2 January 2022

Teachers Tell All: Race, Racism, and Education

During the summer of 2021, newspapers and magazines were full of stories explaining Critical Race Theory (CRT) and expounding on its political implications. In the broadest sense, CRT is a way of understanding history and recognizing that privilege, power, and racism have always been defining features of society. Academics, activists, and allies can use that understanding to work towards justice for marginalized groups. Because the framework is complex, analytical, and contains many nuances, CRT is usually taught in university settings.

Critics often misunderstand the theory and say that CRT paints all white people as oppressors. These critics, some of whom may feel threatened by discussions of race and power, frequently use CRT as a blanket term for any educational content on diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism. This politicized misinterpretation has led lawmakers to ban the teaching of CRT in Tennessee, Idaho, and other U.S. states.

What the sensationalized headlines and Facebook debates often miss is that CRT is a theory, and all theories — from the theory of evolution to the Pythagorean theorem — must be taught and studied carefully to be truly understood.

While fussy parents and armchair hecklers gave their two cents over the summer, many teachers, particularly teachers of colour, continued to educate their students on history, oppression, and injustice, giving young people the context needed to understand the debates happening around them.

To dig deeper, Ripple of Change interviewed teachers from several countries about their classroom experiences, how they teach students about race and racism, and what schools and parents can do to prepare the next generation of changemakers.

Meet the Teachers

Teachers Q&A - Amanda

Amanda Cardenas

Amanda is an independent curriculum coach located in Illinois (U.S.). She taught in the classroom for 13 years.

Teachers Q&A - Dom

Dominique Dalais

Dominique is an International Baccalaureate (IB) and currently teaches physical education to 11 to 16 year-olds in Egham, U.K. With more than 25 years of experience teaching, he also runs International Teachers of Colour, an organization that shares conversations and educational resources.

Teachers Q&A - Nikitha

Nikitha Fester

Nikitha teaches grades 10 to 12 in the French immersion stream in Vancouver, B.C.

Andrea Bazemore

Andrea owns and teaches at the Black Apple Virtual School, which supports interest-based learning.

Teachers Q&A - Aimee

Aimee B.

Aimee is a teacher based in Surrey, B.C. with a focus in English, social studies, and science. She typically teaches alternate programs and teaches a variety of courses to meet individual learning needs.

How diverse is your classroom? 

Amanda: The classrooms over the course of my career have varied widely. I have worked with newcomers to the country that don’t speak English yet, suburban students, refugee students, and students from a wide range of races.

Dominique: I teach across an age range, so I do not have one class. I teach children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and also have some students who are questioning their gender identity.

Nikitha: My student body is ethnically diverse, however very few are English language learners and most students have stable family incomes and supports. Because of this, concepts like power, privilege, and oppression are interwoven into all aspects of my course. It is important for me to expose my kids to these thoughts and ideas because they may not engage with them otherwise. 

Aimee: I teach mainly students of colour from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. I do think this impacts how and what I teach because I’ve found that most of my students already have their own experiences of racial injustices. I do a lot less direct teaching and, instead, focus on facilitating spaces for students to have conversations. However, when discussing injustices, students of colour have said, “Ms. B, I don’t need to talk about this at school. I see this every day. I just want to read something fun or funny.” That feedback really shifted the way I teach, because I recognize that many students and staff of colour are experiencing fatigue around social justice. 

Andrea: Students come from different locations and household income levels, have different abilities and disabilities, and different racial and ethnic backgrounds. These differences impact how I teach because I truly think about each individual student. I have students who have a hard time writing so we make adjustments, students who struggle with reading and comprehension, and some students who need to focus on emotional regulation. I think having people feel like they are seen and heard is so important in regards to social justice. 

Do you think talking about racism in the classroom will divide students or teach them to hate America? Why or why not?

Amanda: When I taught American literature, we spent a long time examining race and the problems that racism has created in America. We never felt divided and we never looked at America with hatred in our eyes. 

One of the best things we did was use analogies. For example, we compared America to an old house. If that old house had cracks in the foundation, damage to the roof, and leaky plumbing, would we pretend the problems didn’t exist? And if these problems remained unaddressed, what would the long-term consequences be? 

We took every painful conversation about American history with the heart of self-improvement; that by recognizing painful truths, we could learn to be better because we believe that America is a beautiful and wonderful place to live.

Is there anything you think is missing from the curriculum or anything you think should be omitted?

Nikitha: I feel that curricular violence is something ignored by many educators. For example, for Black history, folks will start and stop the conversation with slavery. History and context are important, but how is the exclusive focus on these aspects harmful to students who are members of these communities? How are they being affected by having a singular narrative reinforced? How are white students’ understanding of people of colour being limited by focusing on the trauma? There must be room for joy. People of colour, queer folks, trans folks, neuro-diverse folks, differently-abled folks…we all exist outside of our trauma and it is important for educators to make space for that in their classrooms. 

