Conversations on race in classrooms place undue burdens on students of color. These conversations can impact their mental health and ability to learn effectively. (GRAPHIC BY TAEYU KIM)
Conversations on race in classrooms place undue burdens on students of color. These conversations can impact their mental health and ability to learn effectively.


The consequences of talking about race

April 18, 2022

During his sophomore year, Senior Sam Lee had elected to take the Racial Awareness course, an elective offered in the Social Studies department that explores racism within national, local and high school communities. When the class dove into their Asian-American unit, the students had been prompted to establish boundaries and determine words that were derogatory or otherwise offensive.

Although the intent was to build a safe space, a white peer made a racially charged remark that caused an immediate, visceral reaction. The tension in the room escalated and carried through dismissal. Afterwards, Lee said, the rest of his school day was disrupted by having to address the comments.

“One of the teachers teaching that class, who was also Asian American, came up to me after class and said, ‘Hey, I know what just happened was not okay, do you want to talk?’ After that, we missed two blocks, talking and sharing our worries and concerns,” Lee said.

As the high school continues to grapple with racist incidents and engage in conversations about race, we have witnessed both the importance of conversations on race, and the breadth of students who share similar experiences to Lee. Understanding that these conversations can alter our school environment, we have talked to staff and students of color to uncover their experiences as these conversations are incorporated into class time.

Impact of discussions on students of color

In a world consumed by social strife and a school community that continues to uncover racially divisive and offensive videos by its students, a significant portion of the student populace must manage additional anxiety and pain. Students of color face the difficult task of keeping their anguish from plaguing their mental health and hindering their academic productivity.

Junior Kailyn Jones said students of color shoulder the burden of expectations to facilitate conversations about race in their core classrooms. Jones also noted teachers tend to target students of color to lead and educate their white peers in these discussions.

“I get the feeling that teachers expect more from us even though we’re so overwhelmed. They just expect more. But it’s kind of a touchy kind of subject, racism,” Jones said.

Students of color expressed frustration towards this undeserved responsibility and added weight. Lee said he remembered other occasions where offensive comments were made by white students with minimal follow up.

“It is definitely not our responsibility to call them out. It just brings in that whole idea that because you’re part of this minority, you should be speaking on behalf of everyone in your community. You should constantly be calling things out, especially if someone said something wrong about your community. But you know, there’s a large part of it where you might just need to process it in your own time,” Lee said.

This task is challenging when the response from white peers does not reflect the severity of the issue that is brought up in the classroom. Junior Nikita Bright-Reason recounts a time in her history class when white students seemed indifferent to racially charged incidents in the news.

“To be honest, I feel like it’s growing more apparent that a lot of my white classmates just don’t really care. I think [they should] at least have the decency to hide [that they don’t care] a little bit,” Bright-Reason said. “In my history class today, we were talking about racial events and our teacher asked students to write down how it made them feel and what they wanted to learn more about. Most of my classmates just didn’t do it.”

Although some teachers still haven’t incorporated thoughtful discussions into their lesson plans, the faculty advisers of affinity groups continue to be inclusive and trusted mentors according to Bright-Reason.

“Since freshman year, Scholars has also been kind of a place where I can go and feel comfortable, and finally really be myself. The teachers in scholars, they’ve become the closest people to me at BHS. Both of them are my trusted adults at the school,” Bright-Reason said.

Junior Ary Alvarez-Valdez said there is an immense pressure to describe her experiences even if not directly requested to do so. Alvarez-Valdez also said having a unique perspective can be isolating.

“You want to have those conversations, but then you don’t want to be the only person who’s willing to talk or has gone through a bunch of things like that. But someone has to talk about that,” Alvarez-Valdez said.

Most specifically, following the Atlanta shooting this past year, Lee said the emotional toll of these hate crimes and racism became too much to bear. He said he found solace in the empathy and support in teachers who are a part of the AAPI community.

”With the increase in hate crimes against AAPI people, I definitely have big fears and concerns around that stuff. It’s been so built up inside and at a certain point, I did reach a mental breaking point,” Lee said. “There wasn’t that level of understanding from a lot of non-AAPI teachers. But I think that where I got the most important support for me was not really through my core academic teachers, but it was through my club, and fellow AAPI students and faculty at those times,” Lee said.

Jones said while discussions about race belong in core classrooms, at the high school they are, for the most part, not being conducted the way they should be. In order to have constructive conversations, Jones said, teachers need to be more invested.

