How I Teach about Race and Racism

Most traditional education in the U.S. still centers whiteness and emphasizes equal opportunity and rugged individualism.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

My career as an educator has spanned five decades and included 18 years as a high school English teacher in rural upstate South Carolina and another 19 years (and counting) as a professor at a selective liberal arts college in the same area.

As a lifelong Southerner and a critical educator, I have always included lessons addressing social class and race in my classes when teaching high school and now as a university professor.

My goals as a high school English teacher concerning race and racism were primarily to introduce my students to the broad and complex range of Black writers and thinkers, including a historical overview of 20th century Black history that most of my students had never examined.

Students read Martin Luther King Jr. with Malcolm X, and we discussed the tensions among Black intellectuals such as Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington. They also read the literature of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambara, Countee Cullen, and Ralph Ellison.

This was my work toward diversifying the curriculum as an English/ELA teacher, and we definitely had some hard conversations about race and racism. Notably, I introduced my students to the power of racial majorities and minorities by examining the percentages of races among states in the U.S. compared to the U.S. as a nation (our home state of SC disproportionately included a much higher percentage of Black people that the U.S., about 30+% compared to 12%) and acknowledging that while white people were a significant majority in the U.S., white people are a small minority of races in the world.

Of course, these lessons are all based in facts and data along with highly regarded texts by the most accomplished writers and leaders among Black Americans in the history of the U.S. Nothing about these lessons was an effort to demonize white people or propagandize students; but my mission was certainly political in the sense that students had different worlds, ideas, and perspectives offered to them than in most high school English courses throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

As a critical educator, I see education as opportunity to question our assumptions and broaden our perspectives beyond our own race, social class, and geographical setting. I also respect that what ideas and belief students draw from the experiences is theirs to navigate.

But in terms of racism and all types of oppression and inequity, I never avoided confronting clear ethical and moral distinctions. There is not “both sides” to U.S. slavery just as there is no “both sides” to the Holocaust. This was SC and our conversations around the Civil War and the Confederate battle flag were very hard for many students who had been raised with profoundly distorted views of race and racism (states’ rights and Lost Cause perspectives).

Again, I did not badger or indoctrinate my students, but I did introduce them to the history of when and how the Confederate Battle flag was placed on the SC statehouse — as an act of rebellion against integration occurring in the 1960s (and not some historical remnant of the 1800s).

For these high school students, these lessons were primarily about awareness and rethinking assumptions and previously unexamined biases (and stereotypes).

My university courses almost always start with data, such as the following (see here):

Typically, I start these lessons by asking students if they had seen the typical charts showing that people tend to earn more money as their level of educational attainment increases; almost always, they nod that they have. I then ask what the first chart above suggests about “education being the great equalizer.”

Eventually, we agree that education does matter, but more education tends to give a person economic advantages within their race but not among races (in other words, education is not an equalizer in terms of racial inequity).

The second chart is even more powerful since we discuss the message students receive about the horrors of dropping out of high school (I teach at a selective college where students uncritically value education). That white people with no high school diploma have about the same opportunities for employment as Black people with some college is deeply disorienting for students.

The third chart, then, adds even more complexity to the messages students have received about education, race, and gender (note that the inequity of gender and race are intensified when combined).

These lessons are similar to how I addressed race and racism for high school students since I am not propagandizing students but offering a more complex and nuanced approach to race and history than they had experienced before.

Critical educators are apt to provide information often omitted in traditional classrooms.

These charts lead to discussion about race being a social construct (and not biological), systemic racism, white privilege, and unconscious bias.

And those discussions are not about blaming white people, or demonizing white people; they are ways to ask questions that recognize racial inequity and racism are not simply the result of individuals who are racists. We do address blame, but that focuses on behavior (not racial status) in terms of those who actively promote racism, those who passively promote racism, and those who actively acknowledge and resist racism.

We are ultimately interrogating the ways in which racial inequity is built into systems. I introduce students to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and have them consider inequities such as this:

Again, we are examining data and asking questions — one of which is trying to understand why police are likely to do drug sweeps through poor Black neighborhoods and not affluent college campuses; in other words, criminality is not necessarily about individual behavior but about who and why people are targeted by police.

Finally, here is an important point that speaks to the current attacks by Republicans on critical race theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project: My teaching is very consistent over almost 40 years, but my lessons about race and racism in the 1980s and 1990s came before my doctoral program and before I was aware in any way of critical pedagogy and CRT.

The great and ugly irony here is that Republicans are not opposing CRT or the 1619 Project, but are trying to deny students historical facts and data that make them and their power uncomfortable. Republicans are unabashedly trying to politicize the classroom in order to protect their own power.

There is no grand conspiracy in K-12 or undergraduate education to blame all white people for racism; in fact, most students in K-16 education still receive content that under-represents Black people and racism and are taught by a disproportionately white faculty.

Most traditional education in the U.S. still centers whiteness and emphasizes equal opportunity and rugged individualism.

The current attack on CRT is an ugly political lie, but it is also an assault on education — one of the founding principles of the U.S. that Republicans seem far too eager to cancel.

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/