Anti-racism in Education

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Read a Note From the State Superintendent, Dr. James Lane, Working Together to Fight Inequality

The social structures that exist in society are frequently based on race. Schools do not merely inherit or manage racial and ethnic identities, they create and enforce racial meanings. Schools structure the conditions for the embodiment, performance, and/or interruption of sustained and inequitable racial formations. As long as students and staff are insulated from the realities of racism, they will have little reason to change their behaviors or attitudes.

Anti-racism requires acknowledging that racist beliefs and structures are pervasive in education and then actively doing work to tear down those beliefs and structures.

Strategic planning around racial equity that does not include systemic analysis of racism helps to maintain systems of oppression. In doing so, students are hurt. Systemic racism impacts student learning—resulting in disparate educational outcomes—but it also has a significant impact on students’ social-emotional wellbeing.

The following text is adapted from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Traumatic events that occur as a result of witnessing or experiencing racism, discrimination, or structural prejudice (also known as institutional racism) can have a profound impact on the mental health of students exposed to these events. Racial trauma, also known as race-based traumatic stress, refers to the stressful impact or emotional pain of one’s experience with racism and discrimination (definition from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network).

The racial achievement gap, which refers to disparities in test scores, graduation rates, and other success metrics, reflects the systemic impact of historical trauma and ongoing impact of racial trauma on communities of color.

Key Considerations to Remember about Racism and Anti-racism:

Avoid common misconceptions of racism and understand the requirements of anti-racism in order to successfully communicate and implement policies, processes, and procedures centered in anti-racism. 

Racialized outcomes do not require racist actors.  Racism goes far beyond individual instances of mistreatment due to skin color. The focus of an anti-racist education agenda should instead be on interrogating and dismantling the system of social structures that produces cumulative, durable, race-based inequalities.

Striving for equity and inclusion is not interchangeable with acknowledging systemic racism. Racism cannot be defeated unless it is named for what it is. By naming and framing racism it is no longer ‘masked’ by coded language and denial (from: How school and district leaders can address systemic racism).

Racism is dynamic and ever-changing. Racism has been ingrained into society through the incorporation of racialized practices into all the social and economic structures of the United States. The work to dismantle systemic racism—and create school environments grounded in the principles of anti-racism—must adapt to the dynamism of racism through ongoing and active work. In other words, school leaders should not expect to eradicate racism in a few weeks, but rather to continuously evaluate current and future practices with anti-racism as the goal (from: Racial Equity Tools, & Grassroots Policy Project. (n.d.). Race, Power and Policy: Dismantling Structural Racism).  

Anti-racism requires systemic analysis and proactive action. Anti-racism acknowledges that racism exists, directly and openly names it, and actively works to identify ways in which racism permeates organizational systems. Only then are leaders able to remedy and prevent the racially inequitable outcomes, power imbalances, and the structures that sustain inequities in schools and divisions.

Structural racialization is a system of social structures that produce and reproduce cumulative, durable, race-based inequalities. (from The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity)

Anti-racist school leaders explicitly and implicitly challenge all manifestations of racism and racialization.

Systemic and institutional racism are interchanged, but school and division leaders should note that institutional racism focuses on unfair practices or policies within and between institutions—such as discipline policies—that disproportionately impact students of color. Systemic racism includes institutional racism but takes it further by examining the historical, cultural, and social factors in the unequal power, access, opportunities, treatment, and outcomes between white students and students of color (from: How school and district leaders can address systemic racism).

