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Establishing the Classroom as the Setting for Race Talk.

by: Cree Phillips Taylor


I am a Black female educator who grew up in, went to college in, and still live in majority white communities. All throughout my education, my experience, and the experience of people who look like me, has been deemed unimportant or non-academic. Professor and racial psychologist, Derald Wing Sue, articulates that Students of Color “have been forced to operate within predominantly White culture, and are taught the history, mores, and language of Western society from the moment of birth” (110). Ideas of colorblindness and a post-race society permeated the classrooms of the schools I attended where teachers discussed that racism was a thing of the past and hinted that discussing issues of race was more divisive than unifying. Because of these feelings of isolation, my graduate research has focused on ways to establish the classroom as the setting for race talk.


Critical Race Theorist, Rosemary B. Closson revealed that “although People of Color are generally more willing than their White counterparts to engage in race talk, they are often prevented from doing so” because “they are likely to be met with many resistances” (14). While discussing issues of race in the classroom will inevitably lead to controversy, all students, regardless of their racial identities, will benefit from productive race talk.


We, as teachers “are in a unique position to teach children and young adults about issues of race, diversity, and multiculturalism. [We] have the ability to determine the curriculum...to teach about life events... And to facilitate difficult dialogues on race in the classroom when they arise.” When race talk is avoided, students recognize it and are taught that Race is a taboo topic and should be avoided or ignored” (Race Talk 212).


So, how do we do it? How do we as Black Educators, especially Black Educators in majority White schools, work to establish the classroom as the setting for race talk?


1. Intentionally incorporate materials that center the voices of People of Color

For Example, instead of reading To Kill A Mockingbird as the class novel, select Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. This text takes place during the same time period as To Kill A Mockingbird and covers many of the same themes. The narrator is a young Black girl instead of a young White girl. The novel puts racial issues at the forefront, which allows room for educators to discuss how racism is manifest today in similar ways as discussed in the text.


2. Recognize Student Resistance

White student resistance often looks like: silence, challenges to the instructor, and classroom disruptions (Closson 83). The fear “that they might be misunderstood or unjustly accused” keeps them from participating in the discussion in meaningful, productive ways (Race Talk 16).


Students of color might be resistant because: they have been taught to adopt color-blind and assimilative ideologies; they have internalized that it is important for them to imitate Whiteness while hating their “otherness;” or maybe “class-and/or skin-color privilege” has “enable[d] them to rationalize disparities as a result of cultural or individual deficits” (Aleman 131-132) Closson adds that “People of Color are very aware of how most White Americans are likely to react to racial topics so they may also minimize differences in order to assure acceptance” (14).


3. Work to Overcome Student Resistance

Help students recognize the classroom as a “Brave Space” where students can ask and answer difficult questions and grapple with issues they might not fully understand in an environment that will take them seriously and recognize that they are just trying to learn (Ali 6).

A brave space within the classroom contains five elements: 1) “controversy with civility,” 2) “owning intentions and impacts,” 3) challenge by choice,” 4) “respect,” 5) “no attacks” (Arao).

Be vulnerable with your students. bell hooks remind us that teachers “who expect students to share confessional narratives but who are themselves unwilling to share” are exercising an oppressive form of power over their students. “If professors take the first risk” students are more-likely to follow suit (hooks 20).


4. Provide Multiple Ways for Students to Participate in the Conversation

Some examples include:

  1. Small and large group discussions;

  2. Writing alternatives (journals, polls, creative writing, etc.);

  3. Activities (Privilege Walk, Drawings, Research, etc.);

Honest race talk is important because it “is one of the most powerful means to dispel stereotypes and biases, to increase racial literacy and critical consciousness about race issues, to decrease fear of differences, to broaden one’s horizons, to increase compassion and empathy, to increase appreciation of all colors and cultures, and to enhance a greater sense of belonging and connectedness” (Race Talk x). While this task may seem overwhelming, looking for ways to discuss issues of race as natural and normal parts of our curricula will help empower our students to more actively participate in individual and structural anti-racism.


Works Cited


Aleman, Sonya M. & Sarita Gaytan. “‘It doesn’t speak to me’: understanding student of color resistance to critical race pedagogy.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 30, no. 2 (2017), pp. 128-146.

Arao, B. and K. Clemens. “From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice.” The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators, Edited by L. Landreman, 2013, pp. 135-150.

Closson, Rosemary B., PhD, Lorenzo Bowman, PhD, and Lisa R. Merriweather, PhD. “Toward a Race Pedagogy for Black Faculty.” Adult Learning, vol. 25, no. 3, (Aug 2014), pp. 82-88.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, Routledge, 1994.

Sue Derald Wing, et. al., “Racial Microaggressions and Difficult Dialogues on Race in the Classroom.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, vol. 15, no. 2 (2009), pp. 183-190.

Sue, Derald Wing. Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence. New Jersey, Wiley, 2015.



Cree Phillips Taylor is a graduate student at Utah State University (USU) and serves as the Graduate Assistant Director of Composition at USU where she is involved in curriculum design for university-level First Year Composition courses. Her research interests include Critical Race Theory and Pedagogy as they apply to Composition and Literature instruction in both the Secondary Language Arts classroom and the First Year Composition classroom. As a Graduate instructor, she works to employ an Engaged Pedagogy and establish her classroom as a brave space where students feel empowered to share their own perspectives, have those perspectives challenged, as well as read and analyze texts that advocate for perspectives that differ from their own. In addition to working with her partner to raise two young children and giving birth to a new baby in June 2020, Cree will graduate with her Master of Science degree in English -- Literature & Writing in May 2020.

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