Talking to pupils about race and racism

Building discussions about race and racism into the curriculum is important in all phases. Dana Abdulkarim offers ways to do this and ideas for involving staff and parents

Author details

Dana is a senior education lead across PE and PSHE who has experienced sport at International level. In 2000 she became the first Muslim and Arab woman to compete for England internationally and in 2008 was the first Hijabi Muslim woman to...

The impact of racism is vast. It divides, it angers, and it spreads. From micro-aggressions to genocide. If you are not actively part of the conversation, you are arguably passively feeding the problem.

Why it matters in schools

The current pandemic affected significant dates and festivals for all major religions, with Diwali, Eid, Rosh Hashana and Easter all experienced amid lockdown. Not seeking chances to discuss this in the classroom can alienate pupils and create an assumed hierarchy of contemporary society. This may feed division rather than celebrate and experience full inclusion.

Schools needs to actively model how to talk about race and racism to pupils. There is an increased urgency to reflect on the quality and accuracy of these conversations. Talking about race needs to not be a token gesture once a year or after a major incident in the news. Schools should have these conversations all the time.

We must acknowledge that opportunities to spread diverse human knowledge have been missed and marginalised. That we can and want to do better.

How to discuss race and racism

Inevitably events reach our classroom and young people deserve answers. Fundamentally, schools need a culture shift. We need to find ways to remind our pupils that we are a multi-faceted community. We must make time to share and learn about one another so that we might avoid such segregation in future.

It is our collective responsibility to try to address the race imbalances that we know. Teachers are at the frontline of schooling and change and there are several ways to engage discussions around diversity.

Ask your diverse children what they need more of and what would make them feel connected to others

Early years and primary

  • Talk about and celebrate similarities and differences in a positive and open way.
  • Use the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ analogy to explore identity.
  • Use resources that will help explore what racism is.
  • Alternatively use the late MP Jo Cox’s quote, ‘We have more in common than that which divides us’ to generate discussion and lessons on diversity.

All phases

  • Teach young people to consider compassion, empathy, and kindness, and consider the beliefs and approaches to these from major religions. The parable of the Good Samaritan works well at KS1/2.
  • Talk openly about different ethnic groups within your school and celebrate countries of origin, languages, religions, and Holy events.
  • Include international days as part of the school calendar.
  • Include conversations about human rights and equality. Remind pupils that we don’t always have to like or agree with something, but we have to respect people’s right to exist, live peacefully and practice their religion.
  • Be available to talk in unstructured time about issues and the impact of racism. Young people will see what is in the media and may wish to explore the wider issues. If you feel you can, engage in these discussions. Use reliable sources to support your own knowledge.
  • Challenge stereotypes and prejudice which could lead to misconceptions if not explored. This could be from a non-race point of view at first (e.g., gendered job roles). Use the PSHE curriculum to embed for all.
  • Consider buying more representative books for your school library and encouraging young people to read them and make them part of the curriculum. There are many inclusive booksellers.
  • Review your curriculum and consider how you can incorporate anti-racism into it.
  • Contact local leaders from different communities to visit school, talk with pupils and allow for some inter-faith collaboration.
  • Use diverse images, names, and inclusive perspectives in everyday teaching – ‘you cannot be, what you cannot see’.

My experience

I am British and Arab. I wear hijab, am Muslim and a PE Teacher. My very existence has challenged long-held assumptions about what it is to ‘be Muslim’ for my pupils. I use this in my own discussions about my ethnicity and race. I’ve always made my identity part of my teaching and felt comfortable to share my experiences of racism.

I recognise I have a unique opportunity to be both human resource and subject resource – I work in a school lacking in staff and student diversity. My voice needs to be heard.

I use a lot of humour. This has opened pupil conversations and their curiosity. I’m approachable. I go to lessons where pupils ‘ask me anything’ linked to my race and religion.

I talk about my experiences as a Muslim – how world events like 9/11 directly affected me (I was taking my GCSE’s in Sheffield at the time). I make very clear that my interpretation is my own and there is no one size fits all.

Use staff and parents

If you have staff within your school from diverse communities, approach them about sharing and supporting efforts to increase knowledge and understanding about one another. Negotiate with them what they are prepared to do. They could be invaluable when checking for accuracy.

Schools can be a diverse melting pot of resources, but where the majority of the teacher workforce is white, it can be difficult to know how to confidently try to add quality race and racism education.

Teachers may feel they lack racial literacy and this might present a barrier to discussing race and racism. Turning to your community and specifically collaborating with parents could be an asset.

Working with parents

Encouraging parent governors from diverse backgrounds might be one way to create partnerships and share knowledge. The excerpt below is from a reflection by a parent with primary-aged children.

‘I came with free online resources, and suggested age and safeguarding-appropriate examples of activities the school could use, such as food tasting, colouring and dress-up with items I had at home.

This led on to further meetings, (the teacher) came with her own ideas and checked for accuracy and appropriateness.

I was able to fill in gaps or correct misconceptions. ‘What is Muslim food?’ became ‘Are there specific foods that Muslims eat at special times?’

The school was welcoming, supportive and enthusiastic. The benefits were immediate and long lasting. I have visited the school on four separate occasions over three years to teach and explore Islam and the associated customs.

The teachers have become more confident and instigated their own activities, such as a Ramadan calendar with treats. This has become an annual fixture in the school.

Celebration boards marking the Holy days of other faiths have been maintained, and my children feel accepted and empowered to talk about their personal beliefs in a way they did not before’.

Ways to start discussions about race and racism

  • Discussions about privilege are hard. Terminology needs to be carefully crafted but not ignored. John Amaechi has a video which is a great way to open thinking.
  • Read a book together; The Good Immigrant is excellent. It offers 20+ diverse voices of what it is like to be non-white in the UK. Alternatively look to films.
  • Make the space safe. Acknowledge that pupils ‘might ask/say it wrong’ but that is ok. We will all get it wrong until we know how to get it right.
  • Show an image of Rosa Parks and challenge that with a photo of the Bristol Bus boycott. Explore together, what you don’t know.

Learning together

Talking about race and racism can be a topic some staff fear. But no pupil will be angry or upset if you make mistakes while trying to learn yourself – isn’t that what we teach every day? To work through these issues, we must hear one another. We must see one another’s humanity; we must speak up for one another’s hurt.

Be sensitive but genuine and humble about what you do know and what you are seeking to find out. Diversify your social media, hear diverse views, read diverse writing.

Collaborate with other ally’s that are ready to talk openly to young people. Challenge what you see and act. Talking about racism can be hard for those who don’t see it daily. Ugliness is easy to airbrush out.

Ask your diverse children what they need more of and what would make them feel connected to others. Sometimes, the children really do know the first step.

Last Updated: 
25 Nov 2020