Terms and Definitions

  • Antiracism: results from a conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily. These choices require ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection. In the absence of making antiracist choices, aspects of white supremacy, white-dominant culture, and unequal institutions and society are upheld. (Adapted from Talking About Race – Being Antiracist. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.)
  • Anti-racist: someone who is supporting an anti-racist policy through their actions or expressing anti-racist ideas. Being an antiracist requires active opposition to racism. Being racist or anti-racist is not about who you are or what you believe; it is about what you do. (Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. New York: One World.)
  • Anti-racist Education: a set of pedagogical, curricular, and organizational strategies that promote racial equality by identifying, then eliminating, systemic racism. It moves beyond prejudice and discrimination as a problem to be corrected in individuals in order to examine critically how institutional structures support racist practices economically, politically, and culturally. (Niemonen, J. (2007). Antiracist Education in Theory and Practice: A Critical Assessment. The American Sociologist, 38(2), 159-177. doi:10.2307/27700497)
  • Anti-racist Pedagogy: an approach that works proactively to interrupt racism. In classroom practice, anti-racist pedagogy acknowledges the importance of racial and cultural identities, honors voices and experiences of people of color, teaches through collaboration and dialogue, examines power and oppression, examines discrimination as systemic, critiques traditions of schooling, and advocates for social action. (Borsheim-Black, C. (2015). “It’s Pretty Much White”: Challenges and Opportunities of an Antiracist Approach to Literature Instruction in a Multilayered White Context. Research in the Teaching of English, 49(4), 407-4)
  • Color-blind Racism: a post-civil rights approach that essentially denies the subtle forms of discrimination that have replaced the blatant or explicit racism of the past. The color-blind approach ignores the evidence that skin color plays a powerful role in shaping an individual’s life experiences, and denies the measurable damages of a dynamic system of oppression against people of color based solely upon a false notion or assumption of superiority by the dominant racial group. (MD DJS Office of Equity and Reform. (n.d.). Language of Equity Glossary)
  • Cultural Competence: having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families. It is the ability to understand the within-group differences that make each student unique, while celebrating the between-group variations that make our country a tapestry. This understanding informs and expands teaching practices in the culturally competent educator’s classroom. (National Education Association. “Why Cultural Competence?” August 27, 2020.)
  • Discrimination: unfavorable treatment arising from negative stereotypes or prejudice. (MD DJS Office of Equity and Reform. (n.d.). Language of Equity Glossary.)
  • Disparate Impact: the notion that an apparently neutral policy that has a disproportionate impact on a particular group may indicate the existence of discrimination. (The Fordham Institute, & Eden, M. (2018). “Disparate impact” for school discipline? Never has been, never should be)
  • Education Equity (Virginia’s definition): eliminating the predictability of student outcomes based on race, gender, zip code, ability, socio-economic status, and/or languages spoken at home.
  • Hate Crime (as defined in Virginia law): a criminal act committed against a person or their property with the specific intent of instilling fear or intimidation because of race, religion, gender, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnic or national origin or that is committed for the purpose of restraining that person from exercising his/her rights under the Constitution or laws of the Commonwealth or of the United States; (ii) any illegal act directed against any persons or their property because of those persons’ race, religion, gender, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnic or national origin; and (iii) all other incidents, as determined by law-enforcement authorities, intended to intimidate or harass any individual or group because of race, religion, gender, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnic or national origin. (Subsection C of § 52-8.5 of the Code of Virginia)
  • Implicit Bias (Unconscious or Hidden Bias): negative associations that people unknowingly hold. They are expressed automatically, without conscious awareness. Implicit biases affect individuals’ attitudes and actions, thus creating real-world implications, even though individuals may not even be aware that those biases exist within themselves. Notably, implicit biases have been shown to trump individuals’ stated commitments to equality and fairness, thereby producing behavior that diverges from the explicit attitudes that many people profess.
  • Microaggression: an everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slight, snub, or insult, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicates hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. (Derald Wing Sue, “Microaggressions: More than Just Race,” Psychology Today, November 17, 2010). 
    • Microassaults: the conscious and intentional actions or slurs. Examples include using racial epithets, displaying swastikas, or deliberately assisting a white student before a student of color in the classroom.
    • Microinsults: the verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. An example is a teacher who asks a student of color how she got into a prestigious university, implying she may have been admitted through an affirmative action or a quota system.
