How Do You Teach About Race?

“The perversity of racism is not inherent in the nature of human beings. We are not racist; we become racist just as we may stop being that way.”     – Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Heart, 1997

This past year I found myself thinking differently about my identity.  The change would occur whenever I was completing the “race” category/prompt you find on official forms.  You know what I am referring to (check out the image to the right). Additionally, my school system began to provide cultural competence training that framed diversity largely in racial terms but without addressing what race is. This seemed to be a significant disconnect.  How can you talk about something without defining or explaining it?

Combined, these two factors started a distinct change in my behavior from what had been the norm for over 3 decades.  Instead of checking “White” on these forms,  I began selecting “I do not wish to provide this information” or an option with similar wording.  I must admit, however, that this action is contingent on an important variable –  whether or not the document had defined their categories of race (see below). Defining terms/concepts is indeed an important if we want to engage with them effectively and with depth.  In this case it is especially significant as race is a “hot button” topic and not an objective category across this planet.

Rather, how we conceive of race is informed in part by history, societal factors,  and context. For example, look at samples from these early 21st century census surveys.














What is going on in each of these and why can’t they all have the same items?

Also, our own understanding about race is informed by our personal learning network and how race is taught in schools.  To explore the topic of teaching about race I propose this key question, “Is there  genetic/biological evidence for the argument that there are multiple races of humans?” With that let’s take a look at some ideas, resources, and suggested follow up questions you can use with your community.


Race is not a Myth

People who claim that race is a myth must explain themselves a bit further.  Social constructs are real in that they impact people’s actions and beliefs as well as government’s policies and practices.  For example, the fluidity of race as a construct  and political/economic/social category has existed in the US since the late 18th century.  “Every U.S. census since the first one in 1790 has included questions about racial identity, reflecting the central role of race in American history from the era of slavery to current headlines about racial profiling and inequality. But the ways in which race is asked about and classified have changed from census to census, as the politics and science of race have fluctuated. And efforts to measure the multiracial population are still evolving.”  Indeed, the 2020 census may offer “more examples of the origins that fall under each racial/ethnic category… That census will also drop the word “Negro” from what had been the “Black, African American, or Negro” response option.”

Like culture, and gender, and ethnicity, how we conceive of race can yield an all too real set of pre-conceived notions and beliefs that are seen as “natural” or scientific.  These packaged sets of qualities become static, essentialized, and expected traits about a group.  This process of “othering” reduces a group’s range of variety to an oversimplified point on a spectrum.  Checkout how the recent film Get Out conveyed this psycho-anthropological phenomenon.


John Willinsky’s fantastic work Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End narrates the impact empires had on the racial social constructs that persist. The imperial experiments produced a classification designed to order humans in a hierarchy of development.  The European Enlightenment’s drive to categorize the world manifested a science of race that “offered the most monstrous of imperialism’s lessons… the scientific constitution of races in the West brought greater force and significance of difference to the naming of the other. It further ordered European interests in dividing the world to its advantage.”

Human zoos brought this continuum to life in the 19th, and 20th centuries at the Worlds Fair and similar regional exhibitions in London, Paris, Milan, and New York and beyond. In their most “instructive” role, human zoos would present various groups on a trajectory ranging from primitive/savage to advanced/civilized.

Dissenting voices about the taxonomy of race were rare.  However, in 1791 Johann Gottfeid von Herder  wrote “There are neither four or five races. All mankind are only one.” (emphasis is Herder’s).  Over 150 years later after the killing of World War II, UNESCO’s 1951  statement on race is explicit: “Scientists have reached the general agreement in recognizing that mankind is one: that all men belong to the same species, Homo Sapiens.”  

But I wonder how many people would currently agree with or know about this statement?  What is informing their concept of race?  Shouldn’t race be taught using the consensus of contemporary scientific communities?

The opportunity to inform and provide people with a useful base and conceptual framework is a necessary and powerful tool.   As Freire notes (in the opening quote) humans can change. Education can facilitate that change.


Where to Find Answers

This is an important section of this blog post. These past few weeks my colleague and I explored the VA curriculum frameworks in science and social studies looking for explanations about how to teach about race.  Neither of us found any explicit direction in our content field on what students should learn about or how to engage with “race.”    Instead, the world history curriculum related it to slavery (race being a factor or not) and the U.S. history course implied its use in Standard 8 of the 2015 revisions.

