Why Teaching Adults About Race/ism is Challenging

But Teaching Kids is Fun!

Lucretia Berry  •   May 16, 2023

“They can educate themselves!” 

I often hear this proposed as a viable strategy for transformation. My thought is that if people have enough comprehension, competency, and efficacy to design their own education – one that builds their capacity to confidently engage in dismantling harmful practices and cultivating justice and belonging – wouldn’t they have done that already? 

As an educator, bridging scholarly-informed research to real life applicable practice is my jam!! So, when it comes to teaching about race/ism, it’s not the WHAT that is challenging and complex; it’s the WHO. 

Though teaching about race and racism is deemed a challenging and complex task, I find that teaching children (prek-12) is much easier than teaching adults.

Children are naturally curious and are excited to learn – especially about something so pervasive as race/ism. When I teach children, they usually have far more questions for me than time permits. Adults on the other hand seem to have a limited capacity for learning about race/ism. We, adults don’t seem to understand that we actually NEED an education. We don’t know that what we don’t know is prohibiting progress. I have observed that many of us, while well-meaning, succumb to the belief that because we do not overtly align with race-bigotry and hate, we are doing enough to eliminate race/ism.

Teaching K-5th graders, Trinity Episcopal School

And when we come to the table to learn and grow, we must first let go of these four sources of engagement.

  1. Saying, “I don’t see skin color,’ or race-colorblindness. Race-colorblindness is a racial ideology that posits that the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without taking into account their race or ethnicity. It is rooted in the belief that racial group membership and race-based differences should not be taken into account when making decisions. However, this approach can actually perpetuate racism by ignoring or overlooking racial and ethnic differences and the policies and practices that perpetuate race-based inequities. 
  1. Adhering to a version of history that centers European conquests, colonization, and contributions or a selectively skewed history. Learning only European-centered USA history can be harmful because it presents a biased and incomplete view of the country’s past. Research has shown that Euro-American perspectives dominate history classes, leading many to disengage from academic learning. This Eurocentric view of history has led to misinterpretations of the actors and events that have shaped the human experience. By focusing only on European history, we miss out on learning about the many “histories” that compose the American national story. African American history, for example, is American history, and not teaching the full story of American slavery and its legacy can have lethal consequences. Therefore, it is important to hold a more nuanced and inclusive version of history that acknowledges the contributions and experiences of all groups.
  1. Being solely motivated by human interest stories. Racially incited personal experiences and catastrophic events headlining the news should grab our attention. However, such stories are often shared with no racial historical context, which contributes to the misconception that racism is an isolated interpersonal event, instead of a historic, systemic pathology that impacts us all. Also, waiting for a violent event to occur before taking action perpetuates the systemic racism that already exists. Instead, it is important to acknowledge and address the legacy and persistence of racial discrimination and to root it out and remove the rot from our society.
  1. Arguing and projecting political platforms. Political platforms are intrinsically divisive and have shaped popular discourse around race/ism. Different political perspectives may influence how race/ism is perceived and discussed. Ultimately, political platforms are designed to get votes, not offer an education that brings us together to serve the greater good.  

Ultimately, these practices prohibit us from building the capacity needed to create the equitable society we know is possible. We, adults and children, need education that helps us ground and integrate awareness – that offers us a mutual understanding of race/ism, and prompts our imagination to dream a new way forward. In other words, as an educator, I’d love for us to be more like kids – curious with possibility.

Lucretia is a former college professor, who founded Brownicity with the purpose of making scholarly-informed, antiracism education accessible in order to inspire a culture of true belonging and justice for all. Her TED Talk, ‘Children will light up the world if we don’t keep them in the dark’ (2017) is well received, as well as her books and courses:

Teaching for justice and belonging
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