Educators Learning to Address Race: An Uneasy and Critical Process

By Professor Shira Eve Epstein

“How comfortable are you talking about race and racism?”

I asked this question to a group of teachers at the start of a class that would involve conversation about race. Drawing on materials from Teaching Tolerance’s Let’s Talk! Discussing Race, Racism, and Other Difficult Topics with Students, the teachers selected statements including, “I would rather not talk about race/racism,” and “I am very comfortable talking about race/racism,” with various gradations in between. Then, they explained to the class why they chose the statement they did. This helpful opening acknowledged the discomfort people might feel around these topics and enabled everyone to speak about their personal readiness for the impending discussion.

I encourage Jewish educators to ask themselves this question and begin a process of teacher-inquiry that can bring greater race-awareness into Jewish learning environments. The Jewish community is racially diverse[1], despite the fact that many schools and institutions do not appear so. More broadly, all youth live in a world where race matters and racism must be fought. Accordingly, Jewish educators have a role in exposing their learners to multiculturalism in the Jewish world, fostering the racial understandings of both their White students and their students of color, and supporting students to critique racism in history and the present day.

To aid in the greater infusion of race-awareness into Jewish education, in this article I share some insights about how race is addressed in schools and other learning environments at large. I draw on research and theory developed not exclusively in Jewish settings but in consideration of public and other community schools as well. Despite the fact that such schools might be more diverse, the notions can also apply to Jewish settings. Indeed, as Jewish learning environments work to practice race-awareness, Jewish institutions may become more diverse, inclusive, and antiracist.

To start, I aim to establish a vision of multicultural, antiracist education. Multicultural education is the antithesis of monoculturalism, where little attention is paid to diversity and “dangerous topics,” such as racism, are avoided. Yet, avoiding monoculturalism does not mean that teachers are enacting curriculum that is antiracist.[2] For example, teachers might support a “human relations approach” to multiculturalism that prioritizes positive interpersonal relationships between members of diverse groups.[3] These teachers will facilitate learning on the beneficial contributions different groups have made to society, usually framing such lessons as supplemental to the main curriculum (e.g., special programming on Martin Luther King Jr. Day). This work has some value, yet to more robustly forward social change, educators and learners must also analyze inequality and develop skills for social action. Imagine a day school environment where students study a local or national example of racism and learn about initiatives to address it, perhaps through a tzedek (justice) project.

Most educational settings are currently far from this ideal. In fact, educators and learners can suffer from “colormute,” a condition where race is completely absent from public conversation.[4] White teachers are particularly prone to resisting race talk and minimizing the importance of race.[5] They can use a form of White privilege to avoid racial issues and the concerns of people of color.

Teachers can even distance themselves from race talk as it is occurring right around them, leaving students to figure out how to navigate it on their own. Their hesitance stems from many factors including the teachers’ socialization through which they have learned that race talk is inappropriate and colorblindness is preferred, a lack of experience with race talk, and/or a fear of being seen as racist or being required to consider their own racial identities.

These conditions point to the importance of educators developing their racial literacy and then facilitating learning so their students can do so as well. With racial literacy, people can understand how racism operates and resist racism.[6] Racial literacy practices include recognizing everyday racism and viewing it as a structural problem that involves social institutions as opposed to solely the problem of individuals, and assuming a critical learner stance from which to understand how race functions in particular contexts and problem-solve accordingly.

A good first step toward increased racial literacy, as related to assuming a learner stance, is for educators to engage in their own inquires about race.[7] Through this self-exploration, teachers start with questions like the one I posed at the top of the article – “How comfortable am I talking about race?”and then move to questions about how race matters among their learners and how race is addressed in their curriculum and related programming. Finally, they craft plans for moving toward an increasingly antiracist classroom. A recent group of studies illustrate how White teachers are by degrees taking up these and other race-visible practices.[8]

How might Jewish educators specifically engage in this process? The Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan’s efforts to take on the challenge of antiracist education gives the Jewish community ideas of how to do the same. First, the work is sustained through the leadership of Benjamin Mann, head of school, who has written in a previous Gleanings about his vision. School leaders like Ben can ensure that his faculty have the administrative support, curricular space, and professional development needed to carry out these prescribed steps. Indeed, Schechter Manhattan’s teachers have participated in teacher development programming run by Be’Chol Lashon, an organization dedicated to ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness in the Jewish community.

Schechter Manhattan’s antiracist focus also grows with the support of a parent body that knows how essential these conversations are if we are to raise children who embody the values of menschlichkeit (humanity) and tikkun olam (repair of the world). While in my professional life I support antiracist and civically engaged education in secular contexts, I am honored to serve as the co-chair for the Schechter Manhattan Conversations about Race (CaR) parent group. CaR has convened six sessions for parents dedicated to understanding racism and exploring how we address it with our children.

Given the pervasive impact of race and racism in our society, I gain hope knowing that Jewish educators, parents, and children are finding their ways into the conversation.

Shira Eve Epstein is an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the City College of New York (CUNY). Her research focuses on variations of civic education and how students and teachers address public issues through the curriculum. Her first book, Teaching Civic Literacy Projects: Student Engagement with Social Problems, Grades 4-12, was published in 2014.

[1] See the American Jewish Population Project of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University.

[2] Nieto, S. (1994). Affirmation, Solidarity, and Critique: Moving Beyond Tolerance in Multicultural Education. Multicultural Education, 1(4), 9–12, 35–38.

[3] Christine Sleeter describes five views on multicultural education including the human relations approach in Sleeter, C. E. (1993). Multicultural Education: Five views. The Education Digest, 58(7), 53–57.

[4] Pollock, M. (2004). Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[5] There is much research on this point. For a start, see Gere, A. R., Buehler, J., Dallavis, C., & Haviland, V. S. (2009). A Visibility Project: Learning to See How Preservice Teachers Take Up Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 46(3), 816–852 and Haviland, V. (2008). “Things Get Glossed Over”: Rearticulating the Silencing Power of Whiteness in Education. Journal of Teacher Education, 59(1), 40–59.

[6]Guinier, L. 2004. “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma.” The Journal of American History 91 (1): 92–118.

[7] Michael, A. (2015). Raising Race Questions: Whiteness and Inquiry in Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

[8] Jupp, C. J., T. R. Berry, T. J. Lensmire. 2016. “Second-Wave White Teacher Identity Studies: A Review of White Teacher Identity Literatures From 2004 Through 2014.” Review of Educational Research 86 (4): 1151–1191.

This article was originally published in Gleanings, the ejournal of the Leadership Commons of The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS; reprinted with permission.