On Racism and Checking my White Privilege

This morning I read an amazing post by Denisha Jones on the Badass Teacher’s Association blog.  Jones explains why teachers need to be on the front line of fighting racism and prejudice.  She explains important differences between racism and prejudice, and she explains privilege and that it underlines how things in society get interpreted.  Every teacher needs to read her post.  Every human being needs to read her post.  

Even though I come from Vermont, I have the privilege of working in the one school district in the state where at the high school, 32% of the students are students of color and 29.7% have a home language other than English.  Our district has been working hard for the last several years to educate its personnel; to help us learn to see and understand white privilege; to help us understand the struggles of people of color so that we can work to end racism and prejudice among staff, and among students, and between staff and students.  While what happened to Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin hasn’t happened here in Vermont, we want to make sure that it never does.  It is important to have conversations.  To listen to each other’s stories and learn from each other.  Jones makes that point in her post.  This country isn’t going to move forward while conservative pundits spout their ignorance.  The system that allows that sort of thing perpetuates an institution that poisons people’s minds.

At the alternative school where I work, we don’t tolerate language that supports prejudice and hate.  For years we’ve worked to help students understand that when they say, “that’s gay,” they are saying something hateful and prejudiced.  It wasn’t a big leap for our staff to begin working on the district equity movement.  Now it’s part of our staff and school culture.  We are helping to do our part to educate kids not only on traditional school subjects, but also on being a decent human being. 

Teaching Diversity in Vermont

I just found this great resource from the Vermont Folklife Center. It’s an educational resource for helping students focus on what makes them Vermonters, and it also helps them learn about some of the refugees who have resettled here so they can begin to broaden their definition of “Vermonter“. I’ve been looking for a really good way to get these conversations going in my classroom, and so far I’ve presented students with all kinds of background knowledge about different push and pull factors, but I’ve been missing a real link to specific personal stories.

I’m interested in discussing the photographs and using Flip cameras to capture thoughts and expressions so that we can make a short video for our class website.

Here is the link to the educational site I found:


Today I worked on another diversity lesson with my students. We’ve been talking about push factors and why people might leave their home countries. This time we did a study of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. I presented students with a slideshow of various images from the Khmer Rouge. Students (and these were 10-11th graders) were asked to write down the words that came to mind as they viewed the various images. They saw images of torture victims, demolished city structures, mass graves and other images that provided insight into the genocide that happened from 1975-1978. Words that students used included: Grimm, death, torture, devastation, annihilation, struggle, starvation, and discrimination. I was really proud of the empathy they showed toward the Cambodian people and the frustration they showed at the denial by the leaders of the regime. We then read an article from 2007 when some of the leaders had finally been arrested. We answered some questions and discussed it. I heard a lot of frustration about how long the leaders got to live without being held accountable for the atrocities they committed. I also had students ask me about how the United States responded to the leaders of the regime at that time. I even had students ask if some of the Asian population of refugees in our city are from that time…yes. I had students literally express to me that they had no idea that was why people had left their homeland and moved here. I am really proud of my students and I’m hoping the engagement in this topic continues.


Children at a refugee camp in Chad

Image via Wikipedia

I just started a new unit on diversity and what it means to be part of a community.  I really want students to gain more of an understanding about the world around them–to understand some of the reasons why people leave their country of origin and go to another place to start over, and further, I want them to perspective-take and try to see the world from a refugee‘s point of view.  Usually when I choose literature topics I address topics related to diversity and equity as they come up, but because some of my students have recently been involved in harassing other people because of their race and nationality, I’ve decided to address these issues as a whole unit of study.

I thought about what I really want students to come away with.  Then I met with someone from our school’s diversity and equity office to get some resources and insight, and I began planning the unit.  I know that I’m not going to change students’ perceptions overnight; some of them have been raised with misconceptions and prejudices from birth, so my goal is to introduce new kernels of thought and establish some seeds of change.  My essential questions are based around “push” and “pull” factors and discussing facts and myths around refugees and resettlement programs.  The city we live in is a major resettlement area in our state, so there are rampant myths and misconceptions I hear all the time.  Those myths and misconceptions become the base of why students are bullied and harassed.  All of these myths are purely based in ignorance and misinformation, so if I can get students to learn the facts that will help them begin to change their preconceived notions.  I also want to help my students understand that bystanders are as much a part of bullying and harassment as the perpetrators themselves.  I have students who say or do nothing when they see someone being bullied or harassed because they think (and I’ve actually had students say this to me) that it’s better to just “stay out of it” and “not rat on anyone.”  Passivity is as much a part of ongoing bullying and harassing as the actual words and actions.

So, having established my big ideas and essential questions, I began choosing resources and topics.  There are so many to choose from that I had a very difficult time narrowing my focus.  I decided to choose topics related to three of the major refugee populations in our state.  I set up a Wiki to be a central point of posting resources to share with my students and to be a place where we can have an ongoing discussion to process questions and thoughts.  I also asked students to share what they think they know about the topic and to share the ideas they currently have, so students can see their growth after studying the topic.  Each day I share a video (or two) and a short article with them from the wiki and then they login to answer discussion questions and post information to develop our topic further.  I will soon be introducing some of the activity ideas that I got from meeting with a diversity and equity consultant in our district so that students can put themselves in different situations and try to see things from another perspective.  All of this will lead up to their final project which will include creating a digital resource targeted to the very youngest students in our school district.

I will share an “ah-ha” moment one of my students had the first day we did the unit.  This 15 year old boy is one of my students who is passive to bullying and harassing situations around him because he “doesn’t want to get involved.”  He also has actually said, “I hate Africans because they think they’re all big and bad and try to take over the neighborhood.”  The first day of the unit I shared a slideshow and information on the drought and famine in Somalia and then asked students to tell me why people might escape that situation and resettle somewhere new.  Of course they figured out that “starvation” was a major push factor, but it was the information he learned about the militant groups in Somalia that led one student to his “ah-ha” moment.  He said, “Wait, so there’s no government and all these groups will just kill people for no reason…no wonder they come here; I would too.”  I’m really excited about embarking on this journey with my students.