Race in My Classroom

I posted this - and then I took it down... I was afraid of offending folks. But this morning I read a blog post on the New Yorker that my boss sent me on Facebook. My big takeaway was, "Part of being a student is learning how to advocate for your beliefs by writing and speaking about them calmly and impersonally. This includes intensely personal matters like race, religion, sex, love, death and evil. At the very least, thinking adults must be able to say why they don’t believe in discussing their personal opinions on those topics. Preventing students from reading about issues that make them uncomfortable only deepens their discomfort when they are forced to face those issues." 
After reading the article, I felt like reposting my reflection on how my students are reacting to the ever-sensitive topic of race. If you read this and have any resources that may help with discussing this topic with middle schoolers, please share. 

"But Ms. Clay, it's not our fault that we never learned that there is such thing as the Black National Anthem. No one ever taught us that. Why are we learning about the Jews and the Holocaust if we never even learned about our selves?" - An 8th Grade Girl

If they ever made a movie about my life, my former students would probably tell the writers and directors about provocative homework assignments that I gave like, "Go home and ask your parents: What's the difference between a black person and a nigger." Controversial topics like the n-word date all the way back to my first year of teaching, the same year the first black man was elected president.. My Blossoms will recall us marching down to a City Hall for Trayvon.. Or the time we organized a rally for the building funds and 11 year old Kiyea, who could barely see over the podium, delivered a speech that brought the entire room to their feet. It's all about social justice. Providing content that is captivating and naturally leads to authentic products. Effective teachers know that in order to peak enough interest to hook your students, one must curate buy-in by providing them with real topics to investigate, topics that are memorable and relatable. This makes them find a love for reading, while teaching them how to be advocates and leaders of their own learning

Today, however, I realized that's there's a very fine line between teaching my students to be culturally aware and being angry black people. This line is becoming even thinner as I also have to be mindful of the emotions of my white students - making sure that they don't feel like they are bad or that they are responsible for things that occurred in our nation's history. 

You know, it didn't dawn on me that my white students might feel some type of way until today, after we debriefed Spike Lee's, "Do the Right Thing". The students were asking, "When the cops broke up the fight, why didn't any of the white people get arrested or choked?" One of my girls, who is white, responded not with an answer but with a statement that left the whole class silent-in our own thoughts for a moment, "They are not white", she said.. "They are Itailian."

Personally, I didn't even know how to begin to respond. But now that I am reflecting on this, I wonder: Did she say that because she is white and didn't want to be associated with those white people because of what they did and said in the movie or does she really believe that Itailian's are not white? I really don't know. Of course I'll ask her on Monday but honestly this unit is one of the most challenging ever. We are supposed to be thinking about the responsible use of power and connecting the Holocaust to the present-day police brutality epedimic. Every night I go home and journal about the reactions that my students are having to what I am exposing them to... and I realize, it's becoming more about color than it is about the historical concept of how power can be abused. Don't get me wrong, I want my students to question things and go deep but my intention is not to cultivate a hate for white people or police officers or anything of the sort .. I just want my babies to be aware of what is going on in our neighborhoods.. And I want them to be so moved that they grow up to be the change that our world needs. 

Above all, I want them to know who they are and where they came from, no matter what ethnic group they belong to. I want them to make connections between their personal lives and the real world, whether current or historical events. Why we are learning about the Holocaust should not be a question. It should be a given. But blatantly saying, "we don't know ourselves.." speaks volumes. So I question myself as their teacher... Have I not given them enough? Is there such thing as enough? These questions remain unanswered. And honestly, I don't think racking my brain about it will do any good.

I think back to my experiences as a middle schooler and I realize that most of the things I learned about my culture came from my home. When one of my students looked at me and said, "Its not our fault that we don't know.", my co-teacher stepped in and explained how we learned about ourselves from home, church, and other activities - not just in school. Unfortunately, we can't say the same for many of our students. Not to fault any of my students' parents but sometimes I feel like parents leave too much of the teaching to the teachers. This is why I create homework assignments that force parents to have this type of dialogue with their children. 

I'm just going to make a stronger effort to create learning experiences that help each student discover theirselves, while teaching them about others. Showing them how and why making connections and reflecting on the plight of others is just as meaningful as learning about one's own history.

I'm also going to keep giving homework assignments that involve their parents. They must go home and have dialogue about the concept of race and power. I'm hoping the homework assignments lead to deeper conversations about their personal family legacy, as it relates to the topic. 

And I'm going to ask for support from other teachers. There's no way I can do this alone. And maybe that's the reason why there is still such a gap in their learning... Because I haven't been fully exhausting my resources.. 

I'm anxious to look back at this reflection at the end of the trimester ... I can already see that this is unit that is going to foster tremendous growth for me personally and for each one of my students. 


  1. I think you may want to reflect on not just what you are asking, but how you are asking question

    You asked, "...does she really believe that Itailian's are not white?"

    Well, isn't it more important to know how Italians view their selves, and to understand Italians based on how they understand their selves?

    Perhaps a better question to ask is thus: how does our perception of people influence our understanding of history and those around us?


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