How Teachers Are Rethinking the Way They Talk About Race in America

Barack Obama, MLK Jr., a protester with a BLM shirt and a face mask, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman are all seen standing on an open book.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by James Devaney/GC Images/Getty Images, Joseph Klipple/Getty Images, Noam Galai/Getty Images, Bettmann/Getty Images, Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images, and Getty Images Plus.

This article is part of Open Book, a Slate series about the new school year.

The tragic, infuriating deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black individuals at the hands of police, and the subsequent anti-racist protests over the summer, have resulted in a national reckoning around race that’s touched everything from the prison system to monuments to sports. Given this immense upheaval, I reached out to teachers across the country to get a sense of how they are thinking about teaching students about race and history in the new school year. Their accounts, based on our conversations, have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Heber Diaz

Race: Latinx
Years of teaching experience: five
Subject and grade: dual language history teacher, public high school
Location: District of Columbia

About 64 percent of our students are Latino. Some of their courses are in Spanish, and some of them are in English. I also graduated from the school. This is my life. As a social studies teacher, I feel I’m particularly responsible, morally and ethically, to make sure [students] are aware of what’s happening: that they’re aware of their place, who they are, what their rights are, and what’s being stripped of them. But most importantly, that I’m giving them a voice. I’m not trying to indoctrinate them; I’m trying to help them learn how to think about the world they’re surrounded by. I think for students of color, exposure and skill development are super important. It doesn’t matter how much they know about what’s going on if they don’t know how to read information and adapt to that information.

This summer I was putting together our summer bridge program is for rising ninth graders. It’s just to give them a taste of high school, especially now since it’s all virtual. One of the conversations we had was about what it means to be Black and brown in America. I went on TikTok, Instagram, and different platforms and selected viral videos about Black Lives Matter and the protests. We did sort of a gallery walk. It was a very lively discussion; the students seemed to be very aware of social and racial inequities. There was a lot of anger I perceived. They also seemed very sad, almost hopeless. Others were more solution-oriented, mulling ideas about how we fix this. The students are aware of what’s happening, so what we need to do as teachers is help them take that knowledge and do something about it. That’s what I am now thinking about.

I think a lot of teachers are wanting and craving to talk about [race], especially teachers of color. There are others who are too afraid to engage. I do believe that my school does a really excellent job at promoting social justice. We have a social justice rubric where our projects have to be aligned with social justice in some way. This has existed for 10 years now. What I think we need to work on is the teacher buy-in and fidelity to it.

Zel Fowler

Race: Black
Years of teaching experience: 15
Subject and grade: gifted program, grades K–8, public school
Location: Phoenix

I don’t see anything changing [because of the protests]. It’s nothing new. The only thing new is that it was televised and everyone was at home, so they got a chance to see it. There’s no curriculum to address racism, so I feel like we’re so far behind. [My district] is just claiming that Black lives matter and creating resolutions that say “Black students matter in our district,” but we have nothing in place to that’s going to implement change, or a policy that’s going to back that up. I feel like it’s just words. It’s not up to the Black people to teach anti-racism to every student.

I’m not going to anything differently in my classroom. I’ve always done things around social justice. Whether I’m in the gifted program or a regular class, I’ve always had that connection with students. I’m hoping that we are able to hold people accountable and see actions behind the words. One teacher who’s white initiated a book club for white teachers about how to teach Black students. That’s what needs to happen. I’m Black. I’ve been doing this my whole life. I’ve been living this my whole life. Something we worry about is that everyone will look at Black educators and say, “What are you doing? How are you going to fix it?” It’s not our job to fix it.

You’ve got to have an anti-racist curriculum implemented in the school. But who’s going to teach that curriculum? How is it implemented? It’s got to be a strategic plan. You can’t just say, “We’re going to get this curriculum, and everyone teaches it.” People have to really be trained on how to teach it. I don’t know what it would look like for a person to be forced to teach a curriculum they don’t believe in.

