Black chairs surrounding yellow chair

—Kelsey B., Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi

Schools are a place where students should feel supported, safe, and heard. However, there are many instances where a school or classroom can fall short. Students and instructors come from all sorts of backgrounds with beliefs that aren’t always the same as ours. Often, it’s important to value those differences and learn how to constructively disagree. But sometimes students and instructors have beliefs and behaviours that are wrong—and this should be addressed. A situation where racism occurs in the classroom is a time to speak up. But how?

If a student makes a comment that you feel is racist but is not directed at you

  • Tell them that you felt their comment was biased and calmly explain why.
  • Don’t accuse them of being racist; they’ll likely get defensive and not hear you out. Sometimes racist comments are made out of ignorance. It could be that they heard these comments from others and didn’t realize it was offensive. They may just need to be told why their speech was offensive.
  • If an open discussion is already taking place in the classroom, you can make your feelings heard right away. But if the instructor is doing a lesson that doesn’t allow for discussion and comments, you should speak with the student after class or during a break.

If a student makes a comment that you feel is racist and is directed at you

  • Talk to the instructor; don’t try to confront the person yourself. The student may have been looking to hurt you by making the comment(s). Don’t give them the satisfaction of being angry or combative with them. However, their offensive behaviour needs to be addressed.
  • After class or during a break, tell the instructor what happened and ask them to speak with the student. If you feel the student needs disciplinary action, let the instructor know that you’ll report the incident to the school administration and do so right away.
  • Document the incident in writing via email to the instructor and/or school administrator so you have proof that you made a complaint. This will make the school accountable to follow up on your concerns.

If an instructor makes a comment you feel is racist

  • Make a complaint with the school Department Chair or Administrator.
  • If you feel comfortable, you can make an appointment to talk with the Administrator in person about the incident.
  • If not, you can file a confidential complaint in writing. Many schools have a Diversity Office or department equipped to deal with discrimination complaints. Find out if your school has one and speak with that person or department in addition to going to the school Administrator.
  • Make sure to document the incident in writing via email.

What will happen after I address it?

In most schools, when a student expresses concerns around discrimination or racism in the classroom, the situation will be resolved, though it may take time. If you happen to be at a school where no action or mediation is taken, you may need to consider filing a complaint with your local Department of Education or taking legal action.

Whatever route you decide to take, make sure to get the support you need from friends and/or family. Dealing with racism in the classroom can be very stressful, and you want to be supported through the process. You also want to make sure that you’re not so affected by it that your schoolwork suffers. Take time to talk to your friends, keep up with the hobbies you love, and practice stress relief techniques like exercise, meditation, or deep breathing.