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Combatting racism in school with trained educators and parents

Updated: May 21, 2020

Using your power and privilege as an educator to reduce discrimination in schools

Over the years, our society has made improvements in addressing racial inequality, but we are still dealing with issues such as school shooting, hate crimes and bullying as if fear of others is still engrained in ourselves. School is a great place to be exposed to peers from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. In turn, it can also be a place to make mistakes, hurt others and receive offensive comments. In the UK, the BBC has found 88,000 incidents of racism between 2007 and 2011. An Australian study found that 40% of students of non-European descent experienced racial discrimination through peers. In the USA, 101 black teens were asked to participate in a research study and they reported 5,600 experiences of racial discrimination in 2 weeks.

The reason why discrimination and violence persist can be explained by our neural process, which was essential to survival, as much as we have innate fear of spiders and snakes. According to Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton in his book Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology, we have primal instincts (even physical reactions) to discriminate, but the good news is that we can re-educate our brain to respond differently to “others.” The neo-cortex, which is responsible for higher functions such as conscious thought can be reprogrammed so that we can overcome prejudices and irrational innate fears.

In general, children don’t purposely try to achieve evil. Children learn manners and guidelines through their environment, mostly likely from close family members and school. They copy behavior without even knowing it as they’re eager to learn and grow. Children will explore their boundaries to learn what’s acceptable and if not told off, they’ll continue exploring their limits.

In Canada, the Vancouver School District hosted an anti-racism youth summit to give teachers and students the opportunity to raise their concerns about racism. Students have reported feeling hopeful for this event, as their family have suffered through racial struggles, and students are still feeling the impact of their parents' learning experience. The goal of anti-racism programs is to protect the kids from violence and bullying. These programs educate children to become more aware of racial discrimination. Hopefully, this persists into adulthood, making them more cognizant of racism. Unfortunately, not every school can afford to invest in those programs, so here is where we can as educators to raise children to be tolerant, open-minded and curious.

Examine how you view race and the concept of “others”

Perhaps a deep introspection and reflection on your own behavior is the best exercise to start with. Write down how your parents, elderly, teachers or even strangers have impacted you in your cultural views. Were you around a supportive and open-minded crowd? Were you the victim of any racial slur that made you cringe? Are you well-integrated in your ethnic group? How do you identify yourself? Is race a big part of your identity? Do you make friends while remaining color-blind? Did your parents set up expectations on dating someone from a certain cultural background? What are your racial biases? Were you a victim of negative stereotypes? Were you declined something because of your appearance?

Once you view your relationship to race on paper, embrace it. Don’t rewrite the past or try to justify it, but just accept who you became as a result of these experiences. If you need to see a therapist for unresolved scars, do not hesitate to reach out for help. A lot of folks will gladly listen and help you through your experiences. Now with increased awareness, love yourself with everything you went through. You do not need to be perfect, but with enough self-love, you can now love others and you can use your power to leave a positive influence on the next generation.

Accepting and honoring your identity will build a protective mental wall against racial slurs

For most of my life, I didn’t know where I belonged. I was born in Paris, France from two Cambodian parents and I lived in North America in my twenties. I didn’t build a strong identity in any culture because I didn’t know where I wanted to settle down. I ended up building several identities depending on who I was talking to. I was acting like a Westerner at school, being a good Asian to my parents and working ambitiously on my career like an American. It was challenging but did I really have a choice? Adapting and conforming was instinctual for me because it was crucial to my (perceived) definition of success and feeling loved. I know now that I was wrong, and I wish I had educators to help me through my “multiple identity crisis.”

In Europe and North America, people defined me as an Asian person and they obviously made jokes about it. As a kid, I wish it was explained to me that the sense of belonging (in a culture) doesn’t come from a place, it comes from within. I was bothered because I couldn’t identify as Asian because I didn’t even speak an Asian language and I had only visited once. My parents were also on the fence when it came to old traditional customs. They wanted us to feel French, so we did. Later in my life, I came to identify as American as well. That was when I realized that no one had the right to impose a racial identity on me. Getting love, validation and acceptance is important no matter what background we come from, but adults can help guid kids to discover who they are and honoring their identity(ies).

Be patient with other people’s assumptions based on physical appearances

After years of feeling like a newcomer (even though I was not), I decided to love my multi-cultural background. It’s actually braver and more badass to try to build a life in a place where you don’t have ancestors to back you up. First, it takes self-love and confidence in our persona, which can only come if you truly believe in your own worth. Secondly, being multicultural can allow you educate and explain to others how to refrain from prejudices. Let’s be patient with others. Not everyone can “just accept” change and foreigners. Their hate or fear may come from bad experiences and it’s not their fault they weren’t taught to forgive. The author Manfred Bornewasser explained that insufficient information and awareness about historical events have contributed to xenophobia. Other people may not have had a chance to travel, so they may pull out ignorant or offensive remarks. Again, let’s be patient and open our hearts to understand where they’re coming from. They may assume certain things based on their limited knowledge, but let’s remember that everyone can learn and change their minds.

