Facing discussions around identity and race in the secondary classroom

By - Bruno Andrade

Conversations about identity, racism and oppression in class can be quite complex. Especially for white teachers who may feel insecure about their standpoint of speech, which puts them in a place that often might feel as uncharted territory. It is even more complex for black teachers to discuss racial issues in predominantly white schools. The support from family, faculty and staff is crucial to allow black teachers to start difficult conversations with learners of all ages. It is quintessential, however, that all teachers feel confident leading discussions on racial issues because learners of color need to be in a space where they can cultivate a strong identity so that they can enter the world feeling good about themselves.

You may think that secondary learners aren't ready to discuss racism but in fact they are just confused. It's our job as teachers to show them that we are all affected by history. We are affected not only by the history we were taught, but also - and most importantly - by the history we weren't taught. Learning in a rich racial diversity context tends to provide constructive and healthy perceptions concerning individuals of other races1. Such interactions help to reduce intergroup anxiety and lessen the possibility of being discriminated against.

However, non-white students report experiencing prejudice and discriminations even in schools that promote intergroup connections2. This is especially true for those younger students who are transitioning from primary school to secondary because they don't possess the capability to identify oppressive behavior, respond and adapt instantly, and may lack language proficiency and racial awareness to go engage in racialized experiences.

Each year our secondary learners enter our classrooms craving for opportunities and tools to get to know more about themselves, and to understand why they react the way they react to everything they experience at school. Only by learning who they are, will kids learn that regardless of their skin color they matter, they are beautiful and they need to fight so that everyone is treated the same way. In his famous poem "Self Reliance" Ralph Waldo Emerson vividly reminds us that "To be yourself in a world that is constantly asking you something else is the greatest accomplishment".

Secondary learners are curious and inquisitive young people. How might we, as teachers, access their curiosity to help them understand and dismantle racialized systems? Whenever we deal with racial issues in class, it's crucial that black kids feel good about themselves. It's about looking at differences with an added value to who we are. If white children can feel good about themselves and their bodies, why can't black kids too? Social justice in schools is about black joy. Thus we need to be mindful of the fact that most of us live in countries that have no desire to black freedom, where every possibility is against people of color. Some teachers may feel we don't have to racialize every discussion, but we do. And we must do it because race is a form of social organization and it affects us all.

Here are some suggestions that may help you face discussions around race in class:

● De-stress before or during a discussion about race!
If your body is not calm, then your mind can't be calm. Whenever you plan on talking about racial issues, allow your students time to de-stress by doing some mindfulness activities such as deep breathing and focusing on the air when we inhale and exhale.

● Check your level of discomfort
Before engaging in conversations about race, analyse your own level of discomfort and your knowledge about it. Make it clear to your students that becoming anti-racist citizens is both a goal and a process. Tell them that becoming socially just people can be a lifelong process and that we are always learning, and that you will be learning together. Introduce less complex topics at first and from the beginning, present and use accurate terminology. At the same time, do not sugarcoat or simplify language or concepts. Defining words and the language of race and bias can be one of the first things you do which can include differentiating prejudice, bias, discrimination, racism and implicit bias.3

● Learn about race related trauma
When secondary learners of color don't feel seen, when they feel left out we called it interpersonal trauma. Interpersonal trauma is materialized in microaggressions that may lead to stereotypical and colonized perspectives that take students of color as being lazier, not as bright, and not being able to comprehend what white children can. A second kind of trauma is generational trauma which is often associated with black and brown bodies (e.g post-traumatic slave disorder). Research on epigenetics has proven that not just our DNA but also our historic experiences affect how trauma may or may not present. Although we don't usually associate generational trauma as existing in white bodies, it's important, in the context of racial conflict, to consider what predispositions or generational trauma have been passed on that we might misconstrue as culture. To quote Resmaa Menakam: "In order for black bodies to heal from their trauma, white bodies will need to begin to assume some of that burden and some of that pain".4 So, how can your classroom and your school become a place where that begins to happen?

● Create safe places, relationships and practices
Secondary students need to feel they can talk about racial issues. In order to feel safe to discuss complex issues around race, they need to believe that teachers are willing to meet them at what they're experiencing. Include students in your decisions and although it may seem it's not your place to lead every discussion on racial topics, it is your place to show leadership by starting these conversations, nurturing a culture that allows them to take place and facilitating the discussion to ensure that no student ever feels devalued in your classroom.

● Race talks
Share the load. Involve the whole school community in talks about race. Call ou black teachers, black students and black parents to give their testimony. Explain why black people tend to be exotizied and fetishized. Explore the concepts of intersectionality and why people of color may neglect their blackness. Discuss white privilege and systemic racism, and how they impact everyone's lives. Continuously engage your secondary learners in debates about diversity and social justice.

● Change the way the word racism is used
We are all racists because we are products of a racist society. Therefore we need to change the way we use the word racism. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is a descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it - and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unbearable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction. Change your perspective: start seeing the word racism as a descriptive rather than an adjective.

● Avoid tokenizing a particular student (or group of students)
Make sure you treat your students as individuals, and not as representatives of their race or a specific racial group. Never call upon students of color to represent the opinion of that particular group. That black kid in your class is not an expert on slavery or civil rights.

● Avoid using racism as a way to shut down the conversation
The idea of race as a term can be applied to all action and words. Racism should never be used as a way to end conversations. The idea around some degree of neutrality and inaction can be tackled by asking yourself some questions:
- How do we resist the false idea of good people on all sides?
- How to avoid giving a platform of legitimacy to intolerant ideas that do not adhere to your school's values?
- What does DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) really mean in your school?

Working on our secondary learners' identity and educating them to see the diversity in the world as a positive thing is the biggest treasure we teachers can offer. James Baldwin claimed that education occurs within a broader social context that impinges on its content, shapes its aims and ends, and in some ways contorts its overall purpose. According to him, the whole process of education happens within a social-historical and cultural framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of the society. This is precisely the paradox of education! Through education, one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which one is being educated. The purpose of education, thus, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for themselves. To make their own decisions. To say whether something is socially just or oppressive, biased or just, if there is a bigger energy that drives us all, to ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions. According to James Baldwin (1963) this is the way we achieve our own identity. Are you allowing your secondary students to embrace their own identity? What about your own?


Bruno Andrade is an English teacher at Avenues: The World School, a graduate teacher at Estacio and he is currently enrolled as a PhD student at UFRJ. Bruno has recently published a series of 4 ELT textbooks for StandFor/FTD called Our Languags. He is also the creator of BrELT and a former PR coordinator for the Young Learners and Teenagers Special Interest Group at the IATEFL.

1OECD (2012), Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools, OECD Publishing. Accessed on Feb 15, 2021.

2Cole, D. (2007). Do interracial interactions matter? An examination of student-faculty contact and intellectual self-concept. The Journal of Higher Education, 78(3), 249-281.

3Guide for Navigating Difficult Conversations on Race Accessed on February 15, 2021.

4The University of Arizona. Resmaa Menakem on Why Healing Racism Begins With the Body Accessed on February 15, 2021.