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Eliminating Racism in the Classroom
by Richard Morgan, D'Youville College
"It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person." (Baldwin, p.190) This quote from James Baldwin reflects the duty and moral obligation of modern educators to attempt to eliminate racism in today's classrooms. If the role of education truly is to produce a better society, then the teacher must accept the onus of responsibility for this huge undertaking. This paper shall examine methods and strategies the reconstructionist educator can employ to attempt to eradicate the scourge of racism from his class, but shall also examine the feasibility of this task using an existential microscope.
Educators who practice a reconstructionist philosophy believe it is their duty to be a social activist. They must continually search for means to improve society by ending degradation and harm. (Ozmon, p.191) One tactic a teacher could utilize to remove racism from classrooms is to take a critical look at the materials which the students use to learn. Despite the recent trend of multicultural literature, many school texts remain monocultural in their presentation of knowledge. This may send serious messages about the inferiority of some and the superiority of others. (Powell, p.3-4) Texts that fail to address the issue of multiculturalism by displaying pictures, and using examples, of predominantly white males, may be inadvertently contributing to the problem of racism by promoting stereotypes and prejudices. (Henson, p.418) Teachers should select texts that represent non-mainstream persons positively. (Henson p.419) Some believe that the curriculum, through its texts, ought to describe the ways different cultural groups have contributed to western civilization to eliminate racism. (Ibid) This is apparent in the writings of George Dei when he suggested that information should present truths about the contributions of African societies to world civilization. (Dei, p.7) This would represent Africans in a more positive light as opposed to consistently dwelling on their problems and failures, which may perpetuate and strengthen existing biases. Texts should also promote equity of people with mental and physical handicaps, the gifted, the elderly and between the genders. (Henson, p.424) The latter may be accomplished by portraying men and women in roles traditionally held by the opposite sex. Students could learn about female doctors, lawyers, and mechanics and concurrently about male secretaries, nurses, and flight attendants. (Henson, p.420)
Cooperative learning groups are not only an effective tool to stimulate academic growth through participation, but they may also be a successful vehicle to help eliminate racism. Through the creation of a team, a micro-society, educators can attempt to break down the superficial barriers that students may see when they are individuals. Group work exposes individual attitudes, ideas, experiences, and beliefs that are used to achieve a common goal through a collective effort. Group work leads to better understanding of the task at hand, the dynamics of team-work, which will be valuable in later stages of life, and opens the lines of communication between group members despite race, sex, age or religion. (Powell, p.3-4)
Other methods to help eliminate racism may include a variety of active learning strategies through different multi-sensory learning styles. Maria Sweeney's fourth grade class made posters condemning racism, sexism, and ageism. They also watched movies on apartheid and created anti-racist rap songs for a play the students wrote and starred in for the parents to demonstrate the evils of racism. They also encouraged contribution to African relief funds and the joining of anti-racist groups. (Sweeney, p.8) Some educators take a Golden Rule approach to eliminating racism. One such popular practice was to expose children to racism and how the sting of discrimination felt by using the blue eye/green eye experiment, which favoured students and gave them preferential treatment based on their eye colour. Multicultural days exploring different cultures, religions, and the history of different races may also occur. Some schools practice a zero-tolerance policy to discourage the practice of racism and other undesirable behaviours, which may result in the removal of the offending student from that particular school. (Abbeduto, p.332)
These methods may definitely have a positive influence on eliminating racism in the classroom, but what about society as a whole? These practices identify racism and suggest how to quell it in schools, but they fail to prepare the student for the racism they will lamentably still encounter in society. Existentialists may find fault with this approach, as the Reconstructionists don't seem to address the totality of the situation. Children must learn to accept the fact that racism will exist outside of schools. Existentialists might argue that the educator must focus the evils of racism more on the individual so that each student personally understands racism and it's implications. For if a student cannot relate to racism as it affects himself, then he may not understand it completely and choose not to actively participate in its elimination. Perhaps Reconstructionists should teach that some people are going to sport racist views no matter what and will not listen to the sappy, humanistic preaching and droning of the anti-racist activist. Students must be taught to accept racists, bigots, sexists, and hate-mongers despite not agreeing with their philosophy or practice, because if they don't accept these people, then they themselves are practicing the prejudice against which they so actively lobby.
Students must learn that racism is an unfortunate part of our society and that attempting to eliminate in schools is a step in the right direction. They must also realize that racism will exist despite their creation of posters and plays and that changing the thought processes and perceptions of certain people cannot be done overnight or even at all. Students should prepare themselves for the harsh reality of the words offered by James Baldwin in the following selection:
"When attempting to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty operating in classroom and society, you will meet the most fantastic, brutal, determined resistance. There is no need in pretending this will not happen." (Baldwin, p.185)
This should not, however, discourage the student in his crusade for moral justice. The student will be better prepared armed with the knowledge that this shall be a lengthy and challenging process.
Abbeduto, L. 2000. "Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Educational Psychology " Guilford: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill
Baldwin, J. "A Talk to Teachers" in Schultz, F. 2001. "Sources: Notable Selections in Education" Guilford: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin
Dei, George. "The Challenge of Anti-Racist Education in Canada" in Canadian Ethnic Studies. 1993. Volume 25. Issue 2.
Henson, K. 2001. "Curriculum Planning: Integrating Multiculturalism, Constructivism, and Educational Reform: 2nd Edition" Boston: McGraw-Hill
Ozmon, H and Craver, S. 1999. "Philosophical Foundations of Education: 6th Edition" Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall
Powell, R, Cantrell, S, Adams, S. "Saving Black Mountain: The Promise of Critical Literacy in a Multicultural Democracy" in Reading Teacher. May 2001. Volume 54. Issue 8.
Sweeney, M. "No Easy Road to Freedom: Cultural Literacy in a Fourth Grade Classroom" in Reading and Writing Quarterly. July-September 1997. Volume 13. Issue 3.