Building Resilience Through Difficult Conversations and Strong Relationships


By Hillary Moser and Habiba Davis

Editor’s Note: The following offers two perspectives on an incident in a sixth-grade class at a school in Massachusetts. After a student of color walks out of a class focused on post-Civil War Jim Crow laws, the teacher and the school social worker — with input from two students of color — create a successful, two-day lesson on race and microaggressions. We offer this as a reminder of the importance of anticipating and planning for these kinds of issues and conversations that we know will emerge during the school year. How can white teachers engage with each other and colleagues of color at the start of the year to develop a plan? How can we front-load classroom guidelines to create space for this dialogue before something happens? How do we not put the onus of responsibility on students and teachers of color? While the authors were able to remedy this situation, it is a scene that plays out in classrooms across the country and that necessitates our careful attention and action.


Hillary’s Perspective

I sat in the back of my classroom on a cool April day and settled in to hear my sixth-grade students present Google slides on their mini-research projects. Over the past week, they had researched historic topics such as the Great Depression, Jim Crow Laws and Segregation, The Great Migration, and the Harlem Renaissance. They conducted this research in order to understand the historical context for their last book-club book of the school year, which focused on The Great Depression. All the main characters in the book are people of color.

This day, students gathered to listen to the “Jim Crow Laws and Segregation” group presentation. Before this fateful day, I tried to think of everything I needed to do as a white English teacher in order to create a culturally responsive classroom and lesson. As this group began its present, however, I noticed that one of the students of color in the class slowly slumped lower in her chair with each slide. I didn’t want to draw attention to her in the moment, so I decided to give her space. After the presentation, the group walked back to their seats and students chatted quietly, took notes, as I assessed the slides.

Suddenly, a student walked up to me and whispered, “Ms. Moser, _____ just ran out of the room — crying.”

I looked up. It was true; she was gone. My heart sank. Why hadn’t I noticed her leaving? Why didn’t I intervene while the slides were being presented? I didn’t have an aide to sit and watch my class, so I leaned in on a friend of the girl and asked her to go find her, and then I called the school counselor’s office to reach our school social worker, Habiba Davis. But, she didn’t answer.

My class began to rumble and whisper as my mind raced through a litany of thoughts:

 My classroom is student centered. I try to create strong relationships, integrate diverse literature into my curriculum that represents our population of students. With this lesson, I gave the students guiding questions, gathered online resources, created a Hyperdoc for each topic of research, checked student work, let students pick the topics they wanted to research, and chose my most mature students to focus on Jim Crow Laws. I made sure to tell them not to use graphic images. I told them they needed to be mindful of everyone in class because it may be their first experience hearing about the Jim Crow Laws and the related violence and hate. Lastly, before the presentations, I explained to the entire class that some of the information may be unsettling, but my door is always open to talk and discuss their feelings.

After minutes of pacing the room, I saw the silhouettes of the two students outside my classroom. So, I stepped into the hall to talk with them. The girl who had left upset told me everything was fine, but I could sense that it wasn’t. I guided her into class; luckily no one made a big deal of the moment. After the bell rang, I asked the two students to stay and talk. I began with an apology and explained again why we had to present on this topic. I said I thought all students needed to know that hateful groups existed and still exist, and also that students would not understand the historical context of the novel without this background information.

After my explanation, I asked, “What can I do to make this better and do better?” 

The girl who left said she was tired of being one of two students of color in class and having the white students looking at her each time a sensitive topic, such as race, arose (a common comment made by many students of color in predominantly non African-American or Latino schools).  

My heart sank after she shared her feelings. I thought I had covered all my bases, but I obviously had not. I suddenly felt like I had let these girls down. I hadn’t thought carefully enough ahead of time about what they knew or didn’t know about the topic, or about what trauma this information may trigger in them. I thought about the historical information my students needed to know — and that was it.

At the end of our conversation, I told both students that they could come back and talk more whenever they needed. I excused them, feeling unsettled. Two minutes later, they were back and stated, “Ms. Moser, we want to talk more — now.”

Again, I sat and listened.

Within a span of thirty minutes, one of the girls, who wants to be a teacher someday, said, “It would be great if you created a lesson that discusses how other races and cultures experience prejudice so students understand that it isn’t just us.”

I then asked if they would like to create the lesson together with me. They immediately agreed. One of the girls rattled off her ideas, which involved a cooperative learning activity using guiding questions. We spent the rest of the period working out the details, reviewing the literature, creating questions that tackled the issue of microaggressions toward certain races, cultures, and genders in school, social media, and literature. Our guiding questions dove into how best respond to microaggressions and how our students could help our school be better when it comes to racism and other forms of prejudice. 

At the end of the period, I gave the girls a pass to their next class. As I looked over the questions we created, I felt better. Something was going to come of this moment.The other half of me, to be honest, was terrified. What if I said the wrong thing during the lesson? I didn’t want to make these students feel even more singled out in this process. I also knew, as a white woman who grew up in a white middle class community, that I needed help in leading this discussion. What kept me grounded were the two students who came forward. In twenty years of teaching, I have never had sixth-grade students of color be completely open and honest with me about their feelings on racism and prejudice.

Later in the day, I did connect with Habiba, our school social worker and a woman of color. I also spoke with my Co-Team Leader, Cathy Boege, who is also white. I invited both to help finalize this lesson and to co-teach it with me. Thankfully, they eagerly agreed. As a team, we spent a few meetings with the two girls and finalized the lesson and set the date.

Ultimately, we did a three-part lesson to four sixth-grade classes. Cathy defined key vocabulary and made sure everyone understood racism, prejudice, and stereotypes in her Ancient Civilization class. On the same day, my students in English/Language Arts read four narratives from the New York Times written by students of color who experienced microaggressions. We read them aloud and had a large circle discussion about each. On the second day, Cathy and Habiba joined my class as we used the information from the first day to help students complete the cooperative learning activity on the guiding questions we created around microaggressions.


I identify as white and understand the privileges that come with being white. But I haven’t always thought about race in my life. When I was growing up, just about everyone on my block, at school, in church, and my suburban town was white. Norwegian holidays and customs shaped much of my life. Every winter, I flipped Lefse, a Norwegian pastry, on my grandmother’s griddle with my mother, and I now make it with my children. My parents made sure that I identified more with my ancestors’ culture than with my race.

Shortly after graduating from a predominantly white college in 1998, I decided to move to Dallas to teach middle school English. It wasn’t until I started teaching there that my lack of understanding of race and other cultures became clear. At first, I found it very difficult to connect with my students of color because I had absolutely no experience interacting with children of color. But slowly through my first year, I knew I had to make a change. After 9/11, prejudice and racism became very real to me, and I knew as an educator I had to have conversations about race in the classroom — I had to lead these conversations — because it was affecting our classroom and school culture.

In this instance, I am glad I took the leap to break from school as usual to create a lesson that addresses the issues of microaggressions and its impact on our class. It was particularly gratifying to have the input from my two students of color and two colleagues — and also to have the full support of the administration. 

Through this experience, my students developed a much deeper understanding of themselves and their classmates — and learned how they can best support each other across differences. They also developed their critical thinking skills and cultural resiliency. As for me, I gained an understanding and greater clarity that my whiteness definitely has an impact on my students. From this, I will in time revise my historical fiction unit to focus on common themes between book club selections rather than race. Instead, I plan on using Being the Change by Sara K. Ahmed during our realistic fiction book club unit which outlines lessons on identity, the importance of one’s name, and understanding internal bias and microaggressions. I will pair her work with book club books such as The Front Desk by Kelly Yang, Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan, The Misfits by James Howe, Harbour Me by Jacqueline Woodson, Ghost Jason Reynolds, Merci Saurez Changes Gears by Meg Medina, and Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick. Moreover, I made my decision to do this because it is an essential part of my job to create engaging inclusive curriculum, norms for a safe learning environment, and to forge strong relationships with all of my students. I understand that I need to think deeply about my units of study and how they may impact each of them.

Another key takeaway is that I could not have done this lesson with my two students, Cathy, and Habiba. Having Cathy and Habiba in my room on the day of the cooperative learning activity helped the room feel safe. Their presence kept students focused on the task at hand and open to asking questions. I’m particularly thankful that Habiba and I have had a strong professional and personal relationship. From the very beginning of my time at the school, I have felt comfortable reaching out to her to ask questions about race, trauma, and forging strong relationships with students of color. Her guidance has only made me a better teacher.

Looking back now, I will never forget when a mixed-race student asked after our lesson, “Are other teams doing this lesson, Ms. Moser?”

I said, “No, not in this capacity.”

She replied, “Well, they should. It was really worth it.”  

Habiba’s Perspective

In early April, I received an email from a dear and trusted teacher, Hillary Moser, who I refer to as my late night BFF. Hillary is endearingly called this because of all of our late night (after our children are in bed) discussions regarding students and their academic and social-emotional learning. Hillary regularly seeks me out to discuss how we can best support students in her classroom. Sometimes we engage in broader discussions on teaching all students and what this specifically looks like for children of color.

On this day in April, I received an email from Hillary noting that a student of color in her class — one with whom I also work — emotionally broke down during a student presentation on Jim Crow Laws and Segregation. Hillary was wondering if I was available to connect with the student. Unfortunately, I did not retrieve this email until later that day, which of course meant I had missed any opportunity to see the student at the time of the incident. My more immediate thought in the moment was that I had wished I had been available to the student so that I could hear from her what had triggered her reaction. Knowing that this student had experienced microaggressions around race in the past — I wanted to hear her articulate what made her emotional in that moment, particularly given the pre-class work that her teacher had done to prepare all students for the lesson.

As a school counselor, once I discover what is going on with a student, I want to help them find ways to feel empowered in such situations in the future. However, soon after I outlined a plan for what would work in this case, I quickly remembered it is not my job to do this with her (or any student) alone; it incumbent of all adults in her life — teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders — to support, educate, and help her build the capacity to manage or regulate (until able to process in a safe way) emotions when engaging in race related topics.

After having several conversations with this student, the parent and a few other students of color in the same cohort at the school, we focused on leveraging this experience in the English class to build resilience. We also did work supporting the classroom lesson that was constructed mainly by the student and Hillary, with help from Cathy Boege, the group’s Co-Team Leader.

I must admit that on the day we did the lesson with the various team classes I was a little nervous. Many of the students in our school community have never interacted with a person of color in a teaching capacity. How would these students receive me as a facilitator? What did I need to say to connect with them? In one of the classes I co-taught I only knew a few students.

To ensure the classes were safe environments to learn, Hillary opened the lesson with the norms for the day and allowed the students to add any norms they felt were missing. She then shared with the students that their history teacher and I would be in the class as support.

I asked if I could say a few words before we started. Soon after I opened my mouth, I immediately knew I was in my element and any sense of nervousness was gone. I shared my role in the school and my connection to Hillary (that we were L-N BFF). I explained how, on some nights, we discussed ways to support all students’ academic and social-emotional learning. I then asked why they thought I was there. The students gave polite, expected responses. However, in one class an Asian student shared that I was there because I am an African-American woman. I  applauded (figuratively) and thanked her for being courageous enough to give this answer. I closed my introduction in each class by saying that I am women of color who was there alongside their teachers because it takes all of us, collectively, to combat racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of social exclusion. I explained that we wanted this lesson to be one where everyone felt safe speaking honestly and respectfully about race and culture.

As we moved through the lesson throughout the day, I was so impressed with our students thoughtfulness in their responses. It was obvious that some were apprehensive, but many did a great job thinking through the prompts at their table. It was clear that this lesson was asking them to venture out of their comfort zone, but they posed and answered questions openly and pushed themselves to inquire about things that make many people feel uncomfortable. One student was brave enough to inquire when it was okay to use the “N” word.


While I always wish I can be there for students in moments of crisis, in this instance I’m glad the student who had left her class had to work out her concerns directly with her teacher. We always ask students to talk to us about their concerns, but most keep their thoughts to themselves. In this instance, both students mustered the courage to return to an entrusted adult and were able to be brave and respond honestly. They practiced exactly what we as adults ask them to do — use the skills they learn to resolve issues that are challenging for them. This cannot happen, however, unless you have a teacher with a culturally responsive classroom.

Another significant component in being a good teacher is the ability to build trusting relationships with students and families. This is particularly important for teachers working with students of color. Hillary knows this and makes relationship building a key component in her practice. As a teacher, she is also aware of who she is as a white woman who did not grow up in a diverse community. Teachers are advised to be mindful of their biases and blindspots so that there is an ability to be genuinely open to “hearing” and embracing students. There needs to be an understanding of students’ journeys in order to effectively help them with their learning. In our school, we also want to know that we are developing meaningful relationships that focus less on being empathetic and more on empowering the students’ abilities to engage in productive learning.

As a result of the interaction in this lesson and in my conversations with others (mainly students), one thing that was reinforced for me is the importance of affinity groups for students, as well as the need for adults to find ways to celebrate the learning of our children of color. With this lesson on microaggressions, one fundamental accomplishment was helping the students in understanding the underpinnings of microaggressions and how this shapes their thinking. In their affinity group, our students of color were able to think through and speak honestly about how racism and bigotry impacted their learning in a classroom. Also, what was openly discussed is what triggers them when different lessons on race are discussed in classes. Lastly, on a more personal level the students were able to begin the work of embracing their ethnicity in a constructive, supportive, and, most importantly, empowering way.

When it comes to microaggressions, I would like to believe that many of the hurtful comments are spoken out of ignorance (impact over intent). As adults, however, we have to help our students be and do better. We can and should start early having what we identify as difficult conversations that can subsequently result in lessons that lend to student growth. That day in April 2019, our young children reminded me that the discourse may be difficult but that we have to tackle challenging conversations through honest dialogue and by helping them build resilience. These young sixth graders reminded me how brilliant and courageous they are. As educators, we must also be brave and courageous.

We have powerful students in our midst and, as the adults in the school, we must always aim to be a deeply meaningful part of their lives. 

Hillary Moser has taught middle school English for twenty years. She loves working in a community with a large diverse population. She is passionate about creating a loving and safe learning environment for all children, and she is a strong believer in the power of relationships with students. She is a hardworking mother of two and avid Tweeter.  

Habiba Davis for many years has been a staunch advocate in helping students with social emotional issues; underserved and/or at-risk youth in the public schools and criminal justice systems throughout Massachusetts. She is best known for her passion and commitment to working and learning from youth, families, and educators — and is a proud mother of the greatest (in her eyes) twins in the world. 






Distancing Ourselves from Ourselves

By Jenna Chandler-Ward

I think often about the Robert Jones, Jr. (@SonofBaldwin) quote, “We can disagree and still love each other as long as your disagreement is not rooted in my oppression and in the denial of my humanity and right to exist.” I wonder about what that means for a white person who is deeply invested in racial justice. How do we disagree with and yet love another white person who does not see the world that we see, and yet is also a reflection of us?

I was recently at a workshop given by the great Ali Michael. While describing different phases of racial identity development, something I thought I knew a fair amount about, she casually mentioned something that made my hair stand up on the back of my neck. She talked about the Pseudo-Independent Stage when white people are trying to prove that they are not like other white people, and that they are one of the “good” ones. She talked about how white people often want to do “the lean away,” * or distance themselves from other white people when those others say or do something racially problematic. White people, even those deeply involved in anti-racist work, have a tendency to turn away from other white people when they express a racist behavior or belief. Ali asked us to consider that the white people in our lives who cause the biggest racial problems are, perhaps, the people we should be leaning into the most. Even if these people will never be activists, we can continue to ask questions and engage in conversation in hopes that they will do less harm with people of color.

