Teaching Race in Schools in the 21st Century

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In the essay below, Douglas Edelstein, a Social Sciences instructor at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Washington, describes the challenges faced by instructors of all backgrounds in sensitively teaching issues of race in public and private schools.  

Students who encounter racism in texts can experience racial trauma, even if the larger overall message or theme of the text is antiracist. Good teaching of racially charged texts can minimize trauma for students and make accessible the broader antiracist themes of the text, as well as any literary or other qualities of value.

A Native American student sat in her tenth grade classroom at our school, reading the classic novel of modern dystopia, Brave New World.  In it, Aldous Huxley introduces a place called the “savage land,” where modernity has never taken hold. Here live in relative squalor Native people and rebels or cast-outs from the mainstream society. By the end of the book, Huxley ultimately makes clear that this “savage land” is really the only “civilized” place in society, where values are morally correct, perspectives proper, human life is understood and lived in its most humane and compassionate meanings, and people are wiser and more human than their modernized counterparts. But well before the reader gets there — before the irony of the term “savage” is fully revealed — the Native student, dutifully reading along, has encountered a number of contemptuous references to the “savages” who inhabit this “savage land.” These people have been described by characters in the novel as backward, unclean, uncivilized, simple, primitive, violent, ungoverned – in short, every stereotype ever thrown at Native Americans. The Native student feels betrayed by the teacher, angry, belittled, disenfranchised, bashed, dehumanized, unseen, insulted, unjustly singled out, nearly everything a student would legitimately feel if they had been intentionally and overtly insulted because of their race. 

The student, feeling racially assaulted, tunes out, turns off, refuses to finish the novel. And why indeed should she finish it? So she can appreciate the qualities of Huxley’s writing, the author’s vision, the commentary on what it means to be human? The cost in pain and rage is too great. The teacher, author and his work are disqualified as sources of anything worthwhile to learn. Yet we require students of color to read great literature that demeans them. It’s another bit of stuff white people do, entirely without any such intention.

“Master Harold and the Boys” by South African antiracist and anti-apartheid playwright Athol Fugard provoked a similar reaction among African American students at our school. At the climax of the play, white Harold bitterly throws the N-word epithet at his much-older black employee, who also happens to be the only real father figure Harold has ever known. Harold also spits at him. The audience is horrified. The African American students feel much more than horror. Why, they ask their teacher, were they subjected to this?

The teachers in both instances were surprised and appalled by their students’ (and the students’ parents’ and communities’) strong reactions. The teachers were frustrated as well. Brave New World and “Master Harold and the Boys” are considered basically and defensibly antiracist texts – great works of western literature, in fact, whose message holds up to critical examination racist assumptions of progress and white supremacy. Huxley’s work is hardly unimpeachable, however – careful examination reveals paternalism, condescension and reinforcement of stereotypes. Still, Fugard’s play is so loaded with powerful insight about the damage racism does not only to its targets but its perpetrators, it could not be produced inside apartheid South Africa, and Fugard accepted  personal risks to write it. These works offer great opportunities to challenge and refute racism.

Further, the teacher felt the students should be ready for the play. The teacher had sent a letter home to students’ parents/ guardians, warning of its powerful racial content. 

What then are teachers supposed to do? Discard these works? Eliminate all potentially hurtful racial texts from the curriculum? Antiracist teachers find such ideas unthinkable. To fail to honestly represent the racism of past and present is itself a crime. It is a birthright of all people to learn about, understand and draw strength from their past. The crimes of America’s history are sources of pain to be sure, but they are also springboards of strength, resolve, toughness and resiliency, as full of genuine heroes and moral courage as they are depravity and oppression.

Clearly, teachers must honestly present the realities of race. Yet we must also protect our students from experiencing racial trauma caused by the ways we teach them. If we don’t, students will tune out, turn off, and disqualify us and our curriculum as a source of anything worthwhile to learn.

Insights of excellent value for teachers are to be found at a website which normally undertakes less weighty issues. This is the very interesting website, “Stuff White People Do.”  Normally the site features sharp spot-on critiques of whiteness and its role in a wide range of social contexts. This time the topic was heavy indeed: 

(One of the things white people do is,)

“force non-white students to read “great literature” that demeans them.”


The talking point produced many responses from people who’d had bad experiences with how literature was taught. In the blog, one of the classic texts of great literature that gets the most attention is a classic in the multicultural canon, To Kill A Mockingbird.  Few contributors dispute the greatness of Harper Lee’s novel. Indeed, most agree anyone who finishes the novel will see deeply and critically into the system of bigotry built into the society of this southern town, and will be inspired by the moral courage of Atticus, Tom Robinson, Scout and Boo Radley. Yet a number of contributors to the blog reported they felt racially attacked by the text and the context of the lesson during their class’s reading of the novel, particularly when they were among the few students of color in the room. 

