by Tricia Ebarvia, Member of The Educator Collaborative
Breaking the Silence: Inviting Students to Write About Race
Every fall, I work with students on what’s probably the most high-stakes writing young people face—the college essay. Not surprisingly, students are nervous, and even my most confident writers begin to panic as their college deadlines loom. When I sat down to confer with Grace*, I could sense more than the usual nerves. After a moment, she revealed that there was something she did want to write about, then quickly added, “But I’m not allowed to write about that.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “What aren’t you allowed to write about?”
“Race,” she answered, bluntly. “I can’t write about race.”
Grace eventually did write about race, reflecting on the way she rebelled against stereotypes of Asian Americans even when that rebellion wasn’t always in her best interest. It was a story that spanned generations, unpacking how her family’s experiences informed her own, and in ways she was still discovering.
It was a necessary story. It was a story that affirmed who Grace was and still becoming.
But it was a story that almost never got told.
In recent years, Grace hasn’t been the only student who struggled to share their experiences about race. As racist words and actions by some of our highest public officials become harder to ignore, students can’t help but think more deeply about their own racial experiences and identities. For many students of color, in particular, a headline they see while scrolling on their phones might trigger not just an emotional reaction, but even past or present trauma.
As we know, writing can be a powerful force in helping students unpack who they are. For example, Kevin Roozen points to “the need to approach writing not simply as a means of learning and using a set of skills, but rather as a means of engaging with the possibilities of selfhood available in a given community.” Furthermore, Roozen argues, writing “is not so much using a particular set of skills as it is about becoming a particular type of person, about developing a sense of who we are.”
Yet how often do we allow students to truly explore the full range of their identities in their writing, including their developing racial identities? As Derald Wing Sue points out, simply talking about race is difficult. After all, it violates the “politeness protocol”: talking about race is a social taboo. Furthermore, according to Wing Sue, talking about race also violates the “academic protocol”: society favors “rational,” empirical knowledge, but because race talk can be highly emotional, talking about race isn’t considered worthy of “academic” attention.
Given even these barriers, it’s easy to see why Grace, and students like her, often feel like they can’t talk, much less write, about race. What message do students get when teachers and schools avoid talking, reading, or writing about race? To what extent do we ask our students of color to deny a part of themselves when they walk through our doors? To what extent do we encourage White students to participate in that denial? And in what ways are we complicit in what Wing Sue calls a “conspiracy of silence” around race?
So what can we do? How can we hold space for students who want or need to explore their racial experiences and identities—especially at a time when those identities are under attack on a daily basis by our politicians and in the media?
While writing about race certainly can’t be reduced to a checklist, here are some things to consider in your own classroom:
- Set the conditions for trust and community in your writing workshop before jumping into conversations about race. Because conversations about race can be particularly challenging for students of color, especially in predominantly White classrooms, be sure to earn your students’ trust so that they know you will support them during class discussions. There is no one way to do this, but doing this is critical.
- Provide students with mentor texts that explore race. These mentor texts might be essays, poems, videos, or picture books. Students need models for how to think through issues related to race and racial identity—models that are complex and nuanced enough to buffer against simplistic soundbytes they often hear. Be sure that your mentor texts are also diverse and show the many ways of being within any particular community. Some of my own favorite mentor texts include the beautiful essay “Raising a Black Son in the U.S.” by Jesmyn Ward, the spoken word poem “The Bridge” by G. Yamazawa, the New York Times Conversations About Race Op-Doc series, and the picture book Drawn Together by Minh Le.
- Model your own developing racial consciousness. Because the social taboo about race is so strong, many students may cringe when race is even mentioned. Break this taboo down by racializing your own voice (“As a White woman, I…”) to help students see how our racial identities might inform our beliefs, feelings, and attitudes, and how these might shift depending on the context. At the same time, be mindful of what you share and the potential impact on your students.
- Not all race talk has to be spoken. Students might feel uncomfortable talking about race with their peers or the entire class. Instead, provide students with ample time to reflect privately in their own notebooks where they can have a conversation with themselves.
- Do not force students to write about race. Our students need invitations to write about race, not assignments. Race is just one of many components of our identities, and we should allow students to write about their full selves, not just their racialized selves. For some students, writing about race might unearth trauma they do not want to face. Respect the boundaries students set even as you invite them to consider new possibilities.
If you have additional guidelines to share or thoughts about how we can invite students to write about race, please share them below.
Roozen, Kevin. “Wrigin Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing. Ed. Linda Addler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado Press, 2016.
Wing Sue, Derald. Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Facilitating Difficult Discussions About Race. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2015.