Talking About Race and Racism

What do educators need to participate in an open and honest conversation about the content of The New Jim Crow? Effective instruction about The New Jim Crow requires advanced preparation for how to talk about race and racism.
Grade Level

Teaching 'The New Jim Crow'
Lesson 1: Talking About Race and Racism

Essential Question

  • What do I need to participate in an open and honest conversation about the content of The New Jim Crow?

Big Idea

  • Effective instruction about The New Jim Crow requires advanced preparation for how to talk about race and racism.   


  • Students will reflect on their own comfort level when talking about race.
  • Students will distinguish between intent and impact and reflect on what it means in the context of class discussions about The New Jim Crow.
  • Students will describe how stereotypes inform our implicit biases and how implicit bias impacts our interactions.  
  • Students will establish norms and learn strategies for having open and honest conversations about the content of The New Jim Crow.

Tier II and III Vocabulary

  • bias
  • caste
  • colorblindness 
  • hierarchy
  • Jim Crow
  • mass incarceration            
  • stereotype               
  • stigma

Warm Up

Write the prompts (below) on the board, and allow students time to quietly and independently respond in writing. If you have a journal procedure, use it here. Allow time for sharing and discussion.

On a scale of 0-5, how comfortable are you talking about race? Explain. 
On a scale of 0-5, how comfortable are you talking about racism? Explain.

0 = I would rather not talk about race/racism.
1 = I am very uncomfortable talking about race/racism.
2 = I am usually uncomfortable talking about race/racism.
3 = I am sometimes uncomfortable talking about race/racism.
4 = I am usually comfortable talking about race/racism.
5 = I am very comfortable talking about race/racism.

Chalk Talk  

Introduce students to frequently used terms in The New Jim Crow. Use this activity to assess their prior knowledge, familiarity and attitudes toward the words and their connotations.

  1. Write each of the Tier II and III vocabulary words listed at the top of this lesson on a piece of chart paper. Hang the chart papers around the classroom.
  2. Distribute students evenly at each chart paper. Provide each student with a marker; if possible, use the same color. 
  3. Tell students they will have two minutes to comment on the term by writing their knowledge, beliefs or questions on the poster. Emphasize that there are no right or wrong responses and that they will have the opportunity to learn more and discuss these terms in future lessons. This is a completely silent activity. If they wish to react or respond to what one of their peers has written, they may do so by drawing an arrow and responding in writing. 
  4. After two minutes, have students rotate to the chart paper on their right. 
  5. Repeat steps three and four until each student has commented on each term.
  6. Allow some time for students to circle back through the chart papers and notice what they, as a class, have “said.” 
  7. Explain to students that over the next several lessons they will be reading about and discussing a host of race-related facts and myths and directly discussing issues of racism in the United States. Each of the terms they see around the room will be important in those conversations and continued to be defined and debated.
  8. Tell students that it is important to discuss certain things as a classroom community before starting the lessons to ensure that there is as much comfort as possible when talking about race and racism. Remind them that talking about race and racism will never feel comfortable for all people and that, in some places, everyone may not be completely safe. But your goal as their teacher is to create a classroom community of respect and support. To that end, share any insights and tools with them that you found helpful from the activities in “Preparing to Teach The New Jim Crow.”

Our Words: Intent vs. Impact

  1. Ask the class: “Have you ever been hurt by something someone said or did and when that person finds out they’ve hurt you, their response is ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you?’” Have students share examples. 
  2. Explain the difference between the intent of our words and the impact of our words. Go back to the examples shared in step one, and ask students to compare the intent and the impact of words used in those situations.
  3. Tell students that when we talk about racial issues, such as those that will be raised in The New Jim Crow, the way we say things to classmates can matter as much, or more, than what we mean.
  4. Have student volunteers read the scenario below, as you pause to ask questions along the way.
  5. Explain that in sensitive and difficult conversations we have to be mindful of the impact our words will have on others. We also have to be understanding of the fact that the way another person’s words make us feel may not be what they intended. 


Apple: Wow, Basil! I’m so impressed with your presentation. You’re so smart! Every time you present, I can’t believe you’re a product of public schools.

Pause (ask students): What is Apple’s intent? What does she want to convey to Basil?

Basil: [to his peer, Luisa] I can’t believe Apple would say that. I love my school! I love this city. She is so insensitive and judgmental. She should know better. I can’t stand to be around her anymore.

Pause (ask students): What is the impact of Apple’s comment on Basil?

Luisa: [to another peer, Jett] Did you hear what Apple said to Basil? He is so offended. Which is too bad—they were good friends. I don’t think Apple meant to be insensitive. 

Jett: [to a new student, Leila] Everyone here is pretty cool, except for Apple. Avoid her at all costs!

Pause (ask students): What are the ramifications of Apple’s initial comment? What is the relationship between intent and impact?

Debrief with a Talking Circle 

  1. Gather in a circle. Locate the talking piece or, if this is the first time doing a Talking Circle, choose a talking piece. 
  2. Pose a question or raise a topic and then pass the talking piece around the Circle moving clockwise. Students can pass if they want. Remember, only the student holding the talking piece can speak. Others listen. 

The following are some suggested questions for reflection and debriefing at this point in the lesson:

  • Let’s talk a little about our warm-up questions. How comfortable are you talking about race? Say more about that.
  • What are your feelings about the eight words hanging up in our classroom? 
  • What did you take away from our discussion of impact versus intent of our words? 
  • How are you feeling at this point? Is there anything you would like to share? 

