I talk about race in the classroom

Over the past month I have watched numerous stories regarding blatant acts of racism perpetuated by minors. For instance, incidents in San Francisco, New Jersey, Portland and Taiwan showed high school students engaged in these acts. So it would seem that it has become an epidemic. This thing called hate. Young people, like some adults have become emboldened to express their anti-seminitism, racism and homophobia under the current administration. And yet, conversations surrounding race, gender, sexuality and even class are often absent from the classroom.

As educators, we would like to think (it’s safer to think) that we can’t talk around race. This is especially true within K-12 environments. There is cognitive dissidence surrounding how and what we teach children. Even as we learn about migration, wars, governmental policies, exploration and colonization, we gloss over race. As Americans, we are not comfortable talking about race largely because we grew up not talking about race.

This color blind socialization normally alludes African American children. Our parents, our teachers, adults and societies reiterate our racial identity throughout the span of our lives. Recently, there was an amazing ad produced by Proctor and Gamble which explores this theme in, The Talk. In this video, black mothers talk to their children about the realities of racism though the video still codes the conversations in situational racism.

Proctor and Gamble, “The Talk”

This video resonated with me as I reflected upon me as I remembered the first time we (my parents) talked about race. My first introduction to race occurred at the age of 7 when the co-owner of daycare that my sisters and I attended informed us that “Your mammy is here.” I didn’t quite understand why that word was an issue, but upon telling my mother I could tell something was wrong. She later explained the context of Mammy and the history of the word. It pained me and confused me as well. I wondered what they were saying about me.

As I matriculated through school I began to notice other subtle markers of institutional racism: the makeup of my Honors and AP courses, the percentage of minorities at my Magnet school and the lack of people of color as teachers. I hoped that through my classes or teachers, I might find some explanation. There was only silence. This was during the 1990s when LA burned, OJ was exonerated, schools were becoming racially homogenous and black idenity became synsomous with hip hop.

Today in 2017, these silences aroud issues of race remain. Race is relegated to Black History Month and white washed narratives on slavery. We think of race as being a conversation that should only be spoken in whispers and behind closed doors. We also speak about race as somethng that exists along a binary: the white empowered and the oppressed blacks. We ignore the ways in which definitions of whitenes have fluctuated. We Look here, here, here, and here.

Joseph Keppler’s cartoon “Looking Backward,” appeared in the magazine Puck in 1893 and illustrated the contradicitons of the nativist movement.

As a someone who has taught both college and high school courses, I find that discussions of race and ethnicty are impossible to ignore. I use a culturally relevant pedagologcial approach in class.When I introduced 19th century immigration to my 10th grade history class, we discussed how immigrants were racially profiled and targeted by nativists who viewed these populations as thugs, thieves, people of immoral character and a hopeless burden. These new imigrant populations consisted of Polish and Russian Jews, southern Italians, as well as a spattering of Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Bohemians, and Chinese. They were viewed as a threat.

The wave of Irish immigrants to the United States in the 1840s created a strong backlash of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment. In the cartoon, Pope Pius XI offers to take charge of America’s burden, “so that you need not be troubled with the care of them in future; we will say your prayers and spend your money, while you live, and bury you in the Potters Field, when you die

In addition to watching these cartoons we watched Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York which illustrated the struggles of Irish Catholic immigrants in mid-19th century New York. Several scenes featured immigrants getting off of the boat and being accosted and called racial epithets. My students wondered how someone who was visually white could be viewed as non-white. I explained the use of racial categorization and its connection to American citizenship. Later on in the semester, we talked about the Japanese Internment Camps and how these spaces influenced how Japanese citizens were perceived. In other courses, I used historical maps from 1952 to explore the racial makeup of neighborhoods, comparing those maps with gentrifying communities today.

Redline Map of San Francisco (1937)by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation:

I know that these themes seem specific to History, but discussions on race can and should occur on every level. We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. As educators, we cannot afford to bypass these conversations or wait until some national explosion occurs. In my opinion, these conversations should occur naturally.

Lastly, in addition to race, we should consider how our curriculum addresses class, gender, and sexuality. All of these identities are valid and should be incorporated into the work that we do.

Cultural Geographer, Pop Cultural Enthusiast, Curator of Socially Conscious Minds