Doing Race Talk with Teachers

How to stay in the conversation

By Dyan Watson

Illustrator: Erin Robinson

Erin Robinson

“Urban kids don’t want to learn as much as the other students in class,” Josh stated in a frustrated voice.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “You teach in a school that only accepts the neighborhood kids. Who . . . who are the urban kids?”

Josh was a white teacher candidate at my university who did his student teaching in a school where all of the students were neighborhood kids in the middle of a small city. Racially, the students are diverse — nearly half are white and about 40 percent are Latino, with the rest of the student population being Asian American, African American, and Native American.

Just who are the “urban kids” in his class who don’t want to learn as much as “the other” students? It took some probing, but finally Josh admitted that the urban kids in his classroom were the kids of color, specifically, the Black and Latino children. Josh is not alone in characterizing his classroom as a mix of children, both urban and suburban. I hear teachers use this type of language all the time. Impossible, right? If a student is suburban, doesn’t that mean she resides in or is schooled in a small, residential town on the periphery of a large one? Isn’t that the definition of suburban? Not anymore. We have come to a place where these terms, urban and suburban, are cultural constructs where both are defined primarily by race — and to a lesser extent, class — and the perceived behaviors, beliefs, and values associated with each.

By using urban, Josh was allowed to freely talk about race without race words, thus enabling him to say things he might not say if he used white or Black, for example. This is a linguistic move employed by educators all over the nation. However, I’ve especially seen it in my own practice and classroom. But why? Why use code words for race? It is because teachers often have stereotyped views of children and their families, and how these play out in schools. Too many educators tend to think that Black and Latino students and families don’t value education as much as middle-class white students and families. Oh, it’s not their fault, some of my white students say. They live in crime-ridden neighborhoods, they don’t have familial role models, they are poor. . . . The list goes on. The problem with this — besides it not being true — is that the thoughts we have about African, Latino, Asian, Native, and European American children and their families influence how we think of teaching them. And in my field, that is especially problematic.

I teach a variety of education courses at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon; most are geared toward master’s-level students who are becoming secondary teachers. The vast majority of my students are white. In fact, I have never had more than two students of color in a cohort; some years I’ve had none. My aim is to send into schools teachers who are adept at designing curricula that respond to the diversity of the community and prepare their students to be kind, socially just participants in a democracy. I want my students to understand how race influences how they teach and interact with students. I want them to constantly think about how race intersects with both teaching and learning. The majority of my students of color seem to understand this in some fashion, even if only experientially. They are aware of the interplay, even if they don’t understand the intricacies of this intersection. My experience is that my white students tend to be less cognizant of how race mediates teaching and learning. Even those who can articulate that an intersection exists often struggle with the reality, and subconsciously resist learning about it.

Because of these goals, my objective for all difficult conversations — but especially those that involve race in some explicit way — is for my students and me to stay in the conversation. What this means is no matter how hard it gets, keep talking and listening. It means each participant needs to seek to understand what other folks are saying and not to assume that they know in advance what someone means. Staying in the conversation involves giving of self; it involves listening with the heart and being fully present. White students often find this difficult: According to anti-racist scholars Robin DiAngelo and Özlem Sensoy, they tend to characterize courses and conversations that center on race as acts of violence. By giving wholly, they feel they will experience a loss of self and/or authority; thus they resist it.

Practically, staying in the conversation means asking a host of questions in a tone that suggests genuine interest and invites people in, in lieu of sarcasm or in ways that threaten the respondent. In the example above, asking Josh to explain who were the urban kids took effort to ask it in a way that invited his honest response instead of a canned, intellectual one that any of my students can proffer any day of the week.

It is difficult to keep students in the conversation if I don’t establish an environment that welcomes honesty, disagreement, respect, openness, and regularly questioning what gets deemed normal. It helps to tell and show my students that I care about them, and to share my own shortcomings with them as much as I can without supporting a sense of incompetence. This is a difficult task at best, but I’ve learned a few ways of encouraging this work.

