Advocacy: When Students & Teachers Resist Learning About Racism

When Students Resist Learning

I recently had the opportunity to read an essay written by another teacher which sought to refute my positions on antiracism work. While I have addressed the issue with the original writer, one of the things I noted about the essay was that the arguments are the same ones I see trotted out across various social media platforms. And sometimes, they show up in my classroom.

As an English teacher, I have realized that I have a duty to advocate for my students and to work towards creating an equitable, just, and diverse communityin and out of my classroom and as digital citizens and global collaborators. While this seems like a noble goal on its face, much like “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” not everyone agrees. And on top of that, some people go to great lengths to deny that they disagree–sometimes without even realizing that’s what they’re doing.

Frequently, the people who disagree on social media are former colleagues. Or family members. Or people I used to go to church with.

While I generally try to keep scrolling when I run across fact-free memes posted by that last group, I have realized that sometimes I must speak up as an antiracist teacher in my classroom, in my school, and as an educational publishing company to advocate for my students who are impacted by discrimination. The times I feel most pressed to say something are when someone who has a hand in educating our students is endorsing ideology that is harmful to Black, Indigenuos, and people of color (BIPOC). Of course, I am aware that I’m always representing my profession and that my students are watching, so I must remain professional and view each of these encounters as a teaching opportunity–not just for the author of the vitriol being advertised, but for the bystanders, as well.

I also realize that I am new to this journey of advocacy and that I just continue reading and researching so that not only can I anticipate conversations that might suddenly spring into my classroom, but also develop ways to respond that foster equity, justice, and diversity in my classes.

The teacher’s essay in question is not one that I’m at liberty to republish, so I am going to address the more common arguments repeated in the essay and that I have seen or received when I or BIPOC attempt to provide “multiple points of view and experiences” of America’s history and its current events. And while I have not had a student actually write down any of the following comments in my classroom, I have facilitated student-led classroom discussions in which some of these ideas were discussed in student-led Socratic seminars.

I also know that after the events this summer that have brought racism and white supremacy to the forefront of our national conversation, students are going to have questions. Students are going to have opinions. And students are going to have things to say and write.

As their teacher, and an advocate for equity, I must be prepared for how I will respond (and reflect on how I did respond) as my students struggle to understand what his happening in the world, in their own lives, in the lives of people they have never met, and how all of this impacts English Language Arts. Sometimes students don’t yet understand the impact of their words or actions, which can in some cases violate our school anti-bullying policies and in other cases, are designed (intentionally or otherwise) to make me feel defensive.

So I am writing this article to share my thoughts, at this moment, of how I might respond if any of these ideas are tossed about in my classroom, particularly through a written assignment. This is not my final word on this topic, and is subject to change based on the context in which arguments are made. Ultimately, my goal though is to advocate for my students to experience a safe learning environment in which they can learn, grow, and develop “curiosity and a love of learning, tolerance and open-mindedness, fairness and justice, an appreciation for our cultural and intellectual heritages, and respect for human diversity and dignity.”

Let’s start with a common argument often hurled by adults at people who have started the work of questioning their own complicity and impact on BIPOC people and communities.

“You clearly have not done any research and you’re being brainwashed by ‘the media’.”

If a student has written something of that nature, I would take some time to make sure I had moved out of my “emotional brain” and back into my “rational brain.” I would remind the student that I also used to be a professional newspaper reporter so I am used to having my work critiqued by an editor. I am also a graduate student so I’ve had professors critique my work, Finally, I am a member of a Doctoral/Master’s level writing critique group, so I have experience critiquing the writing of my academic peers in English Education and having mine critiqued, as well. So, I know what the process feels like and I highly value, as a writer, receiving honest and direct criticism to help me more accurately communicate to my audience.

Then I might say something like: “I have had some time to reflect on your words and the tone of the essay you wrote. When I reread the piece, the first thing I notice is that the tone sounds very condescending at best. It automatically makes me feel defensive. Is this the impact you want to have on your audience?” This is where I assume that my student is a good actor, that they have good intentions, but are not aware of the impact their words and tone have on their audiences.