I have been working on anti-racism in myself and in education for quite some time — and all of this seems so obvious. So obvious, but is that the way I had been behaving? I have had to end some relationships in my life because of racism. Sometimes it was because people were sick of my insistence on talking about racism when I saw it. In some cases, I just got tired; our world views were just too different, and we were never going to share an authentic connection. One particular relationship that ended haunts me. A friend and I recently parted ways after twelve years of friendship. A close friend. A call-in-an-emergency friend. A hey-can-you-pick-up-my-kids friend. A laugh-out-loud, text-a-hilarious-thing-I just-saw friend. This relationship ended, and I am devastated.  

I kept thinking that if we just talked more, something would come to light that would explain the two different stories we were telling. I felt that I had asked her to understand and look at some racist behavior. I knew it was unconscious. She would never knowingly hurt anyone. But I felt that as her friend, and someone she trusted, she should hear me and make some changes. That this was simply, as Jay Smooth would say, some racism stuck in your teeth kind of moment. I felt that she should show some humility and vulnerability, not make a big deal and then make some changes. But I felt punished by her. She was defensive, and angry, and wanted the benefit of the doubt. For me to suggest that her actions had a racist impact meant that I wasn’t her friend. But for me, there was no room for interpretation. Her actions were racist.

If you had asked me then why our friendship ended, I would have said that I broke with white solidarity — the implied (mostly unconscious) agreement that we will protect white privilege and not hold each other accountable for our racism. But hearing Ali describe the “lean away” made me uncomfortable. Did I do the right thing? Or did I just lean away from my friend’s racist behavior? Was I in fact judging her for things I know I have done myself? Was it the reflection of my own past behavior that made me so intolerant? Was I afraid that proximity to her racism would make me lose credibility in the work I am trying to do?

When my colleague Elizabeth Denevi and I  do workshops around the country with white teachers, and when we interview white students, we hear again and again that they are afraid to say the wrong thing. Within that admission we also hear white people talk about their fear of exposing their ignorance or that their implicit bias and racism will be evident. As Robin DiAngelo has explained so clearly, this racial discomfort and white fragility stops the conversation. It makes it impossible to talk about racism if we as white people are still defending our intentions or avoiding talking about it at all. I get it. I have been silent when I knew something wasn’t right for fear of making it worse and to avoid conflict. I have leaned away from people so I could stay in racial comfort. It was a relief in a way. It is easier than engaging in a complex conversation that not only involves confronting and supporting another person, but also involves being challenged, and I hate conflict. If there were a way to live a conflict-free life, I would have figured it out by now. Yet, the tendency to lean away from white people who express racist views is partly what keeps most white people from talking about race in the first place. The “lean away” becomes another form of protecting the racist status quo. It’s kind of sad that this is a fairly typical response. But it also partly explains why racism persists.

When we do engage, most of us who are white tend to respond to racist behavior with biting, isolating criticism or one-line retorts designed to hurt and dismiss. It’s a common instinct in our culture at the moment — to try to win a few points at the expense of another person. A teacher says something racist, and we say, “What the hell is wrong with you?” (Or something worse.) Then turn away. Or we say it and prepare for the unproductive fight to ensue. What we don’t do is find a way to slow things down, ask for an explanation, offer a different perspective, start a dialogue. I think the answer may be that the former reaction is easier. It’s also a form of self-protection, defensiveness. Engaging in an open, respectful conversation on racism is not only hard, it might also expose our ignorance and our own implicit bias. I know I can find myself getting flustered when challenged about my views on race. I question what I think I know and worry that I am not smart enough or articulate enough to change anyone’s mind. It’s all quite messy. So it’s easier to pull back, dismiss, lean away, go talk with someone who shares my perspective.

Another white friend of mine involved in anti-racism work was recently called out publicly by a black woman at a conference for what was perceived to be a racist act. Though I felt the pain of that moment, knowing it could easily happen to me, that is not what troubled me. For the rest of that conference, not one white person spoke to her. No one wanted to be seen talking to her, I assume, because they were afraid that the racist moniker might rub off on them. I could see myself doing the same thing; staying away from someone for fear it might reflect that I am not trustworthy, or not anti-racist enough, or unfixable.

In this “cancel culture,” I see it happen all of the time. Often, it is white liberals who are on the attack. I recognize this in myself. I have tried to show that I am the different kind, a “good” white person, who “gets it.” White liberals have called out, and questioned, and shamed people so that most white people do not want to take the risk of being punished in this way. This needs to stop. If we treat white people this way and don’t lean in, it makes the whole idea of “it’s ok to be white,” a common right-wing refrain, even more appealing. When white people lean away, shun and shame other white people for not understanding the ways they have internalized a racist culture, we essentially offer incentive and a space for the creation of more white supremacists.

But this dynamic between white people mostly comes at a cost, once again, to people of color. When a white person is spurned and feels called out, or even understands that they may have actually hurt someone, it is in direct conflict with how they want to view themselves. As a result, most white people in this situation lash out, not just to the person who has called them out, but at people of color in general. White people who feel shamed about racist behavior or attitudes either double down on why people of color are the problem or they refuse to engage with topics that could be disruptive to their self perception — but either way, it amounts to another white person opting out of the conversation.

Sometimes an us-vs-them ideology is necessary in social justice. We cannot work alongside people who willingly harm and dehumanize other people. But more often than not, for white people in racial equity work, the “them” is also us. It is me. Yes, we need to break with white solidarity. White people need to hold other white people accountable and interrupt and not be complicit with racism. But we also need to lean in to our white friends and family in a way that keeps people in the conversation and wanting to understand more. We need more white people to be willing and able to wade into the conversation and to work toward making it better.

As a teacher, I know that when I have difficulty with a particular student it is often because I see some part of myself in that student. The same has been true when working with adults. Becoming more racially conscious has meant a lot of self-reflection and facing uncomfortable things about myself. When I recognize the same wounds in other people, it can be difficult for me to act out of love and compassion. I often feel aggravated and impatient. When working with other white people doing racial equity work, I have learned to ask myself some questions when I notice I that I am feeling annoyed or angry with another person and feel compelled to let them know. Before calling something into question, I ask myself:  Have I done or said the same thing that I am annoyed about? Does offering this feedback give me satisfaction and/or make me feel better than? How would I react if someone said this to me? What is motivating my urge to say this?

There is also a flip side of this. I need to be brave when I am afraid to break with white solidarity, when I am afraid that speaking up will cost me being liked, and in some cases being trusted. I try to answer: What is at stake and for whom if I do not interrupt this moment? How would silence in this moment be colluding with oppression? What would a successful communication in this moment look like and what could it lead to?

This process isn’t perfect. Some days when I am feeling centered, I can trust my instincts enough not to slow down these moments with self-questioning, and some days I don’t. My motives are not always known to me or pure. I do not want to coddle or protect whiteness. And I cannot afford to alienate potential allies or dear friends because I cannot forgive that imperfect part of myself.

The forgiveness I offer myself and others is sometimes flimsy and easily gives way to fear. I have heard people talk about the need for radical self-love when doing racial justice work, and I never fully understood why. As a white person, how can I love my racism? Radical self-love can feel like a dangerous ideology that lets white people off the hook. But I think, in fact, it is the opposite. It requires us to forgive, and to love the parts of ourselves that we are afraid to look at. I know that, for me, radical love will mean that once I am able to love the broken parts and wounds in myself, I will be able to stand unafraid in my compassion for others. 

Jenna Chandler-Ward is the co-founder of Teaching While White and co-director the Multicultural Teaching Institute. She consults with schools nationally on developing more inclusive communities and curricula.

*This term term was coined by Sarah Halley.






Thoughts on the Intersection of White Fragility, Institutional Power, and the Culture of Education

 By Lise Brody

Recently, on a podcast, I heard replayed the audio of the Sandra Bland’s traffic stop. In case anyone has forgotten, Bland was stopped in 2015 by police officer Brian Encinia for failing to signal a lane change in an otherwise empty street. She was found dead in her jail cell three days later.

I wanted to turn it off, but I didn’t. I listened. Because in Encinia’s voice I recognized something beyond the obvious racism and spitting hate: I heard the thrashing rage of power confronted with noncompliance. As a high school teacher, that sound stopped me cold.

When I was in fourth or fifth grade, my teacher shook a student until his head bounced against the wall. The student had been smirking. It’s possible that the words “wipe that smirk off your face” had preceded the assault. I remember none of the circumstances of the event — not the boy’s crime, nor his name, nor the teacher’s name. But to this day, nearly 50 years later, I remember the emotional pitch in the teacher’s voice — the sense that he had moved beyond reason. He had “snapped.”

It’s worth remembering that, just as the history of policing in the U.S. lies (partly) in the capture and return of people who escaped slavery, a key part of the original mission of our public schools was to create a docile work force. Teachers’ role as enforcers was, and remains, built into the system. When the principal walks into our classroom, our eyes do an adrenaline-triggered scan to make sure things are “under control.” We often feel that classroom “management” is our primary task. This is dangerous to our students because of what it does to us.

The fact that power creates fragility — a fear so intense it can lead to brutality — is evident in the ongoing history of deadly violence against Black people of all ages, whether perpetrated by white mobs or by armed police officers. What, then, is the risk run by our students — by all our students (my fifth-grade classmate was white) — but especially our students of color, who stand at the intersection of teachers’ anxiety over noncompliance and (I speak as a white teacher) our implicit bias?

I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t enforce expectations. Call them rules, if you like. If I see a student thumbing a phone under the desk, I ask them to put it away. If it’s the third or fourth (or fifth or sixth) time, I take their phone or send them to the dean, making no secret of my frustration and annoyance. But I need to do a mental and emotional check every single time: I need to be sure that I’m responding to their behavior for a meaningful reason (it interferes with their work, is disrespectful to their classmates, etc.), not simply reacting because I’m being personally disobeyed. The distinction between these two motivations matters because the second — the panic of power challenged — is what leads to the whole abusive spectrum, from humiliating remarks to head banging.

So, how do we perform such fine-tuned in-the-moment self monitoring? As teachers we’re used to split-second multi-layered decision making. We know how to read a room, a moment, an interaction, and how to assess the results of our actions over time until we’re guided by something that feels like instinct, but is actually experience. Learning to examine what’s going on inside us at a deeper-than-conscious level is another layer of challenge, but it can be done, and unearthing our own implicit bias is, simply put, our job. It takes education, practice, falling short, coming face-to-face with our insecurities, acknowledging our failures, persisting with humility. Rinse, repeat.

That’s the band-aid, and band-aids can make a difference.

But it remains to be said that monitoring our own behavior is not an adequate solution to a structural problem. When I check my reactions, I’m resisting institutional and cultural pressures that function systemically to make school a site of racist oppression. The flair of panic in a teacher’s gut when their power is contested by a student is less a product of the teacher’s personality than of their job description. We perform roles within systems.

And yet, for better or worse, I stay in school. I do my best to make my classroom a space of humanity, respect, and collective inquiry. On a good day, I believe my students feel called upon to participate in community building rather than forced into a compliance/rebellion paradigm. To enumerate my own and others’ strategies for this would take another few blog posts, but they boil down to trust and risk. Most recently, I’ve looked to Matthew R. Kay’s chapter on “safe spaces” in Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. (Kay offers both analysis and concrete strategies.) More distantly, it was Paolo Freire and bell hooks who first helped me see teaching and learning as relational and potentially radical.

And still I’m left with the question: Is it possible to work within the system to change the very nature of education — its guiding purpose and its real-world enactment — away from a culture of compliance and control to one of community, growth, and empowerment?

I feel duty bound to pursue the answer. I think our students’ lives depend on it.


Lise Brody currently teaches English Language Arts at Innovation Academy Charter School. She has taught high school for 18 years.


A Letter to White Teachers of My Black Children

Dear White Teachers of My Black Children:

I am a Black mom.

I know it’s sometimes hard to decide whether to say Black or African-American. I used to identify as African-American because I loved hearing the reference to my ancestral homeland in my description of myself. But then to say African-American reduces the majestic continent of Africa down to the status of a country. Africa is not a country, and so I now identify as a Black woman.  I identify here specifically as a Black mom because I have two children who are now in high school. Raising them to be inquisitive, informed adults with a strong sense of identity and agency is an essential part of my life.

I am also an educator, so I understand the deep importance of guiding and shaping all of our children. I’m also intimately aware of all the cultural complexity surrounding our work. I know, too, that we have a long way to go before we’re even close to treating all of our students equitably. This is why I’m writing to you today. I have much to say about what I wish you had been able to do for my children when they were in your elementary and middle school classrooms, and what I hope you will do for all children of color entering your classrooms.

Because I’m an educator, I know well what you — or at least the vast majority of you — learned in your pre-K-12 education and in your teacher-prep program. I also know what you didn’t learn. As you grew up, you were most likely taught in school and at home that Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator, that it was acceptable, right even, to refer to the people of the global majority as minorities, and that communities with higher percentages of Black families are in need of saving.

As a teacher, you most likely did not receive ongoing professional development about race and education in America. You’re likely to have a vague understanding about issues of diversity and equity and inclusion with insufficient understanding of culturally responsive teaching and learning. On the other hand, you most likely received extensive training on implementation of state and national education standards, new curricular initiatives, and how to improve standardized test scores. In recent years, you might have received professional development about social emotional learning, but you’ll have done so without exploring the critical sociopolitical considerations that are essential to strengthening your ability to teach well across race, class, and gender.

In high school, college, and your teacher-prep program, you no doubt were taught something about race in America, but it’s highly unlikely that you learned the truth about Black experience. It’s likely, for instance, that you’ve been taught little to nothing about the pre-enslavement contributions of Black people to the world, the horrors and impact of centuries of enslavement, post “Emancipation” Jim Crow laws and practices, and the many ongoing racially based systemic injustices such as mass incarceration, housing discrimination, wealth disparities, and lack of equal access to quality education, health care, and more.

I didn’t learn about these things in school either, but thankfully, my parents made sure I learned about these important aspects of American life and history that are absent from the textbooks and teacher’s guides.

Because it’s unlikely that you learned about all of these things in school or in your home, it’s even more unlikely that you teach about these matters now. I know that those of you who taught my children when they were younger didn’t necessarily teach them about these issues. But here’s the thing: they truly wanted to hear it from you, too. We have talked extensively about these matters at home, but my children’s school experiences would have been far more valuable if you would have introduced them to the lives and works of Ellen and William Craft, Katherine Johnson, Lewis Hayden, Ida B. Wells and Denmark Vesey. They wanted to hear you tell them the truth about The Black Panther Party, the reasons behind the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., the painful facts about Columbus’s experiences in the Americas, and the meaning of Juneteenth. And they didn’t want to just hear a few tidbits about these essential and complex aspects of American life in February just because it was Black History Month.

What my children needed from you in school — what all students of color need from you in school — is a much deeper understanding of racial history and ongoing racial matters. If you are to teach them well — teach them as I know you want to teach them — you need deeper cultural knowledge and skills. If, for instance, you teach a social studies unit on immigration and you have your students present about the countries of their ancestors, Black children need you to think more deeply about how this assignment feels for them. One of the many things Black Americans lost as a result of the nation’s involvement in enslavement is the knowledge of which African countries our ancestors came from. Although we now have some helpful information from Ancestry DNA, I, for instance, can’t say for sure whether my African ancestors were Nigerian, Senegalese, Ghanaian, Congolese, Beninese, Togolese, Cameroonian, Malian, or from the Ivory Coast. And because we didn’t have access to this information when my children were in elementary school, they ended up focusing only on their European heritage because our White ancestors are a lot easier to trace.