The first is to start my classes with an educational autobiography. This is something that a group of friends of mine used in their course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education years ago. On a half sheet of paper I write:

Who we are influences how we form relationships and understand others. Thus we begin this experience with an educational autobiography. In this assignment, I hope you will learn more about your beliefs and assumptions about students and learning, where these assumptions come from, and how these assumptions may influence your relationships with students and your interpretations of student behavior. In no more than four double-spaced typed pages, write the story of your schooling career. Include formal and informal learning experiences that led to your decision to enter the Master of Arts in Teaching Program. Please provide contextual information (e.g., race, social class, family structure, environment growing up, etc.) that informs your experiences.

The first year that I did this, students wrote about having ADHD, being poor(er), the only Christian, one of many Christians, chubby, shy. But hardly any student wrote about race. So the next year I penned one and read it to them. I wrote, in part:

The journey to my decision to teach and since then has been full of experiences that have cultivated my resolve to teach. Since the age of 9, I was raised in a single-parent home in NE Portland (12th and Killingsworth). In middle school, gangs moved up from California and into my neighborhood, making walking around certain streets very dangerous. Simultaneously, I was bused into a white school across town. We were very poor and on free lunch and had to stand in a separate line to receive our lunch tickets. I matured a lot at that school. And by the time it was over, I had had enough of being the minority and decided I wanted back in to my neighborhood. So for high school, I went to Jefferson where the Black population was around 65 percent. It wasn’t easy. I had been mostly with white people for three years, and before middle school had spent most of my elementary years with white students and families in Paterson, New Jersey. So now I had to code-switch in a number of ways, and learn to be just Black enough to fit in, but not too Black, so that my teachers would like me and think I was smart.

Then I invited them to write theirs. The difference was night and day. Students wrote about not seeing any people of color until high school or never having a teacher of color until now. And as the years have worn on, I have done a better job of prepping them for responses that really interrogate their perceptions of race. This past year, one student, Sara, wrote:

After high school graduation I moved to Florida for six months. That was the first time I had ever seen (much less lived in) a place with a high percentage of African Americans. From then on, whenever anyone asked about Idaho, it wouldn’t take long before I mentioned the whiteness of Idaho. To support this claim I often mentioned how, in my high school of about 600 students, fewer than 10 were Black. It was several years after graduation while skimming through my old yearbooks that it dawned on me that my spiel about the complete whiteness of my high school wasn’t true at all. Looking through the photos I noticed many Hispanic students, mostly unfamiliar faces. I didn’t share the same classes with these students, or see them at lunch or at school dances. In elementary school, there [were] usually a couple of Hispanic students in my class, but at that time I felt oblivious to race. By junior high and high school they had all but disappeared from my line of vision. I am embarrassed to say that I simply didn’t see them. I didn’t see them even though my best friend was Mexican American. My first fleeting inkling that race matters was when she got upset after a mutual friend of ours said, “But you’re not really Mexican.” I recognize now that the most offensive part of that statement was that it was meant as a compliment.

Some of my students had simply not thought about their interactions and experiences around race. Others often don’t know what to make of them, but describe these incidents and moments anyway. I then respond to each student, sometimes asking them questions, but often just reassuring them that their experience is real, that I’m glad to have them as my student, and that I look forward to being a part of their journey to teach. I find that this exercise sets up the classroom as a safe space to talk about race.

And by safe, I don’t mean a place where folks won’t get offended or angry or feel pain. I mean safe enough to feel all of these emotions and more, but still want to come back because the learning is that good and productive. The more I make race visible to my students, the more they talk about it and become comfortable with the uneasiness of talking about race with people of color.

