“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic Inequality [Part I]

“Why did they do that?” Will asks me on the afternoon of my first day at Miller’s Hill. I have just explained how scientists let four hundred black men go with untreated syphilis for nearly half a century in order to study the effects of the disease.

I hesitate, my eyes lingering on his otherwise blank “Tuskegee Experiment” note card. How do you explain the dehumanization of racism to an eleven year old? “Well, the scientists, who were white, thought that they could do whatever they wanted to black people.”

“But why?” He scrunches his brow, genuinely confused.

I continue, “Since white people were in power – and for the most part, they still are – they could do horrible things to black people without consequences. So sometimes, they used them for experiments.”

Will’s eyes suddenly widen. “That’s awful!”

“It is. And the experiment would have continued if the press hadn’t found out about it and made it public in the seventies. Of course by then, many of the subjects had already died from the disease, and the others were very sick.”

Will is suddenly solemn, his mouth opening and closing slightly as his eyes dart from me to the Wikipedia page. Outside of Slavery, it might be the first time he has heard of any state sanctioned atrocities his racial group has perpetrated.

One month later, Naomi and I sit with the class on the carpet for our race and racism lesson. “So, who can tell me the definition of racism?” I ask the class, soliciting the mainstream definition before expanding it into racial prejudice plus institutional power. Surprisingly, students accept this new definition with little contestation.

“So how do people have power in our society?” I continue, “What does that mean?”

“Like, having a lot of money?” offers Sara, a quiet, tall, and tremendously freckled white student.

“Right! Having money is one way people can be powerful in society. What else?” Students consider the question for a moment. When no responses are forthcoming, I direct their attention to the back wall, where we have hung the ads from the gender lesson, under the heading, “What do these images tell us about ourselves?”

“What about those ads and the messages they send? Do you think people who control the media are powerful?” The class offers a collective noise of agreement before we discuss other powerful people in society, like politicians, lawmakers, police, corporate leaders, and education administrators.

“And what race are most of people in these positions?”

Without hesitation – and almost in unison – the class responds, “White.”

Alexis suddenly perks up. “They’re all men, too!” I am increasingly awed by students’ perceptiveness and acceptance of concepts and information so contrary to mainstream messages.

“Being in power is about more than political positions or laws. As we just mentioned, it’s also about the media and who we see.” Naomi tells them, “For example, think about Disney movies. What race are the main characters usually?”

Several students murmur, “White,” Before Jaden, exclaims, “But what about Mulan or Pocahontas? They’re not white!” A few students nod their heads in support.

“That’s true, there are definitely exceptions to the rule,” I say. “But generally, if you can count all the exceptions on one hand, it’s actually proving the rule.” Jaden gawks, and then leads the class in counting off Disney princesses of color one by one.    

“Pocahontas… Mulan… Taina from The Princess and the Frog… and…. and…”

“Jasmine,” I supply. “But don’t even get me started on Aladdin.” Naomi chuckles. I watch as Jaden stares at his four raised fingers and slowly lowers his hand.

“Oh…” he says glumly, a sound echoed by many of his classmates.

“Another good example is Barack Obama,” I add. “Just because a black person is president – arguably the most powerful position in the country – doesn’t mean that there isn’t still racism or that most political positions aren’t held by white men.”

As the discussion progresses, Faith shares a story about being out with her father and a witnessing a young white child exclaim to his mother, “He’s black!” and then behave fearfully toward them.

“Training to be racist happens from an early age,” Naomi responds. “And it may not be obvious, either. That mother probably didn’t tell her child to hate or fear black people, but often the messages we send about race are subtle.” The usual side conversation dies down as students stare intently at Naomi. “When a mother and her child walk down the street past a group of Latinos, and the mother holds her purse a little tighter, or even crosses to the other side, that sends the message to her child that those people are scary, even if she doesn’t say it.”

Following the discussion about societal power and learned racism, students ask a flurry of questions that bounce from one topic to another faster than I can track. In answering a question regarding how current systemic racism operates, I talk about how the police disproportionately target people of color. “So today, racism and violence is no longer as visible or ‘in your face’ as the KKK was pre-Civil Rights Movement.” I pause, noting some students’ confused faces. “You have all heard of the Civil Rights Movement and the Ku Klux Klan, right?” About half the class nods. The rest remain expressionless, some cock their heads to the side. Did I know what the Civil Rights Movement was in sixth grade? Though this catches me off guard, Naomi later tells me she is unsurprised. We offer a brief explanation of the Movement and discuss how the KKK used white institutional power to get away with murder.

“Back then, public hangings of black folks called ‘lynchings’ were common,” I say to the class. “It was even a celebration of sorts – white people would bring their families – their children – to watch black people get hanged.” The silent disquiet that had settled over the room is suddenly shattered by students’ exclamations.


“They brought children?!

“I can’t believe it!”

“That’s it, I’m staying in my house from now on!” Faith declares, after which Naomi and I ardently assure her that lynchings no longer occur.

“Besides,” Naomi adds, “You’re probably safer in the white neighborhood you live in than a black neighborhood in the city, because neighborhoods of color are more policed.”

