Once again, racism is in the news. Torch-carrying neo-Nazis in Charlottesville make us think it’s 1967, not 2017. We know our students may be experiencing these issues, whether as targets of racism or even as supporters of the white nationalist platform. Educators want to respond. But how?

Many teachers get nervous that they’re going to arouse opposition from parents for being “political.” After all, aren’t teachers supposed to remain neutral? When it comes to taking a side for equal rights, the answer is no. Equal opportunity and justice are not fringe issues; they are the promise of democracy—and something we must advocate for. We must refute the accusation that it’s controversial to stand up for democratic values. Silence about racism is just another form of approval.

Doing this effectively requires more than a single lesson about “celebrating diversity.” While that can be a valuable first step, the problem is not lack of celebration—it’s the lack of will and action to dismantle the structures and policies that confer benefits or disadvantages based on race. In other words, we need to address the system of racism embedded in society while also supporting inclusion and respect at the individual level.

Getting there requires sustained, in-depth and carefully-scaffolded instruction that unfolds in a developmental progression. Here are just a few of the essential understandings we must help our students grasp:

  • Biological differences are normal and natural, yet skin tone is used to categorize people into unequal groups. The centuries-old narrative of white superiority is invented and used in overt and covert ways to justify racial inequalities.
  • Over our lifetimes, we’ve all received messages about race from family, the community, education, and more. This has shaped our attitudes. Prejudiced beliefs are learned and can be unlearned. This is where it’s necessary to learn about others at the personal, individual level. We need to bear witness to other people’s stories without accusations or the “I didn’t own slaves” response that deflects attention from examining the ways we all construct racial narratives, whether consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or not.
  • Individual acts of bigotry stem from biases and prejudices. These are of course wrong. But the problem is bigger. Racial hierarchies live and breed throughout society: education, housing, banking, the justice system, and more. This is institutional racism, a system that creates and maintains a web of inequalities and privileges based on race.

I’ve seen again and again the effectiveness of thoughtful instruction that starts with understanding our own identity and socialization. It can build the foundation and trust to go deeper and tackle institutional racism.

Celebrating diversity is nice, but it’s not enough to dismantle racism—and that’s an obligation we all share.

Here's how one district did it while also improving literacy along the way:

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