Reflections on Teaching About Race

I want to thank Louise Derman-Sparks, Julie Olsen Edwards, and Catherine M. Goins for their article, “Teaching About Identity, Racism, and Fairness,” which appeared in the Winter 2020–2021 issue. As a white female teacher in a school with a large number of students who are Hispanic, and as someone who studied the topic throughout my doctoral program, I am all too aware of the need to validate our students’ feelings when racism exists.

I was particularly glued to the following text: “Very early, white children come to value their whiteness, presume it is the definition of normal, and believe that therefore all other skin colors are strange and less than.” The article speaks to a sense of “white superiority” for these children. When I admit that I teach my students that this sense of superiority is ridiculous, there are some comments from even the most educated individuals who deny that racism or white privilege exists. While I am still learning, a class on deep-rooted bias challenged me to look deeply into my own beliefs. I have become more focused and ready to step up through reflection and reading.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech put truth at the forefront. The only way to recognize that racism and white privilege do in fact exist is to dig very deep, which can be painful and raw. Can we, all humans, put down any bullying ways and walk as brothers and sisters in love and truth?   

—Dr. Kathy O’Brien
Middle School Teacher

In “Teaching About Identity, Racism, and Fairness,” I want to comment on the sidebar “Strategies and Activities About Racialized Identities and Fairness.” In the example given in the “Use Teachable Moments” section, after Jamal says that he didn’t like Hector touching his hair, the teacher proceeds to ask Jamal if it would be OK if Hector asked first. Instead of this, the teacher could have acknowledged Jamal’s boundaries. This would have still been a teachable moment (in respecting one’s body and boundaries), and the teacher could have gone on to still have a lesson about appreciating different kinds of hair. It would have been quite OK for Hector to be told “No” and for that to be the end of it.

Sometimes when a person in a position of authority (a teacher) asks a child (or an adult for that matter) to answer a question, one can feel pressured to answer the way they think the person would like them to answer—especially at age 4.

—Danica Onwudiwe
Robert F. Wagner Middle School
New York, NY

The Call to Save Our Democracy

I am not one to write in response to magazine articles, but I was moved to do so after the Fall 2020 issue. The cover title, “Saving Our Democracy,” encapsulates what is at stake in our country, and all of the articles included in this issue are not only timely and vital, but should be required reading for everyone who cares about the direction our country is going in. I want to applaud AFT President Randi Weingarten and the editorial team for curating such an inspiring and useful selection of articles.

In my current teaching post, I worked to ensure that all of my students registered to vote and actually got out and voted. Even though I teach theatre, it is critical that my students learn how to be informed and engaged citizens. The development of their theatre abilities comes as a nice bonus.

We certainly live in precarious times, made more dangerous by our former administration. I want to thank President Weingarten and all who work at the AFT for helping us navigate this season of unrest. We will do all that we can to ensure our country learns from its past mistakes and creates a new paradigm moving forward.

—Mike Ricci
North Hennepin Community College
Brooklyn Park, MN

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s article, “The Crisis of American Democracy,” summarized much of our current situation well, but it is guilty of promoting the very polarization it bemoans. Specifically, it makes no mention of the plurality of Americans, estimated at 40 to 45 percent, who now consider themselves independent, irrespective of how they may officially register to avoid being disenfranchised in a closed or semi-closed primary election. Questions such as “Are you Republican or Democrat?” or “Are you liberal or conservative?” create false dichotomies and divert our attention from the obvious solution, which is to build a strong centrist coalition. (“Paper or plastic?” “No, I always bring my own reusable bags.”) If we centrists (guilty as charged since my high school days) are no longer welcome in either major party, so be it, but the system has to be opened up to eliminate the two major parties’ stranglehold on every aspect of it.

My prescription starts with outlawing closed primary elections and caucuses as unconstitutional, particularly as long as taxpayers foot the bill for them. It continues with eliminating party preference from voter registration. California’s top-two primary system can help to ensure that an intelligent, pragmatic Republican voter, instead of sitting out a Democrat v. Democrat runoff, will vote for the more moderate and less extreme of the two choices.

—John A. Eldon
University of California San Diego

American Educator, Spring 2021