The many crises we are facing as a nation right now are showing the wide range of harmful effects of our nation’s long and ugly history of racism. From unequal access to healthcare, employment, due process, and more, we are seeing the hurt of our black and brown communities laid bare.
Seeing all of this exposed at once has left me feeling heartbroken and powerless. But we must remember, teachers have power. One of the greatest powers we have is in the lessons we present to our students. By developing lessons that are culturally responsive and inclusive, we can help to dismantle prejudice in our students and communities. We can develop students that both take pride in their identities and and value the identities and voices of others. To do that, we have to help students see cultural differences as assets by fostering classrooms where people of different cultures and heritages are valued.
Every student sitting in every classroom deserves to have an image of genius and success that looks like them, that shares their identity and reflects who they are. This goes beyond race and identity. This extends to gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Every student deserves to see someone that looks like them held up as an example of genius and success. And everyone should learn about the potential for genius and success in the other identities in their community. Representation matters. Prejudice will find difficulty taking hold of a mind that has regularly seen the true diversity of genius.
So what does that look like? First, let’s look at how we can be culturally responsive. Look at the students in your classroom. How do your lessons respond to their cultural identities? What are the ethnic backgrounds that make up your community? If you don’t already have access to it, a quick Google search should help you find the breakdown of your school population’s race and ethnicity. You should also look at your city and state data. It’s very possible that your student body is less diverse than the entirety of their community. Once you’ve put that information together, ask yourself, “Do I present information on individuals relevant to my content that exemplify genius and success for each race and ethnicity on this list?”. The answer might be no. If so, that means there is work to be done.
I like to challenge myself to make sure every unit I cover reflects the full diversity of my community. I don’t want two lists of identities. I have seen teachers inadvertently create separate lists. One list is presented as historically important figures and the other important minority figures. This can give students the impression that we are only talking about an individual because of their identity. Make it clear that we are talking about a person because of their contribution to our content, not because of the race or ethnicity of the individual. I have heard students complain that some classrooms only mention the contributions of non-European cultures during certain months or holidays. This can have the effect of students believing certain cultures are only included out of obligation, which can do as much harm as it does good. The diversity of genius should be discussed year round. For example, I teach in all of my classes that Kerry James Marshall is one of our most important living painters, and then when my students see interviews and pictures of Kerry James Marshall, they learn that he is a Black man from Chicago. I start the conversation with his genius, not his race. But I don’t exclude his race either, because it is such an important aspect of his identity and of his work as an artist. And I definitely don’t wait until February to bring him up. His work is prominently and permanently displayed in my space.
Our students are in the process of learning about and developing their identities. They are working on the difficult task of self-actualization. This involves a lot of trial and error. They are going to try on and discard a lot of versions of themselves. It will help for students to see a broad range of successful identities that look like them during this process. It will also help all your students to examine and admire all the successful identities that don’t look like them. Because again, prejudice will find difficulty taking hold of a mind that has regularly seen the true diversity of genius.
Cover artwork by Krystal Rodriguez, Edith Juanah, and Sarah Walters