Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is here again, schools around the country are observing the day with instruction on diversity or Civil Rights. Perhaps it’s a speaker, posters prominently displayed in the hall, or other efforts aimed at “celebrating diversity.”
Students may come away from these efforts more aware of Dr. King, but are celebrations enough to create the just society he envisioned? Um . . . not really. While awareness is a first step, eradicating racism will take culturally competent citizens: active, engaged, and caring individual able and willing to:
Participate in personal, social, and civic actions that will help make our nation more democratic and just.
Interact positively with people from diverse groups, whether based on ethnicity, race, culture, class, sexual orientation, gender, or other social groups.
Develop a commitment to act to make their communities, the nation, and the world moral, civic, and equitable.
Classroom instruction and curriculum offer perfect vehicles to develop these skills in students. But many teachers get nervous that they’re going to arouse opposition from parents for being “political.” After all, aren’t teachers supposed to remain neutral? It sounds good, but when it comes to taking a side for equal rights, the answer is no. Equal opportunity and justice are not fringe issues; they are the promise of democracy--and something everyone must advocate for. We must refute the accusation that it’s controversial to stand up for democratic values. Silence about racism is just another form of approval.
What do students need to know?
Effective teaching about race and oppression requires sustained, in-depth instruction that unfolds in a developmental progression. Here are just a few of the essential understandings students must grasp:
Biological differences are normal and natural, yet skin tone is used to categorize people into unequal groups. The centuries-old narrative of white superiority is invented and used in overt and covert ways to justify racial inequalities.
Over our lifetimes, we’ve all received messages about race from families, the community, education and more. This has shaped our attitudes. Prejudiced beliefs are learned and can be unlearned. This is where it’s necessary to learn about others at the personal, individual level.
Individual acts of bigotry stem from biases and prejudices. These are of course wrong. But the problem is bigger: racial hierarchies live and breed throughout society: education, housing, banking, the justice system, and more. And, we’re all part of these systems whether we acknowledge it or not. Responses such as “I didn’t own slaves” deflects attention from examining racism as a system and maintains the idea that racism is just about individual actions.
Culturally responsive teaching
Cultivating deep understanding in students takes teachers with specific skills. Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) offers a framework to reach these goals. Scholars such as Geneva Gay explain that CRT uses the cultural knowledge and experiences as conduits to make learning more meaningful and effective for students. The skills of culturally-responsive teaching include the ability to:
Identify one’s own biases and recognize their impacts.
Challenge the deficit thinking that assumes students of color are less capable and motivated.
Identify how biases and deficit narratives manifest in disciplinary practices, such as the disproportionate suspensions of Black children.
Challenge other forms of institutional discrimination within the school.
Create an inclusive environment that leverages the strengths of students’ cultures, languages, experiences, families, and communities.
Integrate citizenship, critical thinking, and social justice into the core subject areas.
Deliver effective learning experiences about race, class, gender, culture, etc.
A growing body of research (such as this study from Stanford) shows this approach to teaching boosts achievement among students of color. This is especially important given that these students are less likely to have access to rigorous curriculum, advanced courses, experienced teachers, and teachers who hold high expectations of them.
Celebrations of diversity are wonderful and can be a valuable first step. But the problem is not lack of celebration--it’s the lack of will and action to dismantle the structures and policies that confer benefits or disadvantages based on race. In other words, we need to address racism as a system embedded in society while at the same time supporting inclusion and respect at the individual level.
Want more ideas and guidance? You’ll find it in my book.