Main Points

  • Discussions About Race in the Classroom
  • The Idea of Fragility
  • What To Do When a Teacher is Called “Racist”
  • Having Difficult Conversations About Race
  • Implicit Bias


Dr. Sheldon Eakins: (00:00)

Welcome, Advocates, to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their school. I’m bringing back a special guest, a guest that was on episode 97, Dr. Amy Samuels. And if you haven’t listened to this episode, this is one of those, you know -- “I don’t know much about equity, and I want to get started, but I’m not really sure where to get started.” This is an episode that you should listen to: episode 97, Four Things to Consider in the Pursuit of Fostering Equitable and Inclusive Classrooms. So again, I’m so happy that I get to bring back on Dr. Amy Samuel. So, Amy, thank you so much for joining us today.


Dr. Amy Samuels: (00:44)

Thank you. I am actually thrilled to be back, so I appreciate the opportunity for the return.


Eakins: (00:50)

Well, you know, for those who don’t know who you are, could you share a little bit about you and your current research focus?


Samuels: (00:57)

Mhm, so, I am currently an assistant professor of leadership at the University of Montevallo with the small public liberal arts school, about 30 minutes South of Birmingham, Alabama. And I’ve been here for about five years. Before that, I did a lot of work in K-12. I taught social studies at the middle school and the high school level. And I also worked for professional development and mentoring programs to provide support to beginning teachers. Regarding my research interests, it all really surrounds diversity and inclusion -- looking at culturally responsive and racially literate practices to ensure that our teachers and leaders are doing work that supports all of our students in all of our schools.


Eakins: (01:41)

All right, well, that is great. And so I’m happy to have you on. So one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was race and discussing race in the classroom. I’ve done some study groups. I even just finished my teaching to a culturally diverse lens course, and we talked about white fragility and Dr. Robin DeAngelo’s work. And you know, I get questions from time to time from white teachers that say, “I’m not necessarily comfortable with race or talking about race. I don’t feel qualified to have these discussions.” And so I wanted to start off with asking you why is it so important for us not to shy away from having discussions about race in the classroom?


Samuels: (02:21)

So first of all, I love DeAngelo’s work. She really provides a lot of great things to think about. So I appreciate you bringing her into the conversation. Really when we consider the legacy of racial oppression and the current racial climate in the United States, we are really at a critical time when educators must have discussions about race in the classroom. So we simply can’t shy away from them. And I truly believe these discussions are essential in advancing society in a more equitable direction. And previously at having worked in K-12 and now in higher ed, I say this in relation to both of these contexts. So there are many strong and explicit implications related race in the United States. I sometimes think of the word “insidious” when thinking about how race has infiltrated nearly all social-political and social aspects of our society because it’s both gradual, and it’s harmful at the same time.


Samuels: (03:13)

It’s really this complicated thing to unpack and think about. So when we consider why we can’t shy away from these discussions, I always come back to the deep-rooted implications of race and how it has impacted so many systems, so many structures, and so many institutions. I think of the exclusionary practices and the racist ideologies that have been embedded throughout the history of the country and how it’s impacted real people in real-time. So thinking from people of African descent who were enslaved for hundreds of years, to Native Americans who had their land and assets stolen from them to Japanese-Americans, many of them were born in this country, being interned -- or maybe we should say in prisons during World War II -- to Mexican-Americans being segregated in their schooling experiences. And we could go on and on about this, but these implications undeniable. And so many will say, “Well, you know, we’re post-racial now, and we’re in a race-neutral country.”


Samuels: (04:10)

But I definitely can test that claim because we continue to see these disparities today. So we see them in educational access and educational outcome, particularly in a school in context. If we look to the school-to-prison pipeline or we can extend to beyond that, we can look at healthcare, job opportunities, hiring practices, income and wealth inequality, looking at police brutality and the prison industrial complex. And we could continue on and on with these disparities. So when we don’t talk about race in the classroom, we send the message that it’s not important, but it is important. And I think about, you know, I’m just south of Birmingham, and I guess it’s been about a year and a half now. There was a shooting at a mall called the Galleria, and there was CJ Bradford was a young man who was killed, and there was a lot of protest after that.


Samuels: (04:58)

And you know, a lot of Black Lives Matter riots, and there were teachers in the school thinking about “Can I have this discussion? Can I talk about this?” And kids, when they come to school, they want to talk about that. They want to hear about it because when we’re not talking about it when we continue to avoid it and minimize it, we continue to misrepresent information related to race. And we perpetuate that status quo, which often relates to silence. And to be honest, many students, they’ve been socialized and explicitly taught to avoid political conversations because they say it’s inappropriate or it’s impolite. And when I say political, that often relates to things related to race. When we think about immigration, when we think about religion, when we were talking about Black Lives Matter, oftentimes those are coded as “political.” So we have many students who come to our classroom thinking these discussions that they’re off-limits, they’re taboo, that they shouldn’t talk about them.