When I am teaching my students how to engage in civil discourse over a controversial topic, I insist they reread their work from the perspective of their audience to avoid patronizing rhetoric which is almost begging for a defensive response. At this point, I would recommend my student read the works of people in their audience and try to see the issue from their perspective with the goal of trying to understand, not refute, their points of view. Of course, if the student lives in a predominately white community this last suggestion may not be possible (which is part of our problem, but more on that later).

After expressing concern about the tone, I would then provide commentary within the document or in verbal communication about specific changes that need to be considered in the text.

I would also point out that “the media” is not a monolith and then I’d introduce them to two media bias charts: One that is a very simple representation of the left to right biases of common media outlets and one that also represents the reliability of dozens of media.

You probably get all of your information from binge-watching sappy Netflix docudramas.

First, docudramas are a legitimate source of historical fiction. I would suggest my student researches the genre so that they understood that it features fictional characters living within the context of known historical facts. Like with historical fiction, the genre does allow for dramatic license for peripheral facts related to the fictional characters or dialogue that hasn’t been recorded.

Docudramas and other historical retellings of events from characters outside the ones we studied in our textbooks are important. In other words, we need to see the stories of the people who were enslaved, whose lands were stolen, and whose identities were (and continue to be) erased. According to NCTE’s Position Statement on Indigenous Peoples and People of Color (IPOC) in English and Language Arts Materials:

“[BIPOC] continue to suffer debilitating and systemic discrimination in jobs, housing, civil rights, and education. Part of this discrimination takes place in the form of erasure, and these communities continue to face a school curriculum that, for them, frequently downplays or does not include their communities’ work and contributions. Ironically, it is also a curriculum which, in a different fashion, deprives white students and teachers by denying them opportunities to gain a more complete and accurate picture of the diverse and intricately connected constellations of histories and literature of the United States.”

National Council of Teachers of English. (2020, January 16). Position statement on indigenous peoples and people of Color (IPOC) in English and language Arts Materials. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from

Of course, I do agree that one should not rely solely on historical fiction to understand the complexities of modern or historical life and events. At this point in the assignment though, I would have read enough of my student’s work to know whether they were relying on docudramas, or if they had spent any time studying the works of living BIPOC.

I would also share with my student that I don’t stop research with Wikipedia or Netflix, but use other resources to verify what I have read or heard and that I continue to read widely in the area of antiracism work and racial discourse in education.

I would let the student know that as part of my research into aliteracy and as part of my National Board Certified Teacher process, I have spent the past 5 years researching ways to improve my efforts to empower and amplify my students’ voices and to mitigate the systemic racism, sexism, and classism that hurts them. (FTR, I a referring to intersectionality, which is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw).

“There are lots of great Black people out there. The rest of them just need to get off welfare and get a job. My family and I worked hard for everything and we’ve never taken a handout. And if Black people wouldn’t break the law, they wouldn’t get suspended or arrested.”

I would also suggest the writer consider reading multiple sources to gain an understanding of the history of our country for the past 400 years (and social justice within the context of school), not just textbooks provided by the school. I would suggest they study the racial discourse and education scholarship by academics and authors like bell hooks, Clint Smith, Jose Vilson, Leonard Pitts, Jr., Tricia Ebarvia, Melinda D. Anderson, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, Jason Reynolds, Angie Thomas, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dr. Debbie Reese, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Ibram X. Kendi, Michelle Alexander, Kelly Wickham Hurst, and organizations like Teaching Tolerance, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, and the National Council of Teachers of English. I would also suggest they listen to their peers who are emerging BIPOC leaders in their states.

I would also suggest reading Rep. John Lewis’ July 30 essay Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation, which he wrote before his death with instructions to publish posthumously in The New York Times. His life story is lesson on the continued impact of racism and the role of antiracism advocacy into the 21st century. Lewis wrote:

“Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

Lewis, J. (2020, July 30). John Lewis: Together, you can redeem the soul of our nation. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from

“You all need to stop whining about things that happened 400 years ago. Get over it already.”

