Race must not be a taboo subject in the classroom

11th December 2015 at 00:00
Teachers are afraid of causing offence, but students need to talk about who they are


In my experience, there is virtual silence when it comes to conversations about race in schools. Teachers appear hesitant to share their thoughts and are apprehensive about where a conversation about race may go next.

To try to find out why, I posted a survey for teachers on social media. The responses were small in number (53 teachers), but they revealed interesting attitudes.

The first thing I noticed from the survey was the response to the question “What race are you?” A clear majority answered “white British”, while three teachers used the racial vocabulary of “Caucasian”.

This is notable as “British” is not a race. Some educators also prefixed answers with their skin colour, suggesting that at a societal level understandings of race are merging with ethnicity.

Another interesting finding concerned whether participants felt that state education was providing children with enough opportunities to share their understanding of race, culture and ethnicity. A majority answered that only rarely or sometimes does their school offer such opportunities.

Finally, in response to being asked “Do you worry about offending others when conversations about race arise in the classroom?”, a majority answered “yes” or “sometimes”. Small though the sample was, the results confirm what I and many others already thought: teachers don’t have a firm understanding of race, nor do they feel comfortable talking about it. There is a fear among teachers of offending someone.

How do we get around this? We could wait for guidelines incorporating a body of terms that will make discussions “safe”, but my feeling is that this would be restrictive.

Let’s be honest

Conversations about race need to be unpredictable, to broach sensitive topics and, most importantly, to be honest.

So, how can we encourage more open talk about race and culture in our classrooms?

It is important to respect personal views about race and what it can mean – that might be how we look, feel or act. For example, my mixed-race background is an integral part of my identity: the influence of my background on me is greater than having mixed or dual heritage, which personally I associate with customs and culture.

My appearance changes in hotter periods and this alters my experience of the world as people make different assumptions about me. Discussions must accommodate this fluidity.

Teachers also need to stop worrying and realise that offence is generally caused by deliberate, ill-intentioned comments rather than by those people trying to appreciate the views of others.

We need to talk openly among ourselves, too. If we as an educational community can’t talk about race, how are those in our classes going to be able to? Let’s break the culture of silence. Teachers provide the role model for learners to work from. One way to make progress is for staff to share their backgrounds not only with each other, but with students too. Our classrooms must be places where all learners are able to be open and share who they are.

Challenge assumptions

Teachers did make assumptions about me and usually opened dialogue by asking where I was from. This can be perceived as either singling out or building positive relationships by showing an interest. I felt it was the latter, but some won’t feel that way. It’s about knowing your learners and using cues from body language, voice tone and what is being said to understand how your interaction is perceived.

Finally, we must be aware of the judgements we all make. We form impressions of people based on our own knowledge, experiences and information available at the time. However, it is important we test these impressions by talking to people as individuals, rather than assuming our interpretations are correct.

Kieran Dhunna Halliwell is a teacher and education writer and researcher

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