You’ve got to bring in more Black teachers. If you don’t have Black teachers, then figure out how to get Black mentors in there. Once you get kids [of color] in the [gifted] program, how are you going to keep them there? A lot of times the kids aren’t comfortable in those programs because of the way they’re treated. They’re not surrounded by teachers of color, who are so important. Not only do Black students benefit from that, but all students do because a lot of times that’s the only opportunity a student will get to work or communicate with a person of color.

Tiffini Flynn Forslund

Race: Black and white
Years of teaching experience: 11
Subject and grade: science and social studies, charter middle school
Location: Minneapolis

I live in St. Paul now, but my home for 4½ years was in the 3rd Precinct [where the officers responsible for George Floyd’s death worked]. I went out on my own and [recorded] everything that was going on between the memorial and the 3rd Precinct because I felt that this was different when it started. I actually got tear-gassed. One of my fifth grade students showed me how to load [my video clips] onto YouTube.

My students watched my YouTube videos. I showed them tear-gas shells. I showed them rubber bullets that I had picked up. I’ve told my students that you will never have any greater social studies history than what is going on right now. We’re going to discuss what defunding the police means. We’re going to discuss how this became a movement. And we do protests at our school. We’ll make signs and we’ll go out around the school and protest so that they feel like they have that power to stand up.

Our school is 99 percent African American students. We have a Liberian population. In fifth grade, I had them take their racist stories and put them in essays. One boy’s incident was with his bus driver; another’s was at a different school—which was why she was at our school—[where she experienced] direct racism from staff and teachers. They all have examples, and I try to get them to write it and express it.

In Minnesota, we have been trying to get Black history as part of the curriculum, and it’s never been voted in. I think it might be different now. We’ve advocated for no [school resource officers] for three, four years, and it’s never happened. But now, all of a sudden, the Minneapolis School Board passed it right away—the St. Paul School Board just passed it. Now with this movement of George Floyd, things that we could not get passed are passing. So now we might see [curricula around] Black history be accepted within the Minnesota Department of Education, which would be a beautiful thing.

Michael Espinoza

Race: Latino
Years of teaching experience: four
Subject and grade: English, AP Literature, public high school
Location: San Jose, California

I always teach something regarding race, even if it’s just a unit. But because of the climate now, I’m thinking about how I can bring topics of race into my classroom throughout the year. For English I, I’m planning on starting with the book The House on Mango Street. Every year I teach it from the perspective of generalities like identity, culture – things like that so that it’s kind of related to race, but not really. Whereas this year, I’m going to be much more explicit about the character in this book being a Latina. She’s experiencing things that are very specific to her identity as a person of color. That’s just one small aspect.

Another teacher and I are revamping the entire English I curriculum. We’re going to start with The House on Mango Street and then move on to Frederick Douglass, looking into what he brought to what Black Lives Matter means. And [we’ll read] another book called Parable of the Sower. All these books are related to race in some way, and they’re all written by people of color as well.

I tend to save [discussions around race] for the second semester, because I’ve always been afraid that it is touchy. I tend to have quite a few white students in the classroom in general. I want to get to know the kids; I want them to know they’re safe and we have a relationship before we start talking about difficult things like race. When I bring it up, it’s always a little awkward at first. But by the end of the unit, they feel more comfortable to talk about things like racial oppression and privilege and white supremacy. Overall, it’s been pretty successful. Some students have pushed back on things like white supremacy and white privilege. Some students, white students in particular, will say that they have grown up poor. So they’ll say, “I don’t feel like I’ve been privileged in my life.” That’s a good discussion to have as a class: What does privilege actually mean? What does it look like when we talk about racial privilege vs. privilege in general? It’s generally been very productive in the past.

José Luis Vilson

Race: Black and Latino
Years of teaching experience: 15
Subject and grade: math, public middle school
Location: New York City

We have to continue to make room for conversations that may or may not be in our comfort zones. It’s unlike previous years where I felt like so much of the fervor around Black Lives Matter was focused from within, from people who were already appreciative of the message. Nowadays you have a broader, more multicultural, multinational, multigenerational set of folks who have started to have this discussion, especially with white folks.

