If You Think Racism is Too Political For Your Classroom, Think About What Your Silence Says

By: Sonja Cherry-Paul

Photo: Megan Soule

Dear Educator,

So you’ve tweeted, and retweeted, and shared articles and inspirational quotes, and posted your expressions of disbelief and despair about Charlottesville. I have one question. “What are you going to do now?”

In a few short weeks, you’ll be back in your classroom greeting new students. Ready to start the next school year. If you do not address my question, reconcile within your mind the actions you will take as you step onto one of the most powerful platforms of your students’ lives, I fear that you will simply move along with math, art, science, music, social studies, PE, English or whatever content area(s) you teach. I fear that you still do not recognize the curriculum we ALL must teach. If, on that very first day of school, you stand before your students to deliver the typical speech of, “I’m excited about the work we’ll accomplish this year,” and, “Let’s review the expectations/routines/rules for our class,” then you still are missing the point.

Have I made you angry? Perhaps. I’m angry. Anger is an appropriate reaction to what we’ve just witnessed in Charlottesville. And anger is also an appropriate reaction to the inaction of educators, particularly White educators, who respond to the violent rise of and support for racism, hate and bigotry with, at most, tweets, likes, and shares. These “best intentions” do not count, and are similar to silence. Doing nothing and thinking something will change — let’s unpack this approach. The White supremacists in Charlottesville were once children who sat in classrooms with teachers whose focus was math, science, art, social studies, English, PE, or some other content area. It’s likely that discussions about race, racism, White supremacy, hatred, and injustice were far and few between if they occurred at all.

I may have lost a few of you by now. Those who feel that I’m somehow blaming White educators for White supremacy, rest assured, I’m not. I’m simply saying that the approach we’ve been using long before Charlottesville, long before Ferguson, isn’t enough.

If you believe that discussions about racism and White supremacy are political and shouldn’t occur in school, please take a few moments to read Bob Probst’s post on twitter. Teaching is a political act. From the texts we choose to read in the classroom to the ones we don’t; to the holidays we choose to acknowledge and those we ignore, teachers make decisions each day that are inherently political. Schools have been expected to be a moral compass for students since their inception. In my experience, White educators are “all-in” for work with students on bullying and social/emotional learning, but are reluctant to address racism. The research supports this observation. And yet, silence about racism is not neutral; it too is political.

Here’s the bottom line. We can’t change what we won’t confront. So if we really want to stamp out racism and hatred, we’ll act. It’s that simple. Here are a few thoughts about how to start:

  1. Do the work! You may think you know all about racism, but as I’ve just discussed, since schools traditionally have been silent around this issue, this means you too, have gone your whole life through K-12 schooling not really delving into much of anything about racism beyond historical contexts and in superficial ways that perpetuate canned narratives about people of color. But it is not the job of any person of color to teach you. Read! Here are three quick and easy resources from Franchesca Ramsey of MTV’s Decoded. But this is just a start. Do continue educating yourself.
  2. Listen! Listen to and think deeply about the experiences of people of color. It shouldn’t take a mob of White supremacists with Tiki torches to prove that racism is real. Listen to and learn the ways that racism operates, institutionally and systematically. Seek out and listen to the voices of First Nations people, African-Americans, Latinx, and Asian Americans in order to really understand that racism is more than isolated or individual acts of hate. Be careful not to make your voice and experience, and the privilege afforded to Whites in America, the center of the work.
  3. Plan! Prominent civil rights leader, esteemed congressional representative, and award winning author John Lewis has said that it’s time to tell the truth, the whole truth about the history of racism in America. What steps will you need to take to accomplish this truth telling in your classroom? In your school? Email your Superintendent, Principal, Assistant-Principal, Director of Curriculum and Instruction. Ask them about their plans to help you and your colleagues discuss Charlottesville. Ask for leadership and resources that can be used in the classroom. If they don’t hear from you, perhaps they too will resume the “business as usual” plan.
  4. Act! In the wake of Charlottesville, what will you say to students on their first day of school? Will you deliver the usual “first-day spiel?” Will you move forward with content rather than racial justice curriculum? Here are the first words I plan to say to my students in a few weeks:
“This year, our focus will be on racial justice, and it is the most important work we can do together. We will learn a great deal about reading and writing, but understanding how racism and injustice operates will be at the core of all we do. My vision for our classroom is that it is a safe space for us to have courageous conversations. I’ll need your help to make this vision a reality. When we discuss challenging issues, we are all going to make mistakes and this includes me. Sometimes, we won’t always know what to say, and I expect that we will mess up quite a bit without any intent to cause harm. We’ll need to give ourselves permission to do so. So the second thing I’m asking for is your patience. But I promise you that we will get better at these discussions over time.”

I’m still smoothing this out, but hopefully you can see how planning is essential to acting effectively.

All teachers should be ready to work, listen, plan, and act, but White educators hold a key role in making change. For one, the elementary and secondary educator workforce is overwhelmingly homogenous (82 percent white in public schools), and 8 out of 10 public school principals are White, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.

Just as important is this: In the words of my friend and colleague, Cornelius Minor, racism is a “White people problem” that gravely affects the lives of people of color. But “we (POC) didn’t create racism. We don’t benefit from it.” Hundreds of White supremacists marched in Charlottesville no longer hidden behind the hoods and robes of the past. In response, for the benefit of our students, our schools and our nation educators must answer the call to end racism and to begin in their classrooms starting on the very first day of school, and White educators should work, listen, plan and act. Our student deserve more than good intentions.


Sonja Cherry-Paul has taught 5th and 6th grade middle school students for more than fifteen years and is currently working to complete her doctorate in curriculum and teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has presented at conferences on reading instruction that makes central issues related to power and perspective and has provided professional development for numerous educators on the teaching of reading and writing. Sonja is a committee member for The Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, which acknowledges the work of authors and illustrators who promote peace and equality.

Follow Sonja on Twitter @LitLearnAct