Skip Navigation
School of Education at Johns Hopkins University-"Allowing" Race in the Classroom: Students Existing in the Fullness of Their Beings:

by Julie A. Helling
Fairhaven College, Western Washington University

In the wake "of a system of racial caste only recently ended," large disparities endure. Unemployment, poverty, and access to health care vary disproportionately by race. Neighborhoods and schools remain racially divided. African-American and Hispanic children are all too often educated in poverty-stricken and underperforming institutions . . . -Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg [1]

It should be no secret that racism exists in this country and in the classroom. Yet despite attention to this phenomenon in the work of writers such as Justice Ginsburg and Jonathan Kozol, [2]I am continually dismayed by the lack of acknowledgement that racism plays a large role in the academic underperformance of many students of color. My observations of the dynamics in my classes show that racism continues to taint the educational experience of students.

I teach in the undergraduate Law and Diversity Program at Fairhaven College, Western Washington University. This two-year program for the junior and senior years of college aims to increase access to law school and the legal system for underrepresented communities. We provide extensive individual support for the whole identity of our students, including providing time and space for students to discuss their lives outside of the academic experience.

As might be expected, racism is a frequent topic of conversation. We discuss how factors such as lack of academic preparation, lack of encouragement, lack of knowledge about how the educational system works (including admissions and scholarships), and underachievement on tests all contribute to narrowing the pool of possible applicants of color to college. I have come to realize that in addition to these well-known factors, there is one that does not get the attention it deserves: lack of energy.

Quite simply, students of color have to spend much of their energy on racism in one form or another, and white students have that same energy to spend on education. If one's time is taken up either responding to racist statements or behaviors-- or anticipating that these things might occur-- one does not have as much energy to put elsewhere.

There is an easy way to demonstrate the truth of this proposition. Any teacher who has had a class where the issue of race comes up and a white student is challenged or called a racist will remember the amount of time and feather smoothing required in dealing with the white student afterwards.

I happen to be white and I suspect white students are more likely to come see me than professors of color when these incidents occur. I recognize this as another instance of my white privilege, [3] where white students assume I am "trustworthy" and will tell me what they are actually thinking.

"I feel silenced," says the white student. "I do not feel safe. I do not want to come to class." If one comment can upset a white student so much that it impacts the student's educational experience, imagine what a lifetime as a student of color hearing these comments could do to the student's focus.

My students of color routinely report hearing racist comments from grade school on, including from their instructors. For example, one Native American student who was Nooksack (a Pacific Northwest tribe) related that when she was in grade school, her teacher "taught" about Indians—which really meant teaching about the Plains tribes. The teacher asked my student (the only Native American in the class) if she had ever ridden a horse. Because Pacific Northwest tribes did not ride horses, the student unsurprisingly said "no." To which the white teacher responded, "It's too bad that there are no real Indians left."

One of my African-American students told of being in grade school and competing in a writing contest. A white student told her she would not win because she was black. While this has provided motivation in my student's educational experience to prove the other student wrong, it also serves as one more voice in the background to make her doubt herself. Coupled with often being the only student of color in her college classes, and never having a class from a black professor until she was a senior, the mental and emotional energy this student expended on awareness of being a person of color was significant. White students, imbued with white privilege and the lack of pressure that flows from it, could put this energy toward their education.

White students also get to learn in an educational system that is still predominantly taught by other white people. [4] This creates a level of comfort for white students that might not exist for students of color. While many white teachers are doing great work, racism still exists in the classroom, however unconscious.

The following example illustrates how even well-meaning teachers may damage the academic experience of students of color. At Western Washington University each summer the Political Science Department puts on a week long series of lectures, attended mostly by high school teachers looking to increase their knowledge of politics. The summer I attended, the teachers received one lecture from a faculty member of color who had them fill out a short questionnaire (that they did not turn in) with questions such as, "Do you believe that your race has ever been an advantage for you?" and "do you believe that your race has ever been a disadvantage for you?"

