Unlearning Racism: Resources for Teaching Anti-Racism

Anti-Racism Curricula, Projects, and Programs

Hands of different skin color holding puzzle pieces of the same puzzle
Multi-ethnic young adults' hands holding pieces from the same puzzle. Nullplus/E+/Getty Images

 

People are not born racist. As former U.S. President Barack Obama, quoting Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, tweeted shortly after the tragic events in Charlottesville August 12, 2017 in which the university town was overtaken by white supremacists and hate groups, resulting in the killing of a counter protester, Heather Heyer, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion.

People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Very young children do not naturally choose friends based on the color of their skin. In a video created by the BBC children’s network CBeebies, Everyone's Welcome, pairs of children explain the differences between themselves without referring to the color of their skin or ethnicity, even though those differences exist. As Nick Arnold writes in What Adults Can Learn About Discrimination From Kids, according to Sally Palmer, Ph.D., lecturer in the Department of Human Psychology and Human Development at University College London, it is not that they don't notice the color of their skin, it is that the color of their skin is not what is important to them.

Racism is Learned

Racism is learned behavior. A 2012 study by Harvard University researchers showed that children as young as three years of age can adopt racist behavior when exposed to it, even though they may not understand “why.” According to renowned social psychologist Mazarin Banaji, Ph.D., children are quick to pick up on racist and prejudicial cues from adults and their environment.

When white children were shown faces of different skin colors with ambiguous facial expressions, they showed a pro-white bias. This was determined by the fact that they ascribed a happy face to a perceived white skin color and an angry face to a face that they perceived to be black or brown. In the study, black children who were tested showed no color-bias.

Banaji maintains that racial bias can be unlearned, though, when children are in situations where they are exposed to diversity and they witness and are part of positive interactions between different groups of people acting as equals. 

Racism is learned by the example of one’s parents, caregivers, and other influential adults, through personal experience, and through the systems of our society that promulgate it, both explicitly and implicitly. These implicit biases permeate not only our individual decisions but also our societal structure. The New York Times has created a series of informative videos explaining implicit biases

There are Different Types of Racism

According to social science, there are seven main forms of racism: representational, ideological, discursive, interactional, institutional, structural, and systemic. Racism can be defined in other ways as well — reverse racism, subtle racism, internalized racism, colorism.

In 1968, the day after Martin Luther King was shot, the anti-racism expert and former third-grade teacher, Jane Elliott, devised a now-famous but then-controversial experiment for her all-white third-grade class in Iowa to teach the children about racism, in which she separated them by eye color into blue and brown, and showed extreme favoritism toward the group with blue eyes.

She has conducted this experiment repeatedly for different groups since then, including the audience for an Oprah Winfrey show in 1992, known as The Anti-Racism Experiment That Transformed an Oprah Show. People in the audience were separated by eye color; those with blue eyes were discriminated against while those with brown eyes were treated favorably. The reactions of the audience were illuminating, showing how quickly some people came to identify with their eye color group and behave prejudicially, and what it felt like to be the ones who were being treated unfairly. 

Microaggressions are another expression of racism. As explained in Racial Microagressions in Everyday Life, "Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color." An example of microaggression falls under "assumption of criminal status" and includes someone crossing to the other side of the street to avoid a person of color.

This list of microagressions serves as a tool to recognize them and the messages they send. 

Unlearning Racism

Racism in the extreme is manifested by groups such as the KKK and other white supremacist groups. Christoper Picciolini is the founder of the group Life After Hate. Picciolini is a former member of a hate group, as are all the members of Life After Hate. On Face the Nation in Aug. 2017, Picciolini said that the people who are radicalized and join hate groups are "not motivated by ideology" but rather "a search for identity, community, and purpose." He stated that "if there's a brokenness underneath that person they tend to search for those in really negative pathways." As this group proves, even extreme racism can be unlearned, and the mission of this organization is to help counter violent extremism and to help those participating in hate groups find pathways out of them.

Congressman John Lewis, a prominent Civil Rights leader, said, "The scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in the American society."

But as experience shows us, and leaders remind us, what people learn, they can also unlearn, including racism. While racial progress is real, so is racism. The need for anti-racist education is also real. 

Following are some anti-racism resources that may be of interest to educators, parents, caregivers, church groups, and individuals for use in schools, churches, businesses, organizations, and for self-assessment and awareness.

Anti-Racism Curricula, Organizations, and Projects

  • The Race Card Project : The Race Card Project was created in 2010 by NPR Journalist Michele Norris to foster a conversation about race. In order to promote an exchange of ideas and perceptions from people of different backgrounds, races, and ethnicities Norris asks people to distill their "thoughts, experiences, and observations about race into one sentence that only has six words" and submit them to the Race Card wall. In 2014, The Race Card Project was awarded "a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in electronic communications for turning a pejorative phrase into a productive and far-reaching dialogue on a difficult topic."
  • RACE: Are We so Different?This website is a project of the American Anthropological Association and is funded by the Ford Foundation and the National Science Foundation. It looks at race through three different lenses: history, human variation, and lived experience. It offers activities for students and resources for families, teachers, and researchers. It is based on a traveling exhibit by the same name.
  • Educating for Equity Educating for Equity is the website and consulting business of Ali Michael, Ph.D., who is the co-founder and director of The Race Institute for K-12 Educators and the author of several books having to do with race, including Raising Race Questions: Whiteness, Inquiry, and Education (Teachers College Press, 2015), which won the 2017 Society of Professors of Education Outstanding Book Award. The Race Institute for K-12 Educators is a workshop for educators to help them develop a positive racial identity so that they can support the positive racial identity development of their students. A comprehensive list of Anti-Racism Resources for Teachers is included on this website.  
  • The Storytelling Project Curriculum: Learning About Race and Racism Through Storytelling and the Arts (this Columbia University form enables free use of the curriculum and requests feedback to the creators): The Storytelling Project Curriculum, created through Barnard College, analyzes race and racism in the United States through storytelling and the arts. Using four different story types — stock stories (those told by the dominant group); concealed stories (told by people in the margins); resistance stories (told by people who have resisted racism); counter stories (deliberately constructed to challenge the stock stories) — to make the information more accessible to students, to connect the political and the personal, and to inspire change. For middle and high school students.

Resources and Further Reading

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Marder, Lisa. "Unlearning Racism: Resources for Teaching Anti-Racism." ThoughtCo, Oct. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/teaching-anti-racism-4149582. Marder, Lisa. (2017, October 3). Unlearning Racism: Resources for Teaching Anti-Racism. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/teaching-anti-racism-4149582 Marder, Lisa. "Unlearning Racism: Resources for Teaching Anti-Racism." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/teaching-anti-racism-4149582 (accessed November 24, 2017).