This can also be a tough and painful assignment for other students of color as well — especially for First Nations people whose ancestral stories are overlooked by misrepresented in the textbook versions of American history.

My guess is that you didn’t think about all this in planning the unit. Going forward, I hope you will.

Because you were entrusted to partner with me in the education of my children, I wanted you to be curious about them with the same intensity with which you’d have them stand to pledge allegiance to the flag. I wanted you to wonder how they felt when they saw Mount Rushmore or the face of Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill they handed you with their field trip permission slip. I wanted you to wonder how they felt in your class after hearing about yet another unarmed Black life erased from this world by police brutality — all because the melanin we see as so beautiful looks like danger to others. Do you know how it felt for my children when you didn’t say anything about racial injustices at the time of their occurrences? Do you know how it feels for your Black students today?

If your school is anything like the schools where I taught, you’ll be expected to interact with your students’ families at open houses, conferences, and literacy or math nights. On those nights, families are expected to come to school, and are often judged harshly if they don’t. I want you to think about this, think about why you are judging them harshly and what assumptions you are making. During parent teacher conferences, you will most likely not have a lot of time, so you’ll probably default to talking at families about their children instead of engaging in dialogues with families as partners. I know it’s hard. I’ve been there, too. But I’m asking you now, when it’s time for conferences, when families show up to engage in conversation with you about the most precious people in their lives, please don’t see your contract as a limitation. Use these moments as opportunities to connect, learn, and share.

As you well know, the dominant culture in the United States tries to suppress conversations on race. There are numerous reasons for this, most of them related to the maintenance of the power status quo. I’m asking you to help break this damaging practice — especially among adults in your school. There are certain conversations that take place in teachers’ lounges about students and their families that I find both infuriating and heartbreaking. Too often, teachers are silent in the face of racist, prejudicial, biased, or stereotypical comments. I know it’s uncomfortable to confront a colleague. I want you to consider, however, how uncomfortable it makes my family and all other families of color to know that there are people who we’ve entrusted with the care and teaching of our children who think of them as less than — less important, less worthy of our love and attention. When that moment arises next time — and it will arise — I want you to think of how uncomfortable the students are in that teacher’s classroom, and I want you to speak up on their behalf. If a colleague says something derogatory about a child and/or that child’s family, you must speak up. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” 

My children are in high school now and have had the privilege of participating in advanced placement and honors courses in school. They have scored at proficient and advanced levels on standardized tests. They are amazing young people, and they have worked hard. But none of these accomplishments make them exceptional or in any way better than their schoolmates who have not had these same opportunities. It also doesn’t make my husband and me exceptional or any better than the families of their schoolmates. Please consider the access and opportunities that are available to all students in your schools. Our job, if we are doing it right, is to celebrate every child where they are and move them forward with skill, love, courage, and grace. In a nation that claims to believe in educating all children to become engaged citizens, this practice of failing so many students of color, or tracking them based on implicit bias, or pushing them out of schools, or driving them into the criminal justice system, or ignoring them in hopes they’ll simply drop out — this adult behavior in schools perpetuates inequitable systems.

Finally, I know it’s tempting to think that because you teach in a school with a high percentage of Black students, racism isn’t an issue for you. Please know that proximity doesn’t equal awareness. That would be like a male teacher saying, “I can’t be sexist because I have female students.” Know, too, that racial colorblindness isn’t really a thing. While it’s right to treat children equitably, it’s also important to understand how race shapes lives in a racist system.

We all breathe in the smog of oppression, and the only way to expel it is to read, listen, reflect, ask questions and become better as a result of what we learn. I’m here asking you as educators to help lead the way. By improving equity in schools, by becoming truly inclusive learning communities with an effective anti-racist curriculum, we improve both individual lives and equity and justice in society. I’m here for you and I’m rooting for you. As Lilla Watson said, “… your liberation is bound up with mine.”

With love, respect, and hope,


Afrika Afeni Mills

A Black Educator Mom


Afrika Afeni Mills is the Senior Manager of Inclusive and Responsive Educational Practices and Instructional Coach for BetterLesson, an education organization designed to support teachers in developing the next generation of compassionate, resourceful, and iterative learners. She facilitates conference sessions frequently around the country.


Color-Conscious Family Engagement

By Katie Carr

I’m white... really white. I’m blonde and have blue eyes. I grew up in a rural, white Connecticut town where all of the black and brown METCO students traveled over an hour on a bus from Hartford. I went to a private college in a struggling city where campus gates firmly divided the elite white students from the “townies.” Like so many white people, I had little reason to question race; I was thriving on white privilege.

When I became a teacher, I joined the ranks of millions of other white women who had little reason to notice race within the classroom.

I was so wrong.

For the past few years, I’ve done the work to understand the harmful effect that color-blind approaches have on students. I’ve dissected and scrutinized my whiteness, acknowledging many cringe-worthy moments. I’ve examined the ways in which my whiteness shows up in the classroom and have shifted my practice to be more color-conscious and culturally responsive. Shifting my approach to students felt challenging, yet do-able. Critiquing my approach to family engagement, re-evaluating it from a color-conscious perspective, felt overwhelming.

These are three lenses through which I evaluate each family engagement initiative and strategy.


1.     Awareness of whiteness

I often wonder, “What does it feel like to walk into your child’s school and not feel a sense of belonging?” In the process of re-examining the parent-teacher conference experience, I started sending simple surveys before the conference in which I asked, “What do you want to be sure to discuss?” and “What are your hopes and dreams for your child this year?” During our conference, I resist the temptation to direct the conversation and instead focus on listening, shifting to “dialogue” rather than “presentation” mode. We discuss the concerns of the family early on to provide sufficient time.

In the case of one family of color that I had a difficult time connecting with, I named my whiteness, saying “I am yet another white lady teaching your brown son. I promise to challenge him.” The statement served to diffuse some of the tension and demonstrated that I saw her; I was aware of the effect of my whiteness on her family.

Like Robin DiAngelo discusses in her work on white fragility, I rarely questioned how I’ve benefited from the oppression of others. Accepting and owning my whiteness is a process of retraining myself to look toward, instead of away from, systems of oppression and then taking action. A colleague of mine once suggested that I practice asking myself, “Where is my whiteness in this?” each time I have a new curricular idea, interact with students, families, or colleagues, or agree to a new initiative. I have developed the habit of asking myself, “Whose voice is not included? Whose identity is not validated?”


2) Cultural responsiveness

A subtle but powerful shift has involved consciously approaching each family with compassion. Since becoming a mother, I now appreciate that there is no single formula for parenting. Regardless of our race, ethnicity, family structure or parenting style, we all want success and happiness for our child. When a family seems upset or distant, I reframe my thinking and check my biases. I do work to see if I’m missing something, sometimes asking others in my community to help bring my blind spots into view.

One of the ways that I’ve increased perspectives is by opening up my classroom to families. Early in the school year, I sent an email to all families in which I invited them to visit the classroom; the structure of the visit intentionally left open-ended. The purpose of the visit was to create a shared experience among the student, the family, and me. This type of engagement says to the families, “You have something valuable to share with the classroom community and school. This space belongs to you, too.” So far this year, over half of the families have visited the classroom.

Another avenue for building my competency has been through participation in a Professional Learning Community (PLC) focused on a critical reading of Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Our readings and discussions helped me recognize that if I want to create an affirming and inclusive environment, I need to know a lot about each of my students. I view the families as gateways to that information. When I interact with families, I ask questions that help me learn more about them, and I actively listen. I put time and effort into connecting by making positive phone calls home, selecting books that mirror their child’s identity and offering to communicate via text, email, or phone. I convey my genuine love for their child at every chance possible and communicate through actions and words that I will fight to do better.


3) Asset-based view of families

As a white teacher, I’ve been conditioned to hold unconscious biases about my students of color. Only in recent years have I started to see the impact that institutionalized racism, skin-color privilege, and language discrimination have on my students and families. If I, as a white educator, look at families of color as deficit-based, I reinforce stereotypes.

In the past, I’ll admit, I assumed that when black and brown families didn’t return phone calls, it was because they didn’t care. I’ve thought that when parents didn’t show up at a conference, it was because they were disinterested. These deficit-based biases are pervasive and harmful. These same families do care. In the past, I’ve neglected to see all of the possible barriers that might push a family of color away, making them feel as if they don’t belong.

Too often, teachers view parents and families as obstacles to teaching. We sometimes complain about parent (over) involvement in the classroom or the burden of answering parent emails. I’ve experienced this, too. But, while attending Harvard’s Family Engagement Institute last summer, I learned from Karen Mapp the importance of viewing families as integral contributors to student achievement and happiness. I now see families not as obstacles or factors that derail my work, but as essential sources of knowledge and experience who hold the capacity to influence their children’s success positively.

As a teacher, what fuels me is knowing that each day presents an opportunity to be better and do better. I’ve managed to make small changes that prioritize families. The more I embrace the complexity of race, equity, and inclusion, the more readily I see how important this is — and how much work I still need to do.


Katie Carr is a Grade 1 teacher at The Park School in Brookline, Massachusetts. She enjoys writing and learning about issues related to family engagement, teacher development, and literacy. Connect with her on Twitter.



 On Empathy and Action

By Melissa Dolan


How might we be inadvertently reinforcing racial inequality in our community?

Why is “niceness” sometimes problematic when issues regarding race emerge in our community?

How does your self-awareness inform you in your approach to how and why you teach?

My eyes scanned these and other questions posted on the whiteboards around the room during a recent professional development activity. I immediately gravitated toward the last one, knowing I had an answer for it. Reviewing the responses other teachers had written on the whiteboard around this question, I saw that a number of white teachers acknowledged a lack of awareness of how their racial identities in particular might influence their teaching practices. Responses from teachers of color, on the other hand, reflected an acute awareness of their own identities in a classroom space.

As a civics teacher navigating hot-button political issues in the classroom, and as a member of the LGBT community, I often take into consideration not just what I teach but how I teach it to avoid the perception of political bias. With that in mind, I began writing, perhaps a bit too eagerly, about these teaching challenges. After a minute or two of quiet self-congratulation (“I get it. I’m a member of a marginalized community, too.”), a less positive feeling started to creep in to my mind. How would I answer this question if I were looking at it through the lens of my racial identity? And why wasn’t I doing that? Words in response to those questions escaped me. 

I started thinking back to other times in which our faculty community explored issues of identity during professional development. One activity, a year earlier, involved us checking off boxes related to our status in various privileged and marginalized groups. I felt a certain level of satisfaction that day knowing I could check some boxes in the marginalized column. As some of my colleagues around me had humbling “a-ha” moments about their various positions of privilege, I thought to myself, “for once — being marginalized is a positive!” I could think with specificity and nuance about the many ways in which my marginalized identities have shaped my experiences navigating the world around me. Yet, again, I did not spend much time thinking critically about how my privileged identities have also shaped my experiences. My colleagues were doing the hard work of deep self-reflection and awareness — and I was not. 

The ability to empathize is a critical skill when we are aiming to dismantle racial inequalities. In my case, however, I realized I was allowing my empathy to shield me from a certain level of self-reflection. In Teaching While White’s podcast interview with Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, DiAngelo identifies a similar dynamic, noting that white women often use patriarchy and sexism as a way out of supporting women of color as opposed to using it as a way in. 

I do not intend to downplay the realities of injustice that members of the LGBT community experience on a daily basis. What I need to do, though, is make sure I can speak with just as much fluency about how my privilege shapes who I am in my classroom and the larger world. That journey, I realize, is only just beginning.

As I have stepped into this process, I have already learned a few key lessons:

Lean in for the long haul.

At the start of this process, I kept looking for easy answers and teaching strategies I could put into place right away. For example, I would ask those who have been doing this work for some time how I might structure individual check-ins with students of color before starting a unit in which race played a central role (such as a unit on enslavement and Reconstruction). The answer was always, “Well... it depends on the context.”

A bit frustrated, I turned to other resources. I began reading Ali Michael’s Raising Race Questions: Whiteness and Inquiry in Education only to encounter in the early pages that “[a]lthough some race questions have answers, the ones that are most worth pursuing lead to a process rather than an answer” (Michael 21). I almost gave up on the text soon after reading those lines. I didn’t, however, and the further I progressed through the book, the more I started to understand why there are no easy answers. Educator Andrew Watson, in his work about the ways in which neuroscience can inform teaching practices, often states that teachers need to have a “think this way” mindset when interacting with his resources; if teachers are looking for “do this thing” advice from him, he will not be providing it. The work of racial identity development for educators is similar in that way; there is no quick fix.

Make this work a priority.

In order to take a “think this way” approach to racial literacy, I have to keep the work at the forefront of my mind daily. For me, this includes stating my aspirations in my yearly teaching goals and end-of-year reflection. It has also meant finding people who will help me hold myself accountable. I have informally partnered with other teachers doing similar work. We can serve as each other’s sounding boards and exchange honest feedback as we reflect on and learn from difficult moments in the classroom. As Jen Cort has recommended in a past TWW blog entry, “It’s Not About Being Liked,” I also plan to ask a peer to observe me in the classroom.

As for reading materials, I try to have one book lead to the next, moving from Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility to Eddie Moore, Jr. and Ali Michael’s The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys to Ali Michael’s Raising Race Questions and, most recently, Matthew Kay’s Not Light but Fire. Additionally, I printed out the Teaching While White blog (which, helpfully, prints out as one continuous document), took notes, tried out some of the advice, came up with new questions to pursue, and identified contributing writers I might want to reach out to so that I can learn more from them.

I’m working to build my network of resources both within my school and beyond it. I also try to ensure that my professional development choices involve continuous opportunities to develop my racial literacy as opposed to a “one-off” approach.

Embrace humility.

This is not new advice in the scholarship of racial identity development for white people. For me, it played out like this: Over the past few years, a colleague and I have been working to transform our interdisciplinary civics course into one in which students can more effectively use their knowledge of history to make sense of the present. The course has always focused on civil and human rights, but following the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, I realized that students were not using the subject matter of the course to make sense of the current events that were unfolding. Bewildered at first, I began to realize that it made sense; through the structure of the curriculum, I was implicitly sending the message that the fight for civil rights was a series of events that happened a long time ago and had a successful conclusion.

My colleague and I set about restructuring the content of the course and updating a number of teaching strategies as well. The course is now titled “Systems of Justice and Injustice” and delves far more deeply into the history and current realities of systemic racism and other issues. The course content is awesome, and I’m really proud of it (clearly I have not reached the humility part yet). My colleague and I spent the last couple of years feeling as though we were making progress with the course redesign but that we had a ways to go.

This fall, the pieces finally started to synthesize. I was ready to pat myself on the back and say, “I feel like the course is finally where it needs to be.” But just as I was preparing for my victory lap, I started in on Raising Race Questions and allowed Ali Michael’s words to sink in yet again: “You can have a multicultural curriculum and still not have an antiracist classroom.... Understanding that we have a racial identity... is the most critical step in building antiracist, whole classrooms” (Michael 2-4).

I began to realize that, no matter what content I am teaching or what themes we explore, if I do not take into account the impact of my identity as a white woman in the classroom as I facilitate that content, I can inflict stress on students and create an unsafe feeling in the classroom — the exact opposite of what I am striving for.

I have a lot more work to do. 

I look forward to this next phase of growth in my role as an educator. I have a lot to learn. Ultimately, I need to remind myself that while empathy might be a good starting point, taking action is the only way to start making a meaningful difference.

