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The Not-So-Little White Lie: Antiracism and the Classroom

By Stefanie Rodarte-Suto and Melissa Locke Witt on December 15, 2020 hst Print

Culturally, talking about race has been labeled taboo; when one speaks on race, a typical reaction is to point to the dialogue and label the dialogue itself as “racist.” Competitive speech and debate activities will often include themes of racism in the literature students perform and the evidence cards that are cut, but equally important are the conversations we engage in with our students and our colleagues about racism and diversity in our culture and within the activity. Conversations about racism in speech and debate are uncomfortable, but the lived experiences of students and coaches of color are much more so.

Katrina Schwartz (2019) of KQED recorded Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s comments on the importance of antiracism efforts in schools, “[Racism] has literally spread to every part of our body politic. …In no other capacity is a problem solved by not talking about it.” Dr. Kendi offers a solution, “‘the opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’ ... One either endorses the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist,’” (Taylor, 2019). If racism actively destroys, neutrality does not mend the damage; the act of racism must be countered with active antiracism.

To begin, it is necessary for white teachers to admit that we have a problem with racism. If we can move beyond the fear of being uncomfortable and face some hard questions, we can begin honest engagement with the very real problem of racism. Racism runs deeper than the outward, overt expressions we witness.

While overt racism and racist behaviors are sinister and certainly cause harm, it is the microaggressions, biases and other subtle, easily-deniable expressions of racism that are the true perpetrators. Assumptions that students of color, especially male students of color, are more prone to misbehavior (Turner, 2016), or the use of coded language when telling a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) student she is well-spoken are examples of everyday racism experienced by our BIPOC students, colleagues and friends.

Classroom Application: Scrutinize expressions or assumptions. Expressions such as “illegal alien,” “uppity,” or even “eenie meenie miney mo” all have roots in dehumanizing rhetoric. As educators learn of the history behind particular expressions and begin to identify assumptions, we can be more open to scrutinizing our own assumptions and bring that knowledge to the classroom.

When a questionable word or phrase is used, have students perform a quick search and read a little about the history of the word. Discuss what you’ve learned and use this moment as an opportunity to identify other words and phrases that are rooted in oppression. Without creating a scene, teachers are able to identify reasons specific language is harmful and set a standard to restrict its use in the future.

Leaders in BIPOC communities can provide better understanding.

In an interview on The New Activist podcast, Latasha Morrison posed this question: “Have I ever been under the leadership of a person of color in my life?” (Kaufholz, 2019). When evaluating leadership teams or those within our circles of influence, are we experiencing diverse leadership? Passive participation in segregation upholds a racist structure.

To become an ally means spending time learning from leaders in BIPOC communities. To learn from someone is to listen while remaining silent, and to absorb information before taking action; uninformed action can create more harm. We want to emphasize it is not the job of a Black leader or leader of any other community to do the heavy lifting to teach us what we failed to learn, but there are many leaders speaking and teaching, so there are opportunities to lean in and learn.

Classroom Application: Look for opportunities to bring in BIPOC consultants, coaches, community leaders and experts in various fields (i.e. debate-related experts). Utilize virtual avenues to access leaders beyond your locality. Actively acknowledge that not all “experts” are white. Colorblindness isn’t the answer.

This attitude misses injustices, making it easy to reason that if a person had followed the instructions of the officer – or worked harder – he or she could have overcome a negative consequence. After all, this is what (white) others have done.

Implicit biases are “subtle, often subconscious stereotypes that guide our expectations and interactions with people,” (Turner, 2016). Consider the research conducted by the Yale Child Study Center. Teachers were asked to watch a video, observe and identify misbehaviors of preschool children.

Though there were no misbehaviors, the eye-scanning technology indicated the teachers most closely watched the black children and even more closely watched the black boys, recording misbehaviors in the black boys at higher rates, (Turner, 2016).

Classroom Application: Lay the groundwork in your classroom by establishing boundaries. Avoid saying “I don’t see color,” or “Everyone is the same.” Encourage students to talk about their experiences and to actively listen to each other. Make it clear that everyone’s voice will be heard, and that respect for each other is non-negotiable. Make this the standard and reinforce it throughout the year.

History offers a clear picture of where we are and where we must go.

“We cannot understand what is without a consciousness of what was,” (Jones, 2020). A more complete history, with voices previously silenced, gives context to this current moment in time, revealing the generational trauma endured by Black, Indigenous and POC communities. Upon honest examination, it is impossible to deny the repeated efforts to oppose empowerment of these communities, ensuring the preservation of white supremacy.

Classroom Application: Model learning about racism for students. In any content area, educators may discover information alongside their students. Challenge the surface-level content and offer what you have learned about that particular event. If they see you reading, talking about it, and asking questions, they will know it’s safe to not have all of the answers and be more willing to learn with you.


Jones, N. (2020, October 30). Faith & Prejudice, Facebook. Retrieved October 31, 2020, from https://www.facebook.com/faithandprejudice/posts/184719846602704.

Latasha Morrison [Interview by 1021615434 784799856 E. Kaufholz]. (2019, December 16). The New Activist. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://newactivist.is/episode/latasha-morrison2.

Schwartz, K. (2019, December 18). How Ibram X. Kendi’s Definition of Antiracism Applies to Schools. KQED. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/54999/howibram-x-kendis-definition-of-antiracism-applies-to-schools.

Taylor, E. (2019, August 15). Ibram X. Kendi Says No One Is ‘Not Racist.’ So What Should We Do? Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2019/08/15/751070344/theres-no-suchthing-as-not-racist-in-ibram-x-kendis-how-to-be-an-anitracist.

Turner, C. (2016, September 28). Bias Isn’t Just A Police Problem, It’s A Preschool Problem. Retrieved November 01, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/09/28/495488716/biasisnt-just-a-police-problem-its-a-preschool-problem.