Antiracism in Social-Emotional Learning: Why It’s Not Enough to Talk the Talk
If there’s one thing Americans are doing right now, it’s talking. Talking even more than usual when schools are out and many are still working from home. Every day, new stories of discrimination and violence emerge that prompt new conversations.
The moment our country faces weighs heavily on the mind of an adult. But one must wonder: What does it do to the mind of a child?
Black students around the country are faced with a reality where they are isolated due to COVID-19, of which Black Americans disproportionately account for 60 percent of deaths. Then forced to adapt to technology-based distance learning—only to watch the same technology used to spread images of people who look like them being assaulted, brutalized and killed by police.
As the harsh reality of racism in the United States is thrust to the forefront, many households, boardrooms and families are talking about it openly for the first time. Some are going further. In the last two weeks, over $250 million of corporate funding have been dedicated to diversity initiatives. Large, influential organizations that have actively avoided speaking about race such as the NFL are retracting their positions, and companies like Starbucks have completely shifted their previous stances on Black Lives Matter.
To the average observer, the current cultural focus on racism may feel like a new beginning. However, for Black people, these conversations aren’t new. At a young age I vividly remember my parents sitting me down to have “The Talk.” Unlike what most non-Black families associate the term with, this talk is a painful but vital set of directions to give you the best chance of returning home safely if you encounter the police. “The Talk” is different from family to family, but core tenets of it are the same.
- Stay calm, don’t make any sudden moves.
- Even if provoked, don’t get angry, be respectful.
- Regardless of how they treat you, remember you have worth.
- Do what it takes to get back home.
The content of these conversations feel eerily similar to some of education’s favorite social-emotional learning (SEL) slogans: mindfulness, resilience and grit. Mindfulness implores students to remain calm, and take 10 deep breaths when they feel themselves getting angry. Resilience encourages students to hold their heads high despite mistreatment. Grit tells students to persevere in the face of obstacles.
It is not possible for a person to be racist and socially emotionally well.
Some educators believe that mastery of these traits can guarantee a student’s success. But what they overlook is something that every Black parent is painfully aware of: A Black child can do every single one of these things perfectly, and still not make it home.
The tragedy of The “Talk” is that parents know no matter what they tell their kids to do, there’s still a chance they won’t see them again. It’s an act of defense, a last resort hoping that their child will be seen as human enough to be treated with basic dignities. When Black parents use these tactics, they’re doing their best to equip their kids for success in a system pitted against them.
However, when school systems use ambiguous slogans as the foundation of their social-emotional learning pedagogy, they’re adopting ineffective solutions for a problem they are in part responsible for.
We can’t tell Black kids to take 10 deep breaths when people who look like them are dying because they can’t breathe.
There is no amount of grit that can prepare a Black girl to live in a world where she can be shot eight times while sleeping in her bed and months later no arrest will be made.
There is no amount of resilience that can prepare Black boys to live a life where they can’t even bird watch without fear of the police being weaponized against them by someone who deems their existence as a threat.
To create the impact they desire, schools must face a clear reality. It is not possible for a person to be racist and socially emotionally well. If schools acknowledge the systemic bias in our country, they have a unique opportunity to use social emotional learning as a tool for social justice and racial equity.
According to CASEL, a popular provider of social-emotional learning curriculum, the five core SEL competencies are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. But it is not possible for students to master these concepts without an understanding of systemic racism and the role it plays in their everyday social interactions.
Though they are well intentioned, catch-all phrases like grit and resilience place the responsibility on students to endure an unjust system. And though the reality for Black students is that they may very well have to fight that fight their whole lives, that’s even more reason for schools to take a stronger role in making that fight easier. In the words of Angela Davis: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.”
When my parents sat me down to have “The Talk,” they knew that I still may not survive a police encounter. As people awaken to the reality Black people have lived their whole lives to condemn racism, their words are still, not enough.
Talking wasn’t enough then, and it’s not enough now. If the education system truly wants to serve its students, it’s got a lot of work to do.