Talking With Students About Ferguson and Racism

This teacher believes it’s crucial for white teachers like her to seek out productive ways to talk about race and racism with students.

I’ve been talking about race and racism with my students. We’ve been talking about Ferguson, critiquing the ways various media have covered the case, identifying pernicious stereotypes about young people of color and seeking out ways to create media of our own.

Talking about race is not entirely new to my ninth-grade students, but it’s definitely not a comfortable topic, at least not at school. As I get to know my students at the beginning of the year, I notice how they tiptoe around the issue. One student uses the term “white people” and then immediately apologizes to me: “Sorry, Miss. No offense. I mean Caucasian.” Another student mentions the demographics of a neighborhood, saying there are a lot of white people, and someone else responds, “Oooh! Don’t say that! That’s racist!”

I also notice that most of my students conceive of racism as a thing of the past. I often hear the phrases, “back in slavery times” or “back in racism times,” as if racism were an ancient artifact. Students are familiar with Dr. King. Many of them credit him with ending racism, as if it were a disease for which he discovered a cure.

It’s clear to me that my students have learned about race and racism in school. The primary lessons they have learned are that racism is over (with the exception of a few racist individuals) and that it’s impolite to call attention to race, especially at school. How did my students learn these lessons?

They learned from textbooks that treat racial justice as an inevitable result, a goal attained. They learned from media that skirt discussions of race and reinforce the idea that talking about racism only makes it worse. They learned from white teachers who, intentionally or not, communicated their own preference to avoid the issue.

As Melinda D. Anderson points out in her latest post, it is crucial for educators to understand how race and racism can impact our students of color. And in a school system with students who are increasingly diverse but teachers who remain majority white, it’s especially crucial for white teachers like me to seek out productive ways to talk about race and racism with my students.

So even though these conversations sometimes make me nervous, I try to signal to my students that it’s okay to talk about race and racism in our classroom. It means I end up facing some really difficult and important questions from my students. Questions like “Are white people afraid of black people?” and “Why is it mostly white people in the suburbs?” It also means that we can begin to articulate the ways that racism impacts us and start to look for ways to address it. Students share stories of teachers who have misunderstood them, of police officers who have made painful assumptions about them, of media messages that malign them.

We look at examples of young people of color using the media to respond to racism. We study tweets with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and consider ways that we might use the media to talk back to racism.

Recently, as part of a field trip to local news station WHYY, my students had the opportunity to learn and practice some basic techniques for filming interviews. They tested their new skills by heading into Center City, Philadelphia, with cameras to conduct “Man on the Street” interviews. One group of my students decided to question people about their reactions to the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. They were hesitant at first to speak to strangers, but after one successful interview, their confidence grew. I was really proud of them for asking tough questions, for taking this conversation outside the safety of our classroom, for commanding the camera to reveal—rather than hide—important questions about race.

This work with students does not come easily. The sanctioned curriculum avoids it and many administrators frown on it. But we need schools that give teachers wide latitude to tailor curricula to students’ needs. We need administrators who encourage teachers and students to work for social justice. And most of all, we need diverse networks of colleagues who support this work, people who share honest conversations, who help us to see our own blinders and who challenge us to think critically about race and pedagogy. I benefit from each of these factors. Yet I know I have a lot to learn, and I count on my colleagues and my students to help me become a more racially conscious educator.

Editor's note: For more resources on similar topics, visit our Web package Teaching About Ferguson: Race and Racism in the United States.

Melville is a high school English, Spanish and drama teacher in Pennsylvania.

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