Samuels: (05:54)

So as educators, we have to disrupt that silence first to send the message that it’s normal behavior to talk about race. Second we have to challenge the misinformation and the untruths that are out there. And third, I would say we have to send the message that race is a valuable characteristic of people’s identity and the American identity. So, so many things that to talk about race is bad and there are a lot of bad things that come along with race and implications of racism. But race in itself is a beautiful thing, and it’s something to be celebrated. So when we normalize these discussions, when we don’t shy away from them, when we move past the denial, the discomfort, the hesitation, the uneasiness, everything that comes with that. When we actively engage these discussions in our teaching, we can hopefully influence students to be more comfortable and get to a place where they embrace the conversation.


Eakins: (06:46)

Amy, I love your response because you are absolutely right, and I say this a lot, too: race impacts so many things in our societies -- we’re talking from the United States standpoint -- race has impacted so much to where we’re at today. I remember having conversations with folks that once Barack Obama got elected as president and it was like, “Oh well racism is over. You know, we have a black president now,” but it didn’t end anything right there. You know, there was some progress in that sense, but there’s still so much that race has an influence on. And I agree with you, if we’re not having these conversations in the classroom, stuff that happens in our neighborhoods and our communities, police brutality, like you mentioned those things, you know our kids come to class the next day, and things were on the news, and if we just shy away and don’t say anything about it, then that can be an issue. Let me ask you this question, Amy: why do you think a lot of us educators have been “trained or told or taught” not to have these conversations? Like what is it that has been out there to where like these conversations aren’t always happening?


Samuels: (07:58)

So, and I’m speaking from the perspective of a white woman and speaking from the perspective on a lot of research that we have, a lot of educators are white, middle-class women, and race isn’t necessarily something they have to think about in their lives. So white people can oftentimes choose to navigate the world without having to think about that. So when they do, which kind of goes back to Robin DeAngelo’s work, is the idea of fragility. White people can be fragile when it comes to race. Because if it’s a conversation I haven’t had and society tells me it’s kind of a taboo topic, then I might be afraid to engage in it because I might be scared that I’ll say the wrong thing. I might be scared that somebody is going to call me out as being racist or thinking in a way that perpetuate biases. So it’s a safe zone not to engage. And I think that a lot of times it’s an instinct out of safety. I think sometimes it’s a result of not talking about it. And when you do something for the first few times, whether it’s riding a bike or whatever it is, it’s uncomfortable. So getting people to the place that it becomes more comfortable means that you have to have experience and you have to engage with it.


Eakins: (09:14)

It’s like riding a bike, having those conversations. Go ahead.


Samuels: (09:20)

If only it were that easy. If only were that easy.


Eakins: (09:23)

If only it was that easy. You know, and I liked that analogy there. I’m laughing, but I mean I think you make a lot of sense with it because I don’t want to say practice makes perfect, but after you practice, even with me podcasting I mean, my first episode to episode whatever this one’s going to end up being, I mean, you know, the more you do it, the more you have these conversations, the more comfortable you get with it. So yeah, it might be uncomfortable at times, but then you know, we start to get into it, and we start to realize, “Oh, you know what, maybe it’s not as bad as I thought it was,” or “Maybe it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was just because you know, I just hadn’t really engaged in these conversations.”


Eakins: (09:59)

So I’m glad you brought those points up. So I have some questions because -- I actually have a few scenarios. Some of the scenarios I’ve either witnessed them myself or someone has emailed me and contacted me about it, and they wanted to know some suggestions that I might have, and I’ve responded to them. But I want to get your take because I knew you’re going to be on the show. So I wanted to say these scenarios for you. So here’s the first one that I want to throw out there. And again, these are real situations and our listeners out there, they might have had some similar experiences themselves, and I’m sure they’re going to really be intrigued with your responses to them. So here’s the first one. There’s a white teacher, and this white teacher is leading a conversation, a class discussion. She’s having a great time with this conversation. The class seems very motivated and engaged, and then she gets confronted by a student who says, “You’re racist.” How should that teacher respond? I mean, it throws her off. She wasn’t prepared for it. Like how should a teacher respond in that situation?


