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Facilitating Race Talk in the Classroom: Lessons from Student Experiences

Download: Exploring Equity - Facilitating Race Talk in the Classroom

Part of CEE’s Exploring Equity Issues series, this paper discusses racial socialization and the importance of giving students safe spaces to discuss their racialized experiences in the classroom. It follows with strategies that teachers can use to help cultivate psychologically safe spaces for race talk.

Facilitating Race Talk in the Classroom: Lessons from Student Experiences


Racial socialization, the process through which individuals learn about race and racism in society (Hughes et. al, 2006), begins in early childhood and continues throughout development. As young people try to make sense of the abundance of messages they receive about race (from home, friends, school, the media, etc.), nurturing spaces that allow them to unpack their racialized experiences are key for positive racial identity development and overall well‐being. Not only do educators have a responsibility to provide such spaces for youth, but would also be remiss not to provide opportunities for students to critically examine how race and racism affects their lives. Scholars in the field of education have argued that effectively facilitated race talk can have numerous positive benefits for youth including: (a) increased   communication skills and learning (Sue, 2013); (b) increased racial literacy (Howard, 2004; Sue, 2013); (c) deepened critical consciousness of one’s own racial identity (Sue, 2013; Taylor, 2013); (d) increased perspective‐ taking skills (Howard & Denning del Rosario, 2000); and (e) greater preparedness for democratic citizenship (Howard & Denning del Rosario, 2000). Though the need for race talk in schools is imperative and the learning opportunities vast, for both students and teachers, this important work does not come without challenges. A lack of care and attention to the ways in which classrooms are set up to support or inhibit racial dialogue can thwart efforts to engage in productive racial discussion and may do more harm than good. This brief addresses two concerns related to race talk in the classroom: (1) challenges and barriers for students, in particular high school aged youth, in talking about race; and (2) some tips and suggestions for educators whowant to facilitate effective race talk.

Williams, Woodson, and Wallace (2016, p.18) describe classroom race talk as “when students and educators exchange stories about leanings and feelings associated with race and racism in their lives (Sue, 2013).” Such dialogue is deeply personal and has the potential to garner strong emotional reactions (e.g., guilt, fear, frustration, shame, and anger) from students of all racial/ethnic backgrounds. Moreover, the public nature of classroom discussions makes race talk particularly risky for students as their decisions to speak up (or not) can have significant consequences on their relationships with peers, their own self‐esteem, and even their grades. Take for example the following quote from Tanya , a white, female, 11th grade student describing her experiences with race talk, “It’s a really – it’s like it’s something that’s going on currently, and everyone has different views, and everyone has been affected differently. So talking about those kind of situations and the things that are happening, everyone’s had a different experience. So it’s a little more of a tougher subject to approach without hurting someone else.” The fear of offending others or saying things that are perceived as racist and/or incorrect is one of many challenges that can motivate students to avoid participating in race talk.

For students of color especially, the desire to keep one’s self‐ integrity and positive racial identity intact, can also motivate students to avoid engaging in race talk. One of the key features of productive race talk is the critical examination of systemic racism and how race plays a role in the oppression of specific subgroups in society (Howard, 2004), however, reliving the racial trauma experienced by one’s ancestors can be difficult and emotionally draining. Moreover, public and identity‐ salient interactions increase the risk involved. For example, Davon, a Black, male, 11th grade student, described his discomfort during race talk when things got “too personal.” In the following quote he specifically references not wanting to discuss the treatment of Blacks during the Civil Rights Era, “I didn’t want them to tell us [the students] what they [white people in the Civil Rights era] were saying.” He then goes on to acknowledge the negative emotions he and some of his peers experienced when forced to relieve Black trauma despite possessing prior knowledge about the horrific treatment of Blacks during that period, “I mean, we already know, but some people feel some type of way when they tell us about it.”

As illustrated through these examples, the desire to protect one’s self and others from psychological harm presents a significant challenge to facilitating race talk in the classroom. It is also the case that discussions about race and racism are at odds with some of the foundational
assumptions about knowledge and learning that are deeply ingrained into many schools in Western society, namely the principle of objectivity. Sue (2015, p. 65) describes this tension,

The conditions that would facilitate a meaningful dialogue on race, for example,may be at odds with learning assumptions, policies, and practices of the academic environment (Hooks, 1994; Palmer, 2007). What has been called the academic protocol, for example, emphasizes a learning environment characterized by objectivity, rationality, and intellectual insight and inquiry (APA Presidential Task Force, 2012; Young, 2003). Race talk, however, is highly subjective, is intense, relies on storytelling, and is highly emotive in nature.

Given what we know about the features of effective race talk and the challenges and barriers for engaging students in such discussions, efforts towards equipping teachers with tools and skills necessary to facilitate meaningful learning opportunities through race talk is critical.


Establishing trust and mutual respect amongst members of the classroom is an important first step to laying the foundation for effective race talk. Students should feel psychologically safe‐in the sense that one’s identities, perspectives, and contributions are valuable‐ within the learning environment. Below are some ways teachers can help cultivate psychologically safe spaces for facilitating race talk:

1. If you are preparing a unit or specific lesson that includes discussions on race,don’t let it be a surprise! Let students know what to expect.

2. Set ground rules for discussions ‐ have students help create the rules to encourage ownership over the process.

3. Conduct temperature checks ‐ vary methods to gauge how students are feeling.

4. Provide choice in ways to participate (e.g., verbal discussion and writing) ‐ not all students will be comfortable sharing publicly. The goal is to get them there but it’s ok to honor their preferences for sharing‐ especially in such a sensitive context.

5. Practice attunement ‐ be in the moment with students, demonstrate genuine investment in understanding student perspectives, and response to their expressed needs.

6. Be authentic ‐ position yourself as a fellow thinker, practice honesty and vulnerability

7. Engage in power sharing‐ give opportunities for a range of student voices to be heard and validate various ways of thinking and understanding.

8. Treat racial blunders and mistakes as learning opportunities

Written by Jasmine D. Williams, PhD


Howard, T. C. (2004).“Does race really matter?” Secondary students’ constructions of racial dialogue in the social studies. Theory & Research in Social Education, 32(4), 484‐502. doi:10.1080/00933104.2004.10462986.

Howard, T.C. & Denning del Rosario, C. D. (2000). Talking race in teacher education: The need for racial dialogue in teacher education programs. Action in Teacher Education, 21(4), 127‐ 137. Doi: 10.1080/01626620.2000.10462986.

Hughes, D., Rodriguez, J., Smith, E. P., Johnson, D. J., Stevenson, H. C., & Spicer, P. (2006). Parents’ ethnic‐racial socialization practices: A review of research and directions for future study. Developmental psychology, 42(5), 747.

Sue, D. W. (2013). Race talk: The psychology of racial dialogues. American Psychologist, 68(8), 663‐ 672. doi:10.1037/a0033681.

Sue, D. W. (2015). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Taylor, P. C. (2013). Race: a philosophical introduction. (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Williams, J. D., Woodson, A. N., & Wallace, T. L. (2016).“Can we say the N‐word?”: Exploring psychological safety during race talk. Research in Human Development, 13(1), 15‐31.

Woodson, A. N. & Duncan, K. E. (2018). When keepin’ it real goes wrong: Race talk, racial blunders, and redemption. In C. C. Martell (Ed.), Social Studies Teacher Education: Critical Issues and Current Perspectives (pp. 101 – 112); Charlotte, N.C: Information Age Publishing, Inc.



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