Melissa Dolan teaches humanities and serves as middle school curriculum leader at The Rivers School in Weston, Massachusetts. She can be reached at



Why We Need Racial Literacy Now More Than Ever

By Elizabeth Denevi

Given the current national landscape, it has become painfully obvious that those of us in schools need to double our efforts to teach racial literacy (Stevenson, 2014). Recently, I was working with 4/5th graders who are part of a racial affinity group program we coordinate in Portland, OR (for more about these groups, see So What Do White 4th Graders Have to Say About Race?). This past week, we were doing “race questions” where the children get to ask any question they have about race and racial identity. As I collected their notecards and began reading through their questions, I came across this one: “Why do white people dress up as Black people?” I could feel nervousness move through my body as I considered where to begin. To buy some thinking time, I asked for a bit more information: “What an interesting question! Can you tell me a little more?” Well, the floodgates opened:

“Elizabeth, I heard about this governor who put black paint on his face so he would look Black. I think he was making fun of Black people.”

“Yeah, and he dressed up as Michael Jackson. But that was for a party. Is that OK?

“That’s not OK. That’s racist.”

“But how can he be a leader if he’s racist?”

“Would it ever be OK to dress up as a Black person if you were doing it to honor someone, like Dr. King?

“But is it racist if he didn’t know better? Did he know?”

Oh my. We were off and running.

I started by asking the students the difference between appreciating and respecting a culture and the idea of just taking someone else’s culture as your own—without knowing too much about that culture or minimizing the importance of certain cultural traditions and values. I wrote the word “appropriation” and “appreciation” on the board and we made two columns, thinking about where certain actions would fall. For example, we talked about how some white kids will greet Black kids differently than white kids, pretending to sound like a hip hop star with Black kids because it makes them feel cool. But it seems like the white kids are acting, maybe even pretending to be Black, which the group thought was not actually demonstrating appreciation for hip hop music. I then gave them a quick description of when blackface started and how. They were rapt and wanted to know more. I showed a few clips from the film Ethnic Notions, an amazing documentary film by Marlon Riggs that traces the history of anti-Black racism via popular culture and media stereotypes from the Civil War through both World Wars. I also showed them part of a news story from PBS that connected current events to this long history of demeaning Black people.

I’m always impressed by how young people can navigate racial terrain in a way that adults seem unable to do. They can clearly see the forest for the trees and ask why anyone would think that blackface was OK given the history we had just learned. One of my favorite comments was, “But, Elizabeth, I don’t get it. If this started like almost 200 years ago, why would someone STILL think it was OK to do this after they had been told it was bad?” And then one student concluded, “I think blackface makes white people look bad.”

My thoughts exactly. But then I said, “Well, maybe they didn’t learn about all this when they were kids.”

Gasps around the circle.

So, the good news is we can teach our way out of this. But that means teachers have to be ready, willing, and able to wade in to talking about a concept with such history as well as current implications. And if this was not a part of our own education, we can sometimes feel paralyzed. How do we know if we are ready? And how do we make sure we are not doing more harm than good?

Equity as Excellence started four years ago in response to these kinds of questions and more. How do we swim against the tide of a culture that has historically been so incompetent at talking about issues related to race and identity? How do we make sure children of color do not have to educate us about race and how it impacts their school experience? How do we ensure that we do not have another generation of white students who, at best, feel bad about being white, and who, at worst, promote racial stereotypes and prejudice? Focusing our effort on professional skill development and curriculum implementation, participants can map out a plan of action based on their own sphere of influence in their school. So, a fourth-grade teacher can think about their own implicit bias and how it may play out in the classroom, and then write up a lesson on stereotype threat. A school leader can reflect on how their own racial and/or gender identity may impact the way they give feedback to their colleagues and develop an action plan for how to address this. A trustee can examine what equity literacy looks like from a governance perspective and consider how this might be shared with the board.

Finally, this kind of skill development gets us past the notion that “diversity work” is about our character or morality when it’s actually about our competence. Everyone can learn how to make our schools more equitable; it’s a question of will as opposed to ability. Granted, explaining the history and effects of blackface can feel overwhelming. The other questions I got were relatively easy to answer: Why do we have different colored skin? Where did the term “white” come from? Why are most storybook characters white? What I realized is that these children are curious, and ready to engage. They just need the space and time to think and talk about these issues. It is imperative then that teachers and school leaders require their own space and time for this as well, and that is why I hope you will consider joining us at Equity as Excellence this July.


Elizabeth Denevi is the co-founder of Teaching While White and the Associate Director for Mid West Educational Collaborative, a nonprofit agency that works with schools nationally to increase equity, promote diversity pedagogy, and implement strategic processes for growth and development. 

Editor’s Note: This blog piece appeared first on the California Teacher Development Collaborative website.

Resource: Stevenson, H.C. (2014). Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences that Make a Difference. New York: Teachers College Press.


Teaching African-American Literature While White

 By Christopher Thompson

I’ve been teaching English in selective private high schools for almost 25 years at this point. During my first 13 years, teaching often mixed-race classes at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., I started thinking about what my whiteness meant, as a teacher and as a general citizen. Most of us white people don’t “know” we’re white, just as fish don’t know they’re wet. But a fish out of the water soon gets the idea of what “wet” is.  

I went to college in Washington DC, which at the time — the early 1970s — was about 75 percent African American. My political and musical adventures got me off campus a lot, which meant I was a skinny, very white kid with long red hair in a mostly black town. The result of these forays off campus was that, at times, I was forced to really feel my white skin, although I didn’t know what to make of it at back then. In the casually racist logic of the day, I was supposedly of this dominant race, but it sure didn’t feel like it. Everybody African American, from the nurse DJ whose show came after mine on the campus radio station, to John Wilson, later a DC councilman but then a radio show host whose program I engineered, to the bass player in my band and his two buddies who were our roadies (they preferred the term “valets”), seemed to know more about everything — or at least, everything that mattered — than I did. After college, I was living in Old Downtown DC at 11th and E Streets, NW, and a whole day could by without my seeing a white face. What was remarkable about those days was that when I’d get home from work and go to wash up, I’d see this white face in the mirror and be startled at the pale stranger before me. I seemed to have forgotten that I was white. I wondered if the same would have happened had the races been reversed.

My wife and I moved to California ten years ago (a career move for her, with me as the trailing spouse), and I, at 55, found myself the new guy at a tony all-girls private school in Los Angeles. We taught a lot of African-American literature back at GDS, so I offered to teach a senior elective on this topic, to which my new school gave the OK. So I found myself teaching a class on African-American literature to a class of nine African-American girls, all savvy, going-places seniors. And then there was very white, new-guy me.  

I had learned something interesting back at GDS about teaching African-American literature while white. I had been teaching a section of Senior English also taught by a female African-American colleague. We were both teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved at the same time, and as I had taught it a few times before, I gave her my notes and lesson plans and quizzes, etc. Since we had adjacent desks, we had plenty of chance to talk and debrief about how a day’s classes went. At one point, she was getting frustrated with some of the white boys in her section. She felt they were resisting or undermining her ideas and interpretations of the novel. I had taught two of them the previous year, and we had good rapport, so with her permission I had a word with them. What they told me was that they felt attacked in the classroom, that the anti-white rhetoric in the novel, and particularly the anti-white-male rhetoric, made them feel singled out and defensive… that when the teacher teased out the class’s moral observations of the white male characters, she was inviting the damnation of every white male in the room. Luckily, I had something in my repertoire of responses to address this moment. It was left over from an earlier encounter I’d had with another student, a white male, a few years earlier. Let’s look at that first, and then we’ll get back to Beloved

We had been reading and discussing Herman Melville’s novel Benito Cereno, about (spoiler alert) a cryptic slave rebellion on a Spanish ship, a rebellion unnoticed by a naïve American ship captain who stops aboard to chat with the Spanish captain. Eventually the rebellion re-erupts under the American captain’s nose, a fight ensues, and the African “rebels” are suppressed by American reinforcements. The novel is useful in that it is told from the point of view of the American captain, and thus when the rebellion re-erupts, we find ourselves taking his side, which was Melville’s little trick with the story… to catch us out. In our own implicit racism, those of us who are white could forget that we abhor slavery, losing track of our moral bearings in the comfort of our whiteness. However, before the class could dig into the interpretive riches of the story, a white male student (we’ll call him Jason), pronounced, “What a mess. It would have been better for everyone if we had sent them all back to Africa.

The class, which was racially mixed, came to a stuttering halt. Heart pounding, I managed to think fast and asked Jason, “When did your ancestors come to the U.S.?” Turns out they were Russian Jews who arrived around 1900. 

“So, Jason, who is this ‘we’ you refer to? Your people showed up on this continent centuries after most African Americans, and certainly weren’t in a position to send anyone anywhere in 1799.”  

Jason was actually a pretty timid and kind boy. He admitted that he guessed he was identifying with white Americans because he was white, too.  

“Even though the white Americans with whom you are identifying are ethnically and religiously unrelated to you and hold beliefs that you find pretty horrible?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Well, that was what Melville sets up with that story, so it should be no surprise. But it led to a rich class discussion about identification and an exercise at listing and prioritizing those things with which we “identify.” Most of the kids at that very liberal school found themselves not far off from Jason’s identification hierarchy: race first, then religion, ethnicity, politics, morality, and gender. Then we came to the notion that we can check the depth of our identification(s) by what makes us feel defensive, makes our face heat up and urges us to say ‘Hey! Wait a minute!” when someone makes an offensive comment. With that in mind, for Jason, the ordered list became: religion, politics, race, morality, and ethnicity. For the African-American kids in the classroom it was race, religion, morality, and politics (their “missing” African ethnicities buried by history in their racial identity, at least before DNA testing).  

A year later, the question of identity arose again with Beloved. I asked the disgruntled white boys in my colleague’s class why they felt the novel and discussions were about them. Did they identify with the slave owners and other white sadists that show up in the novel just because they are white?

“Well, no,” they said.  

“Well, it sure sounds like you did. Yet, I’m sure you condemn what those characters believed and did. It’s easy to put your race, or some other tribal affiliation, ahead of your morality. Maybe take a lesson from this?”

“Uhhh, yeah.” 

“Does the class and your teacher know that you find the behavior of the whites in the novel hideous, and that you, and anyone you would call a friend, should seek to stop any such behavior?”

“Uhhh, probably not.”  

“Well, maybe you need to make that more clear, first to yourselves, and then to the others in the room, because if you feel “attacked” because you do identify with those white characters, that’s telling you something, isn’t it?”  

During that first semester I was first teaching African-American literature to African-American girls here in California, we came to the realization that a white teacher can “own” the past sins of white America while denouncing those sinners, but it takes work. As we — the nine girls and I — came to see it, these novels are not about us, per se. We may identify with a character demographically, but our sovereign moral compasses should point us back toward true north. Schoolteacher in Beloved was a middle-aged, white male schoolteacher with an inquiring mind, just like me. But I’m not Schoolteacher, just as my young, African-American, female students were not Morrison’s Sethe. The characters’ choices are not our choices. We may identify demographically, which might help us understand where a character is coming from. But morally? We need to calculate who we are. If we feel ourselves identifying with someone “like us” who we know to be morally corrupt, that’s a self-teaching moment. Some moral introspection may be necessary.  

Literature is about trouble. No one over the age of eight wants to read the story of the day everything went fine. And in African-American literature, much of the trouble comes either directly or indirectly from white power. Teaching African-American literature while white invites the peril of identifying, even unconsciously, with the bad guys, so a white teacher needs to be sure of their moral compass, even while rejecting the “otherness” of the racist, recognizing the “usness” of their whiteness — and to be honest with one’s self about it. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent a lot of hours in workshops and training and classrooms where my anti-racism reflex has, of necessity, been tested, and I believe, strengthened.

I’m not done yet — maybe never will be — but I’m getting there.  

Christopher Thompson teaches English at Marlborough School, an independent, all-girls school in Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at



Rethinking How We Choose Books in School

By Jenna Chandler-Ward


Several middle school and high school English departments have approached Teaching While White for help in diversifying the racial makeup of the authors of the books they teach. All of the teachers can articulate why they should have a more diverse group of books: ”We want to provide windows and mirrors for all of our students.” “We want to build empathy.” “We want to prepare our students for a diverse world.” All of this is true, and yet, when it comes to taking old classics out of curriculum in favor of including a diversity of voices, I have seen, time and time again, the resistance to authors of color. They cite these books as either inappropriate in terms of content or literarily uninteresting.

Here is the problem. As long as white teachers set out to evaluate what is good literature and worthy of study without examining how their own experience has shaped their appreciation for literature, then all of the booklists of diverse authors in the world will not result in changing the white literary canon.

I have watched English teachers fiercely defend the notion that there is, objectively, such a thing as complex sentence structure, solidly constructed narrative, and beauty of language — and either a book has it or it does not. No matter how I might try to persuade or examine how that aesthetic has been taught and created, mostly by white men, there seems to be an inability to conceive of great literature as being anything other than an impartial standard. Teachers will often point to books written by authors of color to prove that this objective standard crosses race and culture. In particular, they note the success of books like The House on Mango Street and Beloved as their proof that literary greatness is not a racial formulated construct. The problem with this logic is that it doesn’t take into account the ways in which our exposure to and experiences of linguistic variety impact our affinity for language. For many white educators, this is a clear blindspot.  

In Brene Brown’s research, she concludes that it requires knowing, even a little bit, about a subject in order to feel curiosity about it. It wasn’t until I had learned about romanticism that I was able to full appreciate Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Once I understood some things about the Harlem Renaissance, I developed a deeper connection to the words and work of Zora Neale Hurston. So why couldn’t it be true that with some curiosity about the Black Lives Matter movement, readers would gain a fuller appreciation for Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give? It is not simply a matter of discerning what constitutes beautiful language within a white literary world. Context matters and can also allow readers to look into something unfamiliar and see beauty where it is often overlooked.

Similarly, content is too often scrutinized with the same biased approach. As we discuss in our podcast episode, Challenging the Canon, somehow we are OK with the use of the N-word or a description of sexual assault if it is in a “classic.” Perhaps if white teachers had firsthand experiences of the trauma that the N-word still causes people or color, we would be less able to justify teaching some of the books that use that word in the name of illuminating attitudes of a particular era. However, the mention of sexual development or the use of the F-bomb in a book by a writer of color too often renders a book unteachable. In a recent interview with Trevor Noah, Angie Thomas said, “There are 89 instances of the F-word in The Hate U Give... but last year alone, over 800 people lost their lives to police brutality and that number is far scarier. So when your telling me it’s the language. No, that’s not what it is. You don’t want to talk about the topic.” Which forms of violence are deemed appropriate and who decides?

Without questioning what and why we have an affinity for certain literature, we will continue to replicate a world where only the white voice is heralded as true literature and students will continue will be inculcated into the philosophy of a limited, hierarchy of linguistic and literary mastery. Instead of focusing on a narrow and questionable standard of literary merit, we should be asking ourselves essential questions about what we are trying to achieve in our classes. How can we offer context to all the books we teach so that the books’ content resonates more deeply? How can we teach students to recognize and value verbal agility in any form that leads readers to see the world in a new way? And (to reference R.O. Kwon’s quote yet again) how can we encourage students to see the shared humanity in people, even when they are different, by giving students an opportunity to try to imagine their lives? 

Here are a couple of tools. In working with schools on this issue, I culled questions (there are many thoughtful articles, books, and rubrics) to create bias reflection questions and a rubric for evaluating current curriculum and choosing new texts.


Questions to consider:

  1.  What are the unspoken rules and hidden curriculum in your department/classroom?

  2. What are the  unconscious beliefs/norms, group values, world beliefs, and core values of your department/classroom?

  3. How would you describe the ideal student for your curriculum? What assumptions do you have about their background, culture, and language?

  4. What messages do you believe students receive about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, ability, religion, and socioeconomic status through experiences in English class?