    • Microinvalidations: communications that subtly exclude, negate, or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, white people often ask Asian-Americans where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land.
  • Race-based Bullying (Racial Bullying): identified by the motivation of the aggressor, the language used, and/or by the fact that the targets are singled out because of the color of their skin, the way they talk, their ethnic grouping or by their religious or cultural practices. Racial Bullying is perpetuated by Stereotypes, which are used to describe the behavior of a certain group of people (people from the same race, religion or type of job, for example). Stereotypes are often wrong because they assume that everyone from a certain group acts in the same way. Racial stereotypes often bring out racist attitudes. Even if it wasn’t intended to be racist, using racial stereotypes can subtly change one’s behavior with someone from a different race. (National Voices for Equality, Education, and Enlightenment. (n.d.). Racial and Ethnic Bullying)
  • Racial Discrimination: treating someone unfavorably because he/she is of a certain race or because of personal characteristics associated with race (such as hair texture, skin color, or certain facial features). (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (n.d.). Race/Color Discrimination)
  • Racial Equity (Racial Justice): the systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all. Racial justice goes beyond “anti-racism.” It is not just the absence of discrimination and inequities, but also the presence of deliberate systems and supports to achieve and sustain racial equity through proactive and preventative measures. It is both a process and an outcome. (The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. (2017, March 20) Race Reporting Guide)
  • Racial Intimidation (Ethnic Intimidation): acts of malicious and intentional intimidation or harassment of another person because of that person’s race, color, religion, gender, or national origin, often causing physical contact with another person, damage, destruction, or defecation of real or personal property, or threats to do any of the acts stated above. (US Legal, I. (n.d.). Ethnic Intimidation Law and Legal Definition)
  • Racial Slurs (Racial Epithets): words or phrases that refer to members of racial and ethnic groups in a derogatory manner. Slurs dehumanize targeted groups and justify racial oppression by suggesting that targeted populations are unworthy of equality. (Clark, K. (1995). Group defamation and the oppression of Black Americans. Group defamation and freedom of speech: The relationship between language and violence, 3-7)
  • Racism: is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of the society and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices. (Dismantling Racism Works. (2020). Racism Defined)
  • Racist Idea: any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. (Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an Antiracist. New York: One World)
  • Racist Policy (Structural Racism or Systemic Racism): any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between or among racial groups. Policies are written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations and guidelines that govern people. There is no such thing as a non-racist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups. (Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an Antiracist. New York: One World)
  • Systemic Racism: organizational culture, policies, directives, practices or procedures that exclude, displace or marginalize some racialized groups or create unfair barriers for them to access valuable benefits and opportunities. (Ontario Antiracism Directorate. (2018). The Ontario Public Service Anti-racism Policy – An Overview)
  • White Supremacy: the idea (ideology) that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to people of color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions. While most people associate white supremacy with extremist groups, white supremacy is ever present in our institutional and cultural assumptions that assign value, morality, goodness, and humanity to the white group while casting people and communities of color as worthless (worth less), immoral, bad, and inhuman and “undeserving.” Drawing from critical race theory, the term “white supremacy” also refers to a political or socio-economic system where white people enjoy structural advantage and rights that other racial and ethnic groups do not, both at a collective and an individual level. (Dismantling Racism Works. (2020). Racism Defined)


Resources for Educators and Education Leaders

Resources for Students

Resources for Parents

Organizations to Follow

  • ADL: Anti-bias resources for educators, parents, and families
  • EduColor: A place where the voices of public school advocates of color on educational equity and justice are elevated
  • Project Lit Community: Literacy movement empowering students, teachers, readers, and leaders to bring diverse perspectives into literature in schools
  • Learning for Justice: Free resources for schools and educators to help educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy 

Some of the links on the EdEquityVA pages lead you to websites not associated with the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Education. VDOE does not necessarily endorse the views expressed or the data and facts presented on these external sites. In addition, VDOE does not endorse or recommend any commercial products, processes, or services.

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