Racism in the Classroom: What You Can Do About it

What if your son or daughter comes home and tells you about an incident at school in which they were singled out or discriminated against because of the color of their skin? Whether they experienced bias from a teacher, school administrator, or another student, this could be extremely upsetting and unsettling for your teen and you as well. So, what can you do about it? First, take a deep breath. Next, check out these strategies on how to handle the situation.

Start talking about it.

Following the nationwide uprisings that took place after the death of George Floyd, conversations about race need to be front and center. Latisha Ross, Ph.D., Youth-Nex, the University of Virginia Center to Promote Effective Youth Development agrees. “Stress from negative racial experiences can take a toll on any person of color. However, developing teens can internalize these events in ways that are harmful to their mental health and developing social identities.” This is owing to the unique period of development and growth that mark adolescence. When you name these incidents for what they are and address them you contribute to a foundation of wellbeing and safety for young people. It also helps them become a force for good in their communities and society. 

Sit down with your teen to have an open and honest conversation. Ask how the incident at school made them feel. Talk about racial differences, biases, bigotry, and oppression, and what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to race relations. Also, if you feel you’re not an expert on race, let your teen know that and offer to learn more together. Books, resources, and videos can help support these discussions including Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, as well as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, Culture’s online portal called “Talking About Race,” and episode 18 of the podcast My American Meltingpot entitled “How to Talk to Your Kids About Race.”

Don’t be afraid to have uncomfortable conversations.

Yes, talking about race can be uncomfortable and complicated. Still it is these tough conversations that can help your teen grow into an informed, socially and culturally conscious adult. Tamika Evans, a school administrator, and her husband Alphonso, an assistant superintendent in Philadelphia, began talking about race with their children when they were in elementary school. But the heart-to-hearts became a little more serious and candid when their 15-year-old son began attending a predominantly white prep school. Tamika said she, “…asked him if he knew what a microaggression is because someone doesn’t have to call you the N-word for them to be racist.” Alphonso says it’s important to be honest and forthright with your child about race and what’s going on in the country. “You need to have an authentic conversation because it’s not always about Black and white. It’s economic, it’s social – it’s about all of these particular pieces that align with race.” 

Prepare your teen.

When an incident did come up at the Evans’ son’s school in which a teacher pulled two of the Black students (including their son) aside to “brace” them for the use of the N-word in an upcoming novel the class was reading, their son was prepared because of the consistent, open dialogue he’d had with his parents. He actually turned the situation into a teaching moment—for the teacher!  He informed her that his parents had talked to him about race, and explained she had made him uncomfortable by singling him and the other Black student out. He then suggested that she speak to the other students in the class about the N-word instead of just him and his Black classmate. “When he called and told us what happened, it was such a powerful moment,” says Alphonso. “I was proud of him because he was respectful, yet intentional about the fact that the teacher needed to recognize what she did and that it wasn’t the appropriate thing to do.” 

Help transform systems.

Teachers, administrators and schools can be allies in this work. When parents are prepared to meet challenging moments, they can share strategies and best practices with school leaders. For example, Dr. Ross suggests that in the Evans’ sons case, “The class should be instructed not to use the word even in reciting the text. Otherwise, all students are being taught that using the word is fine.” 

Adolescents are forging a sense of identity, learning how to make decisions, manage emotions, and create deeper connections with their community. Their developing brains are well-suited to these tasks, but too often, the systems that serve them are not. As adults, we need to step in to transform discriminatory systems to ensure that all young people have the support needed to explore, develop interests, passions, and meaningful goals that shape lives.   

Don’t ignore it.

You may be tempted to sweep race matters under the rug or downplay them. We’re here to tell you that’s not a good idea. A racial incident at your teen’s place of learning is not something to take lightly. And Dr. Ross says not addressing the matter can have detrimental consequences in which your teen feels dismissed when in need of support. “It is often difficult to address challenging issues, particularly those around race. However, the events may persist if not discussed, and the school may not be aware of such incidents,” she says. “It starts with documenting what happened, each time it occurs, and then discussing with your child how you will proceed.” 