  5. Are there any assumptions/biases built into your criteria for your assessments? Does it create an advantage for certain students?


Text Evaluation Rubric:

  1. Does the text offer a compelling narrative and characters?

  2. Are we addressing any of the “Big 8” social identifiers with this text?

    Age  Ethnicity

    Race                                       Ability

    Gender                                  Sexual Orientation

    Religion                                Socioeconomic Status

  3. What topics and issues do we hope to teach in connection to this book?

    a. What perspectives are missing?

    b. Are there other books/authors that could address these same objectives?

  4. Does this book reinforce stereotypes or offer a counter-narrative to stereotypes?

    a. If the book does have some stereotypes, what counter-narratives and or additional

    readings could be offered? 

  5. Is the author from the depicted social group?

  6. Does this text increase students’ understanding of systemic oppression (sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.) prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination, etc. 

  7. Does this text have any depictions or language that has the potential to re-traumatize students (sexual assault, N-word, etc.)?

  8. Does this text offer linguistic variety?

  9. Does this text offer students opportunities to apply multicultural knowledge for analyzing and solving social problems?

  10. Does this text offer opportunities to examine cultural biases and assumptions?

  11. What do we need to know more about and research to teach this text responsibly?

Jenna Chandler-Ward is the co-founder of Teaching While White and co-director the Multicultural Teaching Institute. She consults with schools nationally on developing more inclusive communities and curricula.




The Goal Is Fluency

By Christie Nold

While working toward equity in schools, educators are often asked to see equity as a metaphoric lens — one that will give us a new and valuable cultural perspective and point of view. It is not uncommon, for example, to be asked to review our curriculum with an “equity lens” or use an “equity lens” to examine our bookshelves for literature that more appropriately reflects the lived experiences of our students. For me, a white woman with 34 years of conditioning into whiteness, this metaphor has been useful. For one, it helps me to understand how I have been conditioned to whiteness — and clarifies the work I need to do to serve my students better. But I also see that the use of an equity lens is only a starting point. Rather than simply applying a lens over my conditioned way of viewing the world, I believe I must aspire to an entirely new way of being — that is, to develop the kind of perspective and skills that comes through fluency.

While living and teaching in Ukraine a few years back, my language teacher, Volodya, shared the story of two villages. In one village, everything appeared yellow. In the second, everything appeared blue. Although villagers from the village of yellow always hoped to see blue, despite their best efforts, and even after multiple years in the village of blue, they were only capable of seeing hues of green. 

This story has made me think more deeply about the “equity lens” metaphor. I am struck by the realization that adding a new lens to my pre-existing way of thinking has the overall effect of simply tinting my way of seeing the world. While this new “tint” might move me closer to equitable ways of being, it’s not enough for the level of change our society, and my classroom, requires. It enables an intellectual understanding of the issues related to equity and justice in society and schools, but it can keep us at an emotional distance. It is for this reason that, instead of just “adding a lens,” I think more about shifting my worldview and perspective entirely. I’m trying to develop a much deeper cultural fluency.

The work of achieving any kind of fluency requires dedicated study and immersion into something new. The obvious example is learning a new language. Before we achieve fluency, we study the grammar and vocabulary. We learn how to write and read simple sentences. Many even learn how to speak with a proper accent and intonation. But fluency requires us to take all this knowledge to the next level. This is why the most successful way to really learn a  language is through immersion — to live and study and work among people who speak the language and who embody the culture connected to the language.

A telling mark of language fluency is its impact on one’s subconscious — that is, when we dream in the new language. Fluency means that the language is now part of us.

As I aspire toward equitable systems, I know that I must go deeper. So it is the rigorous work of aspiring toward fluency that my sixth-grade students and I engage with daily. Supported by the Courageous Conversations About Race protocol (see framework below), we regularly dive into exploration of social identity, including consideration for how our identities shape the way we view the world and the way the world views us.

Yes, we read, analyze, and discuss texts by authors with different social identities. But we also explore the relationship between ourselves as readers and the text we’re analyzing. We do not simply add a literary lens. Rather, we aim to go deeper, to achieve greater understanding of the work and of how our own cultural perspectives shape the way we see and respond to the work. It is through this deeper understanding of ourselves that we can begin to engage authentically with others — and by engaging with others we can better understand and address events in our world today.

In the last few months, hate has been crowding the headlines with disturbing frequency. We have witnessed as parents have been separated from their children at the border, high school students have openly taunted indigenous elders, and Kiah Morris, a representative in the Vermont house, was forced to resign as a result of ongoing racial harassment and threats to herself and her family. In these moments, in our class, we tug at our burgeoning fluency by reading, examining images, and elevating the voices of those most impacted by the events. Rather than taking a “both sides” approach to these events — and thus placing humanity up for debate —  the students center justice through critical analysis. Ultimately, students in my classroom understand that there are not “two sides” when bigotry is involved.

In our conversations, we learn the names of the social justice activists who came before us, and honor those who lead the efforts today. In particular, we use the voices of Angie Thomas, Jewell Parker-Rhodes, Jason Reynolds, Aisha Saeed, David Barclay Moore, and so many other remarkable authors to frame our discussions — turning to literature when we struggle to make sense of national news. As a white educator, I lean on the work of authors of color to bring much needed perspective to my classroom.

With my students, my goal is to see AND make sense of the world around us. Through examining excellent literature, through the conversations and the explorations of the experiences of others, through attentive listening and consideration of the forces that shape our views — we deepen our understanding of the cultural beauty and complexity of the world as well as our understanding of the work that needs to be done in the name of equity and justice. We deepen our language and skills and competencies so that we can learn from each other and  work well across differences.

By striving for fluency, we aim to understand ourselves better — how we see the world and how the world sees us — and thus achieve a higher, more just, understanding of the world so that we can become a force for positive change.

Christie Nold teaches sixth grade at a Vermont public school on Abenaki land. Together with her students, she loves learning about the intersection of identities and experience. Christie also co-facilitates courses for educators. You can catch her on Twitter at @ChristieNold.

Helpful Reading

Here’s a sampling of the excellent books my students engage with:

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker-Rhodes

Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds

Amal Unbound, by Aisha Saeed

The Stars Beneath Our Feet, by David Barclay Moore


 The Four Agreements of Courageous Conversations

 1.     Stay engaged: Staying engaged means “remaining morally, emotionally, intellectually, and socially involved in the dialogue” (p.59)

2.     Experience discomfort: This norm acknowledges that discomfort is inevitable, especially, in dialogue about race, and that participants make a commitment to bring issues into the open. It is not talking about these issues that create divisiveness. The divisiveness already exists in the society and in our schools. It is through dialogue, even when uncomfortable, the healing and change begin. 

3.     Speak your truth: This means being open about thoughts and feelings and not just saying what you think others want to hear.

4.     Expect and accept nonclosure: This agreement asks participants to “hang out in uncertainty” and not rush to quick solutions, especially in relation to racial understanding, which requires ongoing dialogue (pp.58-65).

Adapted from Glenn E. Singleton & Curtis Linton, Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. 2006. pp.58-65. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.



“Dear Student, You’re White”

By Julia Donnelly Spiegelman


I was socialized as a white girl in a state that is 94 percent white.

I had a wonderful childhood: sufficient resources, supportive parents, dedicated teachers, and positive, affirming experiences at the public and private schools I attended. I felt seen and safe in the classroom, free to be myself and to pursue my interests — an experience that only now, as a teacher, do I realize is a privilege available to many more white students than students of color.

Throughout my childhood, the whiteness of my surroundings remained invisible to me. I never noticed, named, addressed, or challenged it. Nor did anyone else, as best I can tell. White was simply “normal,” and I accepted this norm as easily and unquestioningly as I conformed to the silent expectations around me. I did not know then that my lack of awareness came at a price, not only to others, but also to me.

In my seventh grade geography class in the late 1990s, we studied the continent of Africa and apartheid in South Africa. I remember my white teacher, an energetic man in his early thirties, drawing a mess of arrows on the board to illustrate European colonization. Now a thirty-something middle school teacher myself, I recently uncovered a worksheet I had completed after watching the 1992 film Sarafina!, starring Whoopi Goldberg.

One of the short-answer questions immediately caught my eye: “In 5 sentences please explain how you would have acted in South Africa, would you have been a rebel, an activist, a person in the middle or not got involved at all? please use at least five sentences.[sic]”

In neat printing was my answer:

“I would not get involved. I know I should be an activist, but I can’t stand violence of any kind. I’d rather live a life of injustice and safety than justice and constant fear and danger. It’s not right, but it’s how I feel. This country was not founded by people like me.”

Below my response, my teacher had scrawled simply the word “Good.”

Rereading this assignment as an adult, I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame and felt the urge to travel back in time to shake some sense into my seventh-grade self. What could have led her to write this infuriating answer? How could she have been so callous, so cowardly, so selfish? At the heart of my anger and disappointment was fear: Is this the person who, despite my best efforts, I will always be? Am I so fearful for myself, despite my position of privilege, that I am resigned to turning my back on others who are oppressed?

How did I become the twelve-year-old who wrote this answer? Thinking back, I can identify three aspects of my personality, shaped by society’s expectations of my race and my gender, that help me to better understand the person that I was.

The first is that I was compliant. I learned early on how to follow directions, how to sit quietly, how to smile and please adults. My mild and agreeable nature was valued by those around me, and also meant that I was easily dominated by others. My earliest memories of friendship involved being bossed around by my peers, obediently playing the horse that others rode in the recess yard. I remember desperately having to go to the bathroom in first grade, and being told by my best friend that if I went inside, she wouldn’t sit next to me anymore or invite me to her birthday party. Faced with this unthinkable threat, I put my bodily needs aside and remained outside. I followed the path of least resistance, regardless of the cost.

 I was tenderhearted. Fascinated by all living things, I had a habit of finding and collecting small critters so as to observe and care for them. When I was eight years old, I discovered a mother spider with an egg sac and carefully transported both to a tiny house I had built out of plywood and mesh screen. When I came to check on them the next morning, I was horrified to discover that the egg sac was open, the cage was swarming with ants, and the spider was dead. I buried her with the remains of the egg sac in the garden, and made a tiny gravestone on which I wrote “Mother Spider” and the year with a black Sharpie. I could not bear to see a living creature harmed.

I was conflict-averse. In my family, I played the role of the peacekeeper. I was slow to anger and quick to apologize, an unusual temperament in my family. My parents praised my calm and forgiving character and I came to see it as a virtue. A bookish New England girl, I obsessively read and re-read Little Women between the ages of ten and twelve, fascinated by the lives and personalities of the March family. While nearly everyone I knew identified with the strong-willed and independent protagonist Jo, I saw myself clearly in her younger sister Beth, the kind sister, the weak sister, the one who plays the piano, the one who dies. I knew even then that I was not strong, but that I was kind, and that was almost as good.

When I remember the child that I was, following the path of least resistance, sheltered from the realities of injustice around me, I understand her differently. I see that she was raised to be a nice, polite, well-intentioned bystander, bred to be complicit in others’ oppression through inaction. This perspective allows me to quell my anger with my seventh-grade self and, instead of shaming her, to hear her heartbreak. She desired to be kind and do good. But she did not see herself as capable. She did not know how. 

I wonder about my teacher’s response to my answer. His seemingly simply affirmation remains inscrutable to me even now. “Good”? What was good? That I had followed directions, writing exactly five sentences (as stipulated twice in the directions)? That I had spelled all of the words correctly? That I had answered honestly? That I had made a conscious choice to put my own comfort above safety and justice for others? That I had used my aversion to violence as an excuse to comply with a violent system?

Here’s the thing about my seventh-grade self: I knew how to spell. I knew how to follow directions. I knew how to write in complete sentences. What I didn’t know was how to be a person in the world: a person becoming aware of oppression but who was not oppressed, a person who benefitted from the privilege of choosing whether or not to act, a person who wanted, but was unable, to put her own fear aside to advocate for others. Where was the teacher who would teach me that?

Where was the teacher to make visible to me the crux of my dilemma: how to be a white person in a racist world? 

Here’s what I imagine my teacher could have written to me beyond “good,” what I hope I am able to convey to my own white middle school students.


Dear Student,

You’re white. So am I. We didn’t choose the color of our skin, and there’s nothing wrong with it. What is wrong, though, are the systems that have been set up in our world that value certain skin colors and physical traits over others. And the scary thing is that this isn’t just about apartheid in South Africa. Racism exists here and now, in our country and in our state and in our school, and the fact that it’s so hard to see tells us just how deep it runs. 

The thing about being white is that we are never the victims of this system. Even though it is unjust and utterly ridiculous to assign value to something as meaningless as race, our society does just this. For us white people, racism is something that we get to think about if we want to, and not think about the rest of the time. The color of our skin doesn’t make our intentions or skills suspect in the eyes of authorities, or make us the targets of violence, or make us less likely to get a job or a loan or a home. This unearned privilege feels as natural to us as breathing because we are so used to it, but that doesn’t make it any less unfair or its effects any less devastating.

Whether we want it or not, we are part of a racist system. The truly awful part is that we white people actually benefit from the oppression of people of color, with advantages that accumulate while others are disadvantaged. Once you start to notice and pay attention to the inequality around you, it can feel really scary and sad. You might feel powerless and guilty — I know I have felt that way. That discomfort, though, is actually a good thing, because once we begin to understand the injustice around us, we can take a stand against it. We can be part of a change.

Remember that even though we might feel helpless, the privilege we benefit from makes us anything but helpless. Because of racism, white people often have access to powerful resources, spaces, and people. We can speak up about injustice without being accused of “playing the race card” or being an “angry black person.” We can help to make marginalized voices heard in spaces in which they are not represented. We can advocate for change in our political system. We can urge others to donate their money to fight racism and benefit people of color. For me, it’s not just about what I can do, but what I have to do. As a human, it makes me feel terrible to know that my security comes at others’ expense. I hear that pain in your answer and I invite you to use your empathy to empower your action. For, as Desmond Tutu once wrote, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Know, too, that fighting injustice can look like lots of different things. Not everyone will start a protest or lead a political revolution. It can start small: by educating yourself, by learning about current events and about history, and by listening to people share experiences that are different than yours. By speaking up when you disagree. By telling the truth, even when it’s hard. Because in order to change this unfair system, we need to challenge it. I hear you say, in your answer, that you couldn’t stand a life of violence and fear. I want you to know that not all resistance is violent but that oppression always is. Your honesty and self-knowledge are a sign of strength, and I think that you are braver than you know. I know that you can be a force for change.

Let’s keep talking. 

In solidarity,

Your Teacher


Julia Donnelly Spiegelman has spent the past ten years teaching foreign languages and social justice. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College, where she was awarded the Kathryn Davis Fellowship for Peace. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a faculty member of the Multicultural Teaching Institute (MTI).

How Not to Address a Student’s Feelings of Unintentional Discrimination

By Shannon Wanna, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate


Editor’s Note: We received the following letter from Shannon Wanna, a Native American and digital marketing expert, regarding her and her daughter’s experience in their Kansas public school. We were tempted to offer educators advice at the end of this piece. But the letter, edited here, speaks clearly for itself: Check your racial bias; don’t be defensive.

Before the start of the school year, I contacted the principal at my daughter’s school to make him aware of the “Teacher Tribe” T-shirts I found circulating on social media. I let him know that I found these shirts to be highly offensive and that I would be particularly offended if any educator wore them at the school. I said I know it would upset my third-grade daughter as well. As Native Americans and members of the Muscogee Creek, Seminole, Omaha, and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribes, we deeply value our culture and traditions. Given the history of Native Americans having to restrict their cultural practices and traditions through assimilation and boarding schools, I said it is inappropriate for teachers to wear shirts with the word “Tribe” or that include images of a tipi and arrow.

