Teaching about Racism: Toward a Shared History and Common Language

by Alex Cuff

“White cops are racist,” a student said. It was September 2014, and we were discussing Ferguson in my third-period, tenth-grade ELA class.

“I hate white people,” another student asserted, holding my gaze.

A hush came over my class of 28 students as they studied my face, gauging how I, a white teacher at a predominantly black school in Brooklyn, would respond. It was the fourth day of school, and I hadn’t yet established any strong relationships with these students. My attempt to address the death of Michael Brown, and the response in Ferguson and around the country, wasn’t going as I’d hoped.

“Damn…that’s racist to say in front of Alex!” another student chimed in.

“No, it’s okay,” I assured them over the hum of other voices. “I don’t take it personally. And really, it’s not possible for a person of color to be racist toward a white person. I mean, in a way all white people are racist in the sense that we benefit from a racist system because we have white skin.”

The girl who said she hated all white people said, “So you agree that all white cops are racist?”

I thought about my uncle, who was a sergeant in New York City before he moved to Pontiac, Michigan, to take a job as police chief outside of Detroit. A few years later, he lost his job, claiming he was “diversified out” because a black man had replaced him. “Well, no…and yes.”

Despite the comfort I thought I had in facilitating discussions around race, I realized I didn’t have the language to talk about whiteness.  My efforts had stalled on the topic of racist cops, when I had wanted to facilitate a conversation about the connections between police violence and systemic racism in our country. I wanted students to be able to differentiate between interpersonal racism—which in my experience is often what high school students mean when they use the word racism—and institutional racism.

At the time, it was clear to me that my feelings of inadequacy reflected the collective inexperience of white people—in a time that is ridiculously referred to as post-racial—in talking about race. But it also become clear that my students and I lacked a shared vocabulary for the history of race in the United States, and this lack severely limited the conversations we could have about Ferguson.

Throughout the summer of 2014, educators and activists all over the country were compiling resources at #teachferguson to help teachers begin to talk about Ferguson with their students. Some school districts provided resources to their teachers while others suggested that teachers “change the subject” if Ferguson came up in class discussion. Although the New York City Department of Education (DOE) didn’t explicitly discourage teachers from having these conversations, it also didn’t provide resources or encouragement to support its 1,700 schools that serve 1.1 million students, over 85 percent of whom are people of color.

The DOE’s silence on Ferguson and related events from the summer of 2014 ended on December 3, the day that a Staten Island grand jury refused to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choke-hold death of Eric Garner; eight days after a grand jury refused to indict officer Darren Wilson in Michael Brown’s death; 11 days after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was murdered by officer Timothy Loehmann in Cleveland; and 13 days after Akai Gurley was shot to death by officer Peter Liang in the stairwell of the Louis H. Pink Houses, less than a mile from the high school at which I teach in East New York. On December 3, NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña sent an e-mail memo to principals with “suggestions for working with young adults around positive ways of expressing themselves during this time.” The language was vague and symptomatic of a larger problem: the refusal to name racism in a system plagued with its effects.

The memo included language like “in light of current events,” “to discuss their feelings,” “to respond to complex situations,” “current events can be a great learning experience,” and “ask your school staff to be extra vigilant throughout the day.” Days short of the four-month anniversary of Brown’s death, the DOE memo urged teachers to “teach Ferguson,” without ever mentioning the word race. This was not surprising from a system that offers no mandatory training around racism for its 70,000 teachers—60 percent of whom are white.

Talking about race as a white teacher is a skill that needs to be practiced. It necessitates an awareness of how one’s racial identity plays out in the classroom and school community. An ahistorical approach and a lack of precision in the language used to discuss race can result in conversations that reduce racism to charged interactions between individual white people and individual people of color. The memo points to a larger failure of schools—which are an extension of a white society that doesn’t have to talk about race—to equip all teachers to talk about race, and to ensure that white teachers are asked to critically examine the effects of their whiteness in relation to students of color.

