Creating a Safe Space for Students of Color in Your Classroom
The isolation of the pandemic, coupled with events such as George Floyd’s public murder, have created a difficult environment for students of color to return to in the fall. Many students of color will be struggling to process the events of the past year and to make sense of a complicated system of racism that prevails in our culture. It is your responsibility as an educator to ensure your students of color feel welcome in your classroom. Additionally, your classroom should be a safe space for students, designed to meet their needs.
As an educator, you want your students to feel comfortable approaching difficult topics like racism in your classroom. Safe spaces are environments where students feel the freedom to make mistakes without lasting judgment or ridicule and where they can engage in critical, honest, civil, and challenging discussions about sensitive topics. Right now, academia is exploring different ways to create safe spaces for students of color. At Moraine Valley Community College, outside of Chicago, they designed courses for Black students only and received criticism for doing so. The argument was that these classes in effect segregate Black students from their white counterparts and may create more division than they foster understanding and open dialogue. Black students do not have the privilege that white students do of avoiding the topic of race in their conversations. To that end, the first step in creating a safe space for students of color should be to introduce discussions of race to the entire classroom community. Here are some ideas for navigating discussions of race in your classroom:
Create a diverse learning environment. When decorating your classroom, choose images that show a wide range of ethnicities in different roles. For example, you might showcase Asian astronauts, Black doctors, and Latinx professionals. Don’t rely on stereotypical imagery when you hang posters on your walls. Choose a diverse reading list with authors of different ethnicities. Invite a wide range of professionals from different backgrounds into your classroom to help normalize the idea that we can learn from people who do not look like us (or who do look like us in some instances).
Listen to your students. Work together to establish classroom rules for the entire class. If a student of color tells you they are being bullied, listen to them, and intervene by confronting the bully privately. Then, address the matter with the class by talking about bullying and discrimination. Don’t treat race as if it is a taboo subject. Instead, work to dismantle racist behaviors in your classroom by directly and openly confronting them when they occur. This may mean having your students role play different scenarios or take a time out and journal about their reactions to racism.
Don’t rely on Black students to do the emotional labor of reacting to current events. Your Black students aren’t representatives of their race. They are students who are probably struggling to understand and process traumatic events. Asking them to react to racist incidents can be retraumatizing and insensitive.
Examine your own biases and work to correct them. We all develop implicit biases. It’s part of being brought up in a racist society. Remember that white is not the default color, and work to incorporate different cultures into your classroom. This may mean having a show-and-tell where your students bring in objects from their cultures of origin and discuss their importance or share traditional holiday celebrations with the class.
Be prepared. As a teacher, you will encounter racist ideas your students are picking up outside of your classroom. These ideas may come from home or from other students in the school. Teach students about micro-aggressions (indirect or subtle discrimination or insults) and stereotypes, as well as how to upend them.
Pronounce your students’ names correctly. It seems like a tiny step, but knowing how to pronounce your students’ names makes them feel included. Don’t be afraid to ask them more than once to correctly pronounce their name for you. This also models for other students the importance of correct pronunciation and inclusion. HowToPronounce is a great tool for educators when working to learn to pronounce students’ names correctly.
Use micro-affirmations to validate your students. Micro-affirmations start with active listening. Maintain eye contact with your students and show them body language that indicates you are engaged with them, such as nodding. Summarize what the student is telling you. Ask questions to make sure you are clear, and then affirm their experience by using a validating statement such as, “I appreciate that this might be frustrating for you.” You can use these statements to guide them toward developing a productive stance on their experience. Even if you don’t agree with what the student is telling you, you can affirm their experience, validate their emotions, and offer to help them find productive solutions.
Carefully craft your course syllabus. Include a statement of diversity that indicates your intent to foster a diverse learning environment. Plan to grant extensions on projects. Many of your Black students are experiencing emotional exhaustion and need extra compassion and understanding from you to process their grief surrounding current events in the media. Consider alternatives to classroom discussions, such as online discussion groups, where students don’t feel singled out and have a measure of anonymity to express their opinions. You may not even need to moderate this discourse or can do so in a limited capacity. The point is to create a space for students of color to express themselves openly and share their own experiences.
Allow your students to make mistakes. If a student makes a racist comment, be prepared to challenge it, but do so in a manner that supports the student’s learning and understanding of white privilege. Many white students come from challenging backgrounds and are hesitant to accept the idea of white privilege because they don’t feel privileged. Helping your students understand that white privilege exists outside of other challenges they face will go a long way in bridging the divide that exists between white students and students of color.
Creating a safe space for students of color doesn’t have to be difficult. It can be something you build into each day’s activities. Simply going in with the mindset that you are offering a diverse and enrichening atmosphere is a good start.
A creator of safe spaces, and an initiator of difficult conversations, M.J. Fievre, B.S. Ed, spent much time building up her Black students, helping them feel comfortable in their skin, and affirming their identities. Her close relationships with parents and students led her to look more closely at how we can balance protecting our child’s innocence with preparing them for the realities of Black life. When―and how―do you approach racism with your children? How do you protect their physical and mental health while also preparing them for a country full of systemic racism? She began to research the issue and speak to school counselors and psychologists to find (and apply!) strategies parents and teachers can use with their children to broach uncomfortable but necessary topics.
M.J. is the author of Badass Black Girl, a daily dose of affirmations for Black Girls
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