The principal responded, addressing my concerns, and spoke to a few of the staff members about this. This was last I heard of it.

One Friday early in the school year, my daughter came home and told me she saw one of the teachers wearing a similar “Teacher Tribe” shirt and that it hurt her feelings. We practice open communication in our household, so I asked her what she wanted to do about these feelings. She said she wanted to talk to the teacher. I have always felt comfortable speaking with any of the staff at the school, as they have always been very open and approachable to my family. So I thought not only should they be aware of how offensive these shirts are to Native Americans, as well as other students and parents, but that they’d be receptive to hearing from my daughter. I also thought this was a powerful way for my daughter to use the leadership skills that she had learned through the Leader In Me program at her school. I am so proud of my daughter for wanting to stand up for what she believes in!

So we went back up to the school around 4:30 pm that day to have a conversation with the teacher who wore the shirt, but she had already left. My daughter still wanted to talk to someone at the school, so when we ran into her second-grade teacher from the previous year, my daughter spoke about her feelings and I provided further explanation on the matter. The teacher had no idea how offensive the shirt was and commended my daughter for being brave enough to speak up, educate and bring awareness to those around her about her culture. This made my daughter feel so much better and at ease. She planned to talk to the teacher who had actually wore the shirt on Monday. I told her we would go in early or stay after school to meet with her.

Then at 7:45 pm that Sunday, I received a phone call from the teacher in question. She said the principal gave her the OK to speak to me about this (I found out later from the principal that he did not tell her to call us). I was expecting a respectful conversation, but she came at me — and my daughter — in a very aggressive and defensive manner. We had respected and trusted the teacher so my daughter and I both felt comfortable talking to her about a sensitive topic. I felt this could be a teachable moment for my daughter and a great way to express her feelings, use her leadership skills, and speak up for what she believes in. I am so very proud of her bravery! Instead of having an open dialogue between a teacher and student and parent, we were subjected to a horrific phone call. The teacher did not enter the conversation to listen or to understand our point of view. She was very defensive. We in no way wanted to make her feel uncomfortable. My daughter simply wanted to have a conversation about the shirt and share her feelings. That was it!

After the teacher stopped interrupting, my daughter was able to express her feelings. She was visibly shook up by the teacher’s abrasive tone and interruptions, but she was able to speak her mind. The teacher stated that she was feeling attacked and her character was attacked and told my daughter that she was hurting her heart to think that she would want to hurt us. She turned the whole thing around to where she was the victim. She said we were making her out to be a racist, hurtful person.

We never said the teacher was racist to anyone. In fact, when we spoke to the other second-grade teacher on Friday, we said we know she didn’t wear the shirt to hurt our feelings. That is why we wanted to have a conversation with her — so she could better understand what the shirt means to us and our culture. The teacher turned this very teachable moment into an attack on my daughter and me. After I explained our feelings about the shirt (noting the painful history of assimilation and boarding schools, etc.) she told us she was still planning to wear the shirt. She said she didn’t find it offensive, and to her “tribe” means community. She was not listening to our point of view at all! I asked her, so you are willing to make a student and family feel offended and uncomfortable at the school. Her response was simply that we will have to agree to disagree. My daughter heard all of this and her eyes immediately welled up with tears! She cried herself to sleep that night. We both did. 

I feel the teacher spoke to my daughter in a way that no adult, especially a teacher, should speak to a child. She said she was going to speak to the whole faculty about this situation to get their take on the shirt. I feel she was threatening us and this was in retaliation for bringing up a valid concern of ours. My daughter used to think of school as a safe environment with trusted adults. And now she certainly sees teachers in a different light. I am heartbroken for my child who stood up for what she believes in, only to be completely shut down by a close-minded individual who is actively teaching children.

The whole incident also makes me feel as if my concerns are not valid.

It has been three months now and the teacher still has not apologized for her actions and has even tried to talk to my daughter at school. I have spoken with the principal and assistant superintendent several times as well as the staff counsel for the school district. I told them all what we wanted was for my daughter to feel comfortable and safe while she is at school. To help this process, we would like the teacher to not wear the shirt to school. Because of the behavior of the teacher during the phone call, I said we would also like an apology for her actions and words. Everyone from the school district (at first) said they could not deliver these to us. They each said we were just going to have to try and move on and that my daughter would probably see the shirt again so she is just going to have to deal with it.

The staff counsel for the school district stated this isn’t an objective offense but a subjective offense — a matter of competing opinions — so they can’t do anything. To Native Americans this is objective. The problem is that most non-natives, at least in this school district, see it as subjective. And given that 99% of the school district is non-native, our voice and feelings do not matter.

Since the incident, we have seen some progress from the school administration. The principal and assistant superintendent have both spoke to the teacher and advised her to not wear the shirt. They confirmed to us she will not wear the shirt to school again. The principal has addressed the school staff on the incident as well as cultural awareness. He is currently working on bringing diversity training to the school for staff development.

Some members of our school community are definitely treating us differently since the incident. People are less friendly. They don’t make eye contact. They turn around when they see us. Some have also unfriended and blocked me from social media.

We live in Kansas and my daughter attends one of the “best” and largest school districts in the state. There is no equity council, diversity committee, or student support for minority students within our school district.

White Educators Teaching America’s “Hard History”

By Brent Locke

As an educator, and specifically a white educator, teaching about enslavement is fraught with the potential for disaster (e.g., Will students get upset when they learn what the enslavement really was? Will the unit create tension among different racial groups in my classroom? Will their parents question me for exposing their children to difficult and uncomfortable stories?). Yet its exclusion from the curriculum would be unconscionable.

To make matters more complex, inherent in the conversation of slavery is the social construct of race. In their introduction to the March 2018 issue of National GeographicBlack and White: The Race Issue — the editors suggest: “Discussing race in our learning environments is critical. Race is one social construct that impacts the everyday lives of all students in this country. We have been warned not to discuss race, politics, or religion, but those very constructs are at the heart of human identity, human conflict, and human healing.”

As a former seventh grade social studies teacher (I just moved out of the country due to my partner’s job and am spending the year writing curriculum), my curriculum content area was American History, and I believed (and still do) there was no story more important to tell than that of how and by whom the country was built, shaped, and consequently how it is now understood. Each year, I was tasked with trying to guide my students in the story of America’s founding, and therefore the story of enslavement, to young impressionable and mostly white students.

As a white teacher working with both white students and students of color, I knew I needed to prepare my classroom for this unit. The most critical part of this preparation was building a culture of respect and empathy, one that allowed for disagreement and discomfort. When that culture was present I knew it would allow for the deepest and most transformative learning to occur. For example, after the unit, a student commented, “Not until this unit did I really understand how America was created.” Because of my own implicit blind spots, I knew I could not eliminate all stereotype threats or prevent students from wandering into often well intentioned but undoubtedly offensive race-related questions or comments. But I knew that we could hold each other accountable for our mistakes and comfort each other when needed. Before the unit began, I would also check in with my students of color to allow them the time and space to prepare for the unit. I explained to each of them individually what we would be covering and asked them what they might need to feel safe and understood. I also acknowledged that, as a white teacher, I might fall short and not be able to meet their needs personally, but that they had the right and were encouraged to seek whatever resources they needed to learn the material in a safe environment, including but not limited to seeking emotional support.[1] This part of the process proved invaluable as I often received difficult and important questions that students were uncomfortable to ask in front of their peers, such as: “Why was skin color so important to slavery?” and “Why did Africans allow this to happen to them?

As the unit began, I asked each student to lean in to the discomfort, first by expressing what made them uncomfortable about the subject. I believe this helped each of them to see, in the broader sense, that everyone struggles in some way with having to learn about this painful part of American history. It also enabled students whose ancestors may have been enslaved to speak more candidly about what they were thinking and feeling going into this unit. Lastly, I explained that my goal was to help them understand this part of our history not only as a matter of horror and shame, but also as a time of remarkable resistance and hope. As the editors at Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, note in their issue on Teaching Hard History, we need to center the black experience. “Our tendency is to focus on what motivated the white actors within the system of chattel slavery,” they write “But, whether discussing the political, economic, or social implications, the experiences of enslaved people must remain at the center of the conversation to do this topic justice.”

 I encouraged my students to question the curriculum and ask why I chose each story and the perspectives from which I taught. If it wasn’t already clear, I wanted them to know that all history and all teaching is biased and they should always feel free to question the stories we tell about our nation and how we choose to teach them.

The question I struggled with, though, was: Where do I begin? I still do.

Teaching the horrors of enslavement and the systemic oppression of a people based on their race is critical to understanding the American story, but in isolation it can create a narrative for students of color, specifically African-American students, that their ancestral story begins in a place of despair. As journalist Shaun King notes: “We must never allow black history to begin in slavery. Just like no point of white history ever begins in the lowest point in white people’s history. Black history must never begin in a place of pain and oppression.” This is a perspective I had not thoughtfully considered or allowed to influence my practice in previous years. As a teacher, I must acknowledge my shortcomings and adjust my curriculum in the future.

 I know from student achievement and student feedback that after the unit’s completion my students had a strong factual and conceptual understanding of enslavement. If I am honest with myself, however, I centered the American story as one of oppressor vs. oppressed, using the excuse that I didn’t have enough time to teach it all. I was proud of teaching the many forms of resistance to the institution and practice of slavery both in micro and macro ways, as well as the exceptional stories of African Americans whose names are remembered in history. But I also must acknowledge that the story I presented to my students was incomplete. It is not enough to prime the enslavement unit with a brief conversation of Africa’s diverse, advanced, and nuanced history in a general context. If I want all students in my classroom to understand both the pain and the beauty in Black history, and therefore in American history, I must not begin at the lowest point. While this perhaps implies that the year-over-year scope and sequence of the history curriculum must be examined, which it should, it is also critical that enslavement be taught with a more nuanced picture of African-American history within the unit.

As my educational journey continues, I find that embracing both the privilege and the history of my race are necessary to becoming an effective educator for each student I encounter. While I can accept my flaws on a human level, I also know that I must continuously work to uncover my blind spots because they continue to prevent all of my students from accessing a truly anti-bias curriculum, and at worst can endanger my students perceptions and perspectives.

Moving forward, I will continue to seek feedback from peers, students, and parents about their experience with the unit. Additionally, I will continue to look holistically at my entire course to examine the amount of time I spend teaching about different racial and ethnic groups and genders — the perspectives with which I present history to my students. Most of all, I know that if I teach this unit again, I will begin with stories and experiences of Africa before colonization. Those stories are essential for students to effectively learn the deep injustices and heroic resistance that came next.


Brent Locke is currently writing early childhood curriculum on social-emotional learning and trauma in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with an international development company. He was most recently teaching social studies, leadership, and cultural responsiveness at an independent school in McLean, Virginia, where he also served as the Dean of Students and Social Studies Department Chair. He previously taught elementary math, science, and social studies in New Orleans, Louisiana, with the Teach for America program. Brent has a Master’s in Education Administration and Leadership from George Washington University.



Teaching Tolerance: Teaching Hard History

nprED: Why Schools Fail to Teach Slavery’s “Hard History” 

National Geographic: Black and White — Discussion Guide for Parents and Teachers

Thirteen Media with Impact: Slavery and the Making of America


[1] This came as a suggestion from Teaching Tolerance’s Issue on Teaching Hard History. See link in Resources section.

Diversity and Purpose-Driven Education

By the TWW Staff


In her new book, Teaching for Purpose: Preparing Students for Lives of Meaning, Heather Malin, director of research at the Stanford University Center on Adolescence, encourages schools to help students find purpose in their lives. Her argument goes beyond mission statements and platitudes. She wants us to focus on both creating purpose-specific programs and developing ongoing classroom practices that support student engagement with the world around them.

While most educators support this general idea, we tend to have a laissez-faire attitude toward students finding purpose in their lives. We tend, in other words, to teach our subjects as well as we can and hope students find engagement, find value, find a purpose that will propel them into meaningful lives.

The central point of Teaching for Purpose is Malin’s argument that we should to be far more deliberate in our efforts. For us at Teaching While White, we certainly appreciate and support her argument. It was also heartening to discover that Malin connects purpose-driven education to racial and cultural diversity — and highlights important research that supports this work in schools.

She notes, for instance, research by Lisa Kiang and Andrew Fulgni, from Wake Forest University and the University of California, Los Angeles, respectively, on the importance of students developing a sense of “life meaning” as an essential element of well-being. Kiang and Fulgni also conducted targeted research on the difference in approaches to pro-social engagement among white, black, Asian American, and Latino students. Doing similar research, Margaret Beale Spencer and her colleagues at the University of Chicago found that “for African-American boys, but not African-American girls, religion and cultural pride are important resources for developing a healthy sense of self.”

For all educators, but especially white educators, this information is important. The findings of these and other related studies, Malin writes, “suggest that openly exploring student purpose in the classroom would offer teachers a valuable window into the lives of their students when they do not share an ethnic, cultural, community, or social class background with their students.”

By getting to know students’ values and what gives them a sense of purpose, educators can also get to know the students’ families and communities better. This sort of supportive connection between school and home, researchers tell us, are central to student engagement and success in school.

What we also like about Teaching for Purpose is the way Malin offers suggestions for engaging students in the classroom around a focus on purpose and community — the how-to part of the work.

We encourage educators to engage in conversations on purpose-driven schools. For now, we mostly want to underscore the school climate research that supports this work. Malin points out that, in schools that provide a positive, purpose-driven environment:

  • People in the school feel socially, emotionally, and physically safe.
  • Instruction is high quality, connected to real life, engaging, acknowledges student diversity, and is evaluated for continuous improvement.
  • Relationships are positive, cooperative, and respectful of diversity.

Do you have conversations about purpose in school? Do you encourage your students to think about their personal and collective purpose? Do classroom activities invite students to contribute their own ideas? Do classroom discussions encourage students to engage with the content in ways that connect with what matters to them?

MLK, The Kerner Commission Report, and Today’s Schools

By Michael Brosnan


As we well know, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There have been numerous reflections on his life and work — as well as on the continuing challenges for the causes for which he gave his life. What has gotten less attention is the fact that this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report, which, following on the heels of the uprising that erupted after King’s death, dug deeply into the question of race in America.

The title of a recent article in Smithsonian magazine, “The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened,” burrows to the core of the problem, then and now. The article notes that the unrest and uprisings in 1968 were a reaction among mostly young urban blacks to “bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression, and other culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination.” Sound familiar?

The Kerner report surfaced the levels of racism and inequity in our society at the time and made it clear that the federal and state governments were unresponsive to the problem. It also made it clear that the ongoing racial tension was the result of policies established by white-dominated public and private institutions — and maintained by the collective white culture.

“What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the report notes. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, white society condones it.”

The report adds, “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”

I re-read sections of this report earlier this year, just before I read Creating the Opportunity to Learn, A. Wade Boykin and Pedro Noguera’s book examining racism in the educational system and in our classrooms. If those of us who were young back in 1968 could ever have claimed a certain amount of innocence when it came to race relations, we certainly can’t today. What troubles me is how, in light of King’s death, in light of the Kerner Report, in light of all we say we believe in our founding documents and in our various church doctrine and in our basic moral beliefs, we’ve managed collectively to resist racial equity and justice in the fifty years since. For those of us who are white educators, it may not always be easy to see the ways in which we are implicated in continuing racial injustice. We get up in the morning, go to school, try our best to help the children before us. But it should be crystal clear by now that our systems are inequitable, and that our schools, because they function within these systems, are also inequitable. So it should also be crystal clear we need to improve our efforts. To not do so amounts to a conscious act to support the status quo — which, of course, is racist by design and intent.

