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Why Teaching About Race/ism is Hard

and how we can get better

Afrika Afeni Mills •   May 9, 2023

When I think back on the hard things I learned how to do when I was a child, lots of examples come to mind. In sixth grade, I experienced learning a new language in school for the first time. I had some familiarity with the Spanish language from children’s programs like Sesame Street, but nothing beyond that. 

Learning Spanish in school was not an enjoyable experience for me. My teacher was mean and impatient. I got the strong impression that she didn’t enjoy being around young people, and I didn’t feel comfortable around her. Additionally, until I had a corrective procedure when I was 19, the ligament under my tongue extended too far, so I couldn’t roll my r’s like everyone else, and that was embarrassing. I have since learned about the benefits of language immersion, and this experience wasn’t that. It was more about learning the days of the week, months of the year, conjugations, and decontextualized vocabulary. 

https://www.ted.com/talks/afrika_afeni_mills4_ways_to_have_healthy_conversations_about_race

In seventh grade, however, I had a very different experience with learning to do something hard. I learned to play the flute, and that experience was much more enjoyable. My teacher was kind,  supportive, and patient. Under his guidance, I learned to read music and play the instrument as part of the woodwind section of the band. I loved the sound of the flute and the sense of belonging. I felt capable and competent and enjoyed contributing to the beauty of our performances in a way that differed from, but complemented the sounds of the brass, string, and percussion instruments.

What comes to mind for you? What are some of the hard things you learned to do when you were young? Learning a new language? Traveling? Playing a sport? Driving a car? Teaching about race/racism is hard because we don’t tend to treat it like the other hard things we learn to do. Based on what I learned from my junior high language and band experiences, here is how we can get better at teaching about race/ism:

  • We need skilled, patient teachers. Learning something new and hard is a vulnerable experience, made far more enjoyable by gifted, emotionally mature guides. 
  • We need psychological safety. Learning something new and hard requires that we take risks, and are free to make mistakes.
  • Immersion is key. Being surrounded by and having regular opportunities to practice a new skill improves the effectiveness of our learning. Immersion is where fluency develops. 
  • We need to see how our learning contributes to a desired outcome. As part of the band, practicing my instrument had a purpose. I wanted to be ready to play the musical pieces alongside the other members of the band. I wanted to play well, and not contribute to any discordant sounds. 

When it comes to teaching about race/racism, we can all be part of the amazing orchestra of the human family if we learn the beauty of playing our parts and value the importance of complementing one another.


Afrika Afeni Mills is an author, an Education Consultant, and Adjunct Instructor. In addition to authoring Open Windows, Open Minds: Developing Antiracist, Pro-Human Students (Corwin, June 2022), she works with colleagues, teachers, coaches, and administrators to develop and sustain student-centered learning experiences that are diverse, inclusive, and equitable. Afrika has been featured on podcasts, blogs, delivered keynote addresses, and facilitated sessions at conferences across the United States. She will also be publishing a book with Corwin Press in 2022.

Afrika believes that all educators can be motivated, engaged, dynamic practitioners and leaders when provided with the support needed to create student-centered, antibias, antiracist, pro-human, culturally responsive learning environments that inspire wonder and creativity and nurture authentic diversity, belonging, equity, and inclusion.

Learn more about and from Afrika at links below.