What I like about Sara’s autobiography is that there is no talk of guilt — yes, she’s embarrassed, but not guilty. White guilt can detract from the real issues at hand and provide an unsafe space that promulgates feeling bad because “my ancestors did bad things” and now “please take care of me and my feelings.” So I’m sure to address this too. In fact, this past fall, a white student offered: “I feel so guilty and horrible about being white.” My response: “You should feel guilty if you go into schools and continue to perpetuate the systematic oppression of people of color.” I try to make it clear that I’m not here to absolve them of guilt or make them feel bad for the past. My concern is kids and what kind of teacher my students are going to be. If after taking my class any one of my students doesn’t recognize how race mediates learning and teaching, and isn’t proactively using this knowledge to make a positive difference, they should feel horribly guilty. And I hope they don’t stay in teaching. Instead of guilt, I ask students to think about privilege and the consequences of injustice.

One of the ups in my years of exploring race and teaching with students is to allow them to ask any question that they want. I tell them that if I’m offended I’ll tell them that I am, and I’ll tell them why, and that I promise to keep the dialogue open no matter what. This has usually worked. In the case of Josh, who insisted on saying “urban” instead of Black and Latino, this worked out well. He realized what he was saying and what it was hiding and began to think about his assumptions of the Latino and Black children in his care.

However, in the case of Pete, it turned out badly, at least temporarily. During orientation, all of the professors introduce themselves — names and what they teach. Nothing personal; no interesting tidbits. I announced: “My name is Dyan Watson and I primarily teach the social studies folk but this year I’ll also be your Multicultural Education instructor.” After we finished our introductions and there was a break, a young white student named Pete came over to me and said, “Why are all of the social studies teachers always so cool?” I just stared at him because there were too many competing thoughts in my mind, and I was trying to figure out how he surmised that I was “cool” based on 23 words of introduction with no personal stories. A few months later Pete was a student in my Multicultural Education course. I noticed that when he spoke to me, he put on a “Black” accent. After a few weeks of this, I called him on it. “So I just want to stop you right there and point out the words and tone you are using and I’m trying to figure out why you are talking like this.” He stammered through a response about hanging out with Black kids growing up and that it had nothing to do with my being Black. It didn’t go well. He didn’t speak for the rest of the session. The following week he asked to meet with me. I told him I was glad he wanted to talk because I knew I’d hurt him and wanted to rectify that. I knew I didn’t play that one well. And because I didn’t play that one well, I addressed it with the entire class in a different session. I told them that one of the most important aspects of moving forward in conversations about race is to stay in conversation. So even though Pete was angry, he came to me and we talked it out. And even though I had been offended, I listened and this time asked clarifying questions and truly sought to see where he was coming from.

In addition to self-exploration, I want students to examine and critique societal institutions that perpetuate inequality such as schools — both in K-12 and in higher education. So I send them on a mission to answer the following questions: “Who does your university serve? What is your evidence? Over the next week collect data to answer this question. Look at the art on the walls, names of professors, accessibility, etc. Record this data and be prepared to discuss it next class.”

We follow up this activity with a Climate Case Study that asks students to explore the secondary school in which they are placed. I ask students to gather demographic data on the school community and specifically think about the following:

1. What are the most obvious manifestations of culture that you observe when you first walk into the school? (Name of school, language(s) of signs, language/appearance of people in the office, bulletin boards, pictures, decorations, etc.)
2. How do you think you would feel entering the school if you were a parent? A child of color? A family dealing with poverty? Non-English speaking? Special learning needs?
3. Observe student and teacher behavior before and after school, at break/recess, lunch.
4. Observe attire and nonverbal behavior/communication of students and teachers.
5. Identify other evidence of a school culture.

I ask students to compare the culture of their practicum site and the culture of their own high school or middle school. Students produce rich narratives of differences and similarities and how these aspects either welcome or alienate students, faculty, and parents of color. Sam, a white student, wrote:

Mountain Grove High has a dim interior. Labyrinthine halls branch out from the main cafeteria area, and each section is walled off from the next. To pass from one hall to the next, students must push through doors, giving the building the feeling of a well-contained institution that can be locked down and sealed off at a moment’s notice. Winston High, on the other hand, is well lit with an open, free-flowing feel. Things are mostly new and functional at Winston; not so at Mountain Grove, where many things in my mentor’s room are old and half-functional. Winston is equally mazelike and institutional, but whereas Mountain Grove has the feel of a prison or mental ward, Winston feels more like a nursing home or hospital.

