7 Fantastic Tips from Youth on How to Teach and Talk About Racism

A group of older students stands together, smiling happily into the camera.

A group of older students stands together, smiling happily into the camera.

We need to talk about race and our education system.

“But I don’t see race” can no longer be an excuse we use to avoid teaching youth about race, racism, and anti-Blackness. Racism and anti-Blackness as institutional systems are set up for White and light-skinned people to thrive, while people of color, especially dark-skinned people of color, are oppressed.

This is called benefiting from White Supremacy.

Wait a minute – what does this have to do with our education system?

The reality is that children are also benefactors of racism, and thus, participate in unintentional acts of racism and anti-Blackness.

I know this for two reasons: First, because most of my insight in this article comes from conversations with my 11-year-old sister, Ashley, and my 12-year-old brother, Diego. Second, because I was that age once, and I can point to instances where I experienced racism in school, and instances where I – unintentionally – perpetuated anti-Blackness.

One of the ways in which society dismisses racism is in thinking that we are living in a post-racial world because we have a Black president. In fact, that was one of the beliefs my younger siblings had – until they unfortunately lived through their first major racial interaction with a policeman.

Just because we have a Black president, that doesn’t mean we are post-race. And if we teach our youth that we’re post-racial, we’re doing a big disservice to the people they interact with on a daily basis – whether it be their teachers, counterpart classmates, or younger children who look up to them as mentors.

Recently, I was wearing a t-shirt by artist Micah Bazant that read, “Stop Killing Black People.” My younger brother asked me if it had anything to do with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

I replied yes, and began to talk to him about the shirt, and our role as Afro-Indigenous migrants in the United States.

What came from this conversation, I never expected. My 12-year-old brother said, “I wish we talked about racism in school.”

Pay close attention: This is a 12-year-old mixed-race youth, who feels that his education system disregards a major issue that people of color face every single day of their lives.

A few weeks later, I called my siblings. During a 2-hour conversation about race, my younger sister explained to me that she’s never talked to someone else about racism, and that she wished she knew how to talk about it.

When I asked them if they found it awkward, my brother said, “It’s not awkward to talk about race, it’s just that we have never been asked.”

For the remainder of this article, I want to invite you – my fellow educator, parents, guardians, and people who interact with youth on a daily basis – into a conversation about changing our education system.

With the insight of my sister, Ashley, and my brother, Diego, the two have composed a list of seven recommendations to re-create a culture that does not dismiss race, racism, and anti-Blackness in our K-12 education system.

1. Don’t Start at the Beginning, Start at the ‘Now’

When Diego and Ashley explained to me how they wanted to be taught about race, they made it clear that they didn’t just want a history lesson that goes back hundreds of years.

Diego believed that starting with #BlackLivesMatter (#BLM) would be perfect, because that’s what’s in the news. Since there’s so much controversy over it, they first want to know how #BLM began.

Knowing the story of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old youth who was shot dead outside a gas station in Florida, would place the classroom in a space of urgency.

Trayvon Martin was young, Trayvon Martin was just buying Skittles and iced tea, and most importantly, the event happened when they were alive.

Starting at #BLM allows youth to contextualize racism in a way that is not theoretical, or historical. Rather, racism is contemporary, but it is rooted in a legacy of anti-Blackness, genocide and White Supremacy, which will be learned only after #BLM is contextualized in a classroom.

2. Center Multimedia: Videos, Comic Strips, Posters

One of the most valuable suggestions – in my opinion – is to make conversations about racism and anti-Blackness interactive and not necessarily dull. To do this, we need to de-stigmatize the conversation.

How? By letting youth know that racism and anti-Blackness is not their fault.

What I mean is that growing up, I was often forced to feel that racism was my fault by counterpart White and non-Black classmates, who would try to tell me that I was just “sensitive,” and to not make everything about me.

In fact, the reality is that it’s not the emotions of people of color that are to blame, but the institutional violence that people of color face every single day for not being White, or light-skinned.

Trust me, youth are open to these conversations, and the conversations won’t traumatize them if we frame their participation in racism and anti-Blackness as the result of a violent culture.

Instead of shying away from courageous conversations with youth, we should be empowering them to think of ways that they can change their own world. And part of it is educating them in the ways that they want: using multimedia.

It’s okay for youth to watch videos created by other youth on these topics, especially because the videos might serve as a platform of how other youth are talking and thinking through racial inequalities in the US, and the world.

Multimedia is a helpful way to think through these problems because the production of art, music, and writing allows youth to know that race, racism and anti-Blackness are not taboo issues, and that other people have begun to do the hard work already.

Simply put, it means that they don’t have to carry the burden of being the only ones talking about ending a system of racism and anti-Blackness.

3. Include Speakers Who Have Experienced Racism in the Conversation

When I was asking Ashley who she wanted to hear from, she looked at me as if I was asking her a silly question.

“Someone who’s experienced racism,” she replied.

For her, the answer was simple. But in a lot of classrooms, especially in K-12 education, hearing from people who are directly impacted by racism and anti-Blackness does not happen.

Personal stories are key components of re-creating culture, because it allows for individuals to dialogue, and to directly name a problem, and think creatively about solutions.

As I reflect, Ashley’s answer was not only informative, but it was also an urgent call to action: Youth aren’t being asked how they want to be taught, and we must center their needs in our school curriculums, because if we don’t, we’re doing them a disservice.

