Border Crossers Workshop: Why Race Should Matter to Educators
Wendy Rojas and Victoria A. Wilson
This past March, the Educational Theatre program along with the Bilingual Education program had the privilege of participating in a workshop on race and the classroom by Border Crossers, an organization that “Facilitator J'nelle Chelune guided us through a series of activities, lecture and discussion on the definitions associated with race, political agendas and to help us discover where our own conceptions lie. She used this to show how to teach race, empathy and build a safe environment in our classrooms. In just one hour and a half, we not only gained mind blowing statistical data but valuable activities and strategies to apply to our own pedagogy.
J'nelle encouraged us to open our minds from the moment the workshop started. In the first half we "mingled" and told each other our own stories about who we are and then explored the group understandings and misconceptions of race and racism. We looked at the three types of racism (individual, cultural and institutional) in relation to what children see and experience. What surprised Tori the most was the idea of intention vs. impact: The government is pushing diary in its new nutrition campaigns and free and reduced school lunches only come with milk. The majority of students receiving free school meals are Black. Yet, about 80% of Black American children are lactose intolerant (not to mention an astonishing amount of Asian-American children as well) . Additionally, many of those children come from religious or culturally backgrounds that don’t allow them to drink milk (doesn’t everyone have soy or almond milk in their refrigerators nowadays anyway?). We came to the conclusion that although the government is probably not trying to poison Black or Asian children, as educators it is our responsibility to consider the impact of our intentions on every single student.
The second part of the workshop put us in different groups, analyzing and writing about our reactions to several plausible scenarios involving racial situations in school. We all chose to focus on the scenario of a young Black American girl in an all White class that started to complain and cry when her teacher pulled out a story on Dr. King Jr. – the same story that was read in her class the year before and the year before that. We were reminded of the importance of creating a culturally relevant classroom and the dangers of only using one face to represent an entire race. We realized that it is not the norm for everyone to be sensitive to students’ emotions or misunderstandings about themselves and race. These situations are often ignored due to the lack of comfort of both the teacher and students. It was helpful to discuss and role play as the teacher and students in order to explore appropriate ways to use this scenario to address race in the classroom. After trying a few different approaches, we recognized that we really are fully equipped to resolve a situation about race.
As people of color we (Wendy and Tori) both had similar strong reactions to the workshop. Wendy's reaction was blatant anger. It is hard to swallow the idea that although the NYPD has clear data on their website, showing the miscorrelation between the population majority in NYC and the majority of people being stopped and frisked. If the city knows and even openly admits that it is stopping and searching Blacks, who represent less than half of the city's population, and Latinos a great deal more than Whites (who represent the city’s majority) then what more can be done to stop it? It was also frustrating for both of us to hear some of the responses of people who seemed to never have experienced racism in their own personal lives and therefore could not comprehend the gravity of its effect on youth. Discrimination happens often and not everyone is fully educated or aware of these ongoing confrontations. For Tori, there was a mixture of responses. The sense of urgency and hopelessness was definitely present, but it was refreshing to see a group of racially diverse adults come together and successfully talk about race – even if we did not agree with everything that was said. Expressing ideas and assumptions on race is always the first step to combating racism.
So what were the both of us able to draw from this workshop? For one thing, every educator needs to take workshops like this! Although race might be more of a social construct then something that actually exists, it is so embedded in our society that it can’t help but effect schools. Therefore, it is important to educate ourselves about diversity and then acknowledge the fact that these confrontations can, have and will happen in our classrooms. It can happen in the most subtle of ways so we must be observant and aware because the way we handle it will impact our students’ willingness to take risks as well as their ideas of themselves and each other. And talking about race can be fun! Our job is to enrich our students with the knowledge of culture and help them to respect and celebrate the benefits and beauty of every race and every culture.*If you missed the workshop, we encourage you to take advantage of the resources available in helping parents and teachers talk to children about race: http://www.bordercrossers.org/resources/