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When a Lesson on Diversity Goes Wrong

Recently, yet another case of traumatic racism made the headlines. A two-year old Black girl (toddler) was fingerprinted and handcuffed by a white classmate during a play about Rosa Parks. While we often cannot know intentions, the impact of such incidence is profound. This is especially unfortunate as there are numerous cases of related forms of school-based discrimination in the U.S. From a developmental perspective, it is important for educators (and families) to know and understand that children notice racial differences earlier than they may think. Thus, the impact of this case and similar instances on impressionable young minds must not be discounted or trivialized. When educators are culturally competent in their dispositions, knowledge, and skills, these faulty lessons are less likely to happen.

Dr. Winston C. ThompsonDr. Winston C. ThompsonEmbodied expertise: our social positions and disciplinary perspectives

As an educational psychologist, I (Ford) would have to intervene to re-educate these two toddlers, along with their classmates, and school personnel. It is imperative that educators understand the damage done to these two children and the entire class. Educators must understand how to create and implement a curriculum that is antiracist and culturally responsive. At The Ohio State University, I teach a course by this title in the College of Education and Human Ecology. It is part of an antiracist certificate (described below). In the process of re-training (re-educating), educators must know how to critique curriculum, lesson plans, and course materials using the works of James Banks and my Bloom-Banks Matrix. This lesson plan with the toddlers under discussion can be placed at Banks’ additive level/approach. That is, the teacher appeared to be trying to implement a multicultural lesson plan, but it was done by infusing low-level, insufficient multicultural content. The lesson was culturally assaultive. I maintain that curricula must be at the highest levels of transformation and social action, which are grounded in empathy, critical thinking (e.g., multiple perspectives, opposing points of view), and problem solving. Students of all ages and from all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds are accurately informed; they are empowered; and they have agency in developmentally appropriate ways.

As a philosopher with a focus on ethics in a social and political context, I (Thompson) find it essential to scrutinize not only the observable manifestations of racial bias (i.e., the particular behaviors or incidents) but also the underlying conceptual structures that sustain such biases (e.g., the institutional, interpersonal, and individual values, assumptions, etc.). In my view, the necessary and challenging work of repair begins in questioning the systemic structures that perpetuate racial biases in our educational institutions. Analyzing the background power dynamics and social hierarchies at play allows all persons involved to move beyond simple descriptions of intent toward more sophisticated analyses of impacts. Such scrutiny aligns with the broader goals of social justice, emphasizing the need to dismantle oppressive structures and cultivate environments that foster equality.

Below, we describe how psychological and philosophical approaches to enduring patterns of racial discrimination provide a firm foundation for meaningful antiracist work in education.

Importance of cultural competence and antiracism in education (philosophy)

Though some may claim that teachers need to teach only their formal subjects without attending to the broader social contexts of their lessons, philosophical analysis can highlight how that view is a deeply flawed mischaracterization of what students deserve.

Within a society in that race is salient, the importance of cultural competence and antiracism in education should extend the boundaries of our consideration and analysis of ‘good teaching.’ Rooted in ethical analyses of what we owe to others, particularly in the context of a racially charged society that distributes specific configurations of benefits and burdens, educators bear a professional, ethical responsibility to address racial discrimination as they prepare students for full and equal participation in our shared world. This requires, among many other resources and capacities, that they have an appropriate degree of historical and cultural competence so that they might be appropriately responsive to their students’ unique and meaningful social and cultural positions.

This commitment rests on what many philosophers would call a general duty (i.e., a duty that universally applies to all persons). Namely, in a diverse society, individuals owe one another a commitment to dismantling oppressive systems — including forms of racial dis/advantage that might be perpetuated by individual actors who often hold no outsized racial animus. This general obligation can be sharpened to a professional duty given that educators, in their roles as custodians of knowledge and facilitators of learning, carry a distinct responsibility to create inclusive spaces within which students can develop healthy and ethical concepts of self and others. Teachers, as ethical agents in this process, must recognize the historical legacies of racial injustice and actively work to redress them in the classroom and create opportunities for students to do so in their own lives and futures. This important work entails fostering cultural competence — not as an optional attribute for a subset of interested educators — but as an essential ethical obligation embedded in their professional duties.

Dr. Donna Y. FordDr. Donna Y. FordAn ethical commitment to antiracism manifests in acknowledging the general and professional duties that teachers owe to all students and the specialized duties owed to members of marginalized racial groups. Sometimes, fulfilling those general duties requires drawing upon cultural competencies for contextualizing what some students need in order to receive what all are owed. In other instances, cultural competencies may contextualize the ethical landscape of the classroom such that an educator can pursue amelioration of ongoing oppressive structures. Classroom teachers, for instance, possess a role-based responsibility to craft environments that not only embrace diversity but also actively counteract ingrained biases. This ethical mandate necessitates curricula that reflect the multiplicity of experiences, fostering an inclusive educational space that validates and empowers all students, irrespective of their racial background. In essence, cultural competence and antiracism become ethical imperatives, shaping the ethos of education and contributing to the broader societal project of dismantling racial (and other) patterns of inequity.

Doing the work: implementing a certificate in antiracist education

Pairing our psychological and philosophical expertise, we have constructed courses that are the core of a vibrant newly-introduced "Antiracism in Education" certificate at our college/university. Across a curriculum that also exposes students to excellent classes taught by our renowned colleagues, courses within the certificate focus on dispositions (i.e., attitudes and beliefs), knowledge, and skills — the general components of competency in many educational standards. Of course, the philosophical and psychological perspectives described above do much to inform this transformative initiative in illuminating a stable path towards comprehensive cultural competence for educators.

This program immerses students in a dedicated exploration of the historical backdrop, theories, values, and objectives integral to anti-racism endeavors within educational settings. At its core, the certificate is a beacon for those committed to dismantling systemic racism in education. By delving into the nuanced complexities of antiracism work, participants gain a profound understanding of the multifaceted issues at play. The curriculum, thoughtfully curated, not only unpacks historical contexts but also delves into contemporary theories, providing a robust foundation for contemporary and continued critical analyses. A distinctive feature of this certificate is its emphasis on state-of-the-art resources, ensuring that students are equipped with the latest tools to evaluate and endorse anti-racist educational efforts. This forward-looking approach prepares educators to navigate the dynamic landscape of education with cultural competence as their guiding principle.

Moreover, the flexibility of the program accommodates diverse educational journeys. Whether pursued concurrently with a graduate degree or as a standalone option for non-degree seeking students, the certificate democratizes access to this vital knowledge. By connecting an understanding of the ethical importance of cultural competency with the ability to implement empirically informed evaluative standards (e.g., Bloom-Banks Matrix), this certificate stands as a cornerstone in our college’s commitment to cultivating a more just and culturally competent educational landscape.


Though we are proud of the certificate and the waves of increasingly competent educators it will prepare, the urgency of this work does not allow us to feel satisfied or complacent. As we proceed, we hold in mind children like the little girls we described above.

Of course, the school has issued an apology. Such apologies are sometimes (many times, most times) insufficient. The damage has been done and the consequences and impact/effects can be long-lasting. We agonize over the high probability that this lesson has been used before. How many Black children have been traumatized? How many white and other non-Black children have been empowered to believe they are superior to Black people? Are the white children now on the path to participating in forms of anti-Black racism? Racism is learned but very difficult to unlearn. It is imperative that families and educators be diligent about preventing racism; then, there will be less need for intervention. Our certificate in one step in a long-lasting and vitally important journey.

Dr. Winston C. Thompson is an associate professor, College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University.

Dr. Donna Y. Ford is Distinguished Professor of Education and Human Ecology in the College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University.

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