When Talk Becomes Challenging: Talking effectively about race and racism

Why talk about race?


This year at Voice 21 we have been thinking a lot about When Talk Gets Challenging; we believe that talking about race is a challenging yet vital part of education in today’s society. In September we shared a Black History Month resource, including many inspiring Black British figures for your students to discuss; however, the subject of race should not just be kept neatly contained to October. It’s imperative that every voice is valued in schools at all times. Difficult subjects should not be ignored just because they have the potential to lead to uncomfortable conversations. 


Voice 21’s Shaquille Scott-Davis, one of our School Relationship Officers, shares this insight from his own experience, “Thinking back to when I was in secondary school, most race education was confined to Black History Month. This included history lessons about the Transatlantic Slave Trade or landmark cases such as the reopening of the Stephen Lawrence case in 2011 and the shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011. Race still remains something that many people will avoid addressing directly within a school context, as highlighted by former Headteacher Claire Stewart-Hall

Additionally, when attempts were made to discuss racism constructively, conversations would often turn uncomfortable and emotional, with conversations about racial discrimination defaulting to simplicity and defensiveness.

From a teacher’s perspective, this makes it more difficult to broach these serious topics again in the future for fear of some students being shouted down by their classmates.”

How talk can help students to understand more about racism

First of all, it’s important that everyone understands the impact that race can have on the experiences of young people. 

As young people go through the schooling system in the UK, many will encounter different types of racism and stereotyping, often deriving from the clothes they wear to the music they listen to. Young Black people are 11 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white students and many Black children (49%) according to a YMCA poll have felt that racism was the biggest barrier to academic attainment along with gender, tone of skin and disability. 

School is one of the few places where students will be able to discuss these experiences with peers and teachers to express these feelings. It is also a safe place to discuss topics such as experiences with microaggressions within school and outside of school. It is also one of the few places where students can be questioned and challenged to come to terms with their own feelings and understand their opinions and the opinions of those around them. Students and teachers alike will also have the opportunity to listen to students’ feelings about their personal life experiences.

Why explicitly teaching oracy is a constructive way to discuss these topics

Students should be given the time and the space to share their experiences of racism. Often, we may feel discouraged from giving enough time to this because we worry about people feeling uncomfortable or the conversation getting out of hand, particularly when we are discussing things which are highly emotional. Focusing on elements of the physical strand of the Oracy Framework such as volume, pitch and tone of voice is incredibly useful. It will help students to not only consider what they are saying, but also the ways they are saying it. It may also be helpful to go over your class Discussion Guidelines first to ensure there’s a safe and respectful environment. 

The silent summariser is another tool that can be used to encourage students to listen actively to personal experiences of other students. This means students can talk candidly about race without fear of being interrupted or spoken over, leading to them being more likely to speak fully about their experiences. The summariser will need to listen closely to their peers to summarise effectively, helping to eliminate any conflict which may have otherwise arisen when speaking about sensitive topics. 

Students are likely to be curious about the experiences of others and may feel the need to ask questions to fully understand what has happened, their feelings towards it or even the significance of a particular experience. If students are comfortable to engage in these types of discussions, particular student Talk Tactics such as probe and clarify could be utilised to help to structure these conversations. 

Our mission at Voice 21 is to transform the learning and life chances of young people through talk. Using oracy to talk about racism means that we are valuing all voices and experiences within schools which will hopefully lead to a positive change in the years to come.

The conversation of course does not end here. If you would like to go deeper into this topic we would strongly recommend Mathew Kay’s book, Not Light but Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom.

Share This

Recent news

Back to news

© 2022 Voice 21. Voice 21 is a registered charity in England and Wales. Charity number 1152672 | Company no. 08165798