Educators for Change: Marginalization and Anti-Racist Curriculum in the Classroom

Introduction by series curator Dr. Lata Murti, associate professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Global

Little girl taking online classes
Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

“Educational institutions are the ONE thing that we all do for 13 years,” writes Dr. Trinity Davis in her contribution to this series. But our experiences of these institutions differ widely according to race, class, and gender. Black students find that their white counterparts are more prepared for school and tend to experience more academic success throughout their K-12 education. Meanwhile, social class differences — which often intersect with racial differences — also determine students’ academic readiness and progress, with students in lower socioeconomic classes struggling to achieve scholastic success. Gender also compounds these differences, as teachers tend to underestimate girls’ ability to succeed, particularly in math and science, no matter their race or class.

These disparities among PK-12 students are well-documented, especially as the current pandemic has forced students to learn online from home, where Internet access is often dependent on the interplay of class, race, and gender in their individual households. At the same time, little is known about the effects of these disparities on PK-12 teachers, particularly teachers of color. The national spotlight on student outcomes and achievement has rendered educators’ experiences of race, class, and gender nearly invisible. Perhaps it is no wonder then that since the 1990s, the overwhelming majority of U.S. teachers (more than 70%) have continued to be white women, even as the proportion of K-12 students of color has grown to nearly 50% and is expected to increase in years to come.

Nevertheless, as the George Floyd protests of late May 2020 turned the nation’s attention to the racism embedded in its institutions, calls for more explicitly anti-racist education reverberated throughout all levels of academe — with the recognition that colleges and universities must not only prepare future teachers to adopt and promote an anti-racist curriculum but must also recruit and retain more teachers of color. But what does this look like in practice? Namely, what does it mean to be an anti-racist educator? And how do BIPOC educators experience, practice, and embody anti-racist education differently from white educators?

The five essays in this series address these questions, exploring some of the various forms anti-racist education can take. One innovative form Dr. Hawani Negussie suggests an Institutional Cultural Review Board in institutions of higher education, which would ensure that the proposed curriculum is responsive to all students’ cultures, but particularly marginalized cultures. For Dr. Negussie, culturally responsive education is inclusive of the diverse experiences that inform students’ identities and expressions; and it begins in college and university settings. It is this setting, after all, that educates the future teacher for the PK-16 classroom. The board could also lead to more Black and Brown teachers in PK-12 classrooms, where, Dr. Negussie emphasizes, BIPOC teachers are sorely lacking, and Black students pay the price.

Dr. Trinity Davis knows that price firsthand. In her contribution to this series, she poignantly recalls her own miseducation on Black people and the Black experience, as well as having to engage in self-education to learn Black history. “But what happens to Black students with no opportunity to learn about their history?”, she asks. An alarming lack of pride and self-esteem, she notes, based on research and her own experience as a Black educator in public schools. Dr. Davis responded to the need for K-12 education to address the Black experience by founding and leading a non-profit organization focused on the recruitment and retention of Black teachers in public schools. For Dr. Davis, more Black teachers in the K-12 classroom are key to anti-racist education that benefits not just Black students but all students.

Dr. Robert Simmons agrees. However, in his contribution, he focuses specifically on the need for more Black male teachers in K-12 classrooms. It is a need that not only helps Black students and their educational outcomes, he discovered, but also helps Black male teachers experience an acceptance and love they do not readily receive from society at large. Dr. Simmons conversed with three Black male K-12 teachers and learned that not only do their Black students, especially Black boys, benefit from their presence, but they themselves benefit from the bonds they form with Black students. Black male teachers are healers, Dr. Simmons writes, who are formalizing their healing in and through a growing number of organizations designed to recruit and retain more Black men in K-12 schools. For Dr. Simmons, anti-racist education lies in the greater visibility of Black male teachers in the K-12 classroom.

Teachers’ K-12 classroom experiences also inform Ms. Dinorah Hudson, Dr. Irena Nayfeld, and Dr. Yana Kuchirk’s contribution to this series. The authors interviewed more than 30 PK-12 teachers in New York City to find out how their ethnic-racial experiences shaped their identities and their teaching. What they learned is that the one-on-one interview format itself inspires anti-racist education as it asks teachers to reflect on their classroom practices. In the interviews, both white and BIPOC teachers began to recognize the ways they reinforce dominant ideologies that marginalize underrepresented students, while also noting the ways they use their racial identities and experiences to disrupt these ideologies and center BIPOC perspectives. More than just interviews, however, the authors emphasize that to practice anti-racist education consistently, teachers need ongoing, effective training in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Part of this training could take place in teacher education, Dr. Tami Lincoln suggests. In her contribution, Dr. Lincoln explains the importance of teaching future K-12 educators how to practice anti-racism through children’s literature. Drawing on her experience designing and teaching an online course on children’s literature to undergraduate students pursuing teaching credentials, Dr. Lincoln demonstrates that learning how to select and evaluate multicultural children’s literature is not enough.

Future K-12 teachers must engage in critical questioning that requires them to plan how they would thoughtfully integrate this literature into their pedagogy, in ways that disrupt traditional narratives, and show, not just tell, students how to be anti-racist. For anti-racist education to be effective in the K-12 classroom, Dr. Lincoln argues, educators must embody anti-racism, not just teach it.

Lata Murti is an associate professor of sociology for University of Massachusetts Global, where she received the 2015 Outstanding University Faculty of the Year Award. She is also a member of the 2019–2021 Editorial Board of Spark in addition to being co-editor of Gender, Race, and Class in the Lives of Today’s Teachers — Educators at Intersections, forthcoming from Springer Press. Her dissertation, With and Without the White Coat: The Racialization of Southern California’s Indian Physicians, won the 2015 Dissertation.Com Annual Excellence Award and has been published as both an electronic and paperback book.