Expert Advice: How to Teach about Racism

Despite legislative changes that have made schools accessible to everyone, the mindsets of individuals who attend or work in schools have been slower to adapt and change. Racism has been prevalent for so many decades that once students are put together, racist attitudes will be present in the classroom and must be dealt with. One effective way this is currently being done is through the Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children, which was developed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The key here is to begin educating young children so the level of prejudice is significantly diminished as they move through grades beyond preschool or kindergarten.

Did you know that children as young as 2 years old are keenly aware of racial intolerance?

Research has found the following progression:

  • Age 2: Children are aware of gender differences and the various names for different skin colors around them.
  • Ages 3 to 5: Children begin to define themselves and who they are by comparing themselves to those of different gender and skin color.
  • Ages 4 or 5: Children begin to select friends on the basis of race and begin to recognize and take on the gender roles that society has promoted (Derman-Sparks, Tanaka Higa, & Sparks, 1980).

With conscious effort, racism can be curbed by slowing down or halting the development of biased attitudes and behaviors.

Teaching Tolerance is an example of a program used to address prejudice and intolerance among older children and teens. This program was created after a 1988 attack on an Ethiopian man by a group of teens in Portland, Oregon. It focuses on racism as a psychological attitude and aims to promote tolerance, which is the capacity to recognize and respect the beliefs and practices of other groups. The main goal of the program is to ensure the availability of resources and materials that promote and teach an understanding of race and culture between White and minority groups in all schools.

One of the primary problems facing teachers and educators today when teaching about racism and tolerance is the psychological impact of such teaching on White students. With the knowledge of racism and the role played in perpetuating it, students often experience feelings of guilt and shame. Because these are strong and undesirable emotions, it is far easier for teachers to avoid teaching about racism than deal with the feelings that accompany a topic that continues to be difficult to discuss. The key is to help the students produce a positive self-image in dealing with racism, and to promote feelings of allied relations as various minorities fight racism together. This will counter the feelings of guilt that come with the realization that racism continues to exist.

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