Race Talk When Diversity Equals One

It happens in every class. We’re discussing a text, a publication, a current event, a poem. The content doesn’t matter. It’s the phrase that counts.

A student comments and uses the phrase “African American” or even “black people.” The student is white. The reaction of the class – almost all white – is swift. As if choreographed, all eyes turn to the one student of color. The spotlight of eyes shines down and he or she blinks back as if staring into the sun. 

The teacher should use this moment to open a discussion.  

But let’s talk first about what some teachers do: Nothing.

In many cases, for many reasons, we miss this teachable moment by ignoring it.

Some teachers of mostly white classrooms who choose to ignore the spotlight moment offer the following reasons:

  • “I’m teaching science. It’s not relevant to the curriculum. It would be awkward.” 
  • “I don’t know the student of color well enough. He ignores it so why should I make a big deal out of it?”
  • “I don’t feel comfortable talking about race personally. We discuss it in relation to literature, which is where I’m confident it belongs. I do not believe it’s my job to force students to confront personal beliefs in a public way, especially my students, who are from rural, white families where a lot racism is taught. We address it in the context of To Kill a Mockingbird, but not in the context of our classroom dynamic.”
  • “It’s too unpredictable. I’m concerned about the racism in my students, that I won’t know what to say and that I won’t be able to protect the two students of color in the class.”
  • “I don’t have enough class time to teach them to write complete sentences. How would I have time to even begin getting into that topic?”

All of these challenges are real and should be heard. For those of us who are comfortable tackling the topic, let’s work harder to share strategies. Great resources are plentiful.

Not only are the strategies available, the lessons and rewards are, too. Once in an Oregon classroom I pushed this spotlight moment into what transformed into a rich and powerful discussion. The African-American student upon whom all eyes fell was a shy young woman. I gently noted, with humor, that everybody was looking at her. “It’s something that happens a lot in class and in our mostly-white town, isn’t it?” I said.

We were in a journalism class brainstorming story ideas. I tied the issue of being a person of color in a majority-white class or town to our discussion topic. “Since we noticed that this moment happens in our class, what larger questions does it raise in our community?”

One white male student’s hand shot up: “We could interview black people and other minorities in town about their experiences living in this hugely white community.”

We brainstormed dozens more excellent story ideas that afternoon.

After class, the African-American student came to my desk. “You’re the first teacher I’ve ever had here who called it out like that,” she said, in almost a whisper. “Thanks.”  

By calling it out, you take a risk. By ignoring it, you take a bigger one. And if you need help starting the conversation, check out these resources here and here.

Cytrynbaum is a journalist and instructor at Northwestern University.


This is a great story. Most

Submitted by Alison on 10 November 2011 - 11:07am.

This is a great story. Most teachers talk about how racism is a bad thing but when they see it actually happen, they do nothing about it. To me, that is being racist. I went to a mostly "white" school and those awkward moments in class came up all the time and the teacher did nothing about it. All teachers should talk about the problem and think of solutions when all those awkward moments come about. This is how we can help prevent racism in our schools and our communities.

Alison - Thank you for your

Submitted by Pamela Cytrynbaum on 12 November 2011 - 11:05pm.

Alison - Thank you for your comment. I have heard from a lot of people about the varying degrees of silence in those moments. This is just my way of nagivating through them. It's challenging but for me, the only way is to get right to it.

The person who shows racist

Submitted by Alex Mero on 27 August 2011 - 2:16pm.

The person who shows racist behavior is usually not very conscious of the world. He is looking for security in his culture and is not willing to deal with other cultures in an open and accessible manner. His knowledge of strange cultures is usually very limited, due to which he is not able to give deeper interpretation to everything that is at a distance from his own culture. As a traveler I have been lucky in meting many people from different ethnical origins who showed sincere interest in my cultural background and I never detected any hint of racism with them. The exploration of a foreign culture is always an enriching adventure for everyone, especially when you manage to break through the purely rational and protocol patterns and penetrate into the emotional experience of the value of this cultures. The deeper one penetrates into a foreign culture, the less foreign it becomes, the better one understands that this culture means security and sense for many people and, especially, the better one sees how our intellectual wealth is dependent on the extent in which we can approach other cultures with respect and diffidence. (alexmeroblog.com)

I love this. I'm not

Submitted by Alex S. Johnson on 18 August 2011 - 8:55pm.

I love this. I'm not currently teaching at this level, but your ideas about tying the issue of race to the discomfort level of working with a few minority students is laudable and something I plan to put in operation if/when I get my own class.

Thank you so much. It's risky

Submitted by Pamela Cytrynbaum on 2 November 2011 - 2:33pm.

Thank you so much. It's risky and can be scary. If I had it to do over again I would have talked with the student first and asked her if she felt comfortable with me raising the issue the next time it happened. Her reaction, to thank me, confirmed my instinct that it was okay - even a relief. She's a college student, not in high school or younger, which was at play as well. But I should have asked first.

Great post--I completely

Submitted by Sarah Sansbury on 17 August 2011 - 9:06pm.

