Preparing to Explore Racism

Multiculturalism by Pug50 on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseBefore discussing racism, we must prepare students to ensure the classroom offers an inclusive and safe environment to explore these issues. We have to be prepared to guide students through fair but honest discussions in ways that avoid emotional or highly charged confrontations.

Fortunately, there are many resources available to help teachers prepare with these classroom discussions. The following resources suggest practical strategies you can use to guide these student conversations:

These resources emphasize the significance of ensuring that students are prepared for the conversations. Though we may wish to, we cannot force students to accept and support any particular viewpoint. We cannot require an ideology, but we can ask questions and encourage analysis that persuades students to consider the issues more clearly.

To prepare students for these conversations, create classroom discussion guidelines and practice following them in less contentious conversations before moving to more difficult subjects. Alternately, you can use the  Guidelines for Discussing Incidents of Hate, Bias, and Discrimination, from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. You cannot guess everything that can go wrong, but you can have classroom management strategies in place that will help you defuse problems before they spiral out of control. Additionally, choose activities that ask students to consider the factual aspects the issue they are exploring, but not to judge the facts or their presentation as good or bad.

Not only must students be prepared, but you must be prepared yourself. If you feel uncomfortable guiding these class discussions consult the articles How Should I Talk about Race in My Mostly White Classroom? from the Anti-Defamation League, and Know How to Talk about Race, from the Teaching Tolerance website. Both provide information that will help you build confidence about how to talk about race and racism in the classroom.

As you prepare, also read the AAUP article “Eight Actions to Reduce Racism in College Classrooms,” from the November–December 2016 Academe. The article provides a candid outline of typical ways that racism appears in higher ed and offers concrete suggestions for self-examination of teachers’ own attitudes and actions. It urges readers to “recognize your implicit biases and remediate your racial illiteracy,” to “meaningfully integrate diverse cultures and peoples into the curriculum,” and to “responsibly address racial tensions when they arise”—excellent suggestions all. These recommendations are supported by climate studies the authors conducted at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.


This post updates and revises “Preparing to Explore Racism and Racist Events in the Classroom,” published in August 2017 on Bedford Bits in the Macmillan Community.

Photo credit: Multiculturalism by Pug50 on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.