White Students Can Fight for Racial Justice, But Only If Teachers Are Willing to Give Them the Tools

Oct 16, 2019 12:00:00 AM


[pullquote position="right"]Our students want to know more than we are telling them.[/pullquote]

I teach a class in which my predominantly White juniors and seniors teach all of the predominantly White freshmen and sophomores about racial literacy and social justice. 

I teach this class in a small town in Iowa. 

Day one is all about identity and Lillie—White, female, junior—takes a deep breath and collects her thoughts after she has asked a room full of sophomores to write down the things about themselves they value most and then cross them off one by one. As said breath exits her body, she speaks these words:

I see how bad it felt for you to cross off these parts of your identity. Some of you didn’t want to do it. Some of you refused to do it, and this isn’t even real. What if I told you that people walk through the world, our town, this school being forced to cross off pieces of their identity? What if I asked you how we, as students, make each other erase our identities to become what we think is good?

Lillie wouldn't be dropping insightful truth bombs like this if she hadn't experienced life outside of her isolated White community first. She's spent three years learning.  

In those three short years, she has taken my African American Literature and Social Justice courses, traveled with me through the American South to learn the truth about American oppression and the resistance to that oppression, traveled with me to Collins Academy in North Lawndale to spend the day at an aquarium with students who live in an isolated Black community in Chicago, and now takes this class—a project-based learning social justice class that aims to do nothing short of changing the world by loving it well.

So, when Lillie and her classmates decided to start teaching racial literacy by first teaching about identity, I thought, yep, these kids are going to change the world.

We Want to Know and Be Known By Others

People are bias-filled and broken and they want to know and be known by others. And this includes us. It includes our students.

[pullquote]White students need racial literacy and social justice-driven curriculum in order to eradicate the biases that create systemic racism. More than needing it, they want it.[/pullquote] Even when they don’t know they want it, they want it.

As I walk through doing this exact thing with students, over and over again they say, “Why aren’t we learning this?” 

They feel betrayed. And [pullquote position="right"]I wonder if they aren’t learning this because we teachers haven’t fully learned it.[/pullquote] Because we haven’t undone the work that was done in us during our youth. Because we haven’t examined our biases and poured out our broken hearts to preach truth and reconciliation in our classrooms.

So yes, White students need this and want this, but, teachers—so do we.  

How Do We Undo What Was Done?

Educators can do this well by learning from experts of color, by reading everything you can get your hands on, by examining your own heart, by teaching and failing and teaching again. Because as we teach a fuller truth for fuller humanity, we are all changed.

Join me in a conversation on October 22, “Creating a Social Justice Movement in Predominately White Schools,” and check out these resources to get started:

Leigh Ann Erickson

Leigh Ann Erickson is a high school teacher at Mount Vernon Community Schools, Iowa. She has designed and built a curriculum for teaching cross-cultural understanding and acceptance to high school students. After teaching in NYC and Chicago public schools, Erickson learned firsthand the unjust challenges and barriers students of color face in school. In Mt. Vernon, she works to teach her predominantly White students to use their privilege to advocate for others. Erickson has partnered with many others to develop and teach social justice and African American literature curriculum in Mt. Vernon. She is the founder of Undone Consulting and the Connect, Absorb, Respond and Empower (CARE) conference that brings authentic and relationship-building conversations about race and bias into high schools. She earned a bachelor's degree in English and Spanish from the University of Delaware and a master's degree in teaching from Pace University in New York City. Erickson was recently awarded the Her Woman of Achievement Award by the eastern Iowa Gazette, was a 2019 finalist for Iowa Teacher of the Year and delivered a keynote titled “What Should We Teach White Students” at the 2019 NNSTOY Teacher Leadership Conference. Erickson is grateful to play a small part in a conversation about race and equity that has been happening in our country for centuries.

The Feed


  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...

  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...