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What to do when a student cries racism? Prep yourself with these 4 action areas

A teacher gives a direction.

A student does not follow the direction.

The teacher repeats the direction.

The student responds, “This is because I’m Mexican, that’s racist.

Pause… now what. As the adult, I’m thinking: ‘I want to defend myself.  I don’t want the student to feel this way. I need to explain. And, yet I still want the student to follow the direction.’

Perhaps the simplest place to start is identifying what we can’t do, and that is we can’t choose to ignore the comment. We lost that luxury when we chose to become educators. As educators, we have committed ourselves to facilitating learning in our young people, and this is most certainly a teachable moment.

Navigating critical conversations about race and privilege can be difficult. so what can we do, and where can we begin. Our answer: commit to having the conversation.

Here are some ideas to start:

Acknowledge your discomfort, but also the student’s claim. If you’re uncomfortable, you are not alone- many adults feel uncomfortable addressing the topic of race in a school. For years, many of us have been pretending we are all the same, and thinking that it was the right thing to do. Well, newsflash, we aren’t all the same, so let’s talk.


  • Say, “It makes me feel bad to hear you say that to me, let’s talk…”
  • Say, “My intent was not to give you a direction that was based on your race, let’s talk…”
  • Say, “I’m surprised to hear you say that, tell me how you define a racist act, let’s talk…”

Be vulnerable. We are not perfect, we don’t always know the perfect thing to do or say. It’s ok if we make mistakes, remember, the biggest mistake is not having the conversation at all! So, ask questions and share your perspective.


  • Say, “I’m trying to understand your perspective. I don’t know your background, help me learn…”
  • Say, “I’ve felt similar to what you’re describing. Let’s connect on this…”

Practice. The reality of education in the 21st century is that the days of educators holding the keys to content kept in lesson plans and textbooks are over. We are increasingly becoming facilitators of learning. We pose questions, we problem solve, we facilitate discussions, and we teach students how to see the perspectives of others. This is the crux of why we cannot ignore the comment.  All of our actions are models for our students. Model working towards gaining the perspective of others.


  • Take a deep breath, gather your thoughts
  • Treat the student the way they want to be treated which is a valued and important part of your classroom.  
  • Say, “That’s an interesting comment, tell me why you feel the direction is racist…”
  • Say: “Thank you for sharing your perspective with me… Let’s explore what you just said together.”  

Learn. Student voice is a pivotal contribution to the conversation about race. As adults, we must allow conversations to happen bilaterally between adults and students. Allow student perspectives to challenge your thinking, and really take the time to listen to what they are saying.


  • After processing the comment with some of the above sentence stems ask, “Has this happened to you before? Would you like to tell me about it?”
  • Ask, “What else can I do to be an ally of yours in this classroom and school?  I want you to see yourself as a valued member of our community.”

The time for change is now, we need to step up. Acknowledge the angst and accept your opportunity to be vulnerable and change the world.

We would love to hear from you. Comment below with a scenario you have witnessed this school year, how you witnessed it being handled well or how you used these action steps in your classroom.


Katie Sheridan is a current school administrator serving in both principal and district office roles.  She firmly believes that we can change the world through education and shows up to work every day with this mindset.  

Liz Zorn is a practicing school psychologist in Illinois. Her work experience spans K-12 public education in urban and suburban settings. Her work in the schools has fostered a passion for social justice as it relates to K-12 education and young people.  

For more information about the authors or DeEtta Jones and Associates equity, diversity and inclusion services for schools, please visit our website at

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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