Students as Agents of Antiracism

Laura Benson

Director of Curriculum and Professional Development

Originally Published in the October 2020 Edition of NewsLinks

Judgment. Connection. Acceptance. Rejection. How do we see people? How do we invite them into our lives or keep them out? As John Eligon said in the New York Times just a few weeks ago, “We do it without thinking – look at people, and based on their physical appearance, usually skin color, put them in a `racial category.” And yet, we know that “there is no such thing as race. None. There is just a human race – scientifically, anthropologically” (Toni Morrison).

Horrific events over the last months have cracked open the cancer of racism (Kendi, 2019) making it visible to all of us more. More vividly but also more known by many people all the time. Safety and civil rights challenges we are facing not just in the United States but around the world. So how can we create learning with our students to heal the cancer of racism? How can our curriculum cultivate antiracism?

First, it begins with us as colleagues and as a community of activists. As a nonprofit service focused organization, International Schools Services is devoted to cultivating and sustaining antiracism. For many years, we have championed and co-led The Diversity Collaborative. We have been reading and investigating racism in book clubs and leadership meetings. From one of the books we read, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, we learned about the power of policies to fight racism.

Thus, we have looked inward and worked to develop policies which put our belief into bold and responsive action. In May/June 2020, ISS issued the following statement above in response to George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, MN, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter (#BLM) protests in communities across the United States and around the world.

Let this be a catalytic moment where we acknowledge and address the systemic prejudices and biases in ourselves, in schools and in organizations around the world. We believe in the dignity of all, the benefit of cross-cultural perspectives, and the power of diverse, inclusive, equitable and just communities.

Together, not apart, we can make a world of difference.

As an organization focused on supporting international schools that aim to educate global citizens, we recognize that we have a special responsibility to embrace antiracist principles. Toward this goal, in addition to publishing the above statement, we established ISS antiracist task force team to develop specific strategies we are and will employ internally and with our schools around the world. Through these efforts, we prioritized seven focus areas – Recruitment & Retention, Training, Services, Policies & Processes, Outreach, Feedback & Accountability, and ISS Schools. These foci are our vigilant compass in nurturing and expanding antiracism in ourselves and in our learning communities.
Second, I have turned to books for self-study and to join thinking with peers, fellow international educators, and family members to identify the actions we can and must take to be antiracist and fight racism. Through these interactions, I am seeking to answer questions which are keeping me up at night:

How can our teaching, our mentorship, our relationships with our students cultivate and grow their capacities to be antiracist?

How can we work together to live Ijeoma Oluo’s call? The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.

And promote Angela Davis’ words?

In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.

And to embrace Audre Lorde’s message?

It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.

With books and book clubs as a driving force in my own antiracism self-study recently and over the last 42 years as an educator dedicated to equity, inclusion, and diversity, I immerse students (and my own children) in diverse and brave books. Reading books lifts racism out of the shadows into stories we can examine and respond to together.

These are antiracism reading habits and rituals began in the early day of my teaching. Many years ago, as my classroom became a lab classroom for modeling workshop pedagogy, I had to debrief my teaching with visitors and explain my teaching steps. I shared my passion for creating a classroom library of windows and mirrors – wanting the kids to see themselves in texts they read and I read to them but also wanting their reading to give them frequent opportunities to see and connect with other people who were different from themselves (Or, people the kids perceived to be different from themselves only to find multiple connections.).
While I spoke about and wrote about the concept of mirrors and windows often in the early 80’s (Benson, 1983; 1985; 1987), what a world of joy to find Rudine Sims Bishop’s kindred thoughts a few years later (1990, NCTE). Timeless wisdom which we need to continue to champion:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

Student Authored Texts of All Genres

Please encourage your students to write their own antiracism texts for their peers and for younger readers. Student voices trumpet messages other children are ripe and eager to hear and embrace. The pieces students author – digitally and hard copies – can be enlightening wells of reading for your community. Surround your students with the voices of children to champion antiracism and connectedness.

Short and Spirited Texts

Poetry, letters, personal letters and letters to the editor, quotes, journal entries, song lyrics, captioned photographs, and short essays: these brief but compelling texts give students the opportunity to immerse themselves in ideas within a class period or online lesson. The experiences of finishing a reading are crucial for growing thinkers as “Self-confidence is success remembered.” Too often, as emerging readers (of any age), it can be daunting for students to complete the reading of long texts. Short and spirited texts are efficient, instructive literacy and learning experiences for all students of every grade.

The Poetry of Langston Hughes

All our students should come to know and read Langston Hughes widely. His poem My People is included in a gorgeous picture book by Charles R. Smith Jr. One of my very favorite with each class or group, I have shared this book and poem with children (and adults) of all ages and the conversations are always effervescent with connections and belonging. A huge plus: the photographs captured by Smith completely draw one in. Even after reading this book many times, I linger over each picture finding more each time. Spectacular art!

A beautiful “cousin” text to My People is Willie Perdomo’s Visiting Langston, a poetic story of a young girl visiting the house of Langston Hughes with her father and a lovely ode to the Harlem Renaissance.

Picture Books, Young Adult Nonfiction, and Additional Antiracist Learning & Teaching Resources

Illustrated texts can illuminate antiracism and edify readers of all ages. I read picture books to and with learners of all ages and grades (including adults) to talk about racism and advocate antiracism. Additionally important, reading these texts with older students offers them brilliant mentor texts for their own writing journeys.

View recommended picture books, young adult nonfiction, and additional antiracist resources.