Racial Literacy in High Schools

Fostering Racial Literacy in High Schools

During the 11 years that I taught high school English, the racial demographics of the district changed drastically. As the school’s study body changed from 10 percent students of color to around 40 percent, I witnessed and was subject to both subtle and overt racism. This experience gave me a deep passion for understanding and combating racism in schools. I’ve worked to create and implement social justice-focused curriculum, placing an emphasis on thinking critically about race and racism.

Schools play a big part in reproducing racial illiteracy. A recent study from the Southern Poverty Law Center indicated that many students graduate from high school without an understanding of the racial violence involved with slavery. There are many reasons for perpetuating racial illiteracy like this; often teachers are afraid or ill-prepared to discuss race with their students. While a handful of teachers may discuss racial issues, this only happens in certain classrooms or in the context of certain subjects. Too often these discussions avoid the ugly realities—and the ongoing legacy— of America’s history of racism.

Understanding Racial Melancholia

I use the concept of “racial melancholia” as a framework for understanding how racial trauma influences teaching and learning about race in the classroom. The concept stems from Anne Anlin Cheng’s book, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief. The production of this racial melancholia originates from the rift between the American history of various racial atrocities—such as slavery, imperialism and colonialization—and the cultural amnesia that occurs from attempting to normalize these atrocities. In many ways, the United States was founded on a hypocritical definition of justice. On one hand, justice and equality is strongly valued, and on the other hand the presence of racism runs contrary to justice and equality.

The nation’s unhealed racial wound that continues to fester creates this sense of racial melancholia. How we interact racially exposes our unacknowledged and unresolved grief stemming from this racial wound. This plays out in the classroom and becomes visible when past issues affect current racial interactions.

Talking About Race Even When it’s Uncomfortable

There’s a misconception that we’ve gotten over our past racial atrocities and have achieved a post-racial society. However, in most instances, this trauma is simply repressed. Transgenerational trauma is often hidden, but it tends to surface during conversations about race in the classroom. During my dissertation study, a teacher I observed set up a lesson plan where she asked students to consider and connect past racial violence with our present condition. The exercise unlocked a lot of repressed trauma that wasn’t visible before the discussion.

Another classroom I studied was led by a white male teacher who was extremely committed to talking about race with his students. These discussions didn’t always go perfectly, but he evaluated his mistakes through self-reflection and continued to tackle tough issues in the classroom. For example, he had a conversation about the 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that ignited unrest and heightened racial tensions in the U.S., because he felt it was important to discuss with his students—even though such a discussion might be uncomfortable. These discussions are key to building racial literacy.

Turning Trauma Into Empowerment

It’s important to note that exploring racial melancholia in the classroom doesn’t just bring out negative emotions. Instead of paralyzing students with trauma, there are many ways in which discussions can be empowering to students. Understanding racial melancholia helps us identify racial wounds, allowing students to begin to work through the trauma together. For African American students, drawing parallels between the slavery their ancestors experienced in the past and the police brutality they are dealing with in the present can form empowering bonds—if we recognize and cultivate those bonds.

Four Tips for Promoting Racial Literacy in High School

It’s important to discuss racial issues in the classroom. These discussions don’t have to be perfect or comfortable to contribute to racial literacy. Here are four tips for leading these difficult conversations.

  1. Embrace and commit to teaching and learning traumatic material, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. Talking about race may be discomforting, but it’s a necessary component of anti-racism.
  2. Rigorous self-reflection is important to fully embrace traumatic teaching and learning. Self-reflective writing and analyzing what went well or poorly about a discussion can be very helpful to improving future conversations.
  3. Commit to improving your own racial literacy and seek to create quality curricular materials to teach about the subject of race. Improving your understanding of racial issues will aid your ability to teach students.
  4. Form coalitions with other educators at your school. It’s important that race isn’t a subject reserved to just a few classrooms in a school—coordinating efforts to promote racial literacy with colleagues ensures that students in many classrooms understand race in the context of a variety of subjects.
Justin Grinage

About the Author

Justin Grinage

  • Postdoctoral Associate, Ph.D.
  • Department of Curriculum and Instruction
  • College of Education and Human Development

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