Practice 2. Know how to talk about race.

The March Continues
The Five Essential Practices for Teaching the Civil Rights Movement
Practice 2. Know how to talk about race.

Teachers planning lessons on the civil rights movement must be prepared to talk about race and racism, not simply as remnants of a long-gone past, but as real forces in the world today.

Race is a social construct, not a biological given. Still, race matters. It shapes our experiences and has real impacts, from the smallest interpersonal interaction to the largest institutional arrangements. Many teachers believe that ignoring race—adopting a colorblind stance—is the best way to overcome its negative power. Yet it’s important for teachers to examine the ways that race influences their classrooms every day. Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond has argued that, in schools, teachers and students routinely make assumptions about each other on the basis of race. “Those are all assumptions that can be tested, debunked and reframed,” she says, “but you can’t get there without understanding that race is part of the context.”10

Certainly, we must talk about race to help students understand the civil rights movement. Learning works through a process of assimilating new knowledge into existing beliefs about the world. Unexplored and unacknowledged background ideas or assumptions too easily create emotional obstacles to student learning. This is particularly true when teaching about race and racism, as Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum writes: “If not addressed, these emotional responses can result in student resistance to oppression-related content areas. Such resistance can ultimately interfere with the cognitive understanding and mastery of the material. This resistance and potential interference is particularly common when specifically addressing issues of race and racism.”11 If we do not talk about race and racism when we talk about the civil rights movement, we deprive students of the opportunity to understand much of American history.

Talking about race and racism means reaching outside the context of the civil rights movement. We do students a disservice if we encourage them to think that racism is a remnant of a distant historical era. In addition, we risk losing students of color who know all too well the continued effects of race and racism.

Many teachers, wanting to avoid discomfort or conflict, avoid open conversations about race in their classrooms. These reasonable concerns only underscore how important it is to find ways to make the classroom a safe space in which to talk about race and ethnicity.

It is not easy to talk about race. Setting clear guidelines for discussion is an essential first step. Involve students in this process by asking them what kinds of guidelines they would need to feel safe expressing their ideas. Remember that conversations about race are not only about color, but also about whiteness. Too often, teachers discuss race without making white privilege visible and subject to investigation; in the context of the civil rights movement, this can make the struggle difficult to understand and diminish the heroism of white allies who “crossed lines” in solidarity.

Teaching the civil rights movement provides a relevant and historically appropriate opportunity to talk openly with students about the ways discrimination and privilege shaped and continue to mold American society. Teachers who choose to talk about race in the classroom will be rewarded with more-engaged students who gain a deeper understanding of the civil rights movement and its context.

Keep in Mind

  • Acknowledge the importance of race in your students’ lives.
  • Dispel ideas about a biological basis for race.
  • Bone up on the history of race as a social construct and means of control.9
  • Create a safe environment with clear communication guidelines.
  • Identify common roadblocks to productive discussion.
  • Recognize that disparities exist but need not persist.
  • Speak from your own experience.
  • Create opportunities for students to speak from their own experience.

Tools for Teachers

Start with yourself.

Before starting conversations with your students about race and ethnicity, it’s good to begin by reflecting on your own identity using a tool like this one.

Read about it.

Teaching Tolerance offers a number of resources that grapple with this subject. Try “Race Talk When Diversity Equals One and Let's Talk! Discussing Race, Racism and Other Difficult Topics With Students.

Go deeper.

Read a book like Talking Race in the Classroom by Jane Bolgatz. Spend some time with Teaching Tolerance’s online professional-development tools about culture in the classroom. Talk with other teachers to see how they talk about race.