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A Word About Antiracist Curriculum

Jan 3, 2021 5:38:38 PM / by Kristi Hemingway

“Its going to be uncomfortable. If were comfortable were not really doing the work.

Neck and neck with COVID-19 for hottest topic of 2020 is the discussion around systemic racism and its antidote, antiracism. For educators, the specific focus of this conversation is how to move toward anti-racist curriculum and instruction. We are endeavoring to turn all of the dialog, debate, and social outrage into teachable moments. We are also, in some ways, building the plane as we fly. We're still working to achieve a shared understanding of terms, knowing that it's important to agree on what we mean when we talk about anti-racist curriculum and instruction. 

The simplest and most obvious shift is representation, or what is typically called inclusive curriculum. Inclusion asks, "Are all of our students' cultures, ethnicities, gender identities, and beliefs represented in the curriculum content?" This is a necessary first step, but we can't rest there, because it's only the first step. LaGarrett King, an Associate Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of Missouri's College of Education, was recently quoted in Education Week warning against a simple quantitative shift. 

"In quantitative change, we simply add Black faces, Asian faces, Latino faces in the curriculum, but there's not a change in the historical story," King says. While important, diversity and inclusion in the form of representation alone does not empower students to recognize, name, and dismantle systemic racism and oppression. The important questions (Who writes the stories? Who benefits from the stories? Who, or whose perspective, is missing from the stories?) are not addressed by simple inclusivity.

Another common strategy in our attempts to move toward antiracist curriculum and instruction is to simply remove the texts, language, images and historical content that exemplifies and documents racism in our country and literary anthology. The aim is to avoid offense. This undoubtedly springs from good intentions, but it is both misguided, and impossible to achieve consistently. Erasing texts and events from our curriculum doesn't erase their role and impact in our story. Racism is offensive but we don't oppose it by hiding or avoiding it. The elephant in the room doesn't leave by us looking the other way; it just settles in and makes itself at home.

Dr. Amber Kim, in her keynote address, 20/20 Vision: Getting Clear on Antiracist Curriculum, emphasized that being able to see, recognize and name racism in all its ugliness and forms is essential for developing and moving toward a vision of antiracism. Equally, it's important to address not only what racism looked like during slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, etc., but also what it looks like now.

Along those lines, many proactive educators, rather than focusing on what should be eliminated, began compiling and exchanging lists of things to include. Some examples are books by BIPOC authors, important historical events to cover, and resources about protest and resistance. This is another step in the right direction, but resources are only half of the equation. Unless these resources are implemented with honest discussions about privilege and active shifts in positioning and power, then they risk tokenizing BIPOC people and can even be counterproductive.

A shared understanding of antiracist curriculum and instruction is built on a continuum moving from multi-cultural, diverse and inclusive resources and practices to more active culturally-responsive and ultimately antiracist resources and practices. Antiracism is active. Glenn E. Singleton, author and founder of Courageous Conversation, defines antiracism as, "Our conscious and deliberate, individual and collective action that challenges the impact and perpetuation of systemic/institutional White racial privilege, positioning, and power." 

An example of antiracist instruction might be, rather than getting rid of the provocative text from the anthology, holding an honest and responsibly-facilitated discussion around the ideas and beliefs that undergird the story:

  • Whose story is it?
  • What are the damaging ideas, language and beliefs represented and how are they harmful?
  • What was the author's intent?
  • Who has been left out of the narrative? 
  • How would the narrative change from the marginalized character's point of view?
  • How do we repair and replace these ways thinking?
  • How do we build a new story and power structure together?

Facilitating such discussions and content requires courage and skill, and unfortunately, based on a recent Education Week Survey, 60 percent of responding educators (including teachers, principals, and district leaders) said they had neither the training nor the resources to teach an antiracist curriculum. They don't feel adequately informed or prepared to tackle systemic racism, nor to teach their students to do so.

In addition to the felt deficit of training and resources, there is a misconception that antiracist instruction is really only essential for students of color and the schools that serve them. That idea could not be further from the truth. Amanda Lewis says, "Education that is critical, multicultural, and focused on racial justice cannot be reserved for students of color...what can change if the educational experiences of White middle class children do not undergo some transformations?"

So after all the dialogue of 2020, we have reached a few conclusions about antiracist curriculum and instruction:

  • All students need and deserve more than just inclusive, or culturally-responsive curriculum. They need and deserve actively antiracist resources and instruction if we are going to offer equitable education and prepare our students to dismantle systemic racism.
  • Resources alone are not enough—even high-quality, well-designed resources. Our pedagogy needs to shift and we need to get brave.
  • Teachers need training and courage to deliver antiracist instruction. Until schools and districts catch up, educators have to take our training into our own hands, benefiting from organizations like Courageous Conversation and great resources like Facing History and Ourselves.

As educators, we can't wait for a slow moving system to catch up and give us permission to move forward as antiracist educators. Dr. Aaron Griffen, author of Challenges to Integrating Diversity Equity and Inclusion Programs in Organizations, encouraged on a recent EdCuration podcast interview, "We're worried about jumping into these conversations with our students because we're afraid we're going to get it wrong. We've already gotten it wrong. We've been getting it wrong for a long time. We should be more afraid of doing nothing, of not moving forward. It's going to be uncomfortable. If we're comfortable we're not really doing the work."

Topics: Anti-racist

Kristi Hemingway

Written by Kristi Hemingway

Kristi is a lifelong educator, published author, national award winning journalist and a writing/literacy teacher and consultant. After working with international and European schools, as well as the US, Canadian, and British militaries, she managed programming for a large Arts and Humanities non-profit. Most recently Kristi worked for a curriculum company as a literacy consultant, instructional coach, and professional developer prior to joining EdCuration in 2019.