Study Finds White Teachers Struggle to Discuss Race With Black Coworkers and Students

A new study led by researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has found White public high school teachers tend to avoid conversations surrounding race with their Black students and colleagues due to a sense that their identity, both personally and professionally, will be challenged. These feelings were consistent among the study participants regardless of how diverse the faculty and student body were at each teacher’s school.

The research team interviewed and job-shadowed 56 White teachers across five metropolitan high schools in the southeastern United States in an effort to understand their sense of belonging at work and emotional responses to being a different race than their students and coworkers. They found that these emotions stem from three stages of the teachers’ lives: their racial socialization from earlier in life, their perceptions of race in the workplace, and their behaviors due to those perceptions.

When encountering a race-related event at work, White teachers’ felt uncomfortable, anxious, and potentially devalued or disliked based on their own race. They also reported struggling to relate to and communicate effectively with their Black students due to racial barriers. Some teachers believed that because they were White, their students and Black coworkers thought less of them as an educator. To cope with their discomfort, the study participants avoided race-related conversations when possible, and practiced social avoidance when encountering such discussions.

“White minority teachers were concerned about being perceived as prejudiced or racist and worried they would get in trouble if they said the wrong thing to a Black student,” said Dr. Jennifer Nelson, a professor of education policy, organization, and leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Regardless of if the school was predominately White or Black, teachers in the study “reported difficulties managing their emotions when race became a topic of discussion at work,” Dr. Nelson said.

Dr. Nelson believes long-term professional development programs may help White teachers better understand and prepare for these conversations and interactions with Black faculty and students. She suggests experiential learning opportunities in this area could help teachers “reflect on their own identities and behaviors, so they have actually thought about the way they show their emotions how they affect their behavior and the views and expectations they bring to work.”

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