Why we haven’t talked about racism.

I want my students to talk about racism. What it is. Does it still exist? What does it look like? I want them to discuss stereotypes and prejudice. I want them to debate whether affirmative action is still necessary. I want them to discuss what to do about immigration and to analyze white privilege.

But I don’t want them to just argue from viewpoints that they already hold mostly based on their family and community background. I have students from rural, urban, and suburban neighborhoods. Some live in areas with virtually no diversity while others live in places with virtually no Caucasians( a different kind of no diversity). I want students to bring their life experiences to the conversation, but that alone is not enough.

We are in the middle of a project on Civil Rights focusing on the African American perspective. We have not talked about the previously mentioned questions. My students are not ready yet. Many of my white students do not understand the sacrifices made to end segregation by thousands of regular people. Segregation did not end just because MLK gave a speech in DC one day. Many people were abused and many people died in the struggle for equality. My white students need to understand the seriousness of the abuses and the commitment to the struggle.


Many of my minority students also do not know the history of the Civil Rights movement. They have spent too many years learning about “dead white guys.” They know about Dr. King and Rosa Parks, but they didn’t know this. They don’t know about Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, or the hundreds of students that were Freedom Riders. Minority students are empowered when they read about how people of their race stood up and claimed their right to a “seat at the American table.”

This is why I teach history. Once all of my students appreciate the struggle for freedom and equality in America, then we will discuss all the current issues of our day. We have worked hard not to turn this project into white guilt but rather a celebration of the everyday heroes who stood up for their inalienable rights. We do not ignore the atrocities of our past but use them to understand how legal equality does not automatically mean actual equality. I want all of my students to be empathetic, compassionate citizens who will shape their part of the world for real equality.

We haven’t talked about racism yet because we are not quite ready. But we will…

11 thoughts on “Why we haven’t talked about racism.

  1. Sue VanHattum

    >Rustin Baynard

    You mean Bayard Rustin. If you can deal with gay issues in school, I highly recommend Brother Outsider. I named my son after Bayard Rustin (I used his last name). He helped Martin Luther King come to understand the principles of non-violence. He organized the March on Washington at which King gave his I Have a Dream speech. He was in the background because he was gay, and very out.

  2. Michael Kaechele

    Thanks Sue for the correction and the insight. I looked into him a bit and he is definitely an interesting person that we should look at.

  3. Philip Cummings

    I love this.

    How do you know when you are ready to start discussing? How much content/research do they need to do before they are prepared to talk about these things? I’m not pushing back. This is something I struggled with as we did our PBL. When are they ready to start talking, creating, and acting on the ideas? How do we determine when they have enough background information and knowledge, when they are ready? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Throughout our project, I kept feeling like we needed to go back and do more research, but I’m wondering if that’s just my tendency as one who learned the “old-fashioned way” by sitting, reading, and listening. Where’s the balance? How do you find it?

    Thanks, Mike. You’ve been a great resource to me as I’ve ventured into this PBL world.

    1. admin

      I want to add to my comment below that I think PBL is a cycle and there is always time to go back and research through out the project. A good discussion should lead to more essential questions that need to be researched. The other thing that I do if I feel that students think they are “done” with a topic but I feel that they have not gone deep enough is to introduce new resources to them such as primary source pics, docs, or interesting stories.

  4. Julia Lesley

    Hey Mike. I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts, just like Philip, on when you’ll know your kids are “ready” to talk about race and racism. You’ve got such a unique opportunity there with kids coming from the many different areas of your large district. Have you looked into some information about dialoguing? Lee just shared this resource with me the other day: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/173431.pdf

    You’ve got some fun decisions ahead. I’m curious to hear about the angle you end up taking as an entry point into the conversation about race and racism in today’s society. Keep the blogs coming, sir!!

    I’m sure you’ve read Peggy McIntosh’s article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (http://www.deanza.edu/faculty/lewisjulie/White%20Priviledge%20Unpacking%20the%20Invisible%20Knapsack.pdf). This was the article that opened my eyes and my own personal journey into the world of equity and social justice. Unfortunately I didn’t read it until I left my hometown of Brighton, MI and headed off to college…which again raises the question of entry points for me. How will you know when your students are ready to trust one another to have a meaningful dialogue about an article such as this? (that’s not to say that this is THE article, but you know what I’m saying…)

    You continue to inspire me!

    1. admin

      Thanks for the link about dialogue. I am considering using the “White Privilege” piece but am thinking of editing it out and having students read parts of it.

  5. admin

    Philip and Julia,

    Thanks for pushing me on this. I don’t have a magic level that I am looking for from the students. I just know from talking to them at the beginning of the project that many of them had very little background on the subject. So in my mind I guess there in a minimum amount of exposure to Civil Rights history that I want them to experience. It includes looking at Jim Crow laws, segregation, and lynching. We also looked in detail at how African Americans could be lynched just for being accused of a crime.

    Students are also looking at the major events of the Civil Rights movement in the 50’s and 60’s. When we come back from spring break students will be reading from Dr. King and Malcolm X and comparing them. I want all of my students to understand what it felt like to be African-American during segregation and how demeaning it was. I also want them to understand the struggle that individuals went through to bring about the change. We also have a local civil rights activist who lived through it coming in as a guest speaker. This will help emphasize another point: It happened in our Northern town too.

    Finally and most importantly I am teaching this group for the second year and I know how they think. The vast majority of them are very empathetic and will be very sensitive in this discussion. There is also a group of conservative kids who may oppose certain things such as affirmative action, but will do it in a respectful way. Most of all I think the culture of these kids is to be kind to each other even when they disagree. So I feel pretty good that we can have a productive conversation that will stretch them. If someone does say something that is insensitive I believe that the rest of the class will call them out on it.

  6. Michael Breckenridge

    Hey Mr Kaechele,

    I am a student at the University of South Alabama, I read your post and I understand your plight. This is an extremely important issue that students need to know about, but yet when is the right time to teach it? I also agree with you that it is extremely important to not make this learning about them being black but about how they stood up and fought for their rights just as America’s founding fathers did. I wish you the best of luck in teaching your kids, and by reading your posts, I’m sure you will do a fantastic job.

    Michael Breckenridge

  7. Brody Brown

    Mr Kaechele,
    I am a student at the Univerity of South Alabama. Deciding on when to teach students about this issue is extremly important. I do not see a problem with teaching students at a young age, as long as the teacher is doing it the correct way.

  8. Pingback: When things don’t go as planned … | Concrete Classroom

  9. Pingback: Diving Into Project-based Learning: Our Inquiry |Philip Cummings

Comments are closed.