racism and its impacts.

You can’t already know. If you have a plan and a goal, if you expect you already know what others will say, if you know what you want others to leave with, forget it. If you’re doing things right, none of that will pan out – or if it does, you should be surprised by that at the end of the day because you got there in unexpected ways. Meaningful conversations turn and twist and leaders must ask questions that may take them to dark, unplanned, scary places. If you don’t ask those questions, you won’t get anywhere. Alternatively, if you do ask those questions, don’t wrap up the answers in a nice, neat bow. 

Action: Make sure you have your favorite probing questions in your back pocket. These questions will allow you to take conversations deeper and stay in uncomfortable moments. Review them and identify a few to have at your fingertips before heading into a conversation or PD session.

There will be no closure. Closure and the need to wrap up conversations in a pretty package is a tenet of white supremacy culture. Teachers are experts at closure because it’s what we’ve learned as an effective strategy to end a class period. In these conversations, attempting closure will inevitably marginalize someone’s voice by relegating their words to your own tidy summary. Non-closure feels messy and ugly; it can sound like silence and discomfort. And it can be left that way.

Action: Master the art of saying “Thank you for sharing” and either moving on or leaning in. There will be times when someone shares something powerful and you will lack a proper response. That’s okay. Saying “thank you” allows the person to be heard without having to be “saved” by anyone’s improper reaction. This Whiteness Visible podcast episode from Teaching While White briefly discusses our common need for closure and provides valuable insight.

Your job is to hold space. If you do your job, you open space for allowing people to speak their truth and you open space for healing. You are not in charge of anyone’s learning and you are not in charge of changing perspectives. You are in charge of creating a safe space that allows people to share their whole selves and all the stories of their lives. You’re also in charge of facilitating healing through ensuring discussion norms are upheld, implementing discussion parameters and monitoring that white fragility does not marginalize anyone’s voice.

Action: Consider using the Courageous Conversation norms and agreements to maintain a safe space. In our first full professional development day (Winter 2020), we spent time reviewing and practicing these parameters and returned to them at the beginning of every subsequent professional development day.

Talking about race won’t solve all of your problems. You should rather expect it will create problems. Developing racial competency isn’t a quick fix for a school’s woes. First, it’s not quick. Second, it cannot be a solution you seek to address your school’s issues. Talking about race is about seeking to understand others, ourselves and the world we live in. It’s about understanding history and the present, understanding harm and working to repair hurt, becoming whole human beings together with others. It’s a piece of developing cultural responsiveness and learning to serve all students as best we can. But it’s not a one-off and it won’t fix the tardies, the ditching or the students vaping in the bathrooms.

Action: Be wary of calls for strategies and solutions from participants. This is a red flag that people are not diving deep enough into themselves to discover the impacts of race. Until they do this uncomfortable work, strategies and solutions are meaningless. It’s okay to name this and let participants know you are not in this for a quick fix but rather a deep dive into self.

Julian Weissglass (2001) writes, “Since schools are the primary formal societal institutions that young people encounter, they have enormous responsibility in combating all forms of racism. What schools do, or don’t do, has a significant impact on the future of society”. After COVID-19 and beyond, if schools can support the building of authentic relationships within their community, relationships that include a recognition of race, we will be on track to dismantling the inequities we’ve been forced to face.

For more details and resources about our school’s journey, visit Learning to Talk About Race

By |2020-06-23T11:45:56-04:00June 22, 2020|

About the Author:

Rachel is the Director of Curriculum and Professional Development for John Muir Charter Schools and has been an educator for 18 years. She began teaching in traditional elementary and high schools before moving into alternative education. She strives to be an equity-minded, relationship-focused educator and is passionate about real world, authentic learning experiences.

One Comment

  1. mogan July 6, 2020 at 11:37 am - Reply

    Thanks for writing this blog. It is very much informative and at the same time useful for me

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