As Cornel West wrote in Race Matters:
Race is the most explosive issue in American life precisely because it forces us to confront the tragic facts of poverty and paranoia, despair and distrust. In short, a candid examination of race matters takes us to the core of American democracy. And the degree to which race matters in the plight and predicament of fellow citizens is a crucial measure of whether we can keep alive the best of this democratic experiment we call America.
A "candid examination" of race is not easy for educators. We discovered long ago from our work in K-12 districts and universities across the country that students are usually far better at engaging in interracial conversations about race than the educators leading them. More often than not, students from kindergarten through graduate school find exploring race edgy, provocative, and nourishing. Sometimes a conscious or precocious student does not wait for our permission to engage the taboo topic, and she will make a comment about race that launches an orderly classroom into conflict, controversy, or deafening silence.
This essay offers educators guidelines for more successful interracial dialogue about crucial issues with both students and colleagues. We call these guidelines the "Four Agreements of Courageous Conversation," which help create the conditions for safe exploration and profound learning for all. Courageous conversation is a strategy for breaking down racial tensions and raising racism as a topic of discussion that allows those who possess knowledge on particular topics to have the opportunity to share it, and those who do not have the knowledge to learn and grow from the experience.
Educators should keep in mind that interracial conversations about race are always a bit dangerous, as they unleash emotions that we have all learned to bury. What is most courageous about interracial conversations about race is mustering the strength to facilitate them. Opening up these dialogues when it appears that certain things are much better left unsaid or unspoken is frightening. We want to acknowledge that fear and encourage educators to find the courage to risk moving beyond it. To get ready for courageous conversations about race with their students, educators might first learn to engage with their colleagues. After developing proficiency in applying the guidelines, they can assist students to examine racial issues in a variety of subjects. As educators gain familiarity with courageous conversations' ebbs and Row, they can steer their students toward safe harbors rather than allowing them to wander into frighteningly familiar stormy waters.
Educators can tackle topics that relate to their own personal experiences. High school teachers might discuss racial achievement gaps; teachers of younger students might explore students' tension-provoking uses of racial slurs on the playground. The discussion leader must have thought through these issues from multiple angles in order to steer the conversation in a positive direction. As Cornel West suggests, "How we set up the terms for discussing racial issues shapes our perception and response to these issues." Educators experience extraordinary pressure, both implicit and explicit, not to talk about race. To get started, educators must introduce a new set of agreements that defy and perhaps even contradict the tightly held cultural norms relating to race talk. They must stay engaged, expect to experience discomfort, speak their truth, and expect and accept a lack of closure.