Encouraging and Celebrating Identity in Your Black Students
Identity is important in your school-aged students because it is still being shaped, and the lessons they learn in your classroom are ones that will carry over to the rest of their lives. Representing Black students matters, especially in a classroom that is majority white, not only because it teaches Black students to embrace their identities but because it fosters a diverse background for all students to learn from. The more exposure your students have to ethnic diversity, the more accepting they will become of differences and the more they will celebrate those differences. One way to encourage Black identity in the classroom is to teach Black history, not just during Black History Month, but all year long. It is also important to highlight Black individuals who have strength and courage and not just focus on a history of pain and oppression. By showing Black people thriving, you show your Black students they, too, can thrive and succeed in life.
Ways to Encourage and Celebrate Students:
Pronounce your students’ names correctly. It may seem like common sense, but taking the time to learn your students’ names and to pronounce them correctly shows you have respect for your students. Correct other students who mispronounce names, and don’t assign shortcut names or nicknames to students with difficult names to pronounce.
Share the positivity of Black history. Celebrate Black history from a standpoint of strength, and triumph over difficult circumstances. Too often Black history is portrayed as a history of pain and suffering. Make sure you include trailblazers in each field your students study and show Black people in history who have persevered in their fields despite racism. Celebrate Black literature by making it part of your curriculum. Teach about the heroes and heroines of Black liberation movements, and honor Black civic engagement.
Show the diversity within Blackness in your classroom. Too often Blackness is portrayed as one look that is static, while Black people are dynamic and vary vastly from person to person. Celebrate the many different skin colors and hair textures among Black people by showing images and posting posters in your classroom. This can help your Black students feel represented and not tokenized.
Relieve Black students from the pressure of serving as representatives. Do not immediately call on your Black students to comment on things that are happening in the media or that have happened historically. Your Black students should not feel like they are the spokespeople for enslaved people, the Jim Crow Laws, or the Civil Rights Act. This will make them feel like they are on the spot and are responsible for speaking for the Black community. Remember, Black students need time to process media events like the death of George Floyd. Give them time and space to develop an understanding of these events.
Encourage students to have conversations about identity. Ask them to share the story of their names (all students). These conversations should be voluntary. No student should feel pressured to participate. It might help if you start with telling the story of your own name, and then invite the class to participate.
Incorporate identity as a topic of conversation. Have regular conversations about identity, but don’t make your Black students the center of the conversations. You can ask for volunteers to talk about their identity and have one student take notes on the whiteboard. Opening the conversation is enough to get Black students thinking about how they identify and what their identities mean to them. If a Black student chooses to participate, allow them the space and time to relate their identity, but don’t call them out on it. Simply taking part in the exercise, even if it’s to listen, will teach Black students about themselves.
Showcase individuality and self-awareness. Have your students create self-portraits with items they hold dear and cherish as part of their identity. For example, a student might draw a picture of themselves with a guitar to indicate that music is a central part of their life.
Facilitate activities centered around identity. Hold identity circles where students stand in a circle and questions are asked about their identity. For example, “Who has two dads?” Students can then step into the circle to indicate the question is pertinent to them. “I identify as a person of color” might be one of the questions. This will show students that they are not alone in having unique traits. Alternatively, you can place students in pairs and ask them to conduct interviews based on questions of identity. This allows students to learn about people different than themselves.
Employ storytelling. Our brains are wired for stories and there may be no better avenue to get your students talking about identity than by hosting a regular storytelling session where students share their stories. Have the class applaud each storyteller, which reinforces that their stories matter.
Build a diverse classroom library. Stock your classroom library with books that celebrate Black identity and tell stories about Black youth. Keep books that feature a wide variety of skin colors and hair textures. There have been several stories in the media lately of Black children being forced to cut their natural hair to fit a mold that upholds white standards of beauty and reinforces oppressive standards under the guise of professionalism. Celebrate the kinky, burly, wild side of your Black students by including books that celebrate Black hair in all its textures.
Introduce your students to intersectionality. Ask them about all the aspects of their identity and how the disparate parts of themselves come together to make them who they are. This may be especially helpful for white students who may not understand all the challenges Black students face. Seeing how different aspects intersect can make it much clearer.
Allow your Black students to speak up. Foster dialogue centered around difficult racial and social issues. Create a safe space for Black students to express themselves, even if it’s only to you after class. Build genuine connections with your Black students, so they know they have a place to go to when they need someone to talk to. Treat all your students with empathy and compassion.
Make sure your curriculum is inclusive. In English classes, make sure BIPOC authors are among the literature discussed in the classroom. In STEM class, include notable scientists of color. If you’re studying the space program, for example, make sure you include the many Black astronauts in your programming. In social studies classes, make sure to include points of view from many different ethnic perspectives. If you’re studying World War II, for example, bring in voices of those who were interred in Japanese internment camps. Have your students rewrite the history lessons to include those voices.
Identity among students can be a sticky subject, especially since so many of your students are still forming their identities, and these identities have not yet solidified. However, giving them room to forge their own identities will go far in ensuring they become confident, capable people who are sure of who they are. At every step of the way, you’ll want to encourage them to try out new identities and support Black students who may be in the minority in your classroom, potentially facing extra challenges when trying to assert their identity.
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.
“You'll come away from Badass Black Girl feeling as if you've known the author your entire life, and it's a rare feat for any writer.” ―“Mike, the Poet,” author of Dear Woman and The Boyfriend Book
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