Race Equity Ed Blog

Race Talk

By Ali Michael
Posted February 6, 2012 

I grew up in a family where we never talked about race. No one ever explicitly said we couldn’t engage conversations about racial matters; it was just something we didn't do. These norms suggested to me that race is a topic that should be avoided. Bringing it up made me feel awkward and ashamed – not only because I didn't know how to talk about it (years of avoiding the conversation didn't exactly build proficiency), but also because doing so would break the unwritten rules of my community.

The same norms of avoidance that were enacted in my family followed me through the schools I attended and into my first job as a teacher. As a White woman, I quickly realized how unequipped I was to do my job. I believe that as White people, and as teachers in a racist society, we constantly have room to improve our practice.

Learning how to talk about race is not a formal requirement for teaching, but it should be. There are at least two important reasons why:

(1) Race is a core dimension of our students’ lives and identities. When we ignore it, a big part of them gets ignored. If we want to create student-centered classrooms, we have to be able to recognize all of who our students are. This does not necessarily mean teaching about the Civil Rights Movement or condemning racism (though neither is bad to do). But it does entail, for example, participating in substantive conversations with students of color about topics that are of cultural importance to them. It also means talking with parents of color without feeling threatened or defensive. It involves removing shame from conversations pertaining to race.

(2) Teaching all students equitably requires noticing, naming, and responsibly addressing the practices, policies, and conditions that maintain racial inequities among them. If White girls were overrepresented in remedial education or grossly underrepresented in honors courses the same way that Black students are, we would be outraged. We would name it, question it, and work aggressively to change it. But because we are afraid to say the word “Black” and are more inclined to use code words (e.g., “urban youth”) to describe students whose lives are disproportionately damaged by educational malpractice, we allow cultures of avoidance to remain normal in education and society. 

Being able to talk about race is a critical part of our work as educators, yet many White teachers grew up like I did, in communities where we learned more about how to skillfully avoid talking about race than we did about how to engage in important (and necessary) race-related conversations. Talking about race, acknowledging and understanding racism, and engaging race questions are skills that we can learn, just like differentiating instruction or using manipulatives to teach math. As is the case with other teaching methodologies, learning about race requires learning new theories, assimilating new knowledge, examining our prior socialization and biases – and practice, lots of practice.

Ali Michael, Ph.D. is the former Director of P-12 Consulting Services and Professional Development for the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, as well as founder of the Race Institute for K–12 Educators.