Encouraging Conversations about Race and Culture

Recently I was asked to lead a workshop on differentiated instruction. Although this topic was not new to me, I decided to come at it from a different perspective and focus on racial differences within the differentiated classroom. Within this workshop I emphasized that a very important aspect of differentiated instruction is to know the learner. In the past, my focus on knowing my students considered their academic strengths and areas of need as well as what their preferences were in regard to learning styles and interests. Over the past couple of years, however, I have become increasingly aware of the need to celebrate the differences that students in my classroom have in terms of race and culture.

Race can be defined as “any one of the groups that humans are often divided into based on physical traits regarded as common among people of shared ancestry” (Merriam-Webster). Culture is “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group” (Merriam-Webster). It can be determined by how we express ourselves, how we live out our faith, and how we see things. Culture is not based on physical characteristics but rather on a person’s way of life. Together, culture and race make up our identities, and it is our identity markers that shape how we perceive the world and how the world perceives us. 

Racism is defined as “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” (Merriam-Webster). Consequently, racism is something learned, as a set of behaviors and attitudes in daily interactions (Brookfield 211). Although we may not intentionally hold racist thoughts, racism can be a part of the values and beliefs that we learn and assimilate over our lifetime and that make up our perspective on the world (Brookfield 211). Unconscious bias may lead us to racist behaviors that we may not even be aware of, which come into play as we unintentionally make judgements or show support toward others based on their race and/or their culture. Racism is also not limited to one’s individual perspective, but it can affect entire systems, structures, and institutions that hold the power to make decisions (Tisby 49), affecting individuals in all settings in which they live their lives. Those who have been subjected to racism have described their experience as “the accumulation of racial microaggressions over one’s lifetime—some have referred to this as ‘death by a thousand cuts’—that contributes to the deleterious impact of racial microaggressions on one’s well-being” (Kim para. 9). 

Since racism is a learned behavior, it can be challenged, and new behaviors and attitudes can be learned,

Brookfield 223

Since racism is a learned behavior, it can be challenged, and new behaviors and attitudes can be learned (Brookfield 223). It is within this framework that I would like to challenge our practices of listening and speaking in the classroom. To do this, I start by writing about ways in which we can think about knowing ourselves as instructors and then knowing our students. What follows is an invitation to be a critically reflective educator and to apply critical reflection to our practice as a way to encourage conversations about race and culture.

Knowing Ourselves as Instructors

Racial privilege has shaped and continues to shape experiences of educators from dominant cultures and requires an ongoing journey of de-centering. Reflecting on one’s racial identity is an important part of understanding another’s racial identity. I am aware that the way I learn and participate in racial and/or cultural identity is very specific to my own experience, and yet, as a woman with white skin, this is something that I have done very little of. Considering one’s racial identity, however, is a regular practice for those of color (Tisby 41). Racism functions at multiple levels—individual, group, and institutional. Although I am not intentionally racist, I am advantaged in inherently racist systems. There are things that I have done or have been a part of that have been racist, and I belong to a race that for much of history represents the oppressors. As a teacher, I have been in classrooms where whiteness has been made to be the standard by using only dolls, toys, and books in which white children are represented, and where adhesive bandages are used that only match white skin. Whether intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious, racism is still racism. 

I can’t stress enough how important it is to create a safe environment for students to share about their own racial identities and experiences. Recently, a friend shared with me a hurtful experience that her son had when he was in high school. A teacher came up to him and asked him where he was from. When he informed this teacher that he was from a neighboring town, the teacher asked again, “No, where are you from?” Being of Asian descent, this teacher assumed that this student must have come from a different country. The fact, however, was that this student, with Asian features, was born and raised in Canada. Although the question asked by the teacher was not meant to be hurtful or racist, it was. Without having built a relationship with the student or having provided a safe environment, the seemingly innocent question created a hurtful and racist interaction.

Without having built a relationship with the student or having provided a safe environment, the seemingly innocent question created a hurtful and racist interaction.

Becoming self-aware of the ways we learn and participate in a racial and/or cultural identity is important and challenging (Ramsay 20). For instructors in the dominant culture, confronting the evidence of racial privilege found in course and curricular development can be especially humbling (Ramsay 22). When we consider that racism is defined by “an interlocking system of advantage based on race that function[s] at individual, group, institutional, and cultural/symbolic levels” (Ramsay 21), “coming to terms with how pervasively privilege has and continues to shape our experience is an ongoing journey of de-centering” (Ramsay 20).

Knowing Our Students

As our classrooms become more racially and culturally diverse, there is a greater chance to encounter students who do not belong to the dominant culture and therefore are more likely to experience the pain of racism (Ramsay 20). Providing students with the opportunity to become familiar with each other’s racial and cultural heritage through speaking and listening can be the start of creating a more inclusive and safe environment for brave conversations where all student voices are valued and respected. As educators who are challenging our own practices of listening and speaking, it is important to provide space for students to share their own stories and to have a posture of openness when those who have experienced injury by current practices voice their pain. Together with our students, we need to consider ways in which we can support and foster these spaces for truth and reconciliation.  [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Works Cited

Anderson, James and Maurianne Adams. “Acknowledging the Learning Styles of Diverse Student Populations: Implications for Instructional Design.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, vol. 49 (1992):19–33.

UM RhetLab. “Frameworks for Reflective Writing.” UM RhetLab, https://courses.lumenlearning.com/olemiss-writing100/chapter/frameworks-for-reflective-writing/. 

Brookfield, Stephen D. “Applying Critical Reflection to Teaching Race and Racism.” Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017, pp. 207–24. 

Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/. 

Kim, Paul Y. “How a Pad-Mounted Transformer and Stair Spindle Help Me Teach about Racial Microaggressions.” Christian Scholar’s Review, 23 Apr. 2021, https://christianscholars.com/guest-post-how-a-pad-mounted-transformer-and-stair-spindle-help-me-teach-about-racial-microaggressions/. Accessed 25 Apr. 2021. 

Mouw, Richard J. “World-Viewing.” Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction. Eerdmans, 2011, pp. 90–94.

Ramsay, Nancy J. “Teaching Effectively in Racially and Culturally Diverse Classrooms.” Teaching Theology and Religion, vol. 8, no. 1 (2005): 18–23, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9647.2005.00220.x. 

Tisby, Jemar. “How to Explore Your Racial Identity.” How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice. Zondervan, 2021, pp. 39–62. 

Dr. Edith van der Boom is Assistant Professor of the Philosophy of Education and the Practice of Pedagogy as well as Director of the Master of Arts in Philosophy in Educational Leadership at the Institute of Christian Studies in Toronto, Ontario. With over thirty-four years of experience as an educator in both K–8 schools and university settings, she acknowledges that she has benefited from privileges due to the white color of her skin and is on a journey to become more aware of the racial and cultural injustices within our world and specifically in our classrooms.