Teaching Anti-Racism Isn’t “Progressive.” It’s Essential.

Lisa Demro
June 1, 2020
I always considered myself pretty “progressive,” but to be honest, I turned a blind eye to the world’s many issues because those things just didn’t seem to happen where I’m from: a predominantly white, rural community that was always a little behind on the times.

I’m a white, cis-gender girl from a small Wisconsin town.

I always considered myself pretty “progressive,” but to be honest, I turned a blind eye to the world’s many issues because those things just didn’t seem to happen where I’m from: a predominantly white, rural community that was always a little behind on the times.

I’ll never forget the moment I began to awaken to the reality around me. It was 2005, and I was in a class at my college called Social Problems. Our professor was talking about educational disparities, and I remember feeling smug about my state. We had good ACT scores; we competed with Minnesota. We had this education thing down, right?

“Do you know the city in America that is the worst at educating its Black students?” the professor asked, her voice a clear bell across the room.

New York, I thought. Chicago.

She smirked. “Milwaukee.”

What? Here? In Wisconsin? That didn’t seem right. The numbers are skewed, I thought.

But that moment has been haunting me for 15 years. That was the moment I knew I had a lot of catching up to do.

Fast forward to my first full-time teaching position. I returned to my alma mater, the high school from which I myself had graduated. I felt wiser, smug again in my new education that made me feel better than the small-towners I had returned to teach. I was going to fight the good fight, institute change from the inside. I was going to open my students’ eyes to the real world, the world that happened beyond our rolling fields and muddy creeks.

There was just one problem: I didn’t really know how to do that.

I muddled for a few years, toying with curriculum in ways that I thought were creative and meaningful. But I still failed to incite a desire for my students to care about issues outside of whether or not our town should welcome a Shopko. And I began to see a side of my tiny town I had not really noticed before: racism. It came in the forms of referring to any and all of our Latinx students as Mexican. Confederate flags glinted on belt buckles. Research papers about building the wall landed in my inbox.

Well, wasn’t I on a mission to fight the good fight? I began tossing out my older, canonical texts in favor of stories from immigrants like Richard Rodriguez and Maijue Xiong. I paired them alongside excerpts from the slave narrative of Oladuah Equiano and poetry from the Harlem Renaissance.

It wasn’t enough.

I stumbled upon Project Lit one day while looking for young adult literature that would excite my reluctant readers. Project Lit has a mission of bringing culturally relevant literature to schools all over the nation. I perused the reading list. Most of the authors were BIPOC.

I picked up Dear Martin by Nic Stone. I read it in one day. I wept at the end.

I brought it to my classes the next day and excitedly shared my favorite passages during a read-aloud. The kids laughed when I swore as I read. I had them on the hook, but I knew not for the right reasons.

But something was changing in me. I tore through book after book that year: The Hate U Give. Long Way Down. Pride. Amal Unbound. They Both Die at the End. The Poet X. I began to understand my privilege.

At the same time, I was completing a workshop through the Greater Madison Writing Project in which we were learning about the National Writing Project’s C3WP initiative, learning about how, many times, answers to complicated questions aren’t necessary clear-cut on one side of a spectrum or another, but rather somewhere in that complex middle. My students were entrenched in argument writing that year, wading through text set after text set, learning to articulate their thoughts and cite relevant evidence. But the topics were so innocuous: driverless cars, space debris, zoos. It was time for something that mattered.

I was awake. I was older, more experienced, but no longer smug. I sat uncomfortably in my own naivety but welcomed every nudge in the right direction, no matter how hard it was to face the white supremacy in which I’d been raised. I learned it wasn’t enough to simply expose my students to these texts that might serve as lenses to other worlds for them — I had to explicitly be anti-racist.

I decided to make my move.

To start off this year, I completely revamped one of my first units in my American literature class so that all of the authors were either BIPOC or women. I began with an excerpt from Trevor Noah’s memoir. For some context, I shared a clip from his show in which he posits that Trump is trying to get Melania deported.

When Noah said, “Because Trump is racist — ” one of my students cut in and said, “Trump’s not racist.”

I opened my mouth, but it was like my body betrayed me. I felt my lips smile serenely, muscle memory of a million times I patiently placated a student trying to rile others up. “It’s supposed to be funny,” I said. What? That’s not what I meant to say.

“Well, it’s not,” he shot back.

I hurriedly stopped the clip and distributed the excerpt to the class, moving on as noisily as I could. My face burned in shame for the rest of the day. I had missed an important opportunity.

I had received a set of Dear Martin the year before as part of a grant given to my classroom to incorporate more social-emotional learning, but I decided I wanted to teach it as a whole-class novel alongside a C3WP text set about protests. I bought more books out of my pocket to complete a class set and we got reading.

The students seemed generally engaged. They laughed at all the right times and asked some sincerely thoughtful questions during the tougher parts. A few of them wanted to know if the novel was based on a true story, and I seized the moment and shared as many real stories of police brutality against unarmed Black men as I could. Their mouths dropped open, as shocked as I had been that simply reaching for a cell phone — or less — could result in death.

We studied protests over the course of American history and engaged in articles about the impact social media had on the trajectory a cause might take without proper leadership. We talked a lot about Black Lives Matter. It felt like we were making progress.

And then they turned their essays in.

Not a single paper expressed a belief in the efficacy of protests. And worse, many of them said things like, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but sometimes they should keep it to themselves,” and the ever-disheartening, “All Lives Matter.”

It wasn’t their fault. They hadn’t missed the point. I had simply failed in my mission. I thought that placing these stories in front of them was enough to make them see the world though an anti-racist lens. But I hadn’t stated a why, or a how.

This is what I have been sitting with for a few months. As I watch the world from my phone, I see the gaping wounds left by the lives unjustly torn from our world, and my anger grows. How could I not see the world for what it was all those years ago? And how could I now, more educated than ever, still not know how to stand up for what I know to be right?

It may be uncomfortable for me to address these issues in my classroom, but it isn’t nearly as uncomfortable as fearing for my life each and every day. It’s uncomfortable to admit my ignorance as I stumble in my learning — it’s uncomfortable to sit here and write about my mistakes — but it’s not dangerous.

I will never take a knee to the neck for this.

White educators: having your students read The Hate U Give and watching the movie isn’t enough. Pairing To Kill a Mockingbird with a chapter from Just Mercy isn’t enough. You can’t follow a bunch of BIPOC authors and educators on Twitter and retweet ad-nauseum and say that counts as doing the work. You can’t just read Stamped and say that makes you anti-racist. You have to work on yourself. You have to face the harsh reality that you might have said and done some really racist things, even if you were unaware of it at the time. You have to face those practices that might be harmful to students, even if your intentions were good. We must take a stand. Being anti-racist isn’t “being political.” It’s being human. It’s doing what’s right.

We cannot expect our BIPOC brethren to do this work for us. They have enough work to do, enough heartache to wade through. We can take on the task of educating ourselves and taking correct steps. This, we can do. Because we can. Because we must.


For a place to start, see this doc. This list was compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker, Alyssa Klein in May 2020.

Teaching Tolerance

There Is No Apolitical Classroom (NCTE)

Dr. Sonya Cherry-Paul’s guide for teaching Stamped

Lisa Demro
Lisa has been teaching English Language Arts for 12 years in her home-state of Wisconsin. She's also a registered yoga teacher with a passion for bringing mindfulness to the classroom.
The YouTube symbol. (A play button.)

watch now