The racism pandemic was around long before COVID-19 — and will continue long after. How can teachers actively engage with racism in schools and ensure equitable classrooms where all students feel seen, safe and supported?
Psychologist and Monash Education PhD candidate Hannah Yared unpacks some of the research.
Research shows children and young people commonly experience racism at school — with pervasive consequences to both health and wellbeing. However, teachers do not receive adequate training to respond to these deep-seated issues, which are exacerbated by often well-intentioned but harmful myths.
Myth #1 Only bad people are racist
When thinking about racism, it is often the white-hood-wearing, Ku Klux Klan style of racism that springs to mind. However, these historical conceptions perpetuate a binary view where only evil people can be racist and good people are not racist. This view of racism is endemic in society. It also does not align with what we know about racism today. It is entirely possible for someone to be both a good person and also embody racial bias.
Racism and racial bias are better understood as part of a continuum. At one end lies extreme racism and at the opposite end lies anti-racism. Everyone sits somewhere along this continuum.
If asked where they sit on the continuum, most people would place themselves toward the anti-racist end. In reality, more people are closer to the racist end than they assume.
This is where understanding the nature of bias is important. There is a difference between explicit bias and implicit bias. The latter often being described as “unconscious”, however, it is probably more accurately understood as being automatic, as opposed to entirely unconscious, as we can increase our awareness of these biases if we choose to.
The New York Times' Saleem Reshamwala has put together this video to explain what implicit bias is.
Self-reported bias (explicit racial bias) tends to be strongest during childhood. These biases begin to fade during adolescence, disappearing almost completely by adulthood. In contrast, research shows our implicit racial bias remains stable from childhood through to adulthood. Meaning we’re probably all a little more racist than we would like to admit.
Most people do not think they can be racist, and that can distort their perception of self. When faced with the need to address biases and systemic barriers to achievement, this incorrect understanding of racism can make people feel defensive and resistant to change.
In an Australian context, implicit biases are particularly prominent against First Nations Peoples.
What can teachers do?
- Lean into your biases. We all have biases and addressing them is uncomfortable, but important. At no point in history have we achieved any real change by staying in the confines of our comfort zones. Watching this TED talk is a great start. Research what anti-racism means and find out where you sit on the racism continuum by exploring your implicit biases . From here, find out what steps you can take to actively address these biases.
- Listen to and amplify the voices of people from marginalised groups. Researching topics has never been easier. There is a wealth of knowledge and research out there, but not all of it is created equally. Focusing on using research and stories from those with a lived experience will help to minimise the risk of perpetuating negative stereotypes in the classroom.
- Be a better ally. Use your social capital to advocate for your students, regardless of their race or ethnicity. This is especially important if you are in a position of social privilege.
Myth #2 Teachers are colour-blind
Schools are a microcosm of society, and racism transcends into the school setting where research shows us that teachers are just as likely to exhibit biases as anyone else.
Teachers’ racial bias impacts how they respond to and how they teach students. The research is startling and shows it manifests in poorer quality instruction, lower academic expectations and harsher disciplinary measures — practices which negatively impact racially marginalised students.
For example, evidence shows students from some racially marginalised groups are more likely to be suspended or expelled for the same infractions as their white peers. They’re also more likely to be referred to special education programs and less likely to be referred to gifted education programs, regardless of aptitude. This is particularly true for Black students.
Lower expectations from teachers have also been shown to negatively impact academic achievement, as these low expectations can transform into self-fulfilling prophecies for some students. So, if you expect your students to perform poorly, then they will be more likely to perform poorly and vice versa.
What can teachers do?
- Understand that biases have a harmful impact on students.
- Move beyond colour-blindness. Claiming not to see race insinuates that there is something inherently wrong with that race. There is in fact nothing wrong with seeing a student’s race — it is what we do when we notice their race that is the problem.
- Adopt anti-racist and anti-bias teaching practices. This series of free resources has been produced by Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in America, and the lessons are applicable to Australian schools.
- Advocate for greater racial diversity within school leadership and teaching staff.
Myth #3 Children are colour-blind
I recently published a research paper revealing that children are both capable and in need of conversations about race. Yet teachers and parents rarely engage in these conversations based on the assumption that children don’t see race.
This is not true. Children do notice race. Racial bias begins early in childhood, develops across our lives, and becomes deeply ingrained by adulthood. Children also report experiencing racism regularly inside and outside of school. They can be directly on the receiving end or witness racism inflicted on others.
The negative health and wellbeing implications for children and young people who experience or witness racism runs deep. Research tells us these experiences lead to increased anxiety, depression, substance misuse, as well as decreased self-esteem and academic self-confidence.
Evidence also suggests racism can evoke a trauma response. This includes vicarious trauma from viewing racist violence toward people who look like you via media and social media platforms, as Black children have been witnessing time and time again. Recent examples include the murder of George Floyd by US police officer Derek Chauvin and at least 441 Indigenous deaths in police custody in Australia since the Royal Commission report in 1991 (and countless more preventable deaths prior to this date).
What can teachers do?
- Denying racial differences can perpetuate racial injustice – drop colour-blind ideologies in your classroom.
- Talk about racial issues – have open and honest conversations with students to improve their racial literacy and provide them with a safe space to process experiences of racism. This resource produced by EmbraceRace gives you ideas on how to do this in age and developmentally appropriate ways.
- Help children understand what racism is and how they can safely intervene when they witness racism.
- Teach children to be good allies and to advocate for social justice issues. This can be further strengthened through clear whole-school anti-racism policies.
Creating equitable classrooms
Racism and movements to combat racism such as the Black Lives Matter movement are not trends adopted from the United States — we have our own history of racism in Australia (for example slavery, the Stolen Generations and the White Australia Policy) and current issues with racism, especially toward First Nations Peoples.
When we give children opportunities to engage in discussions around racial issues, we equip them with the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary for life beyond school.
Schools need to move beyond tokenistic acts of diversity, inclusion or cultural competency toward evidence-based anti-racist strategies to combat these issues. Work is being done to develop evidence-based whole school anti-racism training programs, particularly through programs such as the Speak Out Against Racism (SOAR) program in Australia.
Addressing teacher biases, talking about racial issues with students and adopting evidenced-based anti-racist approaches in schools – these are a few pieces in the puzzle toward building equitable classrooms that cater to the needs of all students, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
All people, including teachers and their students, have racial bias, despite believing that they see everyone equally.
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