Here’s How Schools Can Promote Racial Literacy

Color-blindness is out! The focused approach to race relations should be race-consciousness or racial literacy: the ability to read, recast, and resolve racially stressful encounters when they happen. People of color can face challenges regarding race, class, privilege, and power and often find themselves on the receiving end of harmful microaggressions — those subtle but painful race-based slights.

Typically, these slights rise out of erroneous but widely shared views of people based on race, synonymous with the construct that I call, “immaculate perceptions” — and are designed, mostly subconsciously, to underscore dominant and subordinate cultures. The aim of acquiring and promoting racial literacy is to prepare children, parents and teachers to identify unfairness and become academically assertive. It becomes a reading practice, a way of perceiving and responding to the racial climate and racial structures that individuals encounter daily. The classroom is a perfect place to start to promote racial literacy in our schools.

When we gain racial literacy in any context, we have the ability to:

  • recognize,

  • name,

  • challenge, and

  • manage various forms of everyday racism.

Achieving racial literacy means understanding many interrelated concepts. One example of this would be the ability to analyze barriers to equal opportunity in education that could include institutional racism in K-12 schools, the achievement gap, income inequality and other factors.

Beginning racial literacy: Dispelling “immaculate perceptions” about race

Elementary-level students might not have the cognitive or critical thinking skills to understand racial disparities that are not surface level. It is a teacher’s job to help rid younger learners of incorrect beliefs surrounding race.

Teachers should:

  • Provide curriculum that details historical events surrounding racism as well as the governing ideas that allowed racist laws and policies to develop.


  • Teachers should educate students about equality so that they better understand the similarities that bind humans together rather than focusing on differences.

Racial literacy requires a certain level of critical thinking in order to be able to assess situations or texts for inequalities. As such, students must have the ability to think critically before they are able to become racially literate. If teachers plant the seeds of racial literacy in elementary school, assignments and processes can become progressively more complex as students move onto middle and high school.

As students begin to develop advanced reasoning skills, teachers can ask them to think critically about texts read in class that demonstrate racial or cultural bias. Initially, teachers can model this technique by giving students an example of a text that has been approached with a critical eye and been found to illustrate racial inequality. From there, teachers can ask students to approach texts — literary, media or other formats — from a critical standpoint and facilitate discussions on racial inequities.

Deconstructing racial issues in literature, social studies and history

Teaching racial literacy reaches across multiple academic subjects. English Language Arts teachers can have students read texts containing issues pertaining to race, while history and social studies teachers can approach instruction by dissecting race from a structural standpoint.

Obtaining racial literacy will help to prepare students to engage in social justice practices. When we stop avoiding it, when we stop pretending it’s not there, when we stop thinking that it’s not an issue that deeply affects schools, we can advance race relations within a genuine respect for the strengths of our diversity.

Teaching and promoting racial literacy allows us to provide an authentic, quality and empowering education that fosters ALL students a more healthy, safe and inclusive learning environment, and helps schools to provide a world-class 21st Century education.

How Do Parents Teach Racial Literacy?

As difficult as it is to raise children in America and to ensure that they have access to what they need to grow into healthy, successful adults, when your child is of a different race, extra challenges cannot be avoided.

Even before they start school, children absorb cultural messages about race, gender and privilege. This awareness impacts lives and influences African-American children’s self-concept, experiences in school and their worldview. Especially noteworthy is the way they interpret these messages from others and then determine their ‘place’ in the world. We can safely attribute this to the by-products of a societal construct called ‘race’ by which others systemically assign and ensure white privilege.

That privilege has led to an internalized belief of entitlement, and feeling of superiority that has been supported by a flawed imagery, inaccurate ‘facts’ and omitted historical truths regarding blacks in America and around the world. It is also reinforced by policies and practices that guide our everyday lives. Thus, we mustn’t think that racism is not systemic. Prevalent in our lives, though, African-Americans see it more clearly, the more it continues to be denied by the ‘privileged’ and ‘entitled’.

A ‘blaming the victim’ mindset emerges, and no one wants to be viewed as a victim. Still, unacknowledged inequities, no matter the subtleties, go on unaddressed and un-altered, as though we have not evolved or advanced in this country at all.

“Same sh.t- different day.”

The term “racial literacy, refers to a set of practices designed by parents to teach their children how to recognize, respond to and counter forms of everyday racism. The emphasis here is on teaching children as well as adults how to identify routine forms of racism and to develop strategies for countering it and coping. It is a form of racial socialization and training that parents of African-descent practice in their efforts to defend their children against racism.