Implicit Bias and Stereotypes

  1. Explain that, in The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander addresses stereotypes that are untrue, offensive and hurtful. These ideas exist in the world and in our heads even if we don’t want them to. Stereotypes can cause deep harm even if nobody actively “intends” that harm. In order to expose stereotypes and to explore how they shape our interactions with others despite our best intentions, we first have to acknowledge their existence. Our question as a class community is, how do we challenge these false assumptions together?
  2. Provide students with the definition of stereotype: an exaggerated belief, image or distorted truth about a group or person—a generalization that allows for little or no individual differences or social variation. Stereotypes are based on images in mass media or reputations passed on by parents, peers and other members of society. Stereotypes can be positive or negative but are always harmful. 
  3. List the following identity groups on the board:
    • African American/Black
    • Asian
    • European American/White
    • Hawaiian/ Pacific Islander
    • Hispanic/Latino/Chicano
    • Jewish
    • Middle Eastern/Arab
    • Native American
  4. Have students unpack stereotypes they have been taught, been told or believe about these racial and ethnic groups. Students do not have to identify if they believe the stereotype or where they learned it. 
  5. Use your judgment to determine how student responses will be shared. Some options are:
    • have a whole group discussion where students take turns reporting as you write a list of stereotypes on the board.
    • have students write each of their examples on sticky notes. Collect and read the examples out loud and/or post them on the board next to the list.
    • provide students with adhesive dots and have them mark next to the statements/stereotypes that they, too, have been taught, told or believe. This should be done in silence. The idea is to gain a sense of which stereotypes are most pervasive and dominant in your particular classroom community.
  6. Explain that stereotypes such as these are sometimes expressed in racist jokes, slurs and images or through actions such as blatant discrimination or even violent hate crimes. Today, these overt and explicit kinds of racism are widely frowned upon and considered unacceptable. Most people would say they consciously reject racist attitudes and behavior. 
  7. Stereotypes, however, can influence our attitudes and behavior in ways that we are unconscious of. Explain this is the idea of implicit bias: stereotypes or biases against groups of people that may be in our heads even though we do not want them to be. Provide more definition and description of implicit bias, such as this discussion from the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity:
    “Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.
    The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance. These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages. In addition to early life experiences, the media and news programming are often-cited origins of implicit associations.”
    The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity
  8. Ask students what are some of the ways the stereotypes on the board could form implicit biases? Give the question context by posing the following scenarios. Have students work in small groups, or as a whole class, to discuss how the following daily interactions could be influenced by implicit bias:
    • A doctor doesn’t ask his Latina patient if she has any questions.
    • A teacher assigns her only Asian student to tutor other students.
    • An employer places the resumes of applicants with Arabic-sounding names at the bottom of the stack.
    • A woman who clutches her purse when a black man enters the elevator.
  9. Have students discuss the following questions in their groups or journal about them independently:
    • What is/are the implicit bias(es) at work in the scenario?
    • Would most people consider the interactions in these scenarios as racist? How could you prove it to someone?
    • Is it possible that the doctor, teacher, employer and woman on the elevator are unaware of their biases? Could they even hold antiracist views on a conscious level in their everyday lives?
    • Do you think we all have implicit biases? What are some implicit biases you and/or your classmates might hold? How could this impact your conversations about race?
  10. Show a clip from an episode of “What Would You Do?” as a demonstration of how a stereotype plays out in real life. The clip shows passerby responses to a young white man, young black man, and young blonde girl stealing a bicycle. Time and time again, the vast majority of people respond differently to the bike theft depending on the identity of who is stealing the bike. Ask students:
    • Why were the responses so different?
    • Do you think the passersby were racist? Did they hold stereotypes? Implicit biases? 
    • What would you have done?
  11. Conclude by showing this short video clip about selective attention. The clip illustrates that we tend to see only what we’re primed to see. In this case, we are primed to count the number of passes and completely miss the gorilla! Stereotypes operate in a similar way in forming implicit biases. Stereotypes can operate as primers and prevent us from accurately perceiving situations and people. What does it mean that our perception can be so easily fooled? In the scenarios above, what were the doctor, teacher, employer and woman on the elevator primed to see? How about the passersby at the park? In each case, what might they fail to see or understand as a result of their implicit biases?

Establishing Rules and Norms

  1. Recall the start of the lesson when students shared their comfort levels when it comes to talking about race and racism. Classroom conversations need to be honest, respectful and supportive. Share with some of the strategies you will use to support students during these conversations. For instance, let them know that you will 
    • debrief with them or allow them time to reflect on their own (e.g., talking circles and journaling).
    • check in with them throughout the lesson to see how they are feeling and doing (e.g., fist-to-five).
    • encourage them to ask for a pause when they are feeling strong emotions that prevent them from moving forward (e.g., stoplight).
    • introduce them to methods for communicating through strong emotions (e.g., RCRC).
  2. Gather in a Talking Circle. Locate the talking piece. Pose the question, “What do you need from your classmates and teacher to have an open and honest dialogue about the information we will encounter in The New Jim Crow?” Pass the talking piece around the Circle moving clockwise. Remember, only the student holding the talking piece can speak. Others listen.
  3. After the Talking Circle, draft rules and norms that everyone will adhere to as you embark upon this lesson series. Where possible, try to relate the discussion back to existing classroom rules.

Exit Ticket

Have students write a letter to themselves in which they discuss their fears and hopes for talking about The New Jim Crow with their teacher and classmates. What are they thinking that wasn’t said today in class? What do they know that others might not? What do they want to learn? What do they want to share?

Guarantee that you will not read or share their letters. Provide them with envelopes that they can seal.

Have students open their letters at the end of this lesson series and give them the opportunity to write a postscript, sharing what they have learned and how they may have changed since they first wrote the letter.

Return to Teaching The New Jim Crow | Proceed to Lesson 2 - Introducing The New Jim Crow