Q&A: Teaching Racial Justice in Schools

Over the past couple years, dozens of states have restricted or sought to restrict the discussion of race in public schools, complicating educators’ efforts to broach topics like discrimination and racial justice in their classrooms. Political pushback over an early draft of the new Advanced Placement course in African American studies, in particular its handling of content including the Black Lives Matter movement, illustrates just how divisive decisions about curricula have become.

But some educators say that K-12 schools should do more to promote racial justice. More than a dozen states have sought to expand teaching about racism, racial bias and ethnic studies, according to data gathered by the education news website Chalkbeat. And advocates like the national organization Black Lives Matter at School say promoting racial justice in education includes pushing for policy changes that will make schools more equitable.

Each year in conjunction with Black History Month, the group organizes a week of action, in which educators and community members advocate for systemic school change and teach students about the Black Lives Matter movement.

[READ:What’s in the New AP African American Studies Course?]

Denisha Jones, executive director of the early-childhood nonprofit Defending the Early Years, is a member of the national Black Lives Matter at School week of action steering committee. She teaches in the schools of education at Sarah Lawrence College and Howard University, and is co-editor of the book “Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice.” She spoke with U.S. News about the role of racial justice in education and how schools can approach this subject. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How would you define racial justice in education?

One of the ways I try to explain it to my students is we look at the data in the schools and we do a quick proportionality check. I’ve not found a school district where students of color are not underrepresented in Advanced Placement classes and higher classes you need for college education, and overrepresented in discipline practices. And that, to me, is the crux of racial justice. The schools aren’t serving these children well, and racial justice doesn’t blame the students for this.

Racial justice would seek to correct that disproportionality. It would start with the premise that something in our schools is not serving these children well, and it would change those things.

Q. What are some misconceptions people have about talking about racial justice in schools?

I think the biggest misconception is they think that we are introducing something to kids that they don’t need to know. They say, ‘Oh, you’re making it about race and they don’t know that,’ and the research shows children are aware of racial differences from the time they’re babies. And the silence around race teaches them a narrative that we think is unhealthy. So they need to know this.

And then a lot of people think that by saying “Black lives matter,” we’re denying all other lives matter. We’re saying it’s just us and in actuality, what we want people to understand is that when you support the most marginalized group, everyone else comes up. If we are fighting for racial justice in education, it’s going to be better for everyone. It’s not going to leave anyone behind. Racial justice in education is good for white kids. It’s good for Latino kids. It’s good for Muslim kids. It’s good for LGBTQ kids.

[READ: What to Do When Your Kid Refuses to Go to School.]

Q. Why should schools teach about racial justice?

First of all, teachers have to understand it because the school population is changing. We’re now a majority minority school population but the teaching force is not changing, right? It’s predominantly white and female. And what we’ve been doing since we integrated schools is not working.

And so I think teachers have to realize that there’s got to be something that we can do to change things. The mindset has to change so that it’s not just blaming the students and accepting that this is their fate, that they’re never going to be able to do well in an education system. It’s about changing that system so that they do well. And it doesn’t mean other students who are already succeeding aren’t going to do well. Typically, those programs can happen in both environments and they don’t hurt the kids who are doing well, but they do help other kids.

Q. What does that look like in practice?

You’re getting out of the traditional Eurocentric curriculum that discounts other groups’ cultural knowledge, cultural ways of being, and allowing that to come into the process in different ways.

So instead of asking questions, like, you know, “What led Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves?” you might phrase that question in a different way that centers the struggle of Black people to secure their freedom. And you pose it in a way that students are now looking at the same content from a different perspective. And so that’s one way that a curriculum would have to shift where you’re bringing in other narratives of other people who might tell that story.

So the curriculum really shifts the focus from traditional ways of thinking which tend to be Western, European, middle class, and expands it by asking the questions from a different perspective.

[READ: How to Keep Kids Motivated and Engaged at School.]

I’ve seen chemistry lessons where they’re studying lead water poisoning in communities instead of just measuring for something that doesn’t really have an impact. Lead poisoning has a huge impact in certain communities. And you can teach chemistry and teach what students need to learn by making it more relevant through something like that.

It also includes thinking about the literature that students read. How do we change the lens of who we’re showing so that our students see the diversity in the literature as well?

Also remembering not to center racial justice through the lens of pain and struggle. It’s not always a bad story. Black history doesn’t start with enslavement. It doesn’t start there. Students should see themselves represented in the curriculum in a positive way.

Q. What if educators have only white students? Should they still be teaching this content?

I got to interview teachers and review their lesson plans for the week of action and one of them is a kindergarten teacher in Brooklyn. She’s white and all of her students are white, too. So she was very nervous. But one of the things that came out was that her students need to see a white woman talking to them about why Black lives matter. If all the students are white, they still need this. So they can see why it matters that white people do this work.

It’s not all on Black people to solve this, and we can’t solve it on our own — if we could, we would have by now.

Q. What are some challenges educators face in talking about racial justice in schools?

You know, most people think young kids don’t say things like, “Why are we saying Black lives matter?” But older kids might say that because they’ve heard that refrain. And so they might ask that and they want to know and so you have to be prepared to answer that.

During the week of action, we’ve had reports of students not engaging on the queer-affirming and transgender-affirming principles of the Black Lives Matter movement. And they need the backup education about how Black Lives Matter was started by three women and two of them are queer. They don’t know that and they don’t know the history. And they need that space to engage.

Some parents don’t think this belongs in school. They think the Black Lives Matter organization is anti-police or hate group terrorists. Being really upfront with them is really helpful. Explain why you’re doing this work, why you think it’s important for their children to get this. … I think people are just fearful that talking about race makes race real. And race is real whether we talk about it or not.

More from U.S. News

How Schools Are Improving STEM Education for Girls, Students of Color

Sex Ed in Schools: What Parents Need to Know

How Schools Contribute to Negative Body Image in Kids

Q&A: Teaching Racial Justice in Schools originally appeared on usnews.com

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