By Michael Turner Many different fields, ranging from medicine to astronomy, are putting the effort into addressing manifestations of injust...
By Michael Turner
Many different fields, ranging from medicine to astronomy, are putting the effort into addressing manifestations of injustice and racial inequality in their midst. There are also calls to address the same thing in our classrooms, from when the children are young enough to really absorb the lessons. These efforts will give students the ability to understand, analyze, and take part in the struggle to eliminate systems of oppression around them and bring about true equality for all.
Social justice education cuts right at the height of both our curricula and our pedagogy. That is, it covers both what we teach and how we teach it. While more and more teachers are bringing critical analysis of racial injustices to their classrooms, there is a need to do it effectively, and also to discuss what the implications of such an education are, its pros, and cons. This article will cover these general topics and hopefully pave the way for further discussion and help the world proceed to a better and more just future.
What is Race?
It is well known that there are great variations in both culture and ethnicity for humans all around the world. However, despite that admittedly vast variation, there is no biological basis for the concept of race.
Race, in its modern formulation, is a social construct that has mostly been used in history to justify many inhumane and inequitable practices, such as the forced evacuation of native populations, the enslavement of various races, the most prominent being Africans, and the large scale genocide of others, such as the Jewish Holocaust.
What is Racism?
According to Tatum (1992), racism is “a system of advantage based on race”. It is perpetuated through a mix of practices, personal interactions, ideologies, policies, and entire institutions.
In the specific context of the USA, racism has historically been used to benefit people perceived as ‘white’ and discriminate against people perceived as ‘people of color’.
Even though race is widely agreed to be made up, the institution of racism has powerfully shaped the experiences of millions of people and determined their opportunities in life. This 2017 report documents disparities between races in many different areas, including health, incarceration numbers, intergenerational mobility, wealth, earnings, education, housing, employment, and poverty levels.
Closely related to the two concepts above is the concept of privilege. Privilege can be thought to stem from two related concepts.
For one, privilege includes highly valued advantages restricted to certain groups that did not necessarily earn them. These unearned advantages are those that one receives simply because they were born into a certain group or identify with it.
The second concept is that privilege naturally oppresses certain groups. The privileged group will be on the dominant side of the existing power system and will accrue benefits due to their privilege. Interestingly, most people who have privilege aren’t even aware of it.
Given the time, one can find many examples of both racism and privilege in society. I once tried this exercise and came up with an examples of racism essay that outlined a large variety of them. Racial privilege is probably the single greatest contributor to vast inequalities between different social groups, and understanding and battling it should be the next frontier of human development.
Teaching About Race In the Classroom
Seeing as race and racism are such important topics to cover, it only makes sense that they should be fit into the curriculum in some way. However, things are not always so easy. Fitting discussions of race and racism into the classroom will have both advantages and disadvantages. Here are the most obvious:
Pros and Cons of Talking About Racism With Students
Pro: Talking about racism will make privileged students aware of the concept of privilege
Talking about racism with students will make them more aware of privilege. Remember that most people with privilege aren’t even aware of it, and usually it’s through no fault of their own. By talking about it, they will be aware, which means they are more likely to do something to help raise those less privileged in society to their level.
Pro: Talking about racism will help students understand its shaky basis
By talking about race and showing students that it’s no more than a racial construct, they are less likely to use it as a factor in choosing who they interact with, fall in love with, hire, or live with in the future. Race will lose its power as a factor in the next generation.
Pro: Talking about racism will help promote social justice at a young age
Active children who do not passively watch systems of oppression get perpetuated but put in the effort to make all their friends feel included will make a better future. Children are very impressionable, so teaching them inclusiveness at a young age will help them carry it throughout their lives.
Con: Children belonging to privileged races may feel uncomfortable
Conversations about racism can sometimes take on an accusative tone and this can make white students feel targeted.
Con: Approaching the subject incorrectly may increase animosity
While conversations about racism are supposed to promote unity, depending on the tone they may further polarize students of different races and instead cement their antagonism.
Con: It’s unclear at what age it is appropriate to start talking about racism
It’s not clear what age is right to introduce children to the concept of racism as it is a fairly complex and nuanced topic.
Racism is an important topic, albeit a complex one. Talking about it is definitely a priority, though the how is up for debate. However, with enough effort and collaboration, we can improve our educational system to cover this topic and raise better children for a better future.
Michael Turner is a writer and editor who writes about education, philosophy, and deep social issues. He enjoys challenging his readers to think deeper about important topics through his articles. When not writing, he loves to play music on his guitar.