Several teachers immediately complained that the questions were "biased." The discussion veered toward race in the classroom. Many of the (what appeared to be) all white teachers felt that students of color used race as an excuse. One white teacher shared his "solution" to this "problem" proudly: "I don't allow race in my classroom."

Not one teacher took issue with this staggering statement, and most seemed to be nodding along. How can one not "allow" race in a classroom? By telling students of color that their experiences do not exist? [5]

In fact, race needs to exist more, not less in classrooms. We need to talk about the effects of racism in this country, the rac-ing of people in general, and affirm the positive and plentiful contributions of all cultures to this country.

As a teacher, it can be a daunting task to respond to the racism some of the students may have already encountered. My message to the students is, "Trust me enough to tell me where you need help." And often they do, despite having been made to stand in for their entire race, having been called "stupid" by their instructors and having been told by their classmates they cannot succeed because of their color. But to get to that point I have to experience lots of rejection ("You're white, you'll never understand me") and challenging ("You do not know what my life is really like and you could not deal with it if you did"), and spend many hours with students whose armor is impressively thick ("I'm fine and I don't need you").

The students are right: I am white, I will never fully understand their experience, and they do not need me to live successful and fulfilling lives. [6] But they do need someone who will help build their academic skills, which means the person has to know where they need help, which means the students have to trust the person, which means all of these issues need to be dealt with before we can get to academic performance issues.

In any case, if the students test me and my trustworthiness for a quarter, or a year, or several years, that is to be expected. It is sometimes hard not to take it personally ("I'm the one who is trying to help you!"), but if I really am there to help, I have to recognize that their timeline-- not mine-- is what is important. The amazing thing is not how much rejection I receive, but how little rejection I receive from students who have had horrible experiences in the academic environment.

It can be hard to receive rejection. Unfortunately, many white people who say they want to help with the issue of diversity are not able to weather any rejection. Often unconsciously, the person is looking for gratitude and concrete proof that they have changed the student's life. They tend to become hurt and discouraged at the first sign of challenge or rejection ("I don't have to be doing this! I'm one of the good guys, and if you're going to treat me like this, I'm out of here!"). And this, of course, leads to an unsuccessful interaction for all concerned.

Though racism is not an easy subject for most people (at least white people) to talk about, it can be done in a classroom. First, we can admit it exists. Second, we can admit it might exist in the lives of our students, both white students (who have white privilege) and students of color.

One example of this approach occurred in a class I was teaching on Power, Privilege and Law. We read an article on white privilege by Peggy McIntosh that contained a list of ways in which white privilege specifically benefited her. [7] One student immediately offered, "I'm not white, I'm Irish." To her, this meant that she was not partaking of white privilege.

This remark led to a discussion of what it meant to be white and what it meant to receive privilege on being, at the very least, perceived to be white. I asked the woman if she had ever suffered discrimination due to being Irish, such as being stopped at the border, or racially profiled by the police. She indicated that she had not. I then asked a student who identified as Native American if he had suffered these types of events, and he related incidents where he felt he had.

Next the woman indicated that she was part of an immigrant population because her ancestors had come from Ireland. I asked a woman from Eritrea to describe some of her experiences coming to the United States as an immigrant. The Eritrean woman's first-hand experience as an immigrant had clearly shaped much of her life experience.

As might be imagined, this was a charged conversation. It was important to keep participating in the conversation, to not run away from it, to "allow" race in the classroom. To keep the conversation moving without picking on one student, I moved to another student who identified as heterosexual. Part of the McIntosh article dealt with heterosexual privilege so I asked the student if he had ever experienced privilege from being straight. He indicated he had.

What happened next was unexpected: a number of the students jumped into the conversation, accusing me of picking on "the straight white male." I, of course, had said nothing about the student's gender or race; I had only asked about his heterosexual privilege. Yet "straight-white-male" came out almost as one word as perceived by the students. By even asking a straight white male (as the student had previously self-identified) a question about heterosexual privilege, I was assumed to be attacking him on race and gender grounds as well. This is a dangerous assumption-- that posing a question is automatically an "attack"-- one that needs to be addressed when discussing these sensitive issues.

