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Teaching Race – Pedagogy & Practice

Social justice education has implications for what we teach (curriculum) and how we teach (pedagogy). Despite an increasing number of instructors bringing a critical analysis of racial in/justice to their curriculum, many report challenges in teaching this content effectively. To begin to address this need, this guide summarizes some of the common challenges instructors may encounter and offers five broad pedagogical principles for teaching racial justice, and three possible strategies for implementing each strategy in the classroom.

For the purpose of this guide, we are using ‘teaching race’ and ‘teaching racial injustice’ interchangeably, and using both terms as shorthand for courses that incorporate content related to race, racism, racial injustice, and movements for racial justice.


Race: Although there are vest variations in human ethnicity and culture, there is no biological basis for racial categories (for more on the what human genetics research tells us about race, see this blog post). Race is a social construction that has largely served to justify inequitable, and often inhumane, treatment of some populations by others, such as the forced removal and genocide of indigenous populations, enslaving of Africans, and the Jewish Holocaust. Because racial groups are socially constructed, their meanings have not been fixed over time, may differ across social contexts and geographies, and are often contested. Furthermore, how one identifies racially may differ from how one is perceived.

Racism: Following Tatum (1992), we understand racism as “a system of advantage based on race” that is perpetuated through institutions, policies, practices, ideologies, and interpersonal interactions. In the U.S. context, racism has and continues to benefit people perceived as “white” and to disadvantage those perceived as “people of color.” As such, though race is “made up,” racism powerfully shapes life experiences and life chances (for more information, see Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality’s 2017 State of the Union report documenting racial disparities in employment, poverty, safety net, housing, education, incarceration, health, earnings, wealth, and intergenerational mobility).

Common Challenges to Teaching Race

For many of us, teaching racial courses related to racial justice are simultaneously among the most rewarding and most demanding parts of our academic life. In the words of Higher Education professor Michalinos Zembylas, “So many things can go horribly wrong” (2012, p. 120). The course content may challenge student’s deeply held beliefs and assumptions about themselves and society. It may raise questions regarding who has the right to speak or teach about issues related to race, evoke a wide range of emotions, and foment interpersonal conflicts.

Even seasoned educators can be confounded when confronted with student’s reactions to racial justice content, resistance to learning, microaggressions towards others, and/or aggressive comments or behaviors. Some instructors report freezing up in the face of emotionally charged moments in the classroom. Others, wary to ‘shut down’ dissenting views, are hesitant to challenge flawed logics embedded in student’s claims. Still other instructors adopt a paternalistic approach to teaching racial justice. In a thought-provoking essay considering teaching white students who are resistant to learning about racial in/justice, one instructor noted she had “retreated into didactic, inactive, unengaged pedagogy…” and another confessed to “sarcastic needling as pedagogy” (Lichty & Palamaro-Munsell, 2017, p.16).

Given the breadth of challenges to effectively teaching racial justice, Lichty & Palamaro-Munsell conclude, “We need concrete strategies for…ethically sitting with tensions that press against our identities, our histories, power, and privilege. We need strategies for minimizing harm to all students, for fostering dialog and reflexivity in the college classroom” (2017, p. 9).

Addressing Challenges Through Course Design

Many of the challenges instructors encounter in teaching race can be addressed, in part, through intentional course design. Following best practices in course design, instructors must first identify the “enduring understandings” we hope students will take with them at the end of the class, determine how they will assess student learning toward those goals, and then construct productive learning experiences (see Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Courses related to racial justice may have any number of learning goals, such as: to increase empathy, to challenge misconceptions, to expand theoretical perspectives, to cultivate analytic skills, or to develop tools for productive dialogue.

To assess student learning, it is crucial to determine how progress may be evident. For some learning goals, traditional assessment strategies (e.g. quiz, exam, or research paper) may be appropriate, while other goals may require performance-based assessments. For example, if equipping students with tools for intergroup dialogue is a key learning objective, assessment might include self-and peer reflections on student participation in large and small group dialogue in class.

Finally, an instructor’s choice of content—the constellation of texts, media, lectures, labs, and learning activities in a given class—should be designed to support student learning and their ability to demonstrate that learning through the planned modes of assessment. In the current era, many departments are reevaluating their curriculum in order to increase representation of previously marginalized knowledge or underrepresented perspectives (O’Neill & Miller, 2015; Lichty & Palamaro-Munsell, 2017). For example, in every course in Seattle University’s Master of Social Work program, at least 50% of the required readings are authored by scholars of color or other marginalized groups.

Although intentional course design can set the stage for creating a productive learning environment, it alone is insufficient for addressing unexpected challenges that can arise in teaching race. Any number of events can spark strong reactions in the classroom, such as an offhand remark from a student, a racially-motivated attack in the community, an act of hate speech on campus. Such moments require instructors to be nimble in their facilitation, yet preparation to handle these moments is often neglected in teacher training programs (Sue, Lin, Torino, Capodilupo & Rivera, 2009). Note, the following sections present guiding principles and corresponding pedagogic strategies, synthesized from a comprehensive review of literature related to teaching race (Harbin, Thurber and Bandy, in press).