In teachers’ own classrooms, it’s incumbent upon us to … at least have the conversation around how these things have manifested, what the core causes are that the Black Lives Matter movement has championed, and then in what ways teachers and educators are generally part of, or at least complicit in, this systemic racism. I think too often the paradigm is that if you want to have the race conversation, you usually go to the person of color on staff. If you don’t have staff like that, then you go to the person that you feel is the most radical, instead of asking, “How can we collectively be more thoughtful about how we engage around race?” But now it is more mainstream for teachers to understand the importance of diversity and equality. I wouldn’t say equity yet. I think that’s still far away from us.

[Black Lives Matter] is definitely on our children’s minds. When I talked about this virtually with my students, I had a discussion where I said, “What are you feeling right now?” Even without prompts, a lot of them were already talking about some of the current events. My students are predominantly Latinx, Dominican, but I do have Black and white students as well. Some of them I think may have been radicalized by this moment in time. Others are still trying to figure out like what it means for the police to be dangerous when they’ve been told all their lives that police are there to protect them. The pandemic hasn’t been helpful in terms of being able to work through this with their friends and peers.

I think if we can orient a lot of this conversation about what’s right and wrong, what it means to be just—even kids as young as 2 or 3 years old have an understanding of what’s fair. And if you’re able to have a conversation with a 2-year-old about what’s fair, you can do it for anybody else. Unfortunately, we as a country have not grappled with what’s fair yet.

Jonathan Shulman

Race: White
Years of teaching experience: 20
Subject/Grade: AP U.S. History, AP Government, AP World History, private high school
Location: San Diego

This past year when I taught [AP U.S. History], a big part of it was looking at the history of race in the United States. The typical, easy approach in teaching history is to take the triumphalist or inevitable narrative. You mention that Black people were enslaved, and then they got freed, and then maybe a little bit about Reconstruction, and then skip ahead to the civil rights era, and then everything’s fine. It’s a constant struggle to not fall back on that America narrative. There are [so many other] narratives, often running contrary to one another.

I’m a white heterosexual man who is teaching other white people for the most part. I’m well aware that, no matter what I do, I’m coming at them from one perspective. No matter how much I study, no matter how much I try to understand systemic racism, and no matter how often I try to speak to that and demonstrate it for the students, I haven’t experienced it. It’s important to let the students know that. The irony of all of this is that [as a white man], I will be more listened to. If I were a member of a certain group, I would be seen as a wild feminist or any other ridiculous term.

The recent protests have freed me to feel like I can say “Black Lives Matter” in the classroom as a given, as a statement of fact. [Prior to that] I could go there, but I had to dance carefully in a way that felt kind of dumb. That’s a big change. At the same time, I think it’s embarrassing that that change just happened. I can’t believe I’ve been such a coward. I can’t believe that I’ve been dancing around it in the way that I have, but I’m so appreciative of the fact I feel empowered now that I don’t have to do that.

Disclosure: Jonathan Shulman is the author’s former teacher.

Brittany Bussell

Race: White
Years of Teaching experience: 10
Subject/Grade: history and geography, ESL, public high school
Location: Round Rock, Texas

I worry about all my kids, and the events of the last few months have only exacerbated issues that I’ve been aware of for a long time. My intent for this year is to figure out how to approach it as the students need us to. I think there’s something to be said for walking into the classroom and confronting it, but with everything going on amid the backdrop of the pandemic, I feel as though we need to approach it when it comes up in our curriculum with tender loving hands, instead of coming in full force.

When I teach U.S. history, it starts with post-Reconstruction, but we also do a review of the Civil War. I would like to ask students—now in 2020 looking back—how could we have done better?