Samuels: (11:00)

So that’s a good one. And I always think it’s important for teachers to think about these things ahead of time. It’s a lot easier when you don’t get caught on the spot. But to be honest, I hesitate to give blanket advice to teachers, to educators because the context matters. So the teacher’s relationship with the student is important here. In this case, the racial identity development of the student, and in that, I mean their positioning regarding race relations, that’s important. But if I had to give a blanket response, it would be first that the comment must be addressed. Perhaps not at that time, maybe not at that moment. Maybe not in front of the entire class as an audience. Perhaps maybe as a one-on-one discussion and maybe that would be more appropriate here, but I would recommend the teacher explicitly referenced the comment and ask the student to explain the motivation behind the comment.


Samuels: (11:50)

“So let’s talk about what happened earlier in class. You know, you said that I was a racist. Let’s talk about that a little bit. What was your motivation or what led you to say that?” But the important piece here is that the teacher examines what drove the student to make the comment. Because perhaps the teacher was being racist, and maybe it was wasn’t by intent. Maybe it was by consequence, or maybe it wasn’t explicit. Maybe it was implicit. But if it’s the student’s perception, it should be addressed because if it’s not, it only creates a wall and builds a wall up even further. Now I will say in my experience, there have been times when students have made claims to me, and they called me racist, and when I did some investigating, I found out the student’s intent was to get a reaction from me and usually it was to distract from the issue at hand.


Samuels: (12:41)

So maybe it was misbehavior because they weren’t comfortable with the work or something was going on at home, and they were just acting out. But in a society where we’ve been socialized not to talk about race when you call someone a racist, that definitely gets attention. So now, back to the earlier point, there are times when it isn’t appropriate to unpack the comment at the moment in front of the class and use it as a teachable moment. But again, it really, the context really matters here. The comfort level of the teacher -- because we are all in different positionings -- the racial dynamics of the class and the community. All of those things need to be taken into consideration, but at the very least, we need to recognize the comment needs to be addressed in a respectful way where we are looking for information to guide the next step.


Eakins: (13:28)

I love your response, and I know I just threw out a blanket “What do you do in this situation?” But I wanted to at least provide some sort of guidance in these situations because, like you said, as a white educator yourself, you’ve been called racist, and you were able to probe later or at that moment and kind of find out what that person’s intent was. I’ve been in situations myself where it’s, you know, you’re just describing someone, there’s a Mexican individual over here, and someone says, “Oh that’s so racist,” but it’s like, do you really understand or have a working definition of what racism means? If I’m just describing someone to try to help someone else understand who I’m trying to identify, that doesn’t make me racist because we could see color, you know, this person is of Mexican descent. And so that’s who I’m referring to. It doesn’t mean I’m racist because I’m describing someone in that manner. I’m not using any kind of negative slurs or, or any of those kinds of things. So sometimes I’ve seen experiences where I think some of the students just don’t necessarily understand what racism really is. You know, that word gets thrown out so much. They just [think], “Oh, you said something that was racial. Oh, you must be racist.” So I appreciate you sharing that statement.


Samuels: (14:43)

Yeah, I think that really goes back to what we talked about at the beginning is that some students think to just even talk about anything related to race is racist. So I appreciate what you just said, that, let’s unpack that. So if I reference him as “Mexican-American,” why would you say that’s racist and get this, “Well, you mentioned his race.” Okay. So is it racist to mention someone’s race and then perhaps pull out a definition of racism and then look at that and then get them to unpack that idea of which this is a great teachable moment? Get them to unpack that idea. Why is it that we have been led to believe that talking about race at all is racist? And I think that that is a really great entry point for some rich discussion.


Eakins: (15:25)

Okay. Okay. So let’s move to my second scenario here. And again, these are real situations. A white male history teacher, okay? He’s leading a discussion on colonization and discussing how Europeans came into America -- what we call America -- and remove the indigenous folks that were there, and we could go through the historical standpoint or how our Native American brothers and sisters had been treated, and he’s going through this lesson. So a student of color asks the teacher, “Well, how does it make you feel that your people did this to the Native Americans?” What are some of your suggestions on a way that the teacher could respond in that situation?


Samuels: (16:12)

So similar to the last question, you know, I think context and personality and relationships with students, all of that comes into play. But like the last question, I would definitely say that what’s essential is to address the comment, and I would probably connect this back to the dynamics of power and oppression in the history of colonialism and discuss the fact that the thirst for power, a thirst to be in control, a thirst to be on the top had caused people to do some really ugly, horrific and humane things throughout history. And I would highlight the importance of continuously critiquing this behavior. That’s why we’re learning about it. And we have to be able to critique people who look like us, too, and point that out to students. And in order to reconcile the ugliness and the injustices of the past, many of which were founded on white supremacy, we have to be honest.


