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?”
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.”
Cytrynbaum is a journalist and instructor at Northwestern University.