Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Schools & Race Relations: A Toxic Topic by Dr. Bernard Gassaway

As an educator, I am deeply disturbed by fellow educators’ apparent fear to engage in meaningful discussions about race relations with each other and with children.

As many teachers have shared with me, discussing race relations can be challenging, if not downright frightening. Some fear that their subconscious biases and prejudices might surface during a conversation, and they might say something offensive. Others fear losing their jobs if they say the “wrong” thing.

Teachers have expressed that they welcome meaningful professional development regarding race relations. Unfortunately, school leaders do not appear to know how or where to begin because, in fact, they share the same fears that many teachers have.

Race Relations Challenges in School Communities

Discussions on race relations are practically absent from school professional development activities. While teachers admit that race relations are extremely important, school and district leaders put minimal resources towards addressing this important topic.

One challenge for educational leaders is that they do not know how to begin to address race relations. They are not aware of organizations that specialize in leading race-based discussions and strategies in the workplace.

Race discussions can be toxic if they are not organized around specific objectives. Simply talking about race issues is not enough. In fact, talk without action can actually exacerbate the problem.

Some school districts find it difficult to engage in meaningful discussions about race because they lack a critical mass of people of color to contribute to the dialogue.

Other school districts avoid race discussions until a racially charged incident occurs in their school community. Once the dust settles, they go back to business as usual.

Effects of Inaction

Some public school personnel (teachers and principals) have long sat on the sidelines during numerous racial crises. Their inaction only contributes to larger societal challenges. Here are some truisms:

Communities segregate. Schools segregate. Teachers segregate. Students segregate.

Nothing is done to establish sustainable practices for dealing with the root causes of racism, which are admittedly beyond the control of school systems.

To avoid race discussions in schools is to contribute to the seeding of segregation.

Segregation breeds contempt, distrust and fear.

Strategies to Address Race Relations in Schools

Engage in action-oriented race-based discussions. They are meaningless if they stop post-talk. To be meaningful, these discussions require continuous and strategic engagement.

Strive for organic engagement. Organic engagement occurs when people who share similar interests or causes gather to plan, discuss and act on what they believe.

Be strategic. Strategic engagement involves consistently meeting and working to prevent problems that might occur, rather than merely responding to race-based problems as they arise.

Invite and engage community stakeholders in meaningful ways. By inviting stakeholders to participate in the learning environment, you allow them to contribute to learning experiences for children and staff. Stakeholders can infuse life into a lifeless curriculum.

Work with the community (seek diversity) to infuse culture into the school environment. The ultimate goal is for the school to truly become part of the community, rather than an institution located with a community.

Be intentional about diversity in your hiring. It is not enough to talk about diversity. It must be practiced.


The responsibility for improving race relations does not rest solely on the shoulders of one people, entity or race. Rather, each individual or organization bears the responsibility for addressing this problem.

However, I believe that, as educators, we have a greater responsibility and opportunity to confront and combat racism, beginning in the workplace. Our value to society is diminished when we do not address the reality that our children and we face.

While community and neighborhood segregation are harmful to race relations, segregated schools are catastrophic. We can change this swiftly, though courage is required on the part of the school, the district, and the political leadership.

Unless we change policies and practices (particularly in public schools), to paraphrase the prophetic pronouncement of the former Governor of Alabama George Wallace, we will continue to suffer from “racism today, racism tomorrow, and racism forever.”

Our silence about racism does not make it go away.