Boykin and Noguera write, “Approximately 75 percent of Black students [today] disagreed with the statement ‘My teachers support me and care about my success in their class.’ By contrast, this was the case for only 37 percent of White students and 32 percent of Asian students.”

The authors also note that “meta-analysis of research between 1968 and 2003 indicate that teachers have more positive expectations for White students than for Black and Latino students.”

During the school year, teachers are busy from the moment they wake to the moment they fall asleep. It may be tough to find the time to step back and reflect. Some teachers are also busy in summer — working a second job or teaching in a summer program. But there are often better margins to the day in summer, so I encourage educators who care about social justice (which I hope is all of us) to spend time reflecting on race in America and how it plays out in the classroom — so that we can all be part of the solution. If not this summer, then next.

In addition to fulfilling our civic duties to help our communities, state, and nation be more equitable, here are some summertime suggestions related to education:

  • Read a well-researched book on race in America and reflect on what it means for your classroom. How does this information impact your teaching and your perspectives on the students? How does it impact the lives of your students? How does it shape the culture of your school? Talk about it with other adults in your life.

  • Read a book on multicultural education and reflect on how you might change your practices to support students well across difference, especially race. Is there bias in your curriculum? Should your department or division have a conversation on its commitment to a multicultural education?

  • Take part in a summer workshop that focuses on inclusive education. There are many options out there. The goal is to learn from experienced educators how to create an inclusive classroom and curriculum. If you attend a workshop or conference that is focused on your area of expertise, ask questions and start conversations on the topic of race and learning. Help each other develop skills to teach all students well across race.

  • Reflect on the experiences of your students of color. Would any of them be among the 75 percent of Black and Latino students who say their teachers don’t support them? If you’re uncertain, consider ways you might be able to answer this question more clearly in the future. Along with strengthening your relationship with students of color and their families, consider surveying them occasionally to see how you might serve them better.

  • Develop the practice of teaching all students the skill of self-advocacy. The more that students can ask for help, or ask for clarification about some aspect of a subject, or reach out to adults for advice and support, the better they will do in school and life. Some students do this more naturally than others. But we should aim to teach all students the skill of self-advocacy and make it clear that we are available to them when they need help or have questions or simply want an adult to talk to.

In addition to reflecting on your own teaching and classroom, you might also consider ways you can help your school become more inclusive. The work will vary from school to school, of course. The goal is to consider systemic changes that will improve the culture and climate of the school — and serve all students well.

In some schools, this may involve setting up affinity groups and training teacher-facilitators. In others, it may involve digging into the data about the degree to which students are tracked differently by race. Are you setting up Latino and black students for a lower track than white and Asian-American students? In others, it maybe a matter of developing strong relations with parents of color.

Some years ago, I edited an article about race and education in which the author, an African-American head of school, wrote about the importance of all of us using our “thimbleful of power” to address racial inequities. Now, I find myself using this metaphor often. Like others, I’m sure, I can feel overwhelmed and beaten up by the various cultural forces that support a racist status quo. I used to think I could simply present the facts, highlight workable solutions, appeal to our collective conscience, and our culture would shift quickly. But fifty years after the assassination of MLK and Robert Kennedy, the release of the Kerner Commission Report, and the passing of the 1968 Civil Rights bill, we still struggle to do what is — or should be — obviously right.

I take solace and find hope in all those who are making a difference — who are using their thimbleful of power well. The process may be uncomfortably slow, but I’m sure that, if all of us engage now, we will be in a much better place fifty years hence.


Michael Brosnan is the senior editor for Teaching While White and author of The Sovereignty of the Accidental, a collection of poetry. More information at

Responding to Racism — Learning to Be an Ally to Students of Color

By Beth Davis


At 7 am on a freezing March morning, and a Saturday no less, fourteen undergraduates and I, as the staff adviser, began the long drive from Maryland to Tennessee for an alternative school break focused on relationship violence. Our drive was relatively quiet since most students did not know each other previously. However, our first full day together broke the silence through a series of games, icebreakers, and learning. Before diving into topics such as sexual assault and domestic abuse, we learned about power and privilege, intersectionality, structures of oppression, and responsibilities of civic engagement. Students reflected on their own identity and how it relates to privilege and oppression. This built the foundational knowledge and framework to interpret the service-learning experience as we volunteered at the YWCA, visited a domestic abuse shelter, met with a counselor at a batterer’s intervention program, learned about sexual assault and Title IX policy at the University of Tennessee, and observed a domestic docket at the local courthouse. While these experiences opened our eyes to the many challenges that survivors of abuse experience, the real learning occurred in our everyday interactions and reflections.

Reflections and learning activities brought to the surface students personal experiences with racism, socioeconomic inequality, and sexism. These feelings were raw and always present in our service. Twelve out of fourteen students were people of color and represented diverse income levels. Students were candid with their personal stories of oppression, and their resiliency showed in the way they navigated the longstanding history of racism in the South. We were often in spaces where there were no people of color except for those in our group. To say we stuck out is an understatement. Overall, we were welcomed in the community with Southern charm and hospitality. People on the street approached us to ask where we were from and gave us tips on places to visit. One person even stopped his car to chat with us while we were volunteering outdoors. We had to adjust our norms and push ourselves to be open to strangers, which is an uncomfortable experience for “Yankees,” as we were called by locals.

But then it came: That moment when Southern charm vanished and the legacy of racism reared its ugly head. On our last day, we drove about an hour outside of Knoxville to the Smokey Mountains. One group of students went hiking and a group of four African-American students and myself checked out flea markets along the country roads in the mountains. As we pulled into the parking lot of the first store, the vibe changed as students discussed how to handle a racist situation if it arose and, most importantly, discussed if they were even safe to enter a space that was visibly fueled by white culture. Students decided that they would likely get some stares, but that they would stare right back to show that they were not intimidated. Inside, we found confederate flag memorabilia — from shot glasses, to clothing, to bumper stickers — and there were a series of items with derogatory messages about “welfare queens,” immigrants, and other marginalized groups. Students laughed off these items and were relieved that racism seemed to be limited to inanimate objects.

As we were wrapping up, a friendly sales clerk encouraged each of us to check out the back room of the store before leaving. Entering the room, we found that it was full of what is known as “black memorabilia” — highly offensive caricatures of African Americans that were produced during the Jim Crow era to maintain the racially inferior status of black people. In terms of offensiveness, think Aunt Jemima and then multiple it by a hundred. Jaws dropped as students saw these figures. One student described it as entering “a museum for racist propaganda.” Students felt as if they had walked back in time but were soon reminded that these images are still considered acceptable to a salesclerk who encouraged a group of young, black students to shop through merchandise created specifically to reinforce their inferior place in society and to showcase their history of oppression. Students wondered, “Is this salesclerk completely clueless or is she intentionally trying to tell us that we do not belong?”

To answer that question, as we were walking out of the store, the salesclerk said, “Now y’all behave, ya hear?” To which a student responded with, “We always do!” While this statement might seem innocent, it has a history in the South of being used by whites toward African Americans to remind them of their lower social status. The expression is used to patronize black people as if they are children, to condemn their behavior as inherently bad, and to reinforce domination by whites through constant policing. It is part of the mental colonization process of maintaining a system of oppression. By saying “We always do,” the student was not allowing racism to go unchecked. She countered with positivity, both in her delivery of the response and in a message that reaffirmed the worth of the group. As Michelle Obama would say, she went high when they went low.

I was not as quick to process and respond to the incident as the students. I had to reflect on the intersections of my own identity to appropriately respond. I grew up in the South and being a Southerner is a strong part of my personal identity. My initial thought was to explain to students that the salesclerk was merely saying a common phrase throughout the South and one that had been said to me hundreds of times in the past. However, I am white and that phrase does not have the same meaning or history in its use toward people who look like me. If I had not stepped back to recognize the difference in meanings and interpretations that come from personal identity, I could have potentially responded dismissively and not recognized the prejudice inflicted on students. Additionally, my identity as the older person in the group made me feel like I had to respond with words to demonstrate my leadership as the adviser. But had I said what I was thinking, I could have shut down the conversation and unintentionally been part of the systems and culture that marginalize students of color. With these conflicting identities, I had to navigate how to respond in a way that recognized my personal identity and the privilege that comes with it, while also respecting the different identities of students and their interpretations.

Once I processed everything, I felt it was critical to affirm the student’s bravery in facing down racism and to give students space to dissect the experience through their own lens. With my adviser hat, I let students know that I supported them. At the same time, as a white person in a position of authority, I recognized that my voice could easily dominate the discussion of this experience and that my feelings and interpretations of it were that of an outsider. I can never truly know what it feels like to have to worry if I am safe walking into a store because of the color of my skin or the feeling of being humiliated by a store’s merchandise. Ultimately, I decided it was more powerful to respond by listening than trying to think of the appropriate words. I listened to students dissect the experience and they did so by breaking down the ridiculousness of the items in the store and celebrating the student who responded directly to racism. I let them know that I agreed with them and supported them with a nod or an affirmation. It was challenging to express support for students and outrage at what happened, while limiting my own words. But I found that I did not need to offer any grand words of wisdom or consoling comments to show that I was there for them.

I later asked the student who responded to the racist comment if I could have done something differently to make her or the other students feel better supported or to help them process the incident. She responded that just physically being there was enough for her — that if I had not been there, she would have never entered the store because she knew what she was potentially walking in to. It made me deeply sad to understand how normalized racism is for my students and that they make decisions on what spaces they are comfortable entering based on how they will be perceived, which is something I regularly take for granted. However, the idealist in me is hopeful that as educators we can open doors for students that literally cross racial lines and that by doing this, we can eventually chip away racism so that students do not have to be fearful.

This experience taught me that sometimes you do not have to say anything insightful or do anything special to show students you support them. You just have to be there as an educator, as an adviser, and as an ally.


Beth Davis worked in Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland, where she increased wraparound services and community partnerships, developed after-school programming focused on social-emotional development and college and career readiness, and strengthened family-friendly school practices. Most recently, Davis completed a Education Policy & Strategy Fellowship at City Year. She has spent the past year working on diversity issues at the University of Maryland, where she is completing a M.Ed. in Minority & Urban Education this summer. In the fall, she will be a Ph.D. in Education Policy candidate at George Mason University. 


So, What Do White 4th Graders Have to Say About Race?

By Elizabeth Denevi


As it turns out, a lot.

Twice a month I get to work with fourth graders at a local school. The district has a stated commitment to racial equity and has been considering culturally responsive strategies with faculty and staff. When some middle school students of color reported a series of racial microaggressions, the administration instituted racial affinity groups in 4th grade as one way of addressing issues of bias and stereotypes at a younger age. I partner with an educator of color who meets with the students of color at the same time as I meet with the white students. We also have several multiracial students who move between our two groups depending on their needs and identity.

During our first meeting, I asked the white kids three questions. I put them up on big pieces of poster paper, and they wrote their answers on Post-its. Here were the questions:

1. Where did the term “white” come from?
2. What does it mean to be “white” to you?
3. Have you ever heard any stereotypes about white people?

I have about 30 kids in the group. Three of them had an answer for the first question, something like “our skin is lightly colored.” Most said, “I never thought about it” or “I don’t know.” For the second question, the majority said they had no idea because they had never thought about it before. One said, “I have a specific race.” Here was another response: “Lots of people say that black people were treated worse than white people. So, on the outside, I feel a little glad that I am white, but I feel bad for black people and how they were treated back then.”

The stereotype question elicited a wide range of responses (asterisk indicates a response was given by more than one child):

** I haven’t really heard a stereotype.
** White people are smarter than black people.
** White people can’t dance.
White people are more mean.
All white people are smart.
You can’t be racist against whites really.
White people are better than black people.
White people are bad drivers.
White women: yellow hair, red lips, perfect skin.
All white people have privileges that blacks don’t.
White people are good in essay writing.

I was struck by the fact that these white children, who had a really hard time identifying as white, were aware of many stereotypes associated with whiteness. And as a point of intersectionality, they tend to make many comments related to gender identity and expression along with race and ethnicity. I have also noticed that when I arrive at school, the students are excited for our group. So, here are children who are eager for these discussions, but who tell me they don’t have these kinds of conversations on a regular basis.

Each time we meet, I inquire: Are we getting a better at understanding of what it means to be white? Many of my white students say they are still not sure, but they are seeing things they never saw before. Recently, one white girl ran into our meeting space, anxious to share with me that she had just seen the movie Black Panther: “And, Elizabeth, did you know that almost every person in the movie had brown skin? I’ve never seen a movie with so many brown people. It was awesome!” I consider it a privilege to be on this racial identity journey with these kids. I often think about what it might have meant for me if I could have had these conversations at their age. And I know that if we can get these kids to understand that racial differences are simply that — just differences — they will not attach notions of deficit to those differences. 

Just last week, with all the students in the affinity-group program, we watched a scene from The Eye of the Storm, a documentary about Jane Elliott's Brown Eyes–Blue Eyes experiment with her class of 3rd graders back in 1968. After Dr. King was assassinated, she wanted a way for all her white children in Iowa to understand the significance of racial prejudice. Our affinity groups kids sat riveted to their seats as they watched what happened to the children as Elliot first favored one eye color and then the other. The students exclaimed, “That’s not fair!” and “I don’t like this experiment at all!” We then talked about the power of stereotypes and what they want to do to heed Elliot’s call, “It’s time to kill the stereotypes.” They had great ideas of ways to challenge their own thinking and what to do when a stereotype “pops into their heads.”

As I reflect on all we are trying to do in schools, it amazes me that this program takes only one hour per month. 60 minutes to give these children an opportunity to think deeply about who they are and what that means. I’m lucky to partner with an amazing co-facilitator and two willing school counselors, but when all is said and done, it has been relatively easy to set up this program because there was a will to do it — a clear mandate from school leadership that these conversations matter. Children who participate in racial affinity groups demonstrate higher levels of school connectedness, which means higher achievement. So, it’s a win-win. And I can’t wait to hear what they will say next time.


Elizabeth Denevi is the cofounder and codirector of Teaching While White. She also serves as the associate director for Mid West Educational Collaborative, a nonprofit agency that works with schools nationally to increase equity, promote diversity pedagogy, and implement strategic processes for growth and development. She is also the program director for the California Teacher Development Collaborative (CATDC) summer institute, Equity as Excellence, a unique three-day program for California educators to receive concrete tools, research-based strategies, and guided practice to support equity and inclusion work in their schools. This article first appeared on the CATDC blog.

Teaching English While White

By Jenna Chandler-Ward



Our stars weren't meant for
Their sky. We have never known
The same horizon.

         — Clint Smith

I recently went to a reading by Angie Thomas, author of the New York Times best-seller The Hate U Give. If you don’t know this young adult novel, it is about a black teenage girl, Starr Carter, who is caught between the poor neighborhood she lives in and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. Starr also finds herself in the middle of white police violence and witnesses the murder of a childhood friend. This breathtaking novel explores many aspects and complexities of American identity today. Thomas is also a brilliant speaker with tremendous, humor, humility, and grace.

When Thomas finished speaking about how and why she had written this novel, young people, mostly black and brown students, lined up to ask questions. One by one, they stepped up to the mic, thanked Thomas for her book, and said how much the novel had meant to them. I listened to some of the students say that they had never liked to read, or that they had never seen themselves on a page before, and that the experience of reading this novel had changed them. One student said, through tears, that she had never thought reading was for (black) girls like her, until she had read this book.