Samuels: (17:04)

And honesty is not always easy. But I personally, I would be honest, and I would say that what was done to Native Americans in this country to indigenous people in many parts of the world makes me feel great shame and a sense of guilt and embarrassment, but unfortunately, we can’t change the past, but we can do our part and commit to challenging current injustices to ensure these things don’t happen again. And I would hope if a teacher is teaching about the legacy of racism and injustices to Native Americans, they would also be connecting some current events there, and that’s, you know, another great [inaudible] teachable moment talking about, so if this is done in the past if we had issues with this, how could we act differently today to ensure we are engaging advocacy and agency with a population that has been heavily marginalized and disenfranchised in our country?


Eakins: (17:58)

I love that answer. Sadly, I witnessed this conversation happening, and the teacher, you could tell the teacher was caught off guard, the teacher was uncomfortable, and they basically shut down the whole conversation. They were just kind of like, “Oh, I know what you’re trying to do,” kind of thing. And they didn’t engage. They didn’t engage in a conversation. But I think you’re absolutely right. The teacher could have taken the time to say, you know what? These atrocities that occurred are wrong. And how do we move forward, you know, and engage in a dialogue in that sense. So I appreciate your response and I hope our listeners out there have a little bit more fuel as far as what to do. And again, these are some blanketed type of scenarios. I mean, but you can kind of apply these things in your daily practices and again, being prepared. And I also think just to add onto your comment, it’s just, you know, we need to be comfortable with learning about different cultures, different races and just learning more about the history, especially if you’re a history teacher, but you know, going beyond the one-sided whitewashed approach to the different things that have happened across our country when it comes to people of color, their oppression, and brutality, all those kinds of things. So I appreciate your response there.


Eakins: (19:13)

Now you are a professor, and you do a lot of support and provide education to our up and coming teacher candidates. And again, we’ve already discussed that our teaching force, our current teaching force is predominantly white female. So I would probably imagine a lot of your students might match those same demographics. So I guess my next question would be, what are some additional strategies that you could share with us about having these difficult conversations about race?


Samuels: (19:46)

Sure. First, thinking about strategies, it’s really critical to think about strategies that will foster students to examine the racial order of the social world where we live. But we see that’s not often happening. So when working with pre-service and even in-service teachers, I always emphasize the importance of self-awareness on this journey. When you think about social and multicultural awareness, it begins with [inaudible] Tarell and Lindsey, and recently in the book, Tarell, Tarell, Lindsey and Lindsey, they talk about culturally proficient leadership and they always come back to the idea that cultural proficiency begins with self-awareness and your awareness of self. So when we think about race and racial privilege, it’s an ongoing journey to develop ourselves. It’s not something that happens overnight. The dialogue is ongoing and the reflection is ongoing. So in our courses, this just can’t be one assignment or something that we talk about one week or one month.


Samuels: (20:47)

It has to be an ongoing conversation because it takes a while for some students to open up and get comfortable. So we have to create an environment to support these conversations. And that involves establishing trusting relationships. And again, that doesn’t happen overnight. So we have to create an environment where students allow themselves to be vulnerable in that learning space. But this also means that the professor needs to do that. The teacher needs to do that, that I need to do that. So there are times that I will share stories with students sometimes where – it’s interesting, I was talking to the students in a class of mine last semester and I asked them “What makes a learning space safe?” And the response from one of the students was, “It helps when you tell us how you mess up.” And I think that transparency of that I made a mistake and that I’m working on this too.


Samuels: (21:38)

I think that’s important. So we need to come across not as judgmental, being understanding, but it doesn’t mean we can allow things to go unchecked. We have to address what’s happening in a way that we’re not encouraging students to shut down or to disengage. But a lot of students don’t have confidence in these discussions. Like we talked about earlier with Robin DeAngelo’s work. I think she uses the word “endurance” and how many white people don’t have the endurance in relation to these discussions, which leads to the white fragility. So when many white people aren’t engaging in these behaviors, we see sometimes minimization, we see denial, we see avoidance, distraction. We see them pointing out ways that they’ve experienced prejudice in a method almost to discount racism, so they don’t have to engage. So we need to consider how to build their confidence to embrace and normalize the discussion.