Despite their recent surge of interest, student engagement is beginning to wane again. Unsurprisingly, several pairs of twelve-year-old eyes are now glued to the clock, which reads three-minutes-‘til-recess. Naomi and I wrap up the lesson for today, immediately agreeing to expand it into tomorrow in order to cover everything we want, including exploring how racism and white supremacy were created, contemporary racial inequality, and deconstructing racial stereotypes.

In the afternoon, I watch a short play the students have been working on with Naomi. As the students prepare the set, Marcus, a sweet, quick-to-laugh Latino student, goes to get materials from the cupboards in the back of the room.

“Hey Marcus! Get the cup while you’re over there!” calls Caleb, a blonde white student with a penchant for basketball shorts and occasional attitude.

“Psst, why you always gotta do that Caleb?” Marcus retorts, smirking, “You think I’m your slave? It’s cause I’m not white, isn’t it?”

“Yup, that’s it,” says Caleb, laughing with Marcus as he takes the plastic cup. The two boys are good friends, and commonly joke with each other about racial difference. They are not the only ones; I have overheard several lightly made comments on race and racism from many other students in the class. For me, instances like this highlight the fact that for most of the sixth graders, race/ism is not yet personally salient. Sure, they notice and comment on difference; but openly – without the pain, anger, or defensiveness I often hear in adult discussions on race. For the most part, these students of color and white students seem able to joke and talk about racism without being deeply stung by it, or realizing they are violating the (white) taboo on discussing – or even pointing out – race and racism. It is saddening to realize that this openness will probably erode swiftly as the student’s leave their insulated, K-6 elementary school environment and enter larger, racially stratified middle schools. Here, their relationship to the subject of race/ism is likely to shift as their own racial identity becomes more relevant to those around them, and subsequently, to themselves.

*      *      *

During our second day on race, Naomi and I spend most of the lesson giving students facts on the creation of white supremacy and what contemporary racism/racial inequality looks like. “How do you think racism and white supremacy began?” I ask the class as we form our customary circle on the floor.

Many of the students consider the question, looking thoughtful. “It started during the time of Slavery, in the late 1600s. Now, slavery existed in other cultures too – like the Greeks,” I tell them (they have recently started a unit on ancient Greece).  “But the Atlantic Slave Trade was the first system of slavery to be based exclusively on race.” I flip to a clean sheet of chart paper and draw three green circles on it. “These circles represent the rich European colonist who owned slaves back then.” I draw five more circles with a red marker underneath the others. “These circles represent the slaves they owned. In addition to slaves, these rich Europeans also owned indentured servants. Indentured servants were a lot like slaves, except that they only had to work for a certain amount of years, and when that time was up, they were free.” I draw five more circles next to the red ones, this time in blue. “These indentured servants were usually poor Europeans who traded their years of service to rich people in order to get a spot on a boat from Europe to the Colonies.”

“Do you think that slaves and servants liked serving the rich Europeans?” I ask, making sure I still have students’ attention.

A quick, resounding “No” greets my ears.

“They sure didn’t,” I agree. “In fact, slaves and servants would often team up and rebel against their masters to try and escape.” I point to the ten red and blue circles, noting to the class how many more of them there are than the circles representing wealthy colonists. “When they joined forces, the rich Europeans had trouble stopping their rebellions. So the rich people decided to divide them.” I swiftly draw a line between the two bottom rows of circles. All eyes are fixed on the chart paper.

I narrate how the wealthy colonist created the privileged category of whiteness to divide indentured servants from slaves in an effort to keep them both in bondage. Throughout (or maybe, in spite of) my monologue, students remain engaged, I think in large part due to the help of a visual. They accept this new bit of history, undoubtedly omitted from their textbooks, with more interest than contestation. To them, I imagine, this is just another chapter in American history; business as usual. To many older students and adults, however, this bit of history tends to be met with challenges, hostility, or at the very least, surprise.

Soon, we turn our attention to what contemporary white supremacy looks like. Naomi and I offer students some basic statistics on wealth, housing, education, and incarceration by race. Realizing how useful visuals are for the class, Naomi draws a rectangle on the chart paper, making a grid of fifteen tiny squares inside it. “So if this is the wealth of the average white family,” she says, pointing to the whole rectangle, “Then this is the wealth of the average black family.” She shades in one square of the grid.

“What?!” Faith gasps. Other students make similar noises, ranging from astonishment to outrage.

“It’s true,” Naomi assures them.

“So why might this be?” I ask, “Why do whites have so much more wealth? Or why do they go to college more?”

“Well, maybe white people just want to go to college more,” Jaden answers impatiently.

“Hmm, no, I don’t think that’s it…” Naomi says.

“That’s often what people will think if they don’t know about systemic racism, though,” I add. “That’s why it’s so important to talk about.” Naomi and I use this as a jumping off point to discuss the unequal structure of opportunity, and how hard it is to navigate getting into college if no adults in your life have attended.

We conclude the lesson by examining and dispelling some well-circulated stereotypes about racial groups. To get the class started, I refer to a story I read yesterday afternoon about a Lebanese teenager who gets racially profiled at the airport. As usual, students lose focus as recess approaches. However, when Naomi and I check in later, we are both satisfied with the progress made today. “I think it was eye opening for a lot of them,” she tells me. “Many of them had never thought about racial inequality before.”


go to part II –>

5 thoughts on ““…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic Inequality [Part I]

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