The student then described having a bartending job where the owner had told him to kick out any gay people. The student went on to say that, based on the owner's beliefs, it was no accident that the owner put black people as bouncers because, according to the owner, "white people are afraid of black people." The owner also would not put black people at the till ("because they cannot be trusted with money").

I asked the student if he should have quit his job because it was such a homophobic and racist situation. The other students jumped in again to state that it was an unfair question because "he needed to make money to live." I tried, unsuccessfully, to make the point that this was how unions had historically tried to keep out women and people of color. We wrestled with the question of whether the student should have kept the job, the other students insisting that it was not a fair expectation. I volunteered that I did not know what I would have done in the situation.

This day was not an easy one. But it was one of the most important days of the quarter. We tried to connect the theoretical to the concrete, the hypothetical to the real-life scenario. We saw not just the racism that exists and the differences in life experiences, but we even saw the difficulty many white people have around giving up white privilege and why. It was one of the most intense and difficult teaching situations I have yet faced, but in moving towards the discussion of race rather than away from it, it led to a plethora of teachable moments.

Predictably, the student who identified as Irish came to see me. It can be difficult to learn about white privilege and think that one may enjoy a benefit from it. We discussed how having privilege does not mean one cannot be oppressed in other ways, nor does it guarantee a wonderful life.

I also tried to assure her that it did not mean that the other students did not like her. For the first time, the student had to spend energy on the concept of racism and how it impacted her academic experience. Students who do not have white privilege have, of course, had to deal with the energy output this requires well before that point in their education.

The concept of race (however unfounded) exists, as does racism. We need to talk about this. We need to let our students talk about it. If we are afraid to acknowledge racism and its ramifications because we believe that students of color will "take advantage" of the system somehow, we are not allowing students of color to exist in the fullness of their beings. We are denying a crucial experience that many of our students are having. And by denying students of color the space to exist, we diminish the education of all of us. We pursue education to understand the world. The more we let the world into education, the more we all stand to gain.


1 Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244, 299; 123 S. Ct. 2411, 2443 (2003) (Justice Ginsburg dissenting).

2 Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities. (New York: Crown, 1991).

3 Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies, Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Working Paper No. 189 (1988), 1-5.

4 For full- and part-time faculty and staff in degree-granting institutions, 54.5%are white males, and another 30.6% are white females. National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2003, (Washington, D.C.: 2004) 296.

5 Of course, white students have a race, too. But it was clear in the context of the teacher's remarks that he meant students of color.

6 Much of this discussion applies to faculty of color as well, who live their own unique life experiences. A student with dark colored skin raised in foster care might, indeed, not be understood by the faculty member of color with lighter skin who was raised by college educated parents.

7 McIntosh.

Works Cited

Ginsburg, Ruth Bader. Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244; 123 S. Ct. 2411 (2003).

Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities. New York: Crown, 1991.

McIntosh, Peggy. White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies. Working Paper No. 189. Wellesley, M.A.: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1988.

National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2003. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2004.

About the Author

Julie A. Helling graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1993. She clerked for the Minnesota Court of Appeals before becoming a domestic violence prosecutor. She has served as the director of the Law and Diversity Program at Fairhaven College, Western Washington University since 2000.

Julie A. Helling
Associate Professor & Director, Law & Diversity Program
Fairhaven College, Western Washington University,
Bellingham, WA 98225-9118

Search New Horizons


New Horizons Links

New Horizons home

About Us (NHFL)

Current Journal

Submission Guidelines


Follow us on Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter!

Facebook Icon Twitter Icon LinkedIn Icon

New Horizons Shop

Featured Item: Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher

By Judy Willis | Purchase

Visit the New Horizons store on for more selections

New Horizons store on