Sunday, November 16, 2008

Helping Teens Talk About Racially Charged Issues

In the weeks following the American election, mainstream media described President Elect, Barack Obama, as African-American, black, biracial and, thanks to Lindsay Lohan, coloured. In classrooms and staffrooms, the election inspired dialogue about these words and about appropriate language. But, in spite of our efforts to provide students with tools for discussing racially charged issues, they aren’t always comfortable having conversations about race.

Real Life Example
Last week my daughter, 15, used the word ‘coloured’ to describe a person she saw in a YouTube video. I was surprised because we don't use that term, and it isn’t something that I expect to hear from my daughter. When I began to question her about her choice of words, she started to cry (which added to the surprise). “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say,” she explained through her tears. “Everyone is talking about it at school. It’s so important.”

It = Barack Obama elected President of the United States

In the period of a few seconds, she had exposed her good intentions, her ability to quickly switch focus (YouTube to Barack) and her uncertainty around language. I decided to talk, not just with my daughter, but also with a group of her grade ten friends (how embarrassing).

The Grade Ten Perspective
  • They admit that they aren’t confident when speaking about race and racial issues.

  • They worry that they may use the wrong words or express ‘the wrong’ opinion.

  • They believe (and so do I) that they have positive intentions.

I had to confess to this group of grade tens that many adults feel the same way.

What Do We Do About It?

Long before the pedagogic encounter, the teacher should have set the atmosphere by explaining the rules of engagement and explaining the rules of dialogue.

- Jonathan D. Jansen

According to Jonathan Jansen, who writes about antiracist education in post apartheid South Africa, we need to set parameters for students around the language that they will use during discussions about race and this should happen well in advance of the discussion. Everyone should be clear on the expectations and feel safe to express their thoughts without worrying about judgement. Learning needs to occur through conversation and students won't talk if they don't feel safe or if they feel they are being judged.

In Context

After Lindsay Lohan made her faux pas by referring to Barack Obama as the first coloured president, the NAACP commented that it was no big deal. After all, the NAACP hasn’t changed its name. They remain the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. They argue that the word coloured is antiquated, but it isn’t evil.

It isn't about the words. It’s the intent behind the language that we need to be worried about.

Next: Tips from a Survey of Research on Antiracist Teaching

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