Truth Talk: Conversations About Race

Khasnabis

Dr. Debi Khasnabis

Today’s bloggers are Debi Khasnabis and Simona Goldin, who co-authored with Ebony Perouse-Harvey and Margaret O. Hanna to write “Race and the Mona Lisa: Reflecting on Antiracist Teaching Practice,” which appears in the latest issue of The Educational Forum.

Race permeates every thread of the fabric of society in the United States, regardless of whether we recognize and speak to it.

Simona Goldin

Dr. Simona Goldin

This truth is stitched throughout all aspects of public schooling, from the gaps in academic learning opportunities that children of color experience relative to their White peers, to the racial marginalization of children at recess. This truth weakens the fabric of the institution of schooling.

As teacher–educators, we support beginning teachers in seeing and responding to the ways that race pervades children’s experiences in classrooms.

In doing so we help them leverage the knowledge that children of color and their families bring to their work in schools as well as repair the rips in the social compact.

Our current research, highlighted in “Race and the Mona Lisa: Reflecting on Antiracist Teaching Practice” in this issue of The Educational Forum, is inspired by our awareness that children’s full sets of knowledge are often unseen in schools. Children of color, especially, are unlikely to be seen for their knowledge. This invisibility occurs in instructional moments when that knowledge is related to students’ racial or ethnic identity.

What does it look like when children’s knowledge is made invisible? 

A common refrain heard in schools is “That’s racist!”

Digging into this, we were initially surprised to learn what young children identify as “racist.”

When children are raised to be “colorblind,” they can think that referring to people by their racial identifiers is racist.

What are the effects of this? From Black colleagues, we learned that their race-conscious children who had been raised to recognize, discuss, and analyze race and its associated qualities were silenced by their peers and teachers in discussions of race.

One colleague’s son, after referring to a Black person as “Black,” was hushed by a peer and told “That’s racist!” This also occurs in instructional interactions when children of color speak about race and racism. When they are silenced, what becomes invisible is their racial literacy and fluency, their advanced and sophisticated knowledge.

More than just students blister at direct discussions of race in classrooms. Teachers also frequently steer clear of discussions having to do with race.

A teacher candidate once consulted with Debi after two Black students in her science class critiqued a Bill Nye video as racist.

The students’ critique rested on their judgment that the film featured fewer people of color than White people. The teacher candidate expressed trepidation about how to handle this accusation, especially as she saw nothing “blatantly racist” in the film. She wondered how she could convey to the students that their critique was inappropriate.

These everyday occurrences affect the health and vibrancy of classrooms.

In addition to silencing students, they fail to leverage and mine the racial fluency and expertise that some students, especially students of color, can bring. Further, students whose racial fluency is undeveloped lose out on critical opportunities to speak directly about race and racism, to practice having substantive discussions about inequality, and to construct, together, a pluralistic society.

We argue teachers should model interest and engagement in the child’s thinking. When students use racial identifiers, teachers should perk up, as this is a sign that their students are bringing reservoirs of knowledge about race to this discussion. This knowledge is a rare and precious resource.

When students launch racialized critiques, this shows their teachers that they have reservoirs of knowledge about oppression.

Recognizing students’ reservoirs of racial knowledge for what they are—assets to be built upon for learning—is in the interest of the child and the learning community.

When we silence these discussions, we uphold normative ways of being that support White supremacy.

Simona Goldin teaches courses pertaining to the sociology, history, and policy of schooling in the U.S. She conducts research on ways to transform the preparation of beginning teachers to help them teach in more equitable ways and has elaborated the teaching practices that bridge children’s work in schools on academic content with their home and community-based experiences. 

Debi Khasnabis is a clinical associate professor of education and the chair of elementary teacher education at the University of Michigan School of Education. She teaches courses focusing on multicultural and multilingual education and conducts research on pedagogies of teacher education that support the development of culturally responsive teaching and understandings of inequality in schools.

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