We are working on a list of demands that we will push at a State level through all channels, including the State Legislature, OSPI, and WEA. Below is our first demand.

  1. Demand: Annual Racial Equity Literacy Training for all K-12 teachers and in all pre-service teacher preparation programs.

It is impossible to truly be a racial equity literate educator without a deep understanding of how the social construct of race has very real impacts on us as individuals and within every system in our society, especially in education. Unfortunately, too few educators meet that standard and we demand that districts and schools make racial equity literacy a consistent focus of professional development, training, and evaluation. Many schools have begun to implement culturally responsive teaching, multiculturalism, and equity work without having the necessary tool to accomplish any of it: a racially conscious and anti-racist educating force. All of this leads to the exasperation and exhaustion of our students, educators, families, and communities of color. As schools keep saying “we’re doing the work, look at this,” so many of our families of color respond with “you aren’t, look at all this.” Paul Gorski and Katy Swalwell write that “the trouble lies in how so many diversity initiatives avoid or whitewash serious equity issues.” (Gorski & Swalwell, 2015, p. 35)

Although Gorski & Swalwell refer to the concept as “equity literacy,” and we will be citing them throughout, as an organization we are pushing further to demand the equity literacy be racial in focus. In any discussion of equity and justice, a failure to center race will only lead to the perpetuation of racist, white supremacist outcomes. The idea of “colorblindness” is firmly entrenched in our education system, but has yet to yield tangible results for our students of color. For more information on why race should be centered, please refer to the article “Why Race?” by Cheryl Ching (Ching, 2013) or the chapter “Isolate Race” in Courageous Conversations about Race by Glenn Singleton (Singleton, 2014) in the references below.

According to Gorski & Swalwell, there are four abilities that every educator and student need to have to be racial equity literate. As with all skills we hope to teach our students, we must first be able to practice them ourselves.

All four of these abilities are crucial in creating a more equitable and just school. The importance of recognizing inequities cannot be understated. Too many of our students of color sit in class after class, experiencing discrimination and the effects of systemic racism, and when they summon the courage to call out an educator, they receive the excuse that “I didn’t see… didn’t hear… didn’t know.” This cannot be tolerated any longer. People of color have created the resources, told their stories, and literally written the books on race in education and our society and every educator has a responsibility to learn and make the effort to recognize. Moreover, when you recognize, you have the additional responsibility to respond. At Bellevue High School, most respondents of a survey said that teachers occasionally or never interrupt racist comments or epithets. When you fail to intervene, you only exacerbate school-based racial trauma. 

Redress is an ability our nation has consistently failed at, and unfortunately so do most educators and schools. It is not enough to apologize for one’s own words and behaviors. If you have recognized and responded to racist actions, words, or systemic failures, then you must do the work to make it right. This will likely involve a new allocation of your time, energy, and resources. It is important to understand that people of color are under no obligation to inherently trust white educators or an educational system built on white supremacy, and when trust is gained, and it can easily be lost. It is your responsibility to do the work to rebuild the trust. Finally, cultivating and sustaining an anti-racist community starts and ends with listening to and following our students and families of color. This cannot be attained by well-meaning white folks or from top-down initiatives. The community you serve should have power to make decisions and should be the foundation of your curriculum and programs, not an afterthought.

Once you have committed to practicing the four abilities, it is time to start redressing by looking at your curriculum and pedagogy. Gorski and Swalwell (2015) point to five principles that a racial equity literate person should use as guidance to do the work:

Far too often when discussions of racial equity literacy skills, culturally responsive teaching, and especially ethnic studies come up, educators tend to relegate it to the humanities. People can see the connections more clearly in a literature class where students can read texts from diverse identities. History is also “easy” as students can learn more about different people. This inherit belief is dangerous in two ways: (1) it makes the assumption that content about or from people of color is enough “diversity” to cover our bases and (2) that STEM and other classes are inherently non-racial. Both are outright false and betray the racial myopia of many educators. Racial equity literacy has a home in every subject and models already exist to do this effectively. This approach also comes from a pedagogy that isolates subjects and therefore weakens connections and relevance for students. How can one learn about the housing crisis without understanding the history of housing injustice, without reading accounts from people affected, and without understanding how to calculate variable interest rates? Life is not segregated into neat subjects, and our students’ learning needs to involve more integration of skills and bodies of knowledge.

Many white parents and communities will say that this could be done in high school, but elementary students are not ready to discuss topics like race and inequity. Many students of color are never provided this luxury, as their life is a testament and daily lesson on racism and inequity. White parents don’t often recognize or don’t seem to care that their child is being socialized to be racist, because we live in a racist society. Multiple studies have shown that all children begin to internalize racist structures and beliefs as toddlers. This is why all students should receive racial equity literacy education. Whether one likes it or not, all children are being taught about race, but racial equity literacy is about teaching them how to be anti-racist, which could lead to the dismantling of our racist systems. This is equally important for white students as it is to students of color.

Finally, neutrality is a myth in education. Every time we choose what to teach, how to teach, and how to measure what we teach, we are making a political decision. Politics is all about who gets what and how. Educators can either choose so-called neutrality, which is actually choosing to perpetuate a status quo of white supremacy, or they can choose a more equitable and just politic, like racial equity literacy. We choose racial equity; we choose racial justice; we choose anti-racism; we choose to dismantle white supremacy; and to accomplish this, educators must master racial equity literacy in their life, their content, and their practice.

Written by: Terri Jess with Alma Ramiro Alonzo

Works Cited:

Ching, C. (2013). Why race? Understanding the importance of foregrounding race and ethnicity in achieving equity on college campuses. Los Angeles, CA: Center for Urban Education, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California.

Gorski, P. & Swalwell, K. (2015, March). Equity Literacy For All: Schools can commit to a more robust multiculturalism by putting equity, rather than culture, at the center of the diversity conversation. Educational Leadership. 34-40.

Singleton, G. (2005) Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. (1st ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.