Tools for Eliminating Racism in the Classroom
By Matthew Lynch
Despite legislative changes that have made schools accessible to everyone, the mindsets of individuals who attend or work in schools have been slower to adapt and change. Racism, often thought to be eradicated from K-12 classrooms, is still alive and well, even in the most progressive districts. What can teachers do to erase racism once and for all?
For young students
One effective way to address racism when talking to elementary students is to follow the curriculum of the Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children that was developed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The key here is to begin educating young children so the level of prejudice is significantly diminished as they move through grades beyond preschool or kindergarten. Children as young as two years old are keenly aware of racial intolerance. Research has found the following progression:
- Age 2—children are aware of gender differences and the various names for different skin colors around them.
- Ages 3–5—children begin to define themselves and who they are by comparing themselves to those of different gender and skin color.
- Ages 4 or 5—children begin to select friends on the basis of race and begin to recognize and take on the gender roles that society has promoted.
With a conscious effort and use of programs such as the one described above, slowing down or halting the development of biased attitudes and behaviors can curb racism.
For older students
Teaching Tolerance is a great tool to address prejudice and intolerance among older children and teens. This program was created after a 1988 attack on an Ethiopian man by a group of teens in Portland, Oregon. It focuses on racism as a psychological attitude. Tolerance is defined as “the capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.” The main goal of the program is to ensure the availability of resources and materials that promote and teach an understanding of race and culture between white and non-white groups to all schools.
One of the primary problems facing teachers and educators today when it comes to teaching about racism and tolerance is the psychological impact of such teaching on white students. With the knowledge of racism and the role played by whites in perpetuating it, white students often experience feelings of guilt and shame. Since these are strong and undesirable emotions, it is far easier for teachers to avoid teaching about racism, rather than deal with feelings that accompany a topic that continues to be difficult to discuss. The key is to help the students produce a positive self-image when it comes to dealing with racism, and to promote feelings of allied relations as whites and blacks or other minorities fight racism together. This will counter the feelings of guilt that come with the realization of the reality that racism continues to exist.
Educators also face outside influences, including attitudes at home, that can lead to racist attitudes. By putting in place an atmosphere of positivity towards all people, without expressly cutting down those who have racist views, teachers can show students that their attitude will make a difference moving forward, breaking the cycle of racism.