Contact the school.

If you and your child choose to bring the incident to the attention of the school, be sure to complete an incident report if that’s an option. “It’s the school’s job to create safe spaces for all students, and thus, it’s their responsibility to understand the role of race in their school and address issues of discrimination and bias when they occur,” says Dr. Ross. “You can call or email administrators to discuss the incident further and learn how to obtain and file an incident report. If you want to schedule a meeting, make efforts to include the teacher and any school staff present during the incident or any combination of people who need to hear about and respond to what happened. Create a plan for you and your teen to feel supported and make space for your teen to express themselves during the meeting,” she adds. 

Ask questions.

“Ask questions that help you understand the capacity of school personnel to respond to such events,” says Dr. Ross. “Parents can ask those that were present for the incident their view of the event. How did you respond as this was unfolding? This incident caused my child harm/pain/anguish; how can we all understand/acknowledge this?” Parents can also discuss the school’s policies around incidents of racial bias and discrimination by asking, what is the school’s racial equity and inclusion mission and what steps are being taken to be sure that you are living up to your values? 

“Also, think about what action points you would want from each school staff person at the meeting to prevent such incidents or ways they can be maximally supportive if the incident were to recur. Structure the conversation around wanting to create an emotionally safe space for your teen and building or maintaining a positive trusting relationship between your family and the school,”—which is extremely important for your child because they are developing relational skills to participate in healthier and more connected communities. Dr. Ross suggests that it is important for all staff to engage in bias recognition training that builds staff capacity to intervene effectively as opposed to bystanding, escalating, or causing more harm. We can ask schools–what culturally responsive, or anti-racist training do administrators, teachers, and all other school staff have? Are there regular culturally responsive and anti-racist professional development workshops offered to everyone in the school that works with students? These are some steps that schools can take to protect children from racial stress and trauma.

Don’t give up.

If you’re met with resistance from the teacher or school administrators after contacting them about the incident, don’t give up. There may be other options for you to explore. “Parents and students who have difficulty being heard by schools around issues of race and racism can seek out support within the community and the district,” says Dr. Ross. “School districts have family or community engagement groups or equity and inclusion officers trained to serve as a liaison when parents need more support to reach teachers and administrators about the challenges their child faces at school.” If your district doesn’t have this, you can look for local parent advocacy organizations that offer support and advocate for the well-being and safety of students of color.” 

Keep the conversation going.

Talking to your teen about race needs to be an ongoing conversation, not just something mentioned once and never discussed again. “It’s important for parents and teens to discuss race and racism in clear and deliberate ways. What these conversations look like will vary for families of racial privilege and families of color,” says Dr. Ross. For the Evans family, these conversations are frequent and planned. “We’ve been very intentional about talking about race and bias from the beginning and talking to our children about Black excellence and telling them that they are the best and can compete with whoever they choose to,” Tamika says. “I try to educate them because I recognize even as an administrator, our curriculum does not meet the needs of Black and Brown children and that it does not tell the truth about race and history. I recognize that it’s supplemental instead of it being a part of what the entire United States history is. Therefore, I believe that it’s our job as parents to make sure that before our children leave our home, they understand who they are and where they come from.”

Dr. Ross suggests having regular conversations about what race is, as well as ways race has been used to empower some and oppress others. Weaving in historical, everyday racism, and current events dealing with race can also be beneficial for teens. “This is how we can teach our teens to identify, name, and call out white supremacy and racism when they see it,” says Dr. Ross. “We cannot transform problems we do not truly understand. To understand race, racism, and white supremacy, we must begin with learning and discussion.”

About LaShieka Hunter

LaShieka Hunter is a health, parenting, and entertainment writer living on Long Island, NY. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; Essence; Dr. Oz The Good Life; Men’s Health; and Ebony.

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