Anti-Racism in Education

By Deborah Gatrell

Photo by Stanley Morales on

This Spring, a student I know reported teammates for blatantly racist behavior. The student wasn’t satisfied with how the issue was handled and elevated it to school administration. When school administrators didn’t discipline the offending students, the issue sparked a social media campaign that pulled no punches. Meanwhile, this student’s car was keyed and egged. Then the whistle-blowing student was suspended for cyberbullying.

In June a 10 year old playing in his grandmother’s yard in West Bountiful was stopped by Woods Cross police searching for fugitives and ordered to the ground, gun drawn.

In both cases, these children were persons of color. The student attended an ethnically diverse school, but was part of what looked to be an all-white team. The 10 year old has a white adoptive mother and was in a largely white community.

In the first example, a teenager took on the social justice warrior role in an effort to correct what seemed an open-and-shut case of racism. The second was just a kid playing in the yard, but he’s now the face of another controversy over white perceptions of racism in Utah.

Newsflash: as the majority in Utah, the white community doesn’t get to decide when their behavior is racist.

To be fair, most people are well-meaning. Utah Jazz player Kyle Korver’s piece acknowledging Utah Jazz fans have a problem is a pointed critique of what might be termed white ignorance. We can’t fix problems we don’t recognize. Gail Miller’s response banning toxic fans was the right thing to do.


Make no mistake though, we still have major issues, as found by a Pew research study this spring. A panel of black Utahns shared their experiences after the Korver piece was published in an effort to raise awareness of the issue. I have mixed race family members and relatives. I worry about them because I’ve heard their stories too.

As a white teacher working with diverse populations, my perception of racism has changed with experience. I said and did some stupid things as a new teacher simply because I was ignorant: I know better now, because I’ve listened.

When I first started teaching, I thought I was taking a neutral stance by defending the police who frequently stopped my students when statistics (and student experience) bear out the likelihood of racial profiling. My conversations with students are more thoughtful now. 

Just this year I saw another teacher intervene when a School Resource Officer (SRO) challenged a non-verbal autistic student of color, preventing what would likely have been an ugly escalation. There’s an example of where SROs can do better getting to know Special Needs students.

It’s important for those of us in positions of trust and authority to take time to reflect on these issues. If we don’t recognize a problem, we can’t fix it. Summer is a good time for teachers and SROs to reflect. I hope the incident in West Bountiful will result in some self-reflection for police departments across the state too.

I attended a day of UEA sponsored Anti-racism Training for White Educators about a year ago and came away with a new understanding of how I can make a difference. I’m sharing a few points so you can too.

After acknowledging there is a problem that must be considered, there are four Agreements in the Courageous Conversation About Race protocol, developed by Glenn Singleton of the Pacific Education Group, that must be made in order to productively further conversations on racial equality: stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak your truth, expect and accept non-closure. 

It’s a hard conversation, but we’re dealing with a hard topic, rooted in unpleasant history with generational consequences. This isn’t something that is ‘solved’ in a single training event. But if we don’t engage, we can’t improve ourselves or move our communities forward.

Here are the ten steps presented in Luke Michener and Terry Jess’ Anti-racism training: 

Listen, Learn, Acknowledge, Follow, Space, Accountability, Amplify, Act, Grow, Listen!

We must honestly Listen to understand if we’re going to recognize that the white experience  differs from that of people of color. This isn’t a question of racism, but of perception, and it’s simply unfair to generalize the white experience as normal, because for many of our friends and neighbors, it isn’t. As we learn from others, we’ll face some harsh truths and realities. These facts are borne out by research too.

Once we Acknowledge the validity of different experiences, we can begin to make progress by working together. Making cultural change requires participation by many groups.

Leaders in these change movements should be the ones impacted by current systems and structures. The rest of us can support by Following their lead. They need support from the majority group, but whites should not attempt to take on the “white savior” role

Change is hard and takes time. We’ll make mistakes, but must keep trying.

We need to ensure those most affected by issues have the Space to be heard, especially when their voices have historically been silenced.

In the process of change, Accountability is crucial. We must hold ourselves accountable, and extend the conversation to groups that need to change.

It’s important to Amplify the voices of people in marginalized communities who have different experiences so we can all gain perspective. This isn’t taking over the conversation, it’s lifting the voices of those who know. We can help the cause by elevating them as they speak the truth of their experience.

Once we know, we must Act. Change takes effort. Good intentions aren’t enough.

As we engage in this vital work, we will Grow into better, more compassionate and understanding people. Our friends and students of color need allies to help right the systemic wrongs of the past.

Finally, in this ongoing struggle for true equality and justice for all, let us never forget to Listen again! 

This is not a “one and done” project. We haven’t yet achieved Dr. King’s Dream, but Jackie Robinson was right in saying that our lives have meaning through the impact we have on others. 

Let’s make a positive impact by standing up against racism, especially at school. For more ideas, check out Luke Michener and Terry Jess’ primers on Anti-Racism for White Educators.

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