Trauma described on the blog were mostly caused by teacher classroom practices. Students of color had to listen and cringe when racial epithets were read out loud by other students. Expressions of race hatred went uninterrogated, and therefore took on the veneer of acceptability. Racist attitudes and history went unquestioned. Students of color had to cope with comments and uncomfortable encounters after class in the hallways. Most of all, their particular and unique experience of encountering naked racism in texts and in classrooms was unacknowledged, unconsidered and unrespected. These experiences point out most compellingly, even if anecdotally, that racially charged literature (and presumably other texts) can cause racial trauma among students of color if they are not prepared for it, and if the racial material has not been addressed and interrogated prior to their encounter with it. 

The caveat to teachers screams out here. Our students can be traumatized by racially charged texts, even if the overall theme or message of the work is antiracist. 

On the other hand, interestingly, a few contributors to the blog also reported experiences with racialized material that were positive and empowering. One contributor wrote that their instructor, who was Native American, had a powerful and very different take on Brave New World, and that resulted in a revealing and enlightening experience with the racism in the novel. 

Clearly, how we teach these texts has an impact on how they are experienced by our students of color. 

So how do we do it? How do we expose our students to racially themed literature, which we must do, in a way that empowers them, rather than shuts them down or harms them? 

A number of people have helped answer these questions. First, the students themselves courageously offered insights about how they experienced the texts and how they could have been more prepared for them. The teachers themselves reflected on the incidents and came up with positive solutions. Two Native and African American community members who were parents and mentors to the affected students, and who helped raise the issues initially, have offered invaluable insights and continuing wisdom in the effort. A number of other community members came together and formed a working group with the school district to come up with teacher guidelines for presenting texts that have the potential for harm. School district officials and the working group have made progress in first analyzing the issue and then coming up with solutions. At our school, administration and teachers have collaborated to foster a new and redoubled effort for all of us to achieve not just greater cultural competency, but a new level of knowledge and understanding called cultural proficiency, with the view that it is not enough for teachers to be on a “journey” toward cultural proficiency, but owe it to our students to get there and be there right now. In my view, that is the kind of community response issues like this require. 

Here are some insights resulting from our discussions. 

1. White teachers are sometimes unaware of the heightened sense of race consciousness our students of color experience just as a normal part of living in a white-majority culture. These students say they are nearly always conscious of their own race, and are especially so in classes where they are a small minority. Such self-consciousness grows exponentially when race-sensitive issues are discussed in class.

2. Readers experience the events of novels personally, as if the things that happen in the story are happening to them. Students of color experience racial content much differently than white students, because of a number of complex psychosocial sensitivities that are the normal reactions of anyone whose group has been negatively stereotyped. These sensitivities, again, are heightened by racial assaults in the literature, which can feel as personal as if they actually happened to the reader.

3. If the racial assaults are unexamined and uninterrogated, they can seem as if they are actually endorsed by the teacher, the author, the system as a whole, leaving the reader alone to cope with and process them as best they can.

4. The bad experiences our students had with the Athol Fugard play and the Huxley novel are not at all rare, but are in fact common. The number of comments on the blog about the assertion that white people “force non-white students to read great literature that demeans them” showed that many students have experienced some level of racial trauma when reading racially charged literature. Further, these bad experiences are almost certainly under-reported, for reasons revealed in the comments. Students of color, especially in a mostly white school where the teacher is white, often feel isolated, self-conscious, alienated, disconnected, and ultimately unable to get white teachers to understand how even an antiracist piece of literature, can result in experiences that amount to racial trauma. It is difficult for any student to challenge a teacher’s methods of teaching, and multiply so when students of color face the barriers presented by a teacher’s whiteness.

5. Many of this generation of young people are unprepared for experiences like this. Whether they have been sheltered from the worst of past oppression by parents or by the education system, or because racism has been so clearly and socially labeled as wrong that they never expected to be exposed to anything like this in a classroom, or because they had a sense of trust that the education system would never bring what they sometimes hear in the street into the classroom unexamined. We should also  keep in mind that the generation of kids now in high school is several generations removed from the bitterest of racial talk in this country (despite the really nasty racial innuendo directed at Barack Obama) and many have grown up largely unaware of how ugly experiences of this type are.

6. Subtle and powerful observations from author Toni Morrison, writing in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, offer a deeper explanation.  (Writers in the “Stuff White People Do” blog referred readers to her, and her insights are as luminous as always.) Morrison pointed out in this 1992 monograph: “For reasons that should not need explanation here, until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as white.” (Preface, xii) That means our students of color may feel alienated and excluded from the messages and meaning of a piece of literature from the start.

7. Further, she said, constructed, fabricated (stereotyped) visions of Africans, African Americans, Native people and other non-whites are a part of the very identity and definition of Americanism itself, especially the white American identity, and are a part of all American literature. (My summary of Morrison.) This historical white American identity, the one that appears in and is celebrated in much American literature, and which our students encounter in many ways, from blatant racism like seeing the n-word to more subtle but still identifiable experiences, has grown from the subjugation of others: African Americans, Native people, women, immigrants. Morrison says that this concept of Americanism and whiteness, composed of “autonomy, authority, newness and difference,” (page 24) depends on the existence within the culture of “contrasting groups” that are imagined by whites, in a self-serving way, as not free or in control, enslaved, old-world, and primitive. These assumptions are what our kids run into in books, and which we as teachers need to recognize, identify, explain and process with our students, to avoid letting these experiences become racial attacks against them.