September 2014 was not the first time I brought up race with my students. Over the past dozen years, I’ve used literature to open conversations about racism in my ELA classroom, using texts that focus on war and colonization to texts that examine anti-black racism in the United States. Through reading and discussing novels, short stories, poems, and essays by authors like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, students were able to explore the ways in which our constructed identities affect how we are treated by society and how this treatment impacts our lives.

As I prepared for the 2014–2015 year, I decided to ground my first unit in the events of Ferguson. Doing this meant that discussions of racism could not wait until we were getting to know the characters, conflicts, or themes in a work of fiction. I have faith in literature as a vehicle for exploring issues of race and power in the classroom, but often my classes’ discussions about literary texts had been confined to a hypothetical world of fictional characters. Past conversations on race were embedded in texts that offered a backwards glance: Morrison’s Beloved is set in 1873 and Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk in the early 1970s. While the lessons of those works remain cogent today, the period settings were remote to 15- and 16-year-old students. Nor had I given students the language or theoretical concepts necessary to make explicit connections between the racism that the characters face, the racism that the students face, and the racism they observe throughout the country. I wasn’t helping them move beyond an analysis that a certain character was racist or discriminated against because of their race. And so, when I brought Ferguson into my class, I raised an expectation—“let’s talk about race”—without introducing the historical context or the language to articulate how our collective experiences have been shaped by systems of oppression.

As a teacher, I think in terms of scaffolding. If students don’t know the parts of speech, I can’t jump into rhetorical analysis of sentence structure. I would need to ensure that students can differentiate a verb from a preposition before teaching them parallelism: they’ll be able to identify parallel structure on their own, but they won’t have the language to talk about what it’s doing. When my students asked if I believed that all white cops are racist, I found myself in a similar quandary. The students needed more context, and I needed more experience talking about racism and whiteness. We hadn’t built the shared vocabulary necessary to have productive conversations about Ferguson.

For the winter–spring 2015 semester, I designed an elective focusing on the history of race and racism in the U.S. In this foundation course, we read essays such as “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “On Racism and White Privilege from Teaching Tolerance, and several pieces found on Mia McKenzie’s blog Black Girl Dangerous. We watched clips of standup comedy: Louis CK on the benefits of being white and Aamer Rahman on why there is no such thing as reverse racism. We also watched videos about internalized racism made by students of color and read articles that debated whether black students should be taught exclusively by black teachers. We explored questions that students posed on the first day of the class: Why is there so much racism? Why do white people think they are better? If race isn’t real, why does racism exist? Have race relations really changed since the Civil Rights Movement?

Early in the semester, the students worked together to create two documents that we kept posted in the classroom during the remainder of our meetings. The first was a list of terms I asked them to define in their own words: race, racism, prejudice, ethnicity, white supremacy, interpersonal racism, institutional racism, internalized racism. This gave me a clear idea of how they were thinking about racism and how to use what they already knew to move forward. The second document was a “race timeline” spanning the 1600s through 2015. They filled in as much as they knew about anything related to race history in the US, and we then began the process of filling the gaps in our historical knowledge and refining our definitions by differentiating between terms.

In this pursuit, there were three essential resources: the PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion, my notes from the Undoing Racism workshops held by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB), and the Four I’s of Oppression framework. The documentary provides the social, economic, and political histories that supported the creation of systemic racism in our country. PISAB helped us clarify our definition for racism: 1. race prejudice plus power 2. a social construction biased in favor of people who have come to be called white. The Four I’s of Oppression is helpful in understanding how different types of oppression: 1) stem from ideology; 2) are built into the nation’s institutions; 3) affect people on an interpersonal level; and 4) take roots within individuals, in the case of racism, as either internalized racial superiority in whites or internalized racial inferiority in people of color. With reference to these four interrelated sites of oppression—ideological, institutional, interpersonal and internalized—we were able to think about the role of power in racism.

Using these resources, students learned about the historical construction of race and the ways in which those who were identified as white legally benefitted, resulting in the system of advantages for whites today. For example, students were outraged to learn that although black soldiers fought in World War II and were eligible for the GI Bill, they were unable to use the funding due to exclusionary practices in real estate (redlining) and education. After exploring such topics, students had a clearer understanding of what the “institutional” in institutional racism means.