Samuels: (22:33)

So as educators, one of the things that I think about, and I know sometimes this comes across as something that’s not really that important, but I think it is, when thinking about strategies, norms are very important. Singleton and Linton published a book, I think it was in 2006, on courageous conversations about race. And it’s a field book that offers really thoughtful and practical suggestions on how to encourage students to engage instead of shutting down. And they suggest encouraging students to stay engaged, experiencing discomfort, speaking your truth and expecting and accepting non-closure. So one of the things I do is I start class with these norms. And when something surfaces during the class that can get tricky or challenging, I will refer back to the norm sometimes. And it’s important for students to understand that there are no easy answers or magic wands here.


Samuels: (23:27)

We have to get uncomfortable, and this can be tricky work and put us in places where we don’t feel the most confidence. And when I say this, I say this from my privilege white position because often being uncomfortable is a choice for me. It’s a choice for many of my white students, whereas this isn’t the case for many people of color. So I think that’s an important thing to think about. This idea of encouraging students to stay engaged, persist, allowing themselves that -- we have to be a little uncomfortable because that’s when we learn. That’s when we can unlearn things that we have been normed to think. Another thing I think about that comes to mind is the implicit association test. And this is an exercise that I use in a social and multicultural foundations class. It’s through Project Implicit, and you can Google it, you can find it.


Samuels: (24:17)

Originally, they started off with just a race test, and now there are multiple tests in which students can engage, but it’s an online tool that measures the strength of associations between concepts. So if you’re using the race test, it puts images on the screen that you associate with black or white, and then it kind of reverses the test. And the point of the test is to see if you more quickly associate one thing with good and another thing with bad. And this is something that I have students do outside of class in their own time and I have them write a reflection based on their results because that reflection gives them time to process and debrief. And some students who can test their results sometimes adamantly that they critique the validity of the test. There’s no way that it’s right. They don’t like the way that it works.


Samuels: (25:06)

But more times than not, the test encourages people to see things they previously haven’t seen. And one of the things about implicit bias, which frequently results in racism, is this idea that it’s not a personal choice. So we have been normed by society, the world that we live, the media that we take in, the things that we hear, the images that surround us, we’re normed to think things, but that doesn’t make us innocent. When we have an implicit bias that is negative towards one group, it’s our responsibility to recognize that so we can be aware of it and unlearn it. So the test, it doesn’t promise a change in behavior, but one thing it does is it starts the conversation about race and bias. And I think when we point back to this idea that we are implicitly normed to think things, it makes people feel a little better that this wasn’t my own choice to engage in this type of thinking and it positions them in such a place that they are more willing to think, “Okay well how can I unlearn this?”


Samuels: (26:11)

And I think that’s a really important starting point. So in relation to strategies, too, that I would highlight are really thinking about norm and what works for you in your context with these conversations. Implicit associations test is a great strategy. One of the things I think I mentioned in podcast 97 was the critical family history. Getting students to reflect critically on their own history and their own family and thinking about questions such as how has my race influenced my life or how has my socioeconomic status influenced my life? And then thinking about their family context, discussing what they learned, maybe what they didn’t learn in their background in their past. All of those things help a student to understand how they came to be where they are now. And then also maybe what they need to change and what they need to support to go to new places and see new things.


Eakins: (27:06)

Amy, I definitely consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. What is one final word of advice that you can provide to our listeners?


Samuels: (27:15)

So I would say that anti-racism, it’s a journey, and it comes with hurdles. It comes with roadblocks. There are going to be detours, but to be real, it’s not easy work. It can be incredibly frustrating. It can be discouraging. But the implications of racism, the consequences of racism that we discussed tonight, they’re very real, and they impact people on the most human level. So what we’re talking about tonight, it’s not just about justice, it’s about compassion, it’s about decency, it’s about humanity. So as educators, including myself, we must hold ourselves accountable for the role we play in either maintaining or interrupting these injustices and realize that this work is an ethical responsibility on behalf of the students, the families, and the communities that we serve in our schools and in our professional contexts.


Eakins: (28:06)

Woo! I’ll tell you one thing, Amy, every time you’ve come on my show, you have dropped so many nuggets. Oh, I always appreciate talking to you. If we have some folks that want to reach out and want to connect with you online, what’s the best way?


Samuels: (28:20)

Yes, I can be reached through my email, which is [email protected], and my Twitter handle is @AJSamuels27.


Eakins: (28:32)

All right, and I’m going to link your episode 97 to the show notes. I’m also going to put a link for the implicit association test. I think that’s an important test, and it’s free that you can take, so I’ll put a link in there as well. But, Amy, it has definitely been a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us today.


Samuels: (28:49)

Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. It’s always great to be here and unpack these issues with you.

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