As our nation gets ready to swear in its first African-American president, students may be thinking that racism is a thing of the past — a problem for older generations, not theirs. But in spite of this monumental achievement, racism is still a serious challenge for America. As a society, we have a long way to go toward eliminating the damaging beliefs, behaviors and systems associated with discrimination. This new year, and this new presidency, offers a timely opportunity to engage students in a deeper discussion about racism’s past, present and future.

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Talking about race has never been easy, especially for high school students, many of whom struggle to understand what it has to do with them. It’s natural for young people to think about racism in terms of their individual experience or history (“I wasn’t around during slavery!”) and their own behavior (“I have no problem with black people — it’s not my fault.”). Other students are frustrated by what they see as some racial groups’ inability to get past historical tragedies such as slavery (“It was 500 years ago, time to move on!”) or economic failures (“Anyone can make it in America…look at all the other immigrants.”).

So how can teachers challenge these notions, and help students to think in systematic and institutional, rather than solely personal ways, about racism? The educators at RaceBridgesforSchools, a nonprofit organization that offers free lesson plans on diversity and tolerance, have these suggestions to open up a dialogue:

  • To help students understand how our behaviors and attitudes are largely influenced by our past and our contexts (both good and bad),  ask them to map out their personality traits, interests, hobbies and career goals, and connect them to the events, people and other influences that have made them who they are today. Ask them to consider not just people but their education, neighborhood, gender, social class, race, religion and so on.
  • Give students a constructive way to share, freely and openly, their feelings about racial divisions. Offer them a fictional story (with historical roots) that highlights discrimination or distrust between two groups of people. Emphasizing that there are no right or wrong answers in this exercise, have them record and discuss their impressions with their classmates.
  • Take a current or recent event that has racial significance, and have students analyze what may have led to it. For example, now’s a perfect time to take a closer look at the intense interest generated by Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the presidency. Encourage students to examine the history of voting acts, reconstruction, Jim Crow laws and the notion of white privilege to better understand the historical impact of this achievement.

These activities are a timely way to show students how history influences the present, and to open up their minds to these complexities both in their own lives and in the lives of individual and groups. By engaging in more thoughtful analysis, educators can help students answer the question, “What’s racism got to do with me?”

For your free copy of the “What’s Racism Got to Do with Me?” lesson plan, click here.