In my roles as educator, freelance consultant, and coach, I have discussed barriers to development related to racial literacy and have made recommendations to support teachers and leaders in their journey of moving from awareness to action. In this brief article, I will share how educators can take some first steps to becoming racially literate.
There is a common misconception about developing racial literacy which suggests we are only expanding our understanding of popular (and sometimes) offensive words or phrases. Yes, racial literacy is about gaining a better understanding of words, but it is much more than that: it extends to behaviours and associated visual representations. And that is what makes it such a difficult concept to define.
When reviewing definitions of racial literacy, you will find they are lengthy, sometimes very academic, and at times vague. In relation to educators, a recent Runnymede report defines racial literacy as:
…the capacity of teachers to understand the ways in which race and racisms work in society, and to have the skills, knowledge and confidence to implement that understanding in teaching practice.Joseph-Salisbury, 2020, p. 2
Take a moment to reread the quote. The author is not saying that ‘race and racisms’ be taught in schools, but that these aspects are understood in the context of our societies. If we want to support students, peers, and the communities that we serve, we need to become racially literate. Sounds easy, but how can we reasonably expect to learn and understand these challenging, complex histories, as well as model delicate conversations with students? How can we succeed when there are many barriers preventing us from doing so?
Arguments surrounding the training of educators have recently revolved around the teaching of Critical Race Theory (Bell, 1995): including concepts of Whiteness, and Interest-Convergence. In the UK, politicians (UK Parliament, 2020) have argued against the teaching of such theories in school; as I write I am not aware of any schools teaching CRT. Similarly in the USA, policy changes have led to educators being unable to discuss issues related to race (Schwartz, 2021).
Research has demonstrated that although developing an understanding of issues related to race and racism is beneficial for all involved in education (Douglass Horsford, 2014), it is lacking in initial teacher training (Lander, 2011), and it is lacking in professional development (Picower, 2015).
Various barriers hinder the development of racial literacy amongst educators, and time is a major factor. When time is not allocated and is not a provision by the organisation as part of professional development (whole school development plans), educators are left to learn on their own and in their own time.
When an educator chooses to pursue opportunities for development on their own because there is no support in place, this can sometimes further compound issues. Namely issues relating to the quality of resources that are found.
Other barriers include but are not limited to the values of senior leaders, organisations, peer pressure, local and national policies, and propaganda disseminated by media and government officials. Irrespective of these barriers, changes still need to be made.
Awareness to action
A racial literacy approach should expect all teacher candidates to participate in the process of noticing, analyzing, and proactively engaging with race themes, but teacher educators must recognize that the outcome of engaging in these tasks will vary in depth, speed, and clarity.Rolón-Dow, Flynn and Mead, 2020, p. 14
It is important to note that although educators’ understanding and knowledge do vary, they are not binary (Guinier, 2004). We can meet educators where they are on a continuum, in terms of their knowledge and understanding, but must focus on supporting them to develop from there.
So, what can you, as a lone educator, do to develop and deepen your understanding of racial literacy? Start small. Read an article, a book, watch a video, have a conversation. These small actions are steps on the journey to becoming racially literate.
As alluded to earlier in this article, not all resources are created equal. This being true, attempts must still be made to explore the abundance of materials available in different formats.
The intention here is to support you in finding ways of developing your racial literacy in your context, lead you to other relevant resources, or to merely provoke your thinking.
- BAMEed Network: A one stop shop resources and research database. If you can only look at one resource, make it this one.
- Chartered College of Teaching: Selected readings – books, journal articles, items on leadership and governance.
- NEU Anti-Racism Charter: A framework to explore this area with discussion starters.
- Anti-Racist Schools Award: An award aiming to ‘raise the profile of racism and structural racial disadvantage in the education system’ that provides a network for schools nationally.
- Halo Collective: A code that can be signed up to by schools and workplaces, also includes A Short History of Hair Discrimination.
- Virtual Professional Development: a selection of TED talks.
Disclaimer: as a freelance education consultant and coach, I currently work as a coach/verifier on the Anti-Racist Schools Award (Centre for Race, Education and Decoloniality – Leeds Beckett University)
Bell, D. (1995) ‘Brown v. Board of Education and the interest convergence dilemma.’, in Crenshaw, K. et al. (eds) Critical race theory: The key writings that formed the movement. New York: New York Press, pp. 20–29.
Douglass Horsford, S. (2014) ‘When Race Enters the Room: Improving Leadership and Learning Through Racial Literacy’, Theory into Practice, 53(2), pp. 123–130. doi: 10.1080/00405841.2014.885812.
Guinier, L. (2004) ‘From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma’, Journal of American History, 91(1), p. 92. doi: 10.2307/3659616.
Joseph-Salisbury, R. (2020) Race and Racism in English Secondary Schools. Runnymede: Intelligence for a Multi-ethnic Britain. Available at: www.runnymedetrust.org (Accessed: 5 October 2021).
Lander, V. (2011) ‘Race, culture and all that: An exploration of the perspectives of White secondary student teachers about race equality issues in their initial teacher education’, Race Ethnicity and Education, 14(3), pp. 351–364. doi: 10.1080/13613324.2010.543389.
Picower, B. (2015) ‘Nothing About Us Without Us: Teacher-driven Critical Professional Development’, Radical Pedagogy, 12(1), pp. 1–26.
Rolón-Dow, R., Flynn, J. E. and Mead, H. (2020) ‘Racial literacy theory into practice: teacher candidates’ responses’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. Routledge, 0(0), pp. 1–17. doi: 10.1080/09518398.2020.1783013.
Schwartz, S. (2021) Where Critical Race Theory is Under Attack, Education Week. Available at: https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/map-where-critical-race-theory-is-under-attack/2021/06 (Accessed: 13 August 2021).
UK Parliament (2020) ‘Black History Month: Volume 682 debated on Tuesday 20 October 2020’, Commons Chamber Debate. doi: 10.12968/bjon.2020.29.18.1053.
Sharon Porter (@sporteredu) is a freelance consultant and leadership coach who has worked in the education sector for many years. She left her teaching and leadership roles to focus on the development of others. Alongside her consultancy work, she is currently Vice-Chair of BAMEed Bristol & Southwest.
Sharon has extensive experience of working with leaders and delivering training to educators in schools and online. She is a keen believer in continuous professional development and continues to lead by example: Sharon has gained a Master’s degree in Leadership & Policy, and a Master’s degree in Educational Research.
Her work and postgraduate studies have extended to supporting individuals to develop their understanding of culture and inclusion in the workplace through leadership coaching, webinars, workshops, and her writing.