I would also ask students to consider that racism and white supremacy didn’t stop with slavery, but continued through Jim Crow laws, theft of Black wealth through sharecropping and peonage, terrorism by organizations such as the KKK, school segregation, neighborhood redlining, voter suppression efforts, over-policing of Black communities, school-to-prison pipeline, police brutality, and mass incarceration. I would suggest that while docudramas might help them gain an emotional and basic understanding of the eras and issues, they should also read writings by the people I listed above and academic research like that published in The New Jim Crow Is the Old Jim Crow by Katie R. Eyer in the Yale Law Journal.

“I do not see myself as white-centered or racist. I am nice to everyone who is nice to me and I don’t see color. I treat everyone the same.”

Students who are raised in a predominantly white community and school are at a serious disadvantage when they try engage in racial discourse with people who have been raised in integrated, multicultural communities and schools. Some of these students have no idea that racism still exists and do not know anyone who has experienced it. They also don’t understand that their ability to blind to structural racism is a symptom of their white privilege. So if my student were to then ask why they need to do this research when they don’t see racism in their own friend groups or predominately-white communities, I would tell them that I see and read about the impact of all of this on the BIPOC in my classroom today and that as soon as they leave their insular communities, they will have tough lessons to learn about how to–at the very least–get along with people who don’t look like them. As a white teacher in a predominately white school, I use my power to both empower my BIPOC (and all my) students via my classroom management and grading policies, but also to open the eyes of my white students to narratives outside their own perspectives (and that they will encounter just 30 minutes down the road) through the curriculum I choose to teach and the methods I use to encourage civil discourse about current events. I also use my own platform to engage in these conversations with other white teachers so that we can do better by all of our students. I often do this through independent reading projects and providing a classroom library full of diverse texts, including The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds, Rethinking Normal by Oklahoma authors Katie Rain Hill and Ariel Schrag, Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, and more…

“Zora Neale Hurston wrote: ‘I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.’ So Black people need to just get to work instead of crying about the past!”

I would ask if the student has read anything about Zora Neale Hurston’s life and if it would be appropriate to use the words she published in 1942 to deny the necessity of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the current Black Lives Matter movement. Hurston “wished to break the color barrier and used her talent as a writer to inform people of the injustice that was racism.” She was an activist in her time, and served as a “confirmation that when trying to fight for your rights, your freedom or even you acceptance in society there are passive ways in which you can present your arguments and there are more forward ways.

She did not ignore or dismiss the past, she sought to uncover racial injustice when she found it, she continued to fight for her humanity and that of future BIPOC. I would ask the student if using Huston’s words to deny white supremacy and the systemic racism that is still baked into our system is really an accurate or appropriate representation of her work or message. If the student said it was, or that they didn’t know, I would suggest reading more works by Hurston, reading biographies, and reading the works of BIPOC who worked with her and who were inspired by her to gain a more complete understanding of her intent and the impact of her work over the course of the past 80 years.

“The Forbes article ‘Defund Teaching About Slavery? Sen. Tom Cotton Proposes Legislation Attacking The 1619 Project‘ is just clickbait. You should know better than to write that headline!”

I would also ask the student if they were aware that the headlines in articles linked on social media or other online locations are written by the publication being linked to. I would recommend they copy that portion of their essay into a email to the publication itself, if they feel so compelled, as they are the ones who are engaging in clickbait headlines. I would also point out that writing headlines that encourage people to read the article (and swerving headlines into half-truths or outright fictionalizations) has been a mainstay of yellow journalism since mid-1890s circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. I would also point out to my student that this is why it’s always a good idea to read the article, not just the headline. I would also suggest reading multiple sources from both left- and right-leaning websites, making sure to aim for those that are known for being fact-based or analytical, as opposed to dispensing propaganda, as outlined in the media bias charts I linked above.