Sam goes on to discuss the racial demographics of the two schools. He mentions the prisonlike one having a large Latino population, and the nursing home-like school having a largely white, middle- and upper-class student population. As a class, we talk about how schools are microcosms of our stratified society and the implications of this in our teaching. By looking outside of personal stories (i.e., autobiographies), the conversation gets moved to systems of oppression so that students see how institutionalized whiteness is at play and how both micro- and macro-hegemony is at play.

Staying in the conversation takes a lot of emotional and intellectual effort. I don’t always want to use nice words and soften my voice. I am constantly aware of coming across as the angry Black female. It doesn’t matter that I don’t do a lot of eye rolling and head moving. It’s scary for many whites to have a Black woman check them on a statement that might be racist or to point out the structures that maintain the racial status quo. Students want to know that their teacher cares for them, and I do. But caring for them in this circumstance can prick the heart, and, well, that’s not what the typical teacher-student relationship looks like in our white female-dominated institutions. I know that I’ll see whatever I may have missed during the semester on my course evaluations at the end of the term. So I’m constantly second-guessing myself, replaying what I’ve said, and rehearsing how I might fix it the next day. The work this takes is taxing and can take a heavy toll on my well-being if I don’t take measures to adequately deal with having to pay this tax.

In addition to having folks of color who I can regularly turn to, it is crucial to my survival that I assemble a white team of support. These allies are folks who are steeped in the literature and research on whiteness and anti-racist pedagogy. These are teachers who practice what they preach and when they miss the mark, admit it and seek to rectify their shortcomings. Further, and this is why they must be white, these are the ones who go to bat for me in meetings with other faculty who don’t understand these phenomena, and bring up issues of race without my prompting and often before I get the chance to.

Unfortunately, this team is not always present. Sometimes, I have “allies” who back me up, but only after I have spoken because they do not live and breathe the literature; they simply agree with what I’m saying because it makes sense. Worse, sometimes they hold their tongues and say nothing at all. When this happens, I maintain my sanity primarily by doing two things. The first is to allow myself to cry when it gets to be too much. The release of this emotion functions much like the vents on a well-built house. As the warm air of racialized tension fills my working self, I emote, allowing the “house” to breathe and not suffer structural damage. The second strategy is to write these instances down. Sometimes these musings and recounting serve as sources for future publications. Other times they serve as a catharsis — cleansing me from the microaggressions and the tax owed of being one of the only faculty of color serving a predominantly white population.

The two most helpful ways I’ve dealt with this burden in the classroom is to do a lesson on African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and on my fears as a parent of raising Black boys.

The lesson about AAVE usually comes within a unit on language and power. I begin with an exercise I got from Rethinking Schools editor Linda Christensen. I ask the class of master’s degree-seeking candidates the following:

Write a response to the following prompt: Why do you want to be a teacher? Use the following rules as you write:

1. No “s” on plural
2. No “s” on possessive
3. No “s” on third person verb: I swim. He swim. We swim. They swim.

After a few minutes, I ask the students to draw a line beneath the last thing they wrote and write a reflection about the process — the strategies they used and how it felt. Here is a sample of how students have responded:

“I took a step back in the complexity of what I was writing because it was too hard.”

“It’s hard to think about grammar and answer the prompt.”

“I thought about the rules too much. I decided to write and then go back and cross out things.”

“I had all these ideas but then when I saw the rules, I abandoned them.”