“I think the process can be improved because not all of my teachers have talked about the racial issues that happened in our school this year,” Jones said. “One of my teachers said that a scholars’ teacher literally reminded them to make sure they brought it up in our classroom and that they weren’t planning to.”

Lee said the absence of sufficient racial diversity in the staff population often leaves those students without the help they need due to a lack of understanding.

In the last five years, the number of teachers in the AAPI community grew from 4 percent to 5.6 percent. Although only a 1.6 percent increase, the effects felt immense to Lee, who said this meant more trusted adults in which he could relate to on issues specific to his racial identity.

“I think even in the recent two years, there’s been an increase in AAPI staff members, which I find awesome. There are new people I could talk to and get to know,” Lee said.

Alvarez-Valdez said she has never had a Black teacher outside of Scholars, which is very telling to the overall priorities of the district.

“It screams a very loud message, I think, that kind of sums up Brookline in a nutshell; it’s like people of color don’t exist out of affinity groups and programs that are specifically directed towards racial issues,” Alvarez-Valdez said.

Administrative role in conversations

Brookline’s Senior Director of Equity Jenee Uttaro handles professional development around anti-racism and anti-bias in all of Brookline’s public schools. She said she works to expose fundamental inequities in Brookline’s public systems. Uttaro said she believes that even though students are right to be skeptical about the community response to incidents of prejudice, there is a lot of care from white educators towards these issues.

“There’s definitely stuff happening at a higher level that students don’t see. That is absolutely the case. But, I do agree in many ways that there should be and could be and must be a better and greater response,” Uttaro said “I would characterize the white response as one that is caring, but one not fully confident about how to act or what to do.”

Uttaro also expressed disappointment at this lack of confidence. She explained that equity leaders have made resources available for teachers for a long time. While there is no required DEI training in becoming a Brookline educator, many staff members and administrators have been involved in plans to integrate race into the curricula.

“Years ago the high school started this initiative called ‘Identity Curriculum,’ Whether in Physics, Chemistry, Biology or Math, every discipline in school was finding ways to use their standing curriculum to integrate identity, anti-bias, equity,” Uttaro said “Dean Poon is one of the people who helped begin with that, and there are a whole bunch of other teachers who worked on this before the pandemic”.

According to Uttaro there hasn’t been any further development of the Identity Curriculum this year.

Administrative action on racial injustice has been the cause of student protest. Students organized a walk out on March 16 protesting racist videos from this year as well as the response from deans that involved pulling Black students out of their classes to discuss the videos.

Malcolm Cawthorne, the high school METCO Coordinator, said that there is a particular issue in the nature of certain fast-paced classes, where discussions on race are not prioritized.

“Obviously, this is a general AP issue. There are classes where it’s very hard to pause a day’s worth of content because they’re up against deadlines. But I still think these conversations should happen, and there needs to be more support from the people that run this district to allow those conversations to happen under such circumstances,” Cawthorne said.

Inconsistency in teacher facilitators

Teachers play a vital role in cultivating a supporting and trusting relationship with students, and holding space for conversations on upsetting events that happen at the highschool and beyond. When it comes to race, every teacher takes on this role differently.

Uttaro said teachers who are ignorant to the nuances of race will often avoid these conversations entirely.

“I have seen educators who felt very uncomfortable and unsure about speaking up. However, this is part of your hire. The understanding is that we gave you questions around equity in your interview, and that you’re going to have to speak up, no matter how uncomfortable you feel.” said Uttaro. “It’s complicated though. I worry about that message because I do feel like sometimes people, when forced to speak, will say something that might cause more harm than their silence.”

Cawthorne said he has seen similar situations play out. An AP science teacher once told him they were very aware of the gender disparity in their classes, and remarked that out of their 16 students, only four were women.

“I asked, ‘So how many kids of color are in the classroom?’ they responded, ‘Oh, three.’ And, and I think it’s pretty clear that this teacher had a series of experiences where he felt comfortable talking about gender, in that context, and so he was willing to do it, but not about race. I am a cisgendered heterosexual male. How bad would it be for me to say, you know, I don’t feel comfortable teaching you about women in history? That’d be horrible.” Cawthrone said.

Interim associate dean Karim Azeb said a good number of teachers acknowledge the events that weigh on specific demographics of students. However, according to Azeb, enough teachers are unequipped for such discussions, that it’s a problem.

“If we’re a school that’s committed to social justice, and equity, it should be a place where every single adult in this building feels comfortable, confident and supported to throw away a day’s lesson plan and acknowledge the emotional needs of their kids,” said Azeb.

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