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.

Additionally,

  • 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.

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