Assuming that was written in response to a discussion on federal and state efforts to mandate education (testing), while at the same time not funding it (testing), I would point them in the direction of articles on the history of education in our state.

“Why should I be responsible for fixing whatever problems exist in our society. I didn’t ask to be white and I’ve never benefited from it.”

I would also ask the student that if someone was kneeling on his neck, would it be easier for the kneeler to stand up or for the student to force him off? Any student on social media would immediately think of the image of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck which so graphically illustrated this point. I would also point the student in the direction of readings that illustrate that white people, all of whom have benefited from the power of white supremacy and colonialism across the globe (even if they suffer from other forms of oppression, racism just isn’t one of them), are the ones that have to dismantle the system into which racism is baked and rebuild it in a way that really does honor all people. I would ask them if they would be willing to partner with BIPOC on equal footing in order to build an equitable society. I would also point them in the direction of readings, like The Hate U Give and All American Boys, which highlight how BIPOC are daily assaulted via implicit biases, microaggressions, systemic racism, and outright racism cloaked as American exceptionalism or even Christianity.

To answer the student’s question, though, about their responsibility for change, I would ask if perhaps it would make more sense for white people listen to Black people to understand and fix the actual problem white supremacy created and that white people are still benefiting from than to try to deny a problem exists or slap band-aids on gaping wounds. Perhaps this is much larger than an “oyster knife,” though that little knife wielded by one person can make a huge difference in the life of one BIPOC, depending on whether it’s used to cut that person’s chains or slice their throat.

“Black Lives Matter is a Marxist group of terrorists who are trying to destroy America!”

I would point that the argument accusing BLM of trying to destroy America is based on what is called a strawman fallacy. From the website:

“Black Lives Matter Foundation, Inc is a global organization in the US, UK, and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives.”

Black Lives Matter. (2020, May 22). About BLM. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from

I would also suggest the student read this analysis. I would also suggest the student read this breakdown of the founding of BLM, how it has evolved over time, and how Marxism started and evolved over time.

I would also suggest the student consider whether or not they are conflating their one idea and experience of America with the actual institutions which continue to underpin “inequalities in education, housing, employment, wealth, and representation in leadership positions.”

“I just want to solve problems and your insistence that Black people are victims of racism and that they’re somehow subjected to ‘systemic racism’ and ‘White supremacy’ is the problem.”

Finally, I would point out to the student that I understand they want to solve problems. However, I would suggest they need to make sure they identify the actual problem first instead of jousting at windmills and straw men. That can be done by reading the works of the Black leaders I mentioned above. I would state that personally, I have been reading widely and continuing my arduous, uncomfortable, lifelong journey of identifying and eradicating my own role in upholding current and future systems of oppression. I would also link them to the blog post I wrote about the incident in my classroom that made me realize I was the problem, not BIPOC.

I would also ask the student if they were truly trying to understand the perspectives of BIPOC people in school or in society at large, or just using the assignment as a platform for their outrage at a light shined on their privilege.

Of course, the responses I have suggested here are subject to change as I grow in my awareness and experience with facilitating racial discourse in a predominantly white environment. I am continuing to read about practices to avoid and ways to help students and me grow in our understanding of race and power in America.

What can I do better?

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

  1. Thank you for writing and sharing such a thoughtful and well-researched piece about a difficult and important subject. With your permission, I’m going to utilize this piece with my methods class this fall. I’ll be working with preservice ELA teachers, and will include it as an optional read for our literature circles. Your article will fit nicely as we explore social justice issues and teaching students how to discuss tough topics. I’ll keep you posted on how your wisdom received.

    1. Thank you so much! I’m honored to have you include my article as a resource your students can choose. I’d love to hear or read their responses! I also have another resource they might want to consider that includes several more responses specific to ELA and links to BIPOC educators who frequently write and talk about racial discourse, equity, justice, and diversity in the classroom. You can find it here: How to be Antiracist in your ELA Classroom

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