The student will apply social science skills to understand how the nation grew and changed from the end of Reconstruction through the early twentieth century by d) analyzing the impact of prejudice and discrimination, including “Jim Crow” laws, the responses of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, and the practice of eugenics in Virginia

(We believe similar gaps of intentional usage for race exist in IB and AP equivalent classes.  But a more exhaustive effort will be needed to confirm this lack of intentionality).

So, where is one to find tools, information, and resources that can be used with students and colleagues to teach about race?  As a start, I have included some influential documentaries and journal articles below.  I do hope these items spark further inquiry and inspiration. Please, keep me posted of what you find.





  • 13th – Filmmaker Ava DuVernay explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on the fact that the nation’s prisons are disproportionately filled with African-Americans. (2016).


  • The Chinese Exclusion Act – A new film by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu and scheduled to appear on PBS American Experience in 2017.



  •  LA 92  – A look at the events that led up to the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles following the Rodney King beating by the police. (2017)


  • Shoah Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary recounts the story of the Holocaust through interviews with witnesses – perpetrators as well as survivors. (1985)



The UN SDGs 

The UN goals provide so much educational value.  They are, in essence,  a 21st century curriculum.  Unbridled by disciplines, the UN SDGs are accessible by all fields of study and celebrates relevance where some educators, parents, and students offer limited expressions for the “Why?” of education.

Over  century ago in 1900 in London at the Pan-African Convention, W.E.B. Du Bois  gave a closing statement titled “To the Nations of the World” .  Du Bois states that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color Image result for du boisline, the question of how far differences of race-which show themselves chiefly in the color of skin and the texture of the hair-will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.”  The problem clearly continues in the 21st century in varying forms – structures of power, ignorance, hate, identity politics etc.   Thankfully race has not gone unnoticed on the global stage.

Goal 10 of the UN SDGs addresses race as  a list of categories that as Du Bois noted, deny “the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.” Taken on its own, or in conjunction with other SDG, Goal 10 demands that race be part of the learning experiences we provide for students and part of the discussions we have in order to take action.

Goal 10 calls for reducing inequalities in income as well as those based on age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status within a country. The Goal also addresses inequalities among countries, including those related to representation, migration and development assistance.


For the UN SDG to be a relevant part of students’ learning, connections to the topic must be explicit and intentional.  Moreover, the UN SDGs  lend themselves to grade level through the project based learning, inquiry, blended learning, and problem based learning models.  Checkout the video below for a summary of goal 10.


Your Action Items – Ask these Questions

I feel that this blog post is, sadly, timely.  These past few days I came across two stories that involved racially motivated attacks and killings.  Maybe a better way to put it is that the assaults were motivated by ignorance.  One significant aspect of each story is how “race” is framed.

Please know that I am not stating that education is the solution to all problems. But, I do believe that how we teach something is significant.  Currently, we seem to discredit race as concept necessary for students to understand both scientifically and socially.

By not explicitly teaching about race as a flawed and limited social construct that has no scientific backing, then we are not even trying to address the limited understanding and world views that exist.  This can, at worst, lead to violent behavior and dismiss the topic to another generation to content with – see Du Bois above.

To close, I offer these questions for you to consider  as a way to start talking and teaching  about race in the 21st century in your community.  Doing so may lead to some of the most significant conclusions and “a-ha” moments your students  and colleagues will have  both now and in the future.

  1. To what extent and in what ways do your local, state, or programmatic curriculum/standards address race?
  2. If your school provides professional learning on inter-cultural competency or diversity training, how do they present race?
  3. How does your community (students, colleagues, parents, administration, school board) think and act regarding topics related to race?
  4. When and how do students have the opportunity to learn about and engage with race?
  5. What perspectives and resources inform you and your community about race?
  6. To what extent is race a taboo topic in your school?
  7. In interviews, can the people you hire explain their understanding of concepts like  – gender, ethnicity, class, and race?




3 thoughts on “How Do You Teach About Race?

  1. Thanks

    Great article. An addition to this may be a commentary on
    Fred Wah’s “Diamond Grill” where the Chinese Canadian explores the nature of the Hyphen identity. His starting point is the official forms about race that he had to fill in as a schoolboy.

    Fred Wah’s
    Diamond Grill

    Many Thanks
    Keith Crawford

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