This kind of deeply felt response to literature should not be a surprise — especially to those of us who teach English. Many of us chose this profession because, somewhere along the line, we recognized the power of good writing to make us feel seen, understood, and human. The written word holds power, and we know this. Yet we also know that not all of our students can find themselves in our curriculum.

Watching student after student of color stand to speak about the effect Thomas’s novel had on them, it highlighted for me the reality that in too many schools — indeed, in most schools — we still haven’t developed any sense of clarity about what we mean by “diversifying the curriculum.” Often, when white teachers talk about varying the curriculum, we do it with a vague sense of helping “other” children to connect with reading, because we know that we should. Most of us stick close to the traditional, and very white, literary canon. When we add a book or a short story by an author of color to the curriculum, it is performative inclusion without a clear understanding of the literary value of these “extra” texts. In fact, we seem to believe that teaching outside of what we personally know comes at the expense of academic rigor — as if there is an objective standard of what is significant.

This is a problem not just because students of color are not seeing themselves reflected in the majority of books we teach in schools. It is also a problem because white students predominantly see their race and culture reflected in the majority of books we teach. What happens when you see yourself reflected at the center of every curriculum over the course of your precollegiate education? What is the effect of continuing to teach the canon to our white students? When we continue to center the white voice in the narratives we read, we don’t just signal to students of color that their personal and cultural experiences are less valuable than that of white students, we also reinforce a mentality of cultural superiority by letting our white students believe that white culture is what is worth knowing.

Teachers are more likely to teach the way and the books that they have been taught themselves. But by teaching books primarily by white authors about white experiences, we put whiteness at the center of our curriculum. By making writers of color adjunct, by ignoring their many and vast contributions, we also let students know that they are not missing anything by not reading these writers. There is no loss in remaining racially isolated and racially ignorant. We lose nothing by being versed in only one literary tradition that continues to be self-referential and builds on the previous “great novels” before its time.

Aside from being totally wrong, we are setting up our white students to continue to be self-referential and unable to look at literature with a truly critical eye. We are reinforcing and perpetuating white supremacy for the next generation of future white teachers and parents.

As  R.O. Kwon points out in her article, 34 Books by Women of Color to Read This Year, “It is easiest to forget the shared humanity of people whose lives we haven’t tried imagining.” When we continue to ignore much of the population by not bothering to imagine our shared humanity, we are growing the next generation of white supremacists. Not just white people perpetuating a white supremacist system, but also actual individual white supremacists who believe they are being discriminated against the moment they are asked to live in a just and fair society. The kind of white adults who are angry when they feel that someone else may get a small slice of what they enjoy. We need to support learning that promotes empathy, and neither deflates or inflates any students sense of belonging in the world. We need all students to enter adulthood with their full humanity and dignity in tact.

What should a teacher look for when picking a book? Here are some suggestions. It is certainly not a comprehensive list, but it’s a place to start. These apply to any grade level and can be applied to race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability, gender, class, or any other aspect of identity.

  1. Most important, the book should exemplify good storytelling. Aside from an interesting plot, the writing is accessible and addresses engaging and important cultural themes and ideas. If it directly deals with a social justice issue, it is not done in a condescending, “poor them” tone.
  2. The book should avoid offensive cultural expressions, negative attitudes, or stereotypical representations. Yes, I am talking about To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn, among other popular English class texts. Unless you are prepared to teach, with Herculean effort, all of the context and history and impact of the N word and demeaning racial stereotypes, you can find other engaging stories and novels that are not written by white authors and that will not racially spotlight or re-injure any students.
  3. Speaking of non-white authors — the author of the book should be from the depicted social group. This can be tricky at times, but in my opinion it is always better to find stories that have a leading character from the same social group as the author. Check the author’s bio for a description of the author’s connection to the group being represented.
  4. The story acknowledges the diversity of experiences within a particular cultural group. As novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us in her Ted Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, it is important to read stories and novels to reach beyond cultural stereotypes to deeply felt lives. Books should avoid the idea that all people of any social group share a singular experience. This is also important to consider across the scope of a curriculum. Do we only see Asian characters in wartime? Are black characters only ever dealing with oppression and adversity?
  5. There are no shortages of suggested multicultural reading lists, too, available through organizations like Common Sense Media and We Need Diverse Books, and through publications like the School Library Journal. The Inclusive Schools Network also offers resources on culturally diverse books worth teaching.

Yes, it takes time and effort to find appropriate texts by grade level that are written by historically underrepresented groups. But not taking the time boils down to irresponsible teaching today. Sticking with the literary canon means we not only have a one dimensional idea of literary merit, it also means we are dividing our students between those who feel unseen, disengaged, and frustrated and those who feel they are at the center of the literary universe. We can do better.


Jenna Chandler-Ward is the co-founder of Teaching While White and teaches English and drama at the Meadowbrook School of Weston (Massachusetts). She is also the co-director the Multicultural Teaching Institute.



The Narrative Battle

 Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt of comments from writer and social-justice advocate Bryan Stevenson in A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality, and the Law (New Press, 2018) — a "no-holds-barred, red-hot discussion of race in America today" among Stevenson; Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Loretta Lynch, a former attorney general of the United States; and Anthony C. Thompson, a professor of clinical law and the faculty director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University School of Law. It's reprinted here with permission.

For me, the challenge that we face is a narrative battle. I don’t think we’ve actually done very effective narrative work in this country. We had a genocide in America. And when white settlers came to this continent, they killed millions of native people, through famine and war and disease. And we forced those people from their lands. We kept their names. We named streets and buildings and counties and things after them, but we forced them off. And because of a narrative shift, we didn’t say, “That’s genocide.” We said. “Those people are savages.” And that narrative failure to own up and acknowledge their humanity allowed us to think that we hadn’t done anything immoral. But we did.

And then we had slavery and the Civil War. The North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war. The South was able to persuade the United States Supreme Court that racial equality wasn’t necessary. And they actually reclaimed a racial hierarchy; that ideology of white supremacy. And we allowed that to happen for a hundred years. Then we had horrific terrorism and violence, and we ended the mass lynchings with impunity. But those who perpetrated that terrorism and violence won the narrative war. They were never held accountable. And then we got into the Civil Rights Era, where there was this massive, incredible movement led by extraordinary people, like Dr. King and Rosa Parks. We won passage of the Voting Rights Act; we won passage of the Civil Rights Act. But we lost the narrative war.

The people who were holding the signs that said, “Segregation Forever,” and “Segregation or War,” they were never forced to put down those signs. They didn’t wave them around anymore, but they kept adhering to that value. And now we’re living at a time where that thriving narrative of racial difference, that ideology of white preference, has exhibited itself, and now we’re dealing with the consequences of that. We won an election in 2008, but we lost the narrative battle. We actually allowed that president to be demonized and victimized and marginalized because he’s black — not because of anything he said or did. And our comfort with that kind of demonization is, I think, at the heart of the challenge that we face.

So, I want us to be involved in legal battles in court. I want us to be thinking strategically, politically, about how we claim federal government and make local government work for us. But we’ve got to start fighting a narrative battle. We’ve got to create a country and a culture where you are not allowed to say, “I’m going to ban people because they’re Muslims,” and win with that. You’re not allowed to ban people. There will always be people who try to exploit the fear and anger that give rise to these kinds of narratives of racial difference. And I think we haven’t done a very good job. Too many of us have take advantage of the legal battles while leaving behind the narrative battle. And that, for me, is the great challenge that we face.



It’s Not About Being Liked

By Jen Cort


“What can I contribute to conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion?” I asked my colleagues.

At the time, I was considering leaving my work as a school administrator and going into school and organizational consulting. When I asked the question, I thought I was only looking for affirmation about my credentials and credibility with audiences. But looking back, I now realize on a subconscious level I was looking for affirmation that I am, first and foremost, a good person. I wanted to hear that I am a good white person because I engaged in social justice work my entire life; I am a good cisgender woman because I supported my transgender loved one as he transitioned; I am a good heterosexual woman because I have always been an advocate for LGBTQ communities; I’m a good Christian because I am Quaker and our faith is based on equity and social justice. I quietly celebrated the number of times members of marginalized groups told me I “got it,” I am “legit,” I have a “honorary membership card” in the justice club.

So I was completely thrown when a colleague responded, “You can’t contribute because you don’t get it. More than speaking with us, we need you to listen. I am tired of being the one person in the room asked directly or indirectly to speak for and answer for everyone of my race. I’m tired of having to ask myself, if I should address a microaggression or let it go. I’m tired of hearing white people say that, because they are good — or think they are good — they are not biased. I’m tired of seeing the majority of those in the room only engage in these conversations when they are in a ‘diversity workshop.’ I am tired… just tired.”

I was taken aback. But when I let down my defenses, I could immediately recall times when I showed my lack of understanding. As a young school counselor, for instance, I once had a black colleague who called me out on my implicit bias. Instead of listening, I challenged his statement, cut him off with a litany of comments that are best summarized as my attempt to definitively demonstrate that I am a good person. I pointed out that, as a kid, I grew up on a commune where we focused on social justice all of the time — therefore, I could not be biased. I retold other stories of moments that proved my racial awareness. Looking back, of course, it was clear that I was only trying to make myself feel good. I couldn’t own up to my own implicit bias, even though I know we all have our biases. Even worse, I now realize many of the stories that made me proud were classic examples of white savior moments in which I felt I was being a good white person by “fixing” a situation.

My colleague’s comments made me realize that, if I wanted to do this work effectively, I’d have to let my audiences know that, while I am committed to social justice, while I have certain knowledge and skills at moderating conversations and identifying institutional challenges, I can never fully understand what it’s like to be a person of color. What I can make clear to myself and to others is that I will listen and learn.

Listening and learning does not come easy to those in the dominant culture. Even though I practiced diligently, it still felt like marbles in my mouth the first few times I honestly and openly introduced myself in public: “I am a cisgender, Christian, middle class, heterosexual, married, white woman. Except for being a woman and from the South, I am in majority group in all other areas and afforded innumerable privileges, including that I won’t see my blind spots and won’t learn to see them if they are not pointed out. Please tell me when I bump up against one of your social identifiers and/or convey a microaggression. Please do not feel you have to educate me, because so often you are in the position of educating others, but please tell me if I’ve conveyed a microaggression so I can deepen my own understanding.”

Introducing myself in this manner makes me vulnerable. I used to hope that no one would correct me when I revealed any hint of bias or lack of knowledge or committed a microaggression. If not called out, my “goodness” would remain intact. But I remind myself that if I’m not called out on occasion, I won’t learn — and if I don’t learn, I can’t help change our longstanding system of discrimination on numerous fronts.

The first time I was corrected for a biased comment, I had said to a group of students, “Tonight, we are going to have a forum with all of your parents. What do you think we should talk about?” (I always ask students what we should tell adults). Afterward, a student came up and said, “You should not assume we all have parents.” He was right, and it stung. I could have said that, of course, I didn’t think all students lived with their parents. I could have said that, given the scenario, I was nervous and simply misspoke. Either of those responses would have made me feel better in the moment, but they also would have made the interchange all about me and my feelings, not about the student and his feelings. So I thanked him for pointing out my bias and said I would do better next time.

To best support students, teachers have to examine the impact of their every comment, particularly when their intent and their impact contradict each other. Teachers also need to let students know it’s OK to point out these contradictions.

Workshop participants informing me of my blind spots remains challenging for me. It’s always difficult to be corrected — to have one’s biases revealed. But I practice responding in a manner that makes it clear I’m thinking about the speaker, not about me. To the degree it is about me, I’m focused on my openness to listen and learn. I also accept that this process should be challenging. If someone has the courage to tell me that I conveyed something hurtful, I need to have the courage to listen and to change. This is what we mean by honest dialogue. This is the point.

In leading diversity workshops, one strategy I like to use for listening — and resisting kneejerk, defensive responses — is what I call “one sentence/question, one sentence.” When we are anxious, we tend to fill space with words — prattle on in only a semi-coherent fashion. This practice most often is designed to lead us away from the essence of the moment. Answering each sentence or question with a one-sentence response forces us to stop and listen with greater focus — to listen more than talk. Each response invites more sentences or questions. In the workshop, I ask participants to continuing this dialogue process until the topic at hand is addressed. At the end, however, I also remind participants to finish the discussion with an open invitation to continuing the conservation in the future: “If you want to follow-up on this, we can do so… and if I want to follow-up, how should I do so?” These questions acknowledge that our thought-processes can take time, that many of us will continue to wrestle with the topic in our minds — especially when it comes to the complex, emotionally charged social issues that touch on all our lives — so the respectful thing to do is invite each other to meet again as needed. This is how we learn, how we grow.

I often recall the tone of voice and expression on the face of my colleague when he said, “I am tired… just tired.” He got me thinking. In schools, are we contributing to systemic discrimination by putting the burden of equity, inclusion, and diversity conversations on our few faculty/staff of color?

I strive to bear in mind that we white educators are called to remember the voices of colleagues and students who feel under great pressure because of there essential cultural identifiers — and in response we need to act. We need to sit down (or kneel) in protest, stand up for justice, demand equity and speak truth to power as directly and respectfully as we can. We need to act, unify, challenge, remain restless and alert, demand change. We need to create opportunities for all children, but especially the marginalized, to be visible and use their voices in ways that work for them. We need to do as much of the work as we can and let those in marginalized groups heal and focus on thriving. We must do this without expectations, without wanting others to comfort us, educate us, or pat us on the back. 

When it comes to social justice work in schools, all educators need to act in partnership. As adults, we are collectively responsible for all students. But for those of us who are white educators, a key element is both to learn as much as we can about being inclusive teachers and learn to listen to our students and colleagues. We need to invite students to tell us when we convey a lack of cultural understanding. When we listen, we grow, and when our students talk, they grow. We also need to invite our colleagues of color to tell us when we convey a lack of understanding. When we do, we become true colleagues. We also need to hold each other accountable.

Our goal should not be to prove to others how good we are. Our goal is deeper understanding and greater support for our colleagues of color in helping our institutions become truly inclusive places where both a diverse group of students and educators thrive.

No one benefits until we all benefit together, and that starts with all of us in those privileged areas understanding that by the very nature of our privilege we cast shadows on our beloved brothers and sisters. Changes will not happen until we remove those shadows and bring everyone into the light.

All of us want to know we do our jobs well. All of us want some kind of confirmation. But when it comes to social justice work, those of us who are white need to open ourselves up as much as possible to learning. Open up and listen.


Jen Cort is a clinical social worker and educator. Her educational administrative experiences are as an assistant head of lower school, head of a middle school, and senior administrator. Cort’s therapy background includes serving as a counselor in lower, middle, and upper schools as well as private practice. Her goal is to build capacity such that they have sustainable and systemic programming. Cort consults with schools on revising/enhancing advisory programs and equity, inclusion, diversity, and justice programming.



Three Practices for White Educators

1: Ask in every hiring season:

  • How are we addressing implicit bias in our hiring processes?
  • Where are we advertising for positions? Are we attending diversity hiring fairs? Are we working with placement firms that support the school’s diversity goals?

2: Find a partner in your school who can observe your classes. Ask him or her to look for:

  • How often you call upon students by race.
  • Whether you interact differently with students based on race.
  • The messages you provide that support addressing microaggressions by students and teachers.
  •  Signs of racial bias in your curriculum.

3: Think about the students, faculty, and parents throughout your career who have presented the most challenges for you. Asking yourself which social identifiers do they have in common? Find resources for deepening your understanding of those social identifiers and put on your calendar a timeline for exploring these topics further through readings, conferences, webinars, professional networking, etc.

Remember when your bias is identified you several possible options listen, think, own, learn none of which include justification, negating the experience of others, or making light.