The cost of not being racially literate

Written by: Viv Grant | Published:
'Rather than being something to fear, the race conversation can be an opportunity to build deeper connections'

The political impartiality guidance risks stunting burgeoning conversations on racial literacy. Viv Grant says we cannot afford to go backwards and must reject this ‘teaching by numbers’ approach

The guidance on political impartiality in classrooms (DfE, 2022) represents a “teaching by numbers” approach to the global challenges of today.

What’s more, I believe the confusion and worry (SecEd, 2022) around the guidance, rather than strengthening race equality work in schools will actively serve to undermine it.

Education is a moral and social endeavour and for this to succeed, our young people need support to develop the critical skills that will enable them (with the rest of us) to shape a more just and equitable society. One of these skills is racial literacy – the ability to understand, talk and explore matters of race.

For centuries, our education system has rewarded approaches to teacher development and classroom pedagogy that centre on acquiring knowledge, technical skills, and expertise. As a result, we have educators who have been “trained” to seek praise and affirmation for levels of pedagogical expertise but little else.

Meanwhile, learning or development that moves beyond these narrow confines, particularly in relation to race, is rarely encouraged. Consequently, within the arena of anti-racist work and developing racial literacy, we have a vast swathe of the teaching workforce that is ill-equipped to move from expert academic to novice inquirer. And there is a cost.

The cost of racial illiteracy

Adapted from Raising Race Questions (Michael, 2015), becoming racially literate requires that, as educators, we can:

  • Engage with the emotional content of any conversation that has a focus on race.
  • Welcome personal narratives and the lived experiences of all who are involved in the race conversation.
  • Talk confidently about our own racial identities.
  • Challenge racism at individual, group and system level.
  • Feel confident in creating and engaging in healthy and reciprocal cross-racial relationships.

When teachers cannot display these skills, we all pay the price: racism, social inequality and injustice continue to thrive.
Western approaches to education have limited the development of racially literacy skills among teachers and school leaders. This illiteracy has been compounded by disinvestment in the emotional skills necessary for successful dialogue about race.

Consequently, many are psychologically and emotionally vulnerable when involved in race-focused discussions. If we no longer wish our children to carry the cost of racism and the wounds it inflicts upon us all, we must all be prepared to dig deep within our spheres of influence and ask: “What is ours to do?”

We must be prepared to share our vulnerabilities with others and collectively find answers to questions regarding race that up until now have been ignored. We can discuss such questions as:

  • What are the various stances I have taken about racism at different stages in my life?
  • How have these experiences shaped me and the person I am today?
  • As an educator, how have my values influenced my behaviours in the face of racism?
  • How attuned am I to the role my emotions and others play when I am engaged in race talk?
  • To what degree does my racial identity allow me to fully express the truth of who I am?
  • How has race influenced my personal and professional relationships?

None of these are easy questions to answer. It’d be a challenge to answer them ourselves and even more so with others. Yet, if we are to be courageous in the face of racism, we must accept that this battle is not one that can be fought alone. We need others. We need to build relationships that are forged from shared vulnerabilities. It is in sharing these vulnerabilities around race that strength is found.

This strength prevents silence in the face of injustice and gives voice to the racially literate – those who have found their agency through learning to speak about race and sharing their experiences with others.

Do not be afraid

Once expressed, fears around the topic of race can no longer have a hold over you. They can no longer diminish you and your sense of self. Our children need to know that race is not to be feared and issues related to race and racism can be openly discussed. They can only learn this from racially literate teachers.

Teachers who have engaged with the questions of “what is mine to do?” have found answers by having the conversations again and again – with colleagues, friends, students, partners and family members. No matter where or with whom, these conversations matter. Through intentional and repeated dialogue, individuals will develop proficiency and know what it feels and looks like to become racially literate.

Educators who choose to take this path recognise that rather than being something to fear, the race conversation can be an opportunity to build deeper connections with themselves and others.

Over time, these conversations can facilitate a more profound sense of agency and purpose. No longer restricted by powerful social norms that inhibit race talk, teachers and school leaders can step up as strong anti-racists.

They can help to ensure that racism stops exacting a detrimental toll on our children’s futures and that they are not forced to pay a debt that was never meant to be theirs to bear.

But this will not happen if the importance of racial literacy is ignored or a “teaching by numbers” approach is taken. Nor will it happen if DfE guidance around exploring these issues in schools continues to confuse and subvert the efforts of those who believe in social justice and race equity.

  • Viv Grant is a former headteacher who has been working in education for more than 25 years. She is currently director of Integrity Coaching and is author of Staying a Head: The stress management secrets of successful school leaders. Follow her @Vivgrant

SecEd Summer Edition 2022

  • This article first appeared in SecEd's Summer Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every secondary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via

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