I recently had an impromptu conversation with the mother of a son, a 15-year old adolescent, as she was speaking to him about the police treatment of African-American young men in her community and elsewhere. She was giving lessons in ‘etiquette’ for when he is confronted by law enforcement. The strategies were for ‘when’ not ‘if’ he was ever confronted by police. It’s seen as an inevitability. She briefly turned to me and said, ” No parent should have to teach this to their child.” She also said, “I can deal with an arrest, because whether right or wrong, he still has a fighting chance at life, but the death of my child is what I fear most. They treat us like criminals in school and out on the streets, too.”

” My child gets excellent grades, plays football and chess, and wants to go to college. He doesn’t want to be a rapper; he wants to be a lawyer. I just want him to make it out of this neighborhood alive. To white people who don’t know him, he is seen as just another ‘n’ word or a ‘thug’ .”  What could I say in response to her statements?

She was right. No parent should have to forewarn or forearm their child with coping skills to withstand negative and hurtful stereotypical messages, racial profiling, or police brutality. Implicit bias, racism and other expressions of intolerance, prejudices, or race-related ignorance that people exhibit can negatively impact self-esteem, diminish cultural pride, and may be internalized and surface as disengagement or anger. Worse than that is the real possibility of physical harm or death.

Although we live in a global village, and encounter diversity on a daily basis, people are still very disconnected . And, in an information-driven society, we aren’t accessing enough information to acquire an appreciation of cultural differences. Instead, we fear it, rage against it and view ‘different’ as inherently flawed.

So, parents offer strategies and teach coping skills to their children to protect them from the messages they may receive or the treatment they may become subject to from police or peers. When communicating with their child, a parent may take this tone and utilize the following approaches [also the most positive means to teach racial literacy]:


Make statements that affirm who the child is; embrace your child’s difference, and explain how his or her difference is a gift, not a liability even though not everyone will see it as a positive.


Promote emotional protection so your child can avoid internalization of harmful messages.

“Let me teach you about the world. Hurtful statements may come at you, and I want you to tell me when that happens, but let me be clear: those are problems with the people saying those things, not with you. It’s their issue, not yours.”


“You’ve got to counter the narrative. Look for opportunities around you. It could be cartoons. Do you notice that all the people making the decisions in this cartoon are male?”

Some people believe that racial equality has been achieved and issues surrounding racism only occur at the micro level. However, lightly digging at the surface immediately reveals policies, laws and other larger barriers that discriminate against people of color. Until w become an equal opportunity, non-discriminatory, non-prejudiced, culturally responsive nation of diverse ,  we must acquire racial literacy.  For now, we need to deconstruct racism in its many forms, promote the continued resilience of people of color and dispel incorrect assumptions about race.

African-American  parents at all income levels teach their children to navigate their lives with a critical lens. While motivating them to triumph over challenges, parents also prepare their children  for the oft negative perceptions and disparities that impact their lives. African-American parents know that their children will probably be misunderstood, underestimated, and extremely challenged to succeed. Determined to show the love, acceptance and support that only they can, wanting the very best for their children, they teach and raise racially literate resilient individuals. That’s the way parents teach racial literacy.

Next question: How can schools promote racial literacy? Please share your ideas!


A TOOLKIT for Educators: Engaging Families in Diverse School Communities

A new toolkit from Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Pacific is designed to help schools and district improve their outreach to families and community members. The four-part toolkit provides activities that guide school staff in examining the role that culture plays in their interactions with students’ families and community members.

The Toolkit of Resources for Engaging Families and the Community as Partners in Education can help school staff build relationships that support family well-being, build strong parent-child relationships, and improve students’ ongoing learning and development. The toolkit is divided into four parts, each including a series of activities that can be used with family and community members as well as other diverse cross-stakeholder groups. The activities involve reading, writing, discussions, and creative exercises using graphics, scenarios, worksheets, and planning templates.

Part 1: Building an understanding of family and community engagement guides school staff in building awareness of how their beliefs and assumptions influence their interactions with families and the community. It will also help users understand how knowledge about the demographic characteristics of families in their schools can inform staff about what might support or hinder family engagement with schools;

Part 2: Building a cultural bridge taps into the strengths of families and community members and helps families establish active roles in the school community in support of student learning;

Part 3: Building trusting relationships with families and the community through effective communication shows how cross-cultural and two-way communication enhances family and community engagement; and

Part 4: Engaging all in data conversations helps school staff learn which student data are important to share with families and community members and how to share such data in a meaningful way.

Find the guides at: