Inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests, I’m trying to do more to explore how I can become more anti-racist in my teaching. I’m hoping to write more about this topic in future posts, but I wanted to start off with a book recommendation.
I recently read the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. It gives an overview of how racism has manifested itself throughout U.S. history. The book is aimed at young people, and the reading level is listed as grades 7-12.
Here’s the official description of the book:
This is NOT a history book.
This is a book about the here and now.
A book to help us better understand why we are where we are.
A book about race.
The construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, to create dynamics that separate and silence. This remarkable reimagining of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning reveals the history of racist ideas in America, and inspires hope for an antiracist future. It takes you on a race journey from then to now, shows you why we feel how we feel, and why the poison of racism lingers. It also proves that while racist ideas have always been easy to fabricate and distribute, they can also be discredited.
Through a gripping, fast-paced, and energizing narrative written by beloved award-winner Jason Reynolds, this book shines a light on the many insidious forms of racist ideas—and on ways readers can identify and stamp out racist thoughts in their daily lives.
So why am I recommending this book to teachers?
Stamped doesn’t specifically mention much about education (other than a couple of brief mentions about the racism wrapped up in standardized testing and policies like No Child Left Behind). But I think it’s important for all teachers in the United States to know about this history. The book gives information about some historical events that I didn’t know much about before, and it gave me more context to help me understand better some of the ways in which racism shows up in our world today. It’s interesting to see how some of the same racist ideas have continued popping up in our society again and again, just packaged a little bit differently each time.
Even though I’m not a history teacher, I still sometimes teach my ESL students a little bit about U.S. history. Some historical topics just come up in class sometimes when we’re talking about the news or about the significance behind holidays or when we’re reading books like Felipe Alou. As a teacher, I think it’s important for me to be informed about our nation’s history—even those not-so-great parts that we sometimes don’t want to talk about.
It was especially interesting for me to read in the book about the idea of assimilationists. Kendi writes in the introduction that there are two major types of racist ideas: segregationist ideas and assimilationist ideas. Segregationists “try to get away from Black people” while assimilationists “try to transform Black people.” He says that assimilationists “think there’s something wrong with Black people” and “believe that Black people, as a group, can be changed for the better.”
As teachers, I think we sometimes run the risk of developing and promoting assimilationist ideas since it’s basically our job to change students to make them conform to a certain set of standards. Of course, we want to help “improve” our students—but where does that cross the line into centering Whiteness and promoting Whiteness as a norm and ideal that our students are supposed to “achieve”? Especially for us ESL teachers who are essentially trying to teach our students to “be American” and to speak English “correctly,” this can be a tricky area since a person’s language is closely entwined with their ethnic/racial/cultural identity, and the English language is closely associated with Whiteness and colonialism.
This is a complex topic, and I’m still processing my own thoughts and contemplating what I can do about it in my own teaching. But I think it’s good for teachers to be aware of some of the assimilationist ideas so we can try to avoid them.
I also think Stamped could be used in class with advanced-level English learners. The book is written in a pretty straight-forward, clear style for the most part (at least compared to a lot of other books aimed at fluent English speakers). In the future (after we go back to in-person teaching!), I hope to offer this book to my advanced-level students as a choice during their free reading time. I know that a lot of my students are interested in learning about U.S. history, so I think they would enjoy it. It’s probably best for students who have at least a little bit of knowledge about U.S. history already, though it might not be completely necessary since the authors do a pretty good job of explaining things. The book would probably be quite a bit easier for native Spanish speakers since the book is on an academic topic, and quite a few of the academic words used are cognates in English and Spanish.
I also love that the book is written in a conversational tone, which makes it very engaging to read. The authors even manage to sneak in some humorous parts while discussing serious topics.
I’ll end with a couple of suggestions for other good resources on the topic of anti-racist teaching:
- Jon Cowart’s blog post, “I’m a Racist Educator, and Here’s What I’m Doing About It” —Jon Cowart teaches in an urban high school with all Black students, which is different from my own teaching context, but his post made me think a lot about some of the problematic ways that we White teachers tend to think about our students of color.
- Unstandardized English is a podcast hosted by JPB Gerald. Its tagline is “Talking about and thinking about language, whiteness, race, and a whole lot of other things.” I’ve only listened to a few episodes so far, but it has made me think a lot.