How we should discuss racism with students?
**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**
A guest column by Gary Hamilton
The terrible tragedy at a church in Charleston, the circumstances surrounding the death of Sandra Bland, the anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting, and countless acts of racially-motivated violence have once again reminded us that racism still continues today. Messages of hate and prejudice – the Confederate flag, the inequities in our systems of justice and education, and the media’s standard response to events involving people of color – continue to cause feelings of fatigue and isolation.
It is still hard for us as a country to fully acknowledge the racism that permeates the US. Especially in our schools, where we too often dodge or soften conversations about racial issues.
To bring about healing and impact change, I believe that teachers must have difficult conversations about race in order to bring about unity and understanding. We have the platform to achieve this, but we need to step away from the shadows of implicit messages. We have to speak openly and guide our students as well as each other through these challenging issues.
Teachers must be able to talk openly about racial issues.
Educators frequently engage in heated professional discussions with one another, yet when topics of race emerge we feel that we must walk on eggshells. To me, this is a serious problem. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of understanding each other and feeling free to share our cultures and histories. Our differences sustain who we are, and in order to create pathways for our students to feel accepted for who they are, we must foster these conversations.
I often find that some of my white colleagues stumble when speaking about issues that specifically affect the black community, if they address them at all. Maybe they feel uncomfortable and worry that I will place blame on them. Maybe they are unsure how to present their questions without offending me. But to eliminate the pitfalls of sugar-coated explanations or weak rationale for terrible acts of violence that occur, we need to be able to talk openly and honestly about racial issues.
How can we foster this? We can engage in controlled, passionate, solution-oriented conversations. In these conversations, we need to remember to leave our judgments at the door, to remain open-minded, and continue to demonstrate respect, even when we disagree. It is also important to assess the tone of the room, as some conversations are not ready for those who tend to play the devil’s advocate. Starting with validation can place individuals at ease and increase the likelihood of a healthy discussion. As educators, we can encourage these conversations with our students, their parents, and with one another.
Conversations about race are important to clarify generalizations.
I fear that my students may see the surveillance footage and media images of the man responsible for the Charleston attack, and think that the odious crimes against black people are perpetuated by all white people. The myriad of recent events where white police officers have abused their authority and acted with unwarranted violence towards black people keeps this belief afloat. Not having the space to ask questions openly about events such as these leads to stereotypes, fear, and hate.
We must acknowledge the danger of our country plunging into the abyss of racial divides. We were once and in many ways continue to be a country that treads lines of black versus white issues. We must prevent students from viewing the world through this lens by teaching them how the tainted ideology of a person can negatively impact all people. It is important to not distort the truth, but the format we use to tailor and present the truth is essential to how it will be processed.
We must remove the spotlight from the bad guy.
The spotlight should instead be shined on the inequalities within our justice system and our education system and the detrimental impact this has on minorities. It should be shined on strengthening gun control and safety laws and the increasing need for readily accessible mental health services. We need to stop focusing the perpetrators of these crimes and start focusing on systemic inequities that spur racism.
I trust that we are a nation that understands the menu for healing, but we cannot atone for ferocious acts without examining the root causes of racially-charged hate crimes. It is time that we move away from a place of fault and blame and into a place of realistic improvement for all people.
As we embrace the families whose loved ones have been lost through senseless acts of racially-motivated violence, we must recognize that history is repeating itself and that racism is still alive and well today. This truth is masked by the media and by our daily interactions with one another, where we avoid conversations about racial issues. To move forward, we need to have difficult conversations about the racism in our country. We can start these conversations in our classrooms.
Gary Hamilton grew up in the Dallas Independent School District, and is now a 5th grade special education teacher at Wheatley Education Campus in Washington, D.C. He has been teaching for 9 years. Gary is an America Achieves Fellow, a teacher trainer for the Flamboyan Foundation, and a Teacher Selection Ambassador for the District of Columbia Public Schools.