4. Speakers Who Have Unintentionally Participated in Racism Should Also Share

Following the previous point, Ashley and Diego made it clear that as well as hearing someone talk about their experience of racism, it would be beneficial to hear someone talk about when they have been racist, or anti-Black.

When a youth hears an adult publicly say, “I was being racist without realizing it,” youth understand that racism is more than just calling someone a racial slur.

In fact, racism becomes an everyday reality, which helps debunk the myth that children can’t be racist, and the myth that people who “don’t see color” exist.

Hearing someone speak of their unintentional participation in racism and anti-Blackness opens dialogue where White students and light-skinned Asian, Latinx, Black, and Indigenous students can also reflect on how they may at some point have perpetuated racism and/or anti-Blackness.

It’s good for youth to see their teachers, parents, guardians, mentors and relatives reflect on past mistakes, because it builds a sense of trust, and allows for some of the educational hierarchies to dismantle a little, which therefore, allows students to be heard.

5. Integrate Racism and Anti-Blackness Discussions in Social Studies Classes

So, my siblings and I had a long conversation about racism and anti-Blackness, but since I don’t really know how their school works, I had to ask: “Should there be a new class?”

Both Ashley and Diego replied, “No.”

Honestly, I was a little shocked because from my experience, I didn’t really see this type of conversation fitting in a traditional history class. So I asked, “Where, then?” And to my surprise, they said, “Social studies class.”

I was surprised because the only time I can remember having social studies class was in the sixth and seventh grade. I don’t even remember what we learned!

My siblings explained that social studies classes should be addressing racism and anti-Blackness, because if it shows up in the everyday, then it must show up in other cultures and countries.

To get a better understanding of the structure of racism and anti-Blackness, students need to see how it shows up around the world.

Plus, as Ashley mentioned, “it would make me want to pay extra attention in class.”

However, what Diego and Ashley have helped me understand is that racism and anti-Blackness should not just be addressed in social studies classes, but in every class, because real life racial interactions can occur at any moment.

Math, science, and technology teachers do not get a pass on omitting conversations about racism and anti-Blackness, because the truth is that people of color, especially Black womyn, are already marginalized in these professions.

So if there’s an opportunity to talk about racism and anti-Blackness outside of a social studies class, the educator should take it – it’ll enrich the classroom, and create a safer space for students of color.

6. Race and Ethnicity Should be Taught Every Year From 6th-12th Grade

Once I asked them how long they wanted their social studies classes to tackle on issues of racism and anti-Blackness, Diego said he’d be fine with “just one year.”

Ashley, however, thought otherwise. “We need to have it every year,” she explained, and partly because racism and anti-Blackness took years to form and institutionalize themselves, so there’s a lot of unpacking to do.

However, in Ashley’s ask for learning about racism and anti-Blackness every year starting in sixth grade, I saw another ask: The need for them to continue with social studies classes, and not end them post seventh-grade.

Now, this is another article, but perhaps, our education system can re-evaluate the necessity of maintaining a strong social studies curriculum, and developing an ethnic studies curriculum at the grade school level.

As students get older and learn more about the world, racism and anti-Blackness will take on different forms, and they’ll need ongoing conversations to apply anti-racism to their developing worldview.

7. Let Students Know That Racism Is Not Their Fault – And That Anyone Can Change Culture

And finally, students should know that they are not the ones to be blamed for the existence of racism and anti-Blackness.

Students of color need to know that their existence is not the reason why racism and anti-Blackness exist. They also need to know, however, that being of color doesn’t mean that they can’t participate in anti-Blackness.

On the same hand, White and light-skinned students should not feel that racism and anti-Blackness are their fault, because these things are institutional. The students should, however, understand that they benefit from these institutions, but that they can show up, and develop anti-racist worldviews. 

Teacher, parents, guardians, and/or mentors should be able to name times when they have benefited from racism and/or anti-Blackness, and how to use their privilege to show up for people of color.

This will show students that, even when they’re taking personal responsibility for their role in racist systems, it’s not about calling them a bad person. It’s actually empowering them to know they can help make a big change through personal action.

Even more, when students of color witness White and light-skinned adults standing up against racism and anti-Blackness, students are able to understand that a better future is possible for them.

Talking about racism and anti-Blackness should never be about putting the blame on one person, but on recognizing that a system exists, and that everyday reflection on our personal participation is necessary to end the system that oppresses both our peers and ourselves.

***

Being in grad school has made me reflect a lot on my education, and I seriously wish that I thought in the way that my siblings do.

Their recommendations should not be taken lightly – these recommendations are demands that my siblings came up with not by themselves, but by everyday, casual conversations they have with their friends.

Youth voices are powerful, and they should be at the forefront of the ways in which education policy is crafted, how curriculums are developed, and the different needs that students have.

Commit with me to share this article with fellow educators, parents, mentors, and relatives of youth, so that we can begin to think of ways to incorporate the recommendations listed above in our own districts.

Alan Pelaez Lopez is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and an Afro-Indigenous migrant that grew up in Boston via La Ciudad de México, documenting their existence as an (un)docuqueer poet, jewelry designer, and a huge Frida Kahlo fan. Alan is currently in graduate school pursuing a degree in Comparative Ethnic Studies in the Bay Area, and a member of Familia: Trans, Queer Liberation Movement