In the majority of my experiences with world history in the Texas curriculum—which really means Western civilization—I try to give a voice to the people who are not always at the center. The nonstandard narrative. One of the biggest lessons I do is about European imperialism. [We look at a] Pear’s soap ad, and there’s a white boy standing outside a tub. There’s a Black boy sitting in the tub up to his neck. When he stands up, from the neck down, he’s white after his bath. I let the kids analyze it. And then I know when they’ve got it, because they start going, “That’s totally racist.”  This year in U.S. history I pointed out that company is still around and my students called for a boycott. I said that before we do that, we need to look at the dates of the ads and see if they’ve changed. It’s all about framing.

Theodore Borgerding

Race: White
Years of teaching experience: 35
Subject/Grade: English, private high school
Location: Baku, Azerbaijan

Students definitely take notice of [the U.S. protests]. We have American students at our school—something along the lines of 20 to 25 percent, and a very small number of them are African American. Racism in Azerbaijan is a curious thing. The Black people I know are fairly well integrated, but they’re special cases I would say. The larger Azeri population I would say definitely sees [Black people] as outsiders and is definitely uncomfortable, to put in mildly. I find that among our Azeri students, which are about 20 percent of our population, it really runs the gamut of kids who are quite open-minded and interested in seeing all different views of the world that they can learn from, to kids who are probably among our more—racist would be an easy way to put it—closed-minded and see others as being not quite as good as themselves.

The injustices that Black Americans face, they need to be understood, because it’s a big problem that has massive ramifications around the world. Our students recognize that they look to America in a lot of ways for a lot of things. Whether they’re Korean or Russian, they still have to understand why things aren’t working in America.

We hear Black voices in our English curriculum, but they tend to be kind of the standard. We have Langston Hughes’ poetry, Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” We often teach [Chinua] Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. But the modern African American experience has been there far less. We’ve decided that we need to push for a more modern voice. We’re going to have Ta-Nehisi Coates and his writings for the Atlantic as a body of work for many of our older students to study. In my years of teaching, the English curriculum has become more and more modern and contemporary. It’s [now] much more likely that we will get an author who’s debuted her first novel and it’s only a few years old and it’s in our curriculum. That just wouldn’t have happened 30 years ago.

What I do find comparable [to this moment] is the big change in sexuality and how people with different sexual orientations are seen. That’s the thing for me where there can be a turning point … and these voices are not just part of the curriculum but are actually heard almost in the same moment, that contemporary voices can be heard for the value they have in this day and time.

Vanessa Harkless

Race: Black
Years of teaching: 15
Subject/Grade: fourth grade public school teacher
Location: Florence, South Carolina

Our school is I’d say 80 percent African American, 20 percent Caucasian and Latino. A good 95 percent of our school are on free reduced lunch. It’s a Title I school.

When we talk about safety, I think that will be a good catapult for a conversation about what [my students] have seen, what they’ve heard, and what they think and feel [about the protests]. When I say “safety,” I’m talking about safety here in the building, where you have guidelines for your safety. Then outside of the building, you have your community, where you rely on your police and other important officials for safety. I would not be surprised if this leads to a conversation about what [my students] have witnessed in the news. I’m pretty sure it will be a heavily loaded conversation. I’ll try to be open and honest with them about it, and keep my judgment out, but have them be aware of the facts. I know what I know for me, but they need to make decisions for themselves.

It’s good for them to know that, you see the Black Lives Matter movement, but there are some policemen out there who are fair, who are just, who are out there to do their jobs. There are those whom you’ve seen in the news and in the public who have chosen not to their jobs to the best of their ability in a given situation, and that has led to this. I know that’s also going to bring up a conversation about civil rights and inequality that African American students may have experienced personally or heard about from family members and people in the community.

We talk about the month of February, Black History Month—that’s when we have more conversations so that they learn more about African Americans and what they’ve given to our country. We do a wax museum at our school so they know it’s more than just Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. They research a person and dress like that person and give a speech about who they are. We’ve had Barack Obama; we’ve had Condoleezza Rice.

There needs to be a conversation about [addressing race in the curriculum]. There’s nothing in there now. There should be something in place for students at a younger age to have a conversation about what racism is and what it looks like.