A simple example is from a unit in my French class: many terms in social justice do not yet exist in French and I tasked my students with coming up with a translation and a definition. I gave them the example of ballroom. I asked them what they thought it was, and then showed them a clip from Legendary, a ballroom competition on HBO. I knew how my students were going to react to seeing the death drops and athletic and dance feats being performed. I was making space for joy. Yes, my straight students were witnessing and participating in something they wouldn’t necessarily gravitate to, but moreover, my kids who are a part of the queer community saw their culture in the classroom and saw it being celebrated and appreciated by their peers. This is why we have to make room for joy; representation is important, but it cannot be exclusively negative. 

Aimee: I feel that the current B.C. curriculum has actually been designed in a way that allows for a significant amount of flexibility as far as content. I remember when I first began teaching social studies and I was expected to teach the American and the French Revolution, but I never felt like this was necessary. It’s not that I felt these revolutions were insignificant, but rather that I didn’t understand why these were required as opposed to the Haitian Revolution or the Red River Resistance.

The curriculum has shifted in a way that it is much less prescriptive and has become more about those big ideas and less about specific events, so teachers are able to include more diverse content. 

At what age do you think kids should start learning about racism in a classroom setting?

Amanda: As early as possible! I want my own children to start having these discussions in kindergarten because we are already having them at home.

Nikitha: As early as possible. These conversations should be had at home and then reinforced at school. Parents have access to the literature, can do the learning, and determine how to unpack and download that knowledge to their children. That way, when their kid enters the classroom the concepts will not seem foreign. 

Dominique: I think kids should learn to be open-minded from a very early age, thus opening up the doors to understanding about racism and different ethnicities. We recently celebrated Black History Month and did a soccer event called ‘Show Racism the Red Card’. Children in kindergarten were having discussions about racism in this context.

Aimee: I think they should be learning about racism in an accessible way at the earliest stages of school. I know it’s maybe become cliché to say now, but I fully believe that if children are capable of experiencing racism, then children are capable of learning about racism. I have vivid memories of children in my elementary school cupping their hands over their mouths and chanting what they called ‘Indian war cries’ while quietly trying to process if that’s truly what they thought my family and I did. If I was processing that at seven years old, I think my peers could have processed why that behaviour is harmful. 

Whenever I’m asked about this, I also think about all of the abstract concepts we ask young children in classrooms to learn. We teach them about concepts like ‘love’, ‘bullying’, ‘kindness’, and ‘respect’. Those are all abstract ideas, but we scaffold those words from a young age and model their usage so that, even at four or five years old, they know how to use many of these words. I think if we scaffolded ‘racism’ from a young age, then by the time they are young adults, they will be able to recognize racism as more than just someone who explicitly believes another race is inferior. 

My sense is that teaching this at a younger age would also remove the ‘taboo’ of saying a behaviour is racist or that someone is enacting racism; because rather than feeling defensive, they might be able to recognize that what’s being called out is a behaviour that continues to uphold a system that harms BIPoC, which we have all engaged in at some point, and not that they are necessarily being labelled as intentionally hurtful or malicious. 

Andrea: Students should start to learn about racism before kindergarten. Most kids experience their first racialized incident around that age; I know I did. So, students need to learn about racism, how it has impacted people, and how we can move forward.

Is critical race theory (or something similar) being taught in your school? Do you think it should be?

Nikitha: Yes. Systems exist and we are all operating within them to varying degrees. Many of the systems we exist in are systems of oppression. If my goal as an educator is to equip my students with the tools necessary to advocate and action change, it would be disadvantageous to exclude critical theory from my content. 

We all need to understand how power, privilege, and oppression operate within the spaces we occupy. That understanding will enable us to make reasoned decisions as we endeavour to be allies to historically and currently oppressed people. Furthermore, critical theories are regular topics of discussion, and exposing senior students to these subjects supports their participation in these discussions and helps them to demystify what CRT is and isn’t. Our kids are talking about these ideas outside of our classroom, so while they are with us, we need to equip them appropriately so they can engage effectively. 

Amanda: Critical race theory, as I understand it, is a law-school-level lens in which legislation is discussed. It examines the ways in which race relations have affected the writing and enforcing of laws over time.

Aimee: I don’t know anyone in my school who is teaching critical race theory. I’m not sure anyone has the time to fully teach CRT in their K-12 courses, nor am I aware of any course to teach sociological schools of thought. I would say that many teachers, myself included, teach critical thinking, as that’s one of our core competency requirements in B.C. [...] many of my students will unknowingly practice critical race theory ­— even though they might not recognize that or be able to name it.

Andrea: Critical race theory is a law-school framework for graduate-level students. So no, it isn’t taught in my school, nor should it be taught to kids.

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