Race Versus Racism: Do Your Students Know The Difference?

Honest question: Do you teach your students about racism? Do you spend time showing your students what is acceptable to speak about and what is absolutely a racist comment? I ask because… I didn’t. In my class, we learn the definition of “prejudice” and “racism” that you can find if you Google the terms. I assumed my students knew from life experience the difference between a race and a racist comment. My students hold discussions about where they have witnessed prejudice or racism, they analyze where these two concepts are present in our class novels, and they discuss ways to prevent further racism from happening. Yet, I never explicitly taught them the difference between stating someone’s race and being racist. Because of my oversight, my students were avoiding talking about race in class – and I had no idea.

Back Story

My students just finished MONSTER by Walter Dean Myers and were segwaying into To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. When asked if they have ever noticed instances of prejudice in America, one student mentioned they noticed certain races being mistreated. This student said, “I have seen people yell names at black people. I mean, sorry Ms. C., I should probably say African American so I’m not being racist.”

I stopped the class and asked the students, “If someone in here describes me as a white teacher, are they being racist?”

Crickets. I waited. One kid raised their hand and admitted that it probably wasn’t a racist comment but they didn’t know for sure.

Light-bulb moment, for sure. I work HARD to make sure that students feel comfortable stating their opinions in my class. We have tough discussions, and we learn how to debate with each other without the conversation turning hostile. Yet, at this moment, I was instantly aware that most of the students in my room were suddenly tense. No one knew the right answer, and no one wanted to speak up. The very idea that students were too afraid to state someone’s race spoke volumes to me of the world that they are growing up in today. Our students should be mindful of what they say about others, but they should never fear to say white, black, latino, etc when their intent is pure. I could not move on with my lesson until this was rectified.

Teachable Moment

I launched into a lecture about the difference between stating someone’s race (Latino, White, Black, Native American, etc) as a descriptive word and saying something negative about a certain race. Saying that someone is white is not racist – it’s a fact. There are other words that people use to describe a person that ARE racist (a few nervous giggles leaked out of my middle schoolers at this).

I spoke about how, sometimes, people had poor intent behind saying that someone is a certain race and that that negative meaning would come out in their tone. I used the example of a student saying I was a white teacher again. “If the student had looked at me, rolled their eyes and said, ‘Ms. C is a white teacher,’ then the intent behind their comment was negative, and therefore a racist one.” I could see my students looking at their short writings and smiling. They hadn’t written anything racist, and they were relieved. That realization, that my students had been THAT uncomfortable about speaking about race, made me realize that we needed to have more conversations regarding race – way more.

We further discussed how “African American” and “Caucasian” are the more formal terms they should use in their essays, or if they’re speaking in front of a group of people to show professionalism. I described to the students that this is part of “code-switching” – the ability to alter your speech depending on your surroundings or who is in your company. I pointed out that when they addressed me, it was never with a “Yo, Miss Teacher Lady,” and of course, more giggles. They already knew how to code-switch to a degree. Some students raised their hands and said that they spoke completely different at home than at school. They were intrigued by the idea that they were skilled at something that some people struggle with!

By the end of class, my students were at ease again. When they were sharing their thoughts, they did not hesitate to mention the prejudice they had witnessed happening against someone who was a certain race. We had thoroughly discussed what was appropriate, and what was absolutely not. I had put power back into the hands of my students and it was evident in how confidently they were sharing their ideas with each other. We have to be careful that we don’t assume our students know the subtle differences of word meanings. In this case, my students weren’t sure of what was acceptable. Their fear of being deemed a racist prevented them from asking important questions, and was actually stifling their willingness to share their thoughts with their peers!

I wonder… are your students feeling the same hesitation when speaking about race?