Ask Learning For Justice

Advice From the Experts

TT answers your tough questions. This time, we discuss “colorism” and helping schools in crisis.

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Illustration by Maricor/Maricar

Q: I teach English language learners from many different countries, mostly in Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Middle East. My students—from all groups of color—sometimes use words that depreciate themselves or others for having darker skin. How do I intervene in these situations? 

Your students already know the language of colorism, but they may not know the term itself. Start there. Naming the phenomenon tells your students that their experience with skin color bias is important and relevant to their learning. If your students are old enough, you could also talk to them about the history and research surrounding colorism and implicit bias in general. (For more on this research, see the feature story “What’s ‘Colorism’?” in the Fall 2015 issue of Teaching Tolerance.)

To make your “in-the-moment” interventions effective, set standards for language usage in your classroom. Build on prior conversations about colorism to point out why disparaging anyone’s skintone is harmful. The goal is not to censor your students or shut down the conversation, but the message must be clear: Colorism is part of a larger set of racial dynamics that ultimately reinforces a white supremacist worldview. Building that structural understanding will build awareness and—ultimately—support change. 


Q: What can I do to support educators in Detroit, Flint or other cities where schools are in crisis?

Become versed in the issue underlying the crisis and encourage your students to do the same. In the cases of Detroit and Flint, municipal bankruptcies, the installation of emergency managers and decentralized school governance are at play. These circumstances raise questions about the pros and cons of local control, questions that may be relevant in your own community and school system. Says Margaret Weertz, editor of The Detroit Teacher (a publication of the Detroit Federation of Teachers), “In the guise of ‘school choice’ we now have 14 different entities governing schools in Detroit. … We appreciate people across the country being informed about the impact of charter schools in urban areas.” 

Once you understand the landscape of the problem, reach out to organizations near the schools you want to help and ask what they need. This will prevent you from taking action that may seem like a good idea but—in reality—provide little in the way of support. Another option is to raise awareness of the issue via social media. Weertz says fellow educators can show their support for Detroit teachers by following the Detroit Federation of Teachers on Facebook. Those who want to take additional action could host a Twitter chat. (The new “Do Something” task in Perspectives for a Diverse America can walk you through all the steps.) Finally, consider sending cards, letters and small care packages directly to the schools themselves as a show of solidarity. A personal connection—even from a stranger—can go a long way toward helping a person in crisis feel like they are not alone.

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Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

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