HomepageISTEEdSurge
Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
Join ASCD
December 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 4

Confronting Inequity / Overcoming Bad Race-Talk Role Models

author avatar
To elevate racial discussions, teachers must dissect students' conversational role models.

EquityInstructional Strategies
Confronting Inequity / Overcoming Bad Race-Talk Role Models thumbdrive
No classroom race conversation happens in a vacuum. By the time that our students get to us, the outside world has already taught them how to speak with one another, and these lessons consistently impact classroom discourse. That's why, when planning classroom discussions on racial issues, it's important for teachers to become more familiar with many students' conversational role models.
What do these various role models, particularly those elevated by the ever-present media kids consume, teach our students about how to have race conversations? What do our students learn from the Instagram influencers and star YouTubers? From Nike campaigns and presidential debates? From Colin Kaepernick, Jay-Z, and Tomi Lahren? And most important, what manifestations of these lessons are we likely to encounter in our language arts discussions on Americanah, our social studies debates about immigration policies, or our math conversations about the deliberate manipulation of statistics by those in power?
It's not hard to find high-profile racial exchanges—the kind that seep into our students' discourse—that we can use to guide our practice. One of my favorite activities in my professional development workshops for teachers is to analyze segments from cable news programs, which often feature "professional" race conversationalists. You may think that your students don't watch cable news, but these shows' exchanges are often distilled into punchy clips on YouTube that circulate widely. They are part of the rhetorical air that students breathe.
During one of my more popular professional development sessions, I ask teachers to break down a 2017 clip CNN posted on YouTube with the title, "Lemon and Lord Have a Fiery Argument Over Race." In it, four guests on Don Lemon's CNN Tonight discuss an on-air incident from earlier in the day, where one of the commentators, Jeffrey Lord, had compared President Trump to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The exchange begins with Lemon and three other commentators of color confronting Lord, informing him that his King/Trump comparison was "insulting," and accusing him of "ignoring" the pain that the remark had caused people of color. Lemon then asks Lord whether he thinks he should take that perspective into consideration.
This charge kicks off a two-minute argument that I like to carefully dissect with teachers, through the lens of what our students might learn from it. Jeffrey Lord starts with a story: "Don, when I lived as a teenager in the South, and my dad lost his job standing up for a black waitress … when he lost his business because he hired a black woman…." But Lemon immediately him cuts off, accusing Lord of not answering his question. The men speak over each other for a few seconds, vying for the audience's attention, which Lemon eventually snatches by snapping, "Don't take me back to some ‘before the war’ crap! … I want you to answer my question now! … I don't want to hear about stuff from 50 darn … damn years ago!" The sudden use of profanity shocks Lord into a brief silence, which Lemon quickly fills with, "I want to hear now, to the people of color that work on this network…."
Fully recovered, Lord interrupts with, "There are no people of color, Don, there are only Americans!" Noticing that Lemon hasn't stopped shouting over him, Lord throws out, "You sound like Bull Connor, Don!" This comparison to the 1960s Alabama politician who used brute force to disperse Civil Rights protestors, in turn, shocks Lemon into silence. Taking this pause as a cue to move forward, Lord continues, "C'mon! This isn't right! This is not moral! We don't judge people by color in this country. That is racist! It's wrong!"
Lemon's response to this is cut off by a new voice, commentator Symone Sanders. Sanders interjects, "Jeffrey! Let me tell you something. Every single day I walk out of my house, I am a black woman. I don't have the luxury of saying, ‘I don't see color.’"
Lord interrupts her with his own interpretation: "No, you're an American!"
Undeterred, Sanders delivers the last words of the clip: "Every single day I walk out of my house, someone sees me as a black woman, regardless of how I see myself…. You have the luxury of walking out of the house and just being an American…. You don't have to think about it. And that, my friend, is a position of privilege."
What is being modeled for our students in this exchange? There are the obvious points, like the constant cycle of monologuing and interrupting, the spiking volume, and the deliberate use of incendiary language to establish one's authenticity. Don Lemon's mid-statement upgrade from "darn" to "damn" always draws a good laugh. Then there's Jeffrey Lord's less humorous, "You sound like Bull Connor, Don!" To compare a black man to Bull Connor is to move the conversation from discourse to deliberate personal provocation.

Countering Bad Habits

Then there are the more complex lessons. Our students might learn, for example, that it's acceptable to speak in absolutes. The statements "There are no people of color, Don, there are only Americans!" and "We don't judge people by color in this country" are ridiculous oversimplifications. People of color do exist, and humans clearly have multiple aspects of identity. Further, countless statistics and painful personal narratives suggest that people are indeed judged by their color in this country. But, steeped in this rhetorical tendency toward absolutes, our students are too often encouraged to make their own blanket statements: All of these people are racist. None of these people can be racist. This section of the country is hopelessly bigoted. This neighborhood is not worth investing in. The people from that country are universally violent.
Finally, exchanges like this CNN debate teach our students that, during race conversations, it is acceptable to aggressively define an ideological opponent's reality for them. When Symone Sanders says, "Every single day I walk out of my house, I am a black woman." Lord answers, "No, you're an American." This may well be retribution since, seconds earlier in the conversation, Lemon had dismissed Lord's unfinished story about his father, calling it "crap" before hearing enough to assess its relevance. After a steady diet of this kind of denialism, it's no wonder why some of our students feel so comfortable weaponizing their often-myopic understanding of one another's lived experiences.
This exchange wasn't found in the comments section of a YouTube video or a blog post. It wasn't Antifa Twitter or an alt-right Reddit thread. It was led by professionals in suits and make-up, engaging in what passes in our country as elevated discourse. Our students have both seedier and more productive options for conversational role models, of course. But we teachers must commit to being aware of all these influences. Once we grasp what discourse habits our students have absorbed, we will be better equipped to craft thoughtful curriculum that shows them how to engage more constructively in conversations about race. And maybe then, the discourse in our classrooms will show the adult world how to do it right.

Matthew R. Kay teaches students English at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and is the author of two books, including We’re Gonna Keep On Talking (Stenhouse, 2023).

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Equity
How Leaders Can Support Culturally Responsive Instruction
Andrea Terrero Gabbadon
2 months ago

undefined
Teaching Beyond the Single Story of STEM
Tesha Sengupta-Irving & Thomas Philip
3 months ago

undefined
Why Physical “Space” Matters
Kate Stoltzfus
3 months ago

undefined
The Vital Role of Joy for Educators
Kimberly Tsai Cawkwell
4 months ago

undefined
How Can Schools Support Gender-Diverse Students’ Well-Being?
Sarah Miles & Samantha T. Selby et al.
5 months ago
Related Articles
How Leaders Can Support Culturally Responsive Instruction
Andrea Terrero Gabbadon
2 months ago

Teaching Beyond the Single Story of STEM
Tesha Sengupta-Irving & Thomas Philip
3 months ago

Why Physical “Space” Matters
Kate Stoltzfus
3 months ago

The Vital Role of Joy for Educators
Kimberly Tsai Cawkwell
4 months ago

How Can Schools Support Gender-Diverse Students’ Well-Being?
Sarah Miles & Samantha T. Selby et al.
5 months ago
From our issue
Product cover image 120039b.jpg
Building Bridges for ELLs
Go To Publication