How to talk about racism in schools

Teachers need to feel confident facilitating discussions about racial inequality and prejudice but are often underprepared when such conversations arise. Adam Ferner and Darren Chetty have some approaches to aid productive dialogue on this complex subject
11th December 2020, 9:23am
Controversial Topics: How Should Teachers Handle Controversy In School Classrooms?
Adam Ferner and Darren Chetty


How to talk about racism in schools

Conversations about racism are complex, often difficult and sometimes actively harmful. Given this, current methods for teaching about racism and discussing it within pedagogical contexts appear underdeveloped. That's got to change. While the following does not contain hard-and-fast rules, these suggestions may help to facilitate productive dialogue and disagreement in schools.

1. Don't do it in the classroom if you can't do it in the staffroom

Many teachers report having discussed racism with students, but do not have, nor feel sufficiently equipped to have, such conversations among their peers. We suggest that if you have never discussed racism in a room of your peers, you are poorly prepared to conduct a class discussion on the topic, and will likely underestimate the way that institutional power plays out in the classroom.

2. Where you are is almost as important as what you say

As we learn from writers such as bell hooks and Michel Foucault, conversations are hugely affected by the spaces in which they are held. The physical and social shaping of the room will inform the discourse. 

Desks, for instance, may figure as literal and figurative obstacles to free and open dialogue. More generative discussions may emerge if conversants are, say, sitting in an open circle. 

The academic context - often a bare white room - carries its own associations and may appear more inviting to some participants than others. In the British context, whiteness - a system that, as Barbara Applebaum puts it, "produces and reproduces white supremacy and privilege" - can assert itself through the images on the walls (pictures of "pale, stale males", for instance), implicitly legitimising certain voices over others.

3. A conversation about racism does not exist in isolation

What goes on the walls reflects institutional interests. As academics Charles Mills and Zara Bain have shown us, in curricula, syllabuses and literary canons, certain issues are foregrounded while others are pushed to the margins. 

In the British context, history syllabuses often focus on English monarchs - Henry VIII is a firm favourite - while overlooking the colonial exploits of the British Empire. The academic context in which conversations about racism are conducted will affect the resources that students and teachers have to draw upon. 

4. Turn taking, care taking

Ground rules are important. Teachers often see a tension between "risk" and "safety" and tend to emphasise the latter over the former. Safety in the classroom is paramount but, as the scholar Sara Ahmed tells us, an overemphasis on it can inadvertently shut down the possibility of relevant and important expressions of frustration or anger. 

By telling interlocutors they cannot become angry or (euphemistically) "vocal", teachers may prevent them from legitimately engaging with the emotional dimension of injustice. Telling a Black student they cannot be upset when discussing anti-Black racism prioritises the "safety" of others over the Black student's emotional wellbeing.

Ground rules will be different for every group. In general, we have found it helpful to foreground "turn taking" and "care taking". Facilitators can encourage group regulation by ensuring different participants "have a turn" while moderating the conversation with positive language and reinforcement. 

Composing ground rules as a group (on a whiteboard, for instance) creates a collaborative atmosphere and gives participants a written document to refer to if the discussion becomes too "risky".

5. 'Can you tell me more?'

An emphasis on "relevance", and "speaking to" previous points can restrict dialogue. It is not always easy for a speaker to "get to the point", especially when the subject matter is emotionally charged. 

At the same time, rambling monologues can function to silence other voices. 

Questions can help here. In her paper Curiosity and inquisitiveness, Lani Watson identifies some of the ways that we use questions: to glean information, to express concern, to express ourselves, to simply announce our presence in a room. A well-placed question can assist a speaker and open up a conversation. 

However, it is important to remember that questioning can turn into interrogation. Certain questions - such as "Are you kidding?" - can cause an interlocutor to become defensive. Others put undue pressure on some participants - "How can I help protect you from racism?" - leading to the phenomenon known as "epistemic exploitation". 

The question "Can you tell me more?" demonstrates a readiness to listen and, as Watson puts it, "stay in the conversation". When confronted with potentially volatile statements, it can help de-escalate and generate knowledge.

6. Discomfort indicates you are covering a subject that matters

Difficult conversations are often uncomfortable. Many prefer to avoid them and, for this reason, are poorly equipped to deal with them when they (inevitably) arise. 

Moreover, as the academic Megan Boler has said, discomfort can be a good indicator that we are doing something right, that we are talking about something that matters. If we were not in some way invested in the subject, we would not care as much.

Acknowledging and staying with an uncomfortable subject can be productive in a way that avoidance cannot. 

There are limits, however, and in some instances, uncomfortable conversations can become actively harmful. "Staying with" a conversation should not be a matter of forcing others to remain in a conversation.

7. Conversations have consequences

When conducting a difficult conversation, it is important to be aware of how long you have allocated for it to take place. Assigning time to reflect on the discussion is a helpful way to decompress and reacclimatise. 

Interruption by the school bell may upset the process. It is worth encouraging participants to reflect on the session, especially its emotional dimensions. If there was heat, consider what produced it. How might it be better moderated in the future? Such conversations can have long-lasting consequences and are rarely over when they're over.

8. Create space to breathe

We live in a society riven by inequality. When talking about racism or other forms of structural injustice, we must remember that certain issues will be new to some participants and very familiar to others. The knowledge gap between these groups can be a tangible source of discomfort and frustration. 

Listening to the same defensive strategies - such as appeals to "reverse racism" - can take an emotional toll on, for example, students of colour who have routinely had their views and experiences discredited. 

For this reason, it can be helpful to create "breaks" in the conversation, during which participants can talk to the facilitator about any possible concerns.

9. Provide resources

There is always more to say and more to think about. With this in mind, it is helpful for facilitators to provide resources that participants can take home with them and investigate in their own time (reading lists, blog lists, podcast lists, etc). 

While it's best for facilitators to create their own lists - which they can speak to and discuss - we would recommend texts such as Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017). For students at a higher level, we would suggest Barbara Applebaum's Being White, Being Good (2010) and Sara Ahmed's Living a Feminist Life (2017). 

We also cover many of the above and related topics in our own book, How to Disagree

Adam Ferner is an independent researcher and youth worker. Darren Chetty is a teaching fellow at University College London and taught in London primary schools for 20 years. They are the co-authors of How to Disagree (Quarto, 2019)

This article originally appeared in the 11 December 2020 issue under the headline "Talking about racism is crucial, so don't wing it"

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