We also shared stories about our earliest memories of racial identity awareness, as well as our family members’ views about and experiences of racism. As a white teacher, I wanted to name my whiteness in an effort to disrupt the idea that white is an unspoken and normalized state of being. I shared the story of first hearing the term “white privilege” when I was in my early twenties, after growing up in a racially segregated suburb of Long Island. Initially, I had rejected the term and clung to my working-class identity in an effort to deny the privilege I gained from my whiteness. I talked about the ways in which racism still lives in my family, and about how I’m learning to recognize it in myself and to talk about it.

By the end of the semester, we’d really just begun. But with a common language to talk about racism, a shared historical knowledge, and a sense of trust established through sharing stories about our own racial identities, we were able to have constructive conversations about questions and ideas that students brought to class.

In the wake of that semester, I was also able to make small adjustments to my ELA curriculum to deepen the conversations about racism that emerged through the course texts. We created a historical timeline for the play Fences in order to contextualize the Maxson family’s experiences in 1950s Pittsburgh within the history of slavery and Jim Crow. Students recognized conflicts in the Maxson family as examples of intergenerational trauma and were able to see Troy’s key conflicts as the direct result of institutional racism. We used postcolonial theory to analyze Langston Hughes’ 1956 short story “Passing”: students made the connection between the economic effects of the Great Depression on a black man living in Chicago and his decision to pass himself off as white as a relationship between institutional and internalized racism.

Another example of how having a shared language played a role in deepening students’ ability to have more nuanced conversations about race occurred in mid-April. The organization Facing History and Ourselves recommends teaching students the following terms to examine human agency in making history: resister, upstander, bystander, collaborator, perpetrator, and target. I had just introduced those terms in preparation to begin reading Night by Elie Wiesel, when Freddie Gray’s arrest and subsequent death sparked riots in Baltimore. We explored whether riots are an acceptable response to police brutality. Students read “Nonviolence as Compliance” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “What We Need to Understand about Freddie Gray and Baltimore” by Camonghne Felix; and working in groups, they identified the authors’ arguments and decided whether they agreed with the claims. Each group came to a consensus in matching the roles of the rioters, the protesters, Barack Obama, the police, and the mayor of Baltimore to the Facing History terms. There were disagreements on whether the police were collaborators or perpetrators, or whether Obama was an upstander or bystander. Having access to this language allowed for more complex analyses among students and for less reductive arguments during their discussions.

Learning to talk about race and racism with my students has been a challenging process, one fraught with challenges and errors. There were times when I avoided conversations in order to push through content, or because I simply lacked the energy or the courage that day. But I’ve also witnessed what can happen when we collectively uncover a shared history and common language; when we disrupt whiteness as a normalized state that doesn’t need to be considered during racialized conversations; and when we provide an historical anchor from which to understand how ideas of race and forms of racism have persisted, shifted, and mutated over the centuries. The process may be slow and messy, but if recent events have shown us anything, it is that ignoring this history only perpetuates the conditions that we have inherited.

This past year alone—from debates over the Confederate flag to the exposing of Rachel Dolezal to the shooting of five black activists by white supremacists in Minneapolis—there’s been an unfortunate surplus of teachable moments regarding the history of racism. As teachers, we have an obligation to incorporate these events into the curriculum and to facilitate conversations that will allow students to see these events in context, as part of a foundational history of oppression that continues to shape our lives. It is essential that these conversations include both students of color, who are most affected by racism; and white students, for whom much work awaits.Alex Cuff Photo_No credit opt

Alex Cuff
was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and grew up in the suburbs of Babylon, Long Island. She currently lives in Brooklyn, where she works as an instructional coach and reading teacher at a public 6–12 school. She is a co-founding editor of No, Dear, a journal featuring writing of New York City poets, and the advisor to Raven Press, a student-run small press that publishes hand-bound chapbooks out of the Academy for Young Writers in East New York. Her most recent writing can be found online in Apogee Journal and the Recluse, and is forthcoming in 6×6. Alex is a graduate of the Milton Avery School of the Arts at Bard College.


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