I point out that when students have to focus on rules instead of ideas, the ideas suffer, and that when teachers prioritize speaking in a language or manner that isn’t natural or native, it diminishes self-worth. We spend some time going over a few of the rules of AAVE, so that they can see there is structure to the dialect, and that it is not just “lazy English” or “slang.” And then I get personal and tell them about my own experiences with speaking AAVE.

In doing so, I share with them a very short passage from Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s novel, Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers. In this story, the teacher asks his students — all of whom are Hawaiian and speak pidgin English — to “stand up and tell me your name, and what you would like to be when you grow up.” The command is simple enough. Many teachers across the country, if not the world, have asked their students to talk about what they aspire to be. The hitch is he’s mandated that they use Standard English (SE) both without providing them the tools with which to be successful and the caring encouragement that is needed when SE isn’t your first language. The first student responds:

“Ma name is Mal-vin Spenca.” . . . Before he begins his next sentence, he does nervous things like move his ankles side to side so that his heels slide out of his slippers. He looks at the ceiling and rolls his eyes. “I am, I mean, I wanna. I like. No, try wait. I going be. No, try wait. I will work on my Gramma Spenca’s pig farm when I grow up cuz she said I can drive the slop truck. Tank you.”

I tell my students that every August when the faculty return from summer vacation, we go around the table and share what we did during the summer. Every summer I am Melvin. My hands sweat and I twitch in my seat. I stutter, and then I mumble. I am a college-educated woman. I have a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate. But ask me what I did for summer and I become inarticulate. It isn’t that I can’t express myself in either AAVE or SE. It’s that I want to use them both, simultaneously. But only one of these languages will be validated. Only one of these languages matches the fact that I have a doctorate. Only one of these languages makes me look smart. Only one of these languages makes me feel like I got into an Ivy League school because I was qualified and not because I am an affirmative action case. However, it is only through both languages that I can express what I did this summer. It is only through them both that I can share the joy I had riding my bike with my 11-year-old niece or the birth of my sons. It is only through them both that I talk about the disappointment of not getting my latest article published or the lesson that did not go so well.

Students are often shocked to hear that I speak in AAVE and that I feel ostracized when I do. We then have a rich, honest discussion about language, discrimination, and race. I tell them they can ask me any question they want. At the end of the semester, I read to them “A Message from a Black Mom to Her Son,” from the Rethinking Schools book Teaching for Black Lives. This, by far, is one of the most powerful lessons I do with them. It humanizes white hegemony, yet is hopeful. It is a letter written to my eldest son, Caleb, when he was almost 2 years old, about the education that I received and how it influences the hopes and dreams I now have for him. In it I write: “I hope you will have teachers who realize they are gatekeepers. I hope they understand the power they hold and work to discover your talents, seek out your dreams and fan them, rather than smother them.” Taking a cue from another social justice educator and colleague, Amy Dee, I then ask them to write back to me as the teacher they hope to be. How will they, with their new understanding of how race mediates teaching and learning, work to discover my son’s talents, seek out his dreams and fan them, rather than smother them?

The best part of this experience is that usually by the end of the semester, my students — who are going to have their own students in just months — are asking different questions from the ones that they asked at the beginning of the semester. “Dr. DW, how do we empower students to use their home language and provide them the tools to be successful in a racist world?” they ask. “What’s the best way to teach a book that has the N-word in it that validates differing opinions but creates a safe learning community?” “Do you have the lesson plan for the autobiography assignment we did at the beginning of the year? I want to do it with my 10th graders.” When we get to these types of questions, I know I’ve stayed in the conversation and I am proud of them for doing so as well.

Copyright from Exploring Race in Predominantly White Classrooms: Scholars of Color Reflect, edited by George Yancy and Maria del Guadalupe Davidson. Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, a division of Informa PLC.

The article has been edited slightly from its original version and some of the names of people and places have been changed.

Dyan Watson ( teaches in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She is a Rethinking Schools editor and co-editor of Teaching for Black Lives and Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice.

Illustrator Erin Robinson’s work can be found at