Great post--I completely flash-backed to situation I had a two years ago when we were studying To Kill a Mockingbird. Thanks for sharing.

I find it hard to understand

Submitted by Marva McClean on 16 August 2011 - 4:30pm.

I find it hard to understand why using the words black and African American in any situation in 2011 would cause an awkward moment, especially in a classroom that obviously consists of diverse students. It is the responsibility of every educator to address issues of tolerance, respect, ethnicity,etc. as part of the classroom discourse wherever they are located. This kind of discussion should not be happenstance. How long has this child and others like her remained uncomfortable in the classroom? And just why should this be the case? The writer's presentation of this scenario, while clearly unintended, reinforces the notion of the black student being other. She presents the situation in a commonsensical way that implies that this is the norm. That is unacceptable. Why should the student feel the need to see the teacher after class and speak in a whisper? What did the teacher do to bring this issue to the broader school community and address the student's concerns and obvious discomfiture? I think that is an outrage.

You did not read the piece

Submitted by Pamela Cytrynbaum on 2 November 2011 - 2:26pm.

You did not read the piece carefully. It was not a diverse classroom. In fact, that's my whole point. The student was the only student of color in the class. That is often the case in thousands of classrooms across the country, especially in college and university settings. I'm not sure where you teach but this is an ongoing challenge for much of the nation. It is indeed an outrage, but your indignation is misplaced. And my presentation of this student as feeling 'other' was quite intended. She was the only student of color in the class. That should not be her burden but it is the reality in so many classrooms in the suburbs and in colleges and universities. THAT was my point. We must confront these issues in recruiting and retention, in scholarships and with programs like Chicago Scholars. In the meantime, my point was to draw attention to this moment as an opportunity for learning. I'm sorry your experience has not opened you to this reality.

The fact that all of the eyes

Submitted by Kathleen Ganley on 17 August 2011 - 8:10am.

The fact that all of the eyes in the room turned to the one person of color when these words were mentioned clearly demonstrates how it is still awkward in 2011. How would you like everyone in a room on people of color to look at you and expect some kind of response if you were the only white person, or the only Christian in a room of Muslims, etc.? No one ever expects whites to speak for 'their group', yet it is expected all of the time from people of color. It is ridiculous to think that I, as a woman, could speak for all women, yet it IS expected very often from people of color. Why is it not perfectly clear that this would make someone uncomfortable? And why is it not perfectly clear that this young shy woman would not be grateful for her teacher using it to better understand this discomfort than to just leave her sit with all eyes upon her with no acknowledgement of this act? It is like a giant elephant in the room that no one wants to mention.
I agree that this child should not have to be uncomfortable in the classroom in this day and age. But, why, in this day and age does everyone stare at her when the words African American or black are mentioned? This act, not the teacher's reaction is what is making her 'the other.' This is something we need to address very early on in our educational system. This not only happens in the K-12 system. I teach at a university and students of color tell me regularly that they are treated in the same way as this young girl. This is what is unacceptable

What you raise is exactly why

Submitted by Pamela Cytrynbaum on 2 November 2011 - 2:35pm.

What you raise is exactly why I feel compelled to address this. It's risky and can be scary. If I had it to do over again I would have talked with the student first and asked her if she felt comfortable with me raising the issue the next time it happened. Her reaction, to thank me, confirmed my instinct that it was okay - even a relief. She's a college student, not in high school or younger, which was at play as well. But I should have asked first.

When one person asserts how

Submitted by Barry Bussewitz on 16 August 2011 - 6:06pm.

When one person asserts how another person "should" feel, I feel funny about that. Not funny haha, but funny peculiar. The contributing factors to feelings are largely unconscious and often conflicting. As an instructor, I am disinclined to challenge how a student says she or he feels, although I might seek more information if the context is appropriate. I find it easy to understand discomfort when the topic of race arises in public settings in the United States, especially when it is not an explicit topic of the conversation, but like Marva McClean, I too assume that I may not understand why when the possibilities are so complex and varied. Simply sorting out my feelings upon reading this article and comments reveals the same sort of ambivalences that frequently arise in society and politics, notwithstanding that I have just returned from participating in a faculty workshop about the Umoja Learning Community at my college. The workshop was designed to "examine the components necessary to create a supportive learning environment for underprepared students." We had a panel of seven African American students who described the many people and factors involved n their successful transitions to college with the support of the Umoja. I find the dialogue here very useful in helping to unpack the things we all carry and I appreciate the poster and the respondents.

UMOJA is the greatest

Submitted by Pamela Cytrynbaum on 2 November 2011 - 2:35pm.

UMOJA is the greatest organization on the planet.

What a beautiful example of

Submitted by Lorraine Segal on 16 August 2011 - 2:21pm.

What a beautiful example of and encouragement for the teachable moment. I just finished teaching a class for parents of teens and professionals working with them, and we talked a lot about this for difficult topics, including prejudice and bullying. I will add this article to my resource page--thanks.