8. Morrison goes on: “American means white (in that racialized construction), and Africanists struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen.” (47) Americans of African heritage are either treated as “others” or presented to white readers not as themselves, capable of the whole range of human possibility, but as some kind of projection of white desire, need, imagination or ego. Therefore, kids reading texts that whites may consider multicultural because they contain characters of color or have broad anti-racist themes, still run into stereotyped and fabricated versions of themselves. This can do more harm than good.

9. Ultimately, Morrison does not make this analysis to label any literature or author “racist,” she says. She instead wants to call our attention to ideas of race that are imbedded in American literature. She finds American literature to be infinitely complex, often beautiful and worthy of study. She does not recommend that we discard or avoid reading books like Huckleberry Finn. If we read it with young people of color and if we want our students to benefit from its author’s deeply critical, razor’s-edge satire of the racism of his time and place (and ours), we should teach it so our students get the deeper understanding and awareness of the constructions of whiteness and otherness that are at their core.


There is nevertheless good news out of all this. Good teaching, defined as culturally proficient, can not only pre-empt such bad experiences, but can turn such encounters into beneficial and empowering examinations of racism that strengthen the student against racial threats, and make the virtues of the literature, the antiracist message, the quality of the writing, or any of the reasons white society considers the literature great, more accessible to the student. 

Some guidelines:

Students who have been prepared for the experience of racism in their reading can be armed with the cognitive, empirical, emotional and psychological tools to reject the racist message and indeed, conceivably inoculate themselves against possible harm from such messages in the future. They will then be emotionally able and willing to finish the book and profit from its overall antiracism. Here are some suggestions for how to prepare your students. 


1. Do not assume that if no one complains, no harm has been done. Silence may in fact be symptomatic more of kids checking out, tuning out, shutting down than acceptance, comfort or satisfaction. How many students, especially in a classroom where kids of color are a minority, have the political savvy, self-confidence and strength to withstand the possible consequences of bringing the teacher’s oversight to their attention? How many students of color have the strength to challenge their white teacher’s racial attitudes, whether real or suspected? How many kids have the social confidence to ignore the hallway teasing or in-class eye-rolls of their peers if they speak up?


2. It is reasonable to expect that experiences of kids of color must vary considerably when they encounter uninterrogated racism in books. Variables of background and experience are multifold. Possibilities are highly individual depending on a student’s experience and background. Teachers must not assume we “know what kids are feeling.” We often don’t, even if we consider ourselves empathetic and hip, and have positive healthy relationships with our students. Teachers who do not share the cultural background of students should never assume to know what they feel in response to racism targeted at them. Such assumptions deny students their individuality and also any special quality of their relationship with the teacher that might mitigate or exacerbate negative reactions. 


3.  Explain proactively that the text they will read contains racism. Explain its form, context, history, cultural background, setting, the speaker or actor’s purpose in expressing it, the author’s purpose in exposing it, its effects on the characters, story or text, and what its existence says about the era, social milieu or racial climate of its origins. 


4. Explain why you are asking them to read such a text. Teachers have many choices of texts, and students have a legitimate right to ask why they must subject themselves to uncomfortable passages if the same goals could have been achieved with different texts. To simply say it is “great literature” is absurd. It is highly problematic on pedagogic, moral and ethical levels, and a much-abused privilege of whiteness, to ask students of color to appreciate a piece’s qualities as literature when the piece causes students racial trauma to read it.


5. Consider carefully the pieces you propose to assign students. Re-read them with an eye toward possible offense. 


6. Do not retreat from a worthy, necessary, powerful and important piece simply because it has racism in it; our duty remains to teach our students with the highest quality multicultural art. To avoid talking about racism causes its own racial trauma that is perhaps more damaging on social, political and cultural levels, and on a much wider and more lasting scale, than the injuries discussed here.

7. Consult with experts when you are considering a piece, wondering whether a piece has potential trauma embedded in it, or are planning how to handle it. Educators of color can certainly offer invaluable insights from their own experiences and educations. Experienced colleagues, counselors, community members, community equity groups, parents and parent groups are all potential resources. 


8. Consider sending a letter home advising parents of your intent. Describe openly and without reservation the text you are about to assign. Outline your concerns and your reasons for presenting it, and the steps you have taken to protect your students from possible harms. Invite parents to read the text along with their students, to visit the classroom if they wish, to provide input in the form of their own experience with the text, and share with their kids the insights into racism that the text provides.


I am certain other educators have better ideas than these presented here. No teacher wants to do harm to their students, especially, as is overwhelmingly the case, when the teacher’s whole personal sense of calling and purpose of teaching is to do the opposite — to empower and liberate them. The benefits of pre-teaching about the experiences of racism that students will encounter in otherwise antiracist texts are potentially powerful. The hope of course is all your students will be strengthened by your preparation before exposure, and will then be able to access the deeper and more powerful messages of the literature, all of which they need to be educated young people. 

Additional Resources:
Toni Morrison Entry on BlackPast.org

Toni Morrison, Playing in The Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)


Doug Edelstein,
Nathan Hale High School, Seattle, Washington