Kids that are victims of racist bullying or racial discrimination can stand up for themselves, feel proud of their origins and build confidence if they have encouraging adults to support and back them up. Creating a friendly environment or an after-school workshop to discuss racial differences can be an efficient way to bring everyone together and raise the topic. Discussions don’t have to be about discrimination, bullying or violence. They can take lighter approaches such as international music, cuisines or games. Exposure to a diverse set of topics and cultures can help curb racist or offensive viewpoints.

Copycat open-mindedness rather than fear

People transmit verbal or non-verbal messages that will (unconsciously) influence their children’s behavior. Sometimes as little as a dirty look towards a community or a group of people is enough to teach the child that there is reluctance to mingle with them. None of these lifestyle choices will lead to raising a racist kid but it can accumulate prejudices over time.

In general, make sure that you do not send discriminatory or hate messages towards a culture, religion, even if they had historical baggage. Promote acceptance and be hopeful for change, that one day, we will all have equal rights. Bring up historical figures who dedicated their lives to racial equality. Martin Luther King, Rosa Park and Harriet Tubman can be the highlight of a cultural night. Bring creativity in your activities, so it’s not just another boring history course. Don’t hesitate to look for international movies with subtitles, engage in creative writing and try new recipes from different cultures.

Which communities you engage in

Most parents and educators already have a built mindset and a feeling of belonging to certain social groups. Some people may be welcoming and open-minded while others may refrain from mingling. A lot of people experience racial bias as a result of their own education. This is not limited to immigrants or descendants of immigrants, but for all people of an ethic/racial minority. A preference for a certain ethnicity or engaging in a specific closed community doesn’t mean that we are closed to others. However, it is important to convey to the kids that choosing a community doesn’t mean that it’s the best community ever. It is the best for us based on our tastes and preferences because we’re familiar with certain traditions, but it should not be a choice imposed on the children if they want to explore and discover other communities for themselves later.

Raising kids color-blind is detrimental

Some well-meaning parents may be uncomfortable bringing up the race issues in our society. They often perceive themselves as non-racist and will send the message that we are “one human race”, however it perpetuates the issue of racism without addressing it. People raising kids color-blind breed ignorance towards our history and society. By not acknowledging racial inequality, they will create a false view of our current society and in doing so, normalize white supremacy.

Kids will one day face some sort of discrimination or build their own (potentially harmful) ideas of race. It would be a disservice to not prepare them for it. Teaching kids to be conscious of their cultural background is honoring that their ancestors had a different life experience, which led to different education styles and that is a wonderful expression of our diversity as humans. Embracing that difference doesn’t mean we set ourselves apart from others, it means that we acknowledge that our world had a diverse past. Another important job for parents and educators is to teach kids that certain vocabulary and names are unacceptable. For example, it’s okay to call someone an African American but unacceptable to use the N word. Using correct names teaches kids to respect people beyond their race and not use insults to make fun of someone else’s ethnicity.

Call people out when they make inappropriate comments

Passivity is an important message, it means accepting the situation even when it feels wrong. When you hear or see something wrong, raise your voice and don’t fear doing the right thing. Sometimes, it’s easier to turn a blind eye to injustice but ignoring (racial) resentment will only teach kids to run away or be enablers. Confrontation is brave, if done in appropriate circumstances. Standing up confidently for one’s self and calling our racial slurs will show good examples of self-respect.

In conclusion, what children see, hear, experiment with and learn will affect their perception of the world as future adults. Even if small children don’t fully master the broad concepts of civilization and society, they’re able to pick up on personal and close interactions, especially those dealing with racial superiority and how we interact with others of another ethnic group. It’s thus important to intervene, reestablish respect and teach them what’s appropriate and how to be respectful. Parents and educators need to be careful in how they project themselves, how they present their cultural views and how they interact with “others.”

Children often look up to their parents for comfort and knowledge. Exposing them early to different cultures may help them grow into more tolerant and loving people. Not discussing current racial inequalities is a disservice to children. Although having tough discussions about race can be uncomfortable, take the leap and talk about appropriate names for other races, have cultural nights and have fun learnings about new cultures. Be a good role model, call people out when they say inappropriate things and be patient when explaining prejudices to others. Hopefully with enough educators working towards reducing racial discrimination, we could walk the path to an equal society.


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