Having Conversations with Students About Race

By Jerry Barone, Chief Clinical Officer, and Laine Whitaker, MSL

Educators have their hands full. The pandemic has brought about enormous mental health and educational challenges, the scope of which are still unmeasurable. At the same time, interwoven throughout all these challenges, are racial injustices and disparities that seem to be widening by the minute.

Teachers are struggling to maintain their primary educational missions, and yet cannot ignore the mental health needs of students, nor the racial trauma that affects so many of their students. In light of the current public health emergency, and the political/racial/social unrest that is rocking the country, it is inevitable that racial questions and discussions will emerge that need to be sensitively handled both in and out of the classroom.

Most Americans avoid talking about race. It is uncomfortable. Many have not explored their own racial and ethnic identities, much less tried to understand the identities, feelings, beliefs, and experiences of others who are different from themselves. But we are doing ourselves and our students a disservice if we continue to avoid these critical discussions.

According to research recently published by The American Psychological Association (APA), “Adults in the United States believe children should be almost 5 years old before talking with them about race, even though some infants are aware of race, and preschoolers may have already developed racist beliefs. … Previous research has shown that 3-month-old babies prefer faces from certain racial groups, 9-month-olds use race to categorize faces, and 3-year-old children in the U.S. associate some racial groups with negative traits. By age 4, children in the U.S. associate whites with wealth and higher status, and race-based discrimination is already widespread when children start elementary school.”

It is never too early to start speaking with children about racial differences, to set the foundation for understanding, appreciation, and tolerance. This is, of course, a complicated topic that merits much study and reflection. Some great books and other materials are suggested below. But here are some do’s and don’ts to consider:

· According to Dr. D.W. Sue, (book cited below), five ineffective strategies for instructors to engage in when race arises in classroom discussions are to do nothing (i.e., stay silent); to sidetrack the conversation (or allow others to sidetrack it) and thus avoid it; to appease participates, e.g. by emphasizing commonalities rather than exploring differences, or to try to tamp down the expression of strong emotions; to end the discussion, e.g. by tabling it and then never returning to it, or by suggesting that these discussion are better discussed privately or out of class; or to become defensive.

· Dr. Sue suggests that educators explore/understand their own racial and ethnic identities; model openness and honesty by acknowledging their own racial biases and attempts to deal with their own racism; allow space for and validate the expression of strong feelings including anger and anxiety; control the process but not the content of race talk; express admiration and appreciation for students who take the risk to express strong feelings.

· Avoid possibly well-meaning but harmful approaches such as the colorblind strategy (e.g., “Skin color doesn’t matter,” or “We’re all the same on the inside”) that invalidates racial identity, or suggesting that it is impolite or inappropriate to talk openly about race.

· Be mindful that different age groups require different approaches (see APA parent tips PDF below).

· Open discussions with colleagues, friends, and other mental health professionals, etc. to raise your own awareness and tolerance for difficult conversations about race.

Resources:

Children notice race several years before adults want to talk about it (apa.org)

parent-tips.pdf (apa.org)

Stevenson H. C. (2014). Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference. Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York. NY.

Sue, D.W. (2015). Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Tatum, B. D. (1997, 2017). Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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