The Anti-Racism Education Affluent White Students Need

Learning how to think and talk about structural injustice.

Photo of a student at a desk, looking at a laptop showing an image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech
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The evidence was right there in front of me, in my student’s essay, which argued I shouldn’t have made his class read the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

All the injustices King outlined and the progress he demanded, my student wrote, had no relevance to kids like him, kids who attend largely white, affluent suburban schools. But after I picked my jaw up off the floor, I realized this student was doing exactly what I’d asked him to: using persuasive writing to advocate for his beliefs.

That this was apparently his belief cast an uncomfortable spotlight on my own shortcomings as a teacher, and on the failures of the school as a whole. Despite consistently achieving high student test scores and strong college admissions, our school was failing to equip its white students with vital knowledge and understanding.

The signs were everywhere. The white student in my class who complained, “Oh, no, not another book about poor Black people in the South.” The way many white students considered an incident of racist graffiti the work of one maladjusted individual and took offense when classmates of color argued it was part of a larger pattern of discrimination. If you’re white, living in a mostly white neighborhood, being taught exclusively by white teachers, it’s easy to think racism doesn’t exist, or you don’t play a part in it.

Many anti-racism initiatives focus narrowly on the experiences of students of color. That’s not enough. As a veteran African American educator at an elite private school once told me, “People of color are not the ones who need this — the 70% of the kids here who are white, they’re the ones who need to understand racism and start making changes.”

Schools like mine need to take up this task. Our white students grow up to wield disproportionate power and influence. Along the way, too many are failing to develop empathy and broader perspectives, and failing to critically examine structural injustice — including the role that well-off white folks like me play in benefiting from and perpetuating racism. Without such skills, our students may become leaders who dismiss protesters as “thugs,” or who worry more about the damage to a corporate bank building than the damage being done to Black men’s and women’s lives.

Teaching anti-racism skills begins with teaching affluent white kids — and, if you’re white, learning yourself — how to effectively talk about race. Most whites (myself included) never had to talk about race. Not only do we need to learn how to do it, but when we teach it we need to proceed slowly. Some anti-racism educators criticize this “ease into the pool” approach, but it often makes sense. No state test is pressuring affluent white students to work through their discomfort, and overcautious school administrators might quickly shut down “tough love” approaches.

Once white students get more comfortable being uncomfortable, reading narratives by people of color can help them learn that some things they consider universal or “normal” are specific only to the white experience. They can learn about oppression they might not have been aware of, and the history of pride and resistance in the midst of this oppression.

Actually, my essay-writing student was right about something: Kids engage best with what they can relate to. Teachers need to help well-off white students access their own experiences of being treated unjustly, even in small ways. Understanding those moments when they have not been privileged, even on a very limited level, can help white students understand that privilege —unearned advantage — is indeed a real phenomenon.

White students’ education cannot stop at the “happy ending” of civil rights legislation. They need to learn the present realities of racism — for instance, how the whiteness of suburban schools isn’t accidental or because “people of color like to live with their own kind,” but the result of deliberate policies like redlining and restrictive covenants. They need to learn about court cases, some as recent as the past decade, where white parents successfully sued to stop racial integration in schools. They need to learn how George Floyd’s murder fits within the context of ongoing inequities, not only in policing but in housing, health care and education.

They need to learn that racism isn’t just someone else’s problem. In fact, our structurally racist society harms whites, too. For example, the segregated bubble in which my students live deprives them of opportunities to learn how to work in diverse teams, a necessary skill for solving complex social problems. When white students don’t know how to collaborate effectively to address challenges like climate change or a pandemic, their lives are in as much danger as anyone else’s.

Research suggests excess privilege can deprive kids of a sense of self-efficacy and resilience. Why do we see more anxiety, depression and substance abuse among affluent white adolescents than among any other group of young Americans? As schools that serve low-income students of color fight for more-challenging curricula and more instructional time, why are affluent schools with so many resources feverishly reducing homework loads, asking less and less, because their students don’t seem resilient enough? Maybe, just maybe, America’s unjust systems are failing everyone. Maybe the privileged, not just the marginalized, have something to gain in reshaping our segregated, inequitable society.

Affluent white students need to develop the skills to be allies (not “white saviors”) who can listen to, work with and facilitate access to power for people of color. They need to study historical and present-day examples of white people who willingly shed privilege and take on anti-racism roles, to learn that such action is possible. They cannot do this alone. Teachers play a huge part in this work.

It’s been more than a decade since I read that essay. I’m still learning about anti-racism and still making mistakes. Teaching oneself as well as one’s students is a lifelong process. But all it takes is the latest video of police killing an unarmed Black man or of a downtown neighborhood in flames to remind us what is at stake.

David Nurenberg is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Lesley University, a high-school English teacher in Massachusetts, the host of the podcast "Ed Infinitum” and the author of “What Does Injustice Have To Do With Me? Engaging Privileged White Students With Social Justice” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).