Principle 1: Encourage Flexibility

Encouraging student reflexivity is a core tenant of racial justice education (Bozalek, Carolissen, Leibowitz, Nicholls, Rohleder & Swartz, 2010; Smele, Siew-Sarju, Chou, Breton & Bernhardt, 2017; Zembylas, 2012). Reflexivity is broadly understood as the ability to consider one’s own feelings, reactions, and motives and how they impact behaviors. In the context of racial justice education, reflexivity suggests the ability to critically evaluate one’s own social location and racial socialization, to become increasingly aware of racial biases, and to be willing to investigate the ways internal perspectives about race inform our interactions and relationships.

Strategies for encouraging reflexivity include:

  • Modelling reflexivity. Instructors can interrogate their own experiences of marginalization, privilege, and internalized dominance, and share these reflections with students as an example of the kind of rigorous self-reflection expected in the course (Delano-Oriaran & Parks, 2015; Rothschild, 2003; Smele, Siew-Sarju, Chou, Breton & Bernhardt, 2017). In some settings, such modelling may require relatively little vulnerability. Yet in other settings, instructors may feel some discomfort making such disclosures. Acknowledging these feelings can be a way to normalize discomfort.
  • Addressing instructor positionality. While it is true that instructors of all backgrounds can be equally effective (or ineffective) in leading racial justice content, it also true that students will respond differently to instructors—at least initially—on the basis of their perceived race and other identities (Housee, 2008). An instructors’ positionality may generate in students various reactions – trust, affinity, authenticity, hope, as well as distrust, alienation, skepticism, or isolation. Rothschild (2003) encourages students to reflect on their reactions to an instructor’s perceived positionality, assigning a written reflection to the prompt: “What concerns they may have about taking this course from a ___ professor?”
  • Assigning autobiographical journaling/essays. Providing assignments that require students to make connections between the course content and their lived experiences is another way to encourage reflexivity. Instructors may offer a range of prompts related to course content, such as:
    • What/how did you first learn about race?
    • When do you first learn that you were a member of a racial group? What/how did you learn about your racial group?
    • When do you first learn that there were racial groups other than your own? What/how did you learn about this/these groups?
    • How do you perceive your own race, and how is your race is perceived by others?
    • Select a significant institution in your life (ie. educational, religious, media/cultural, etc.). What have you learned from this institution about race? How might this have impacted relationships and identity?
    • Scan your relationships with people who have been socialized into a different racial group than yourself. Thinking back to your childhood, what have been the nature of these relationships (i.e. friends, family, teachers, service providers, mentors/coaches, charity recipients, etc.)? Have the types of changed over time? What do you notice about the relationships in your life today?

Instructors have experimented with a range of uses of these written reflections, including assigning them as homework, using them as in-class discussion prompts, and having students review and comment on their initial reflections later in the semester (Danowitz & Tuitt, 2011, Rothschild, 2003; Estrada & Matthews, 2016; Matias & Mackey, 2016; and Winans, 2005).

Principle 2: Prepare for and Welcome Difficulty

It is arguable that all education—especially when challenging hegemonic beliefs—is necessarily a discomforting process. This is particularly true with racial justice education, which involves grappling with individual, cultural, and national identities (Housee, 2008). In this context, conflict can be a sign of intellectual growth (O’Neill & Miller, 2015). Although educators should not aim to create discomfort as an end it itself, it is critical for instructors to expect, welcome, and prepare for conflict (Danowitz & Tuitt, 2011; Ford, 2012; Housee, S., 2008; Kumashiro, 2000; Lichty & Palamaro-Munsell, 2017; Matias & Mackey, 2016; O’Neill & Miller, 2015; Simpson, 2006; Smele, Siew-Sarju, Chou, Breton & Bernhardt, 2017). As such, Kumashiro notes that “Educators should expect their students to enter crisis,” and in doing so, “provide space in the syllabus for students to work through their crisis in a way that changes oppression” (2000, p.7). Instructors should also be prepared to respond to microaggressions in the classroom in ways that facilitate learning and accountability, and wherever possible, repair ruptures in relationships (Thurber & DiAngelo, 2018).

Strategies for preparing for difficulty include:

  • Normalizing difficulty. Instructors may choose to include a statement on the syllabus reminding students that while repetition is comforting, learning new things—especially things that challenge previously held beliefs, is not (Kumashiro, 2000). This also can be said in class, as appropriate. Instructors may also choose to initiate a meta-dialogue about discussions within the course, for example asking students to reflect on what constitutes a productive classroom conversation, and in so doing challenging the notions of safety, risk, and comfort (Leonardo & Porter, 2010; Matias & Mackey, 2016).
  • Assigning meta-cognitive reflections. As part of normalizing discomfort, instructors can ask students to write down concerns they have about talking about race/racism in class (e.g. appearing racist, or being a target of other’s microaggressions), or their feelings about the topic (Estrada & Matthews, 2016; Rothschild, 2003). These reflections can be shared in pairs or triads and then discussed among the class as a whole as a way to acknowledge and normalize the concerns students bring to the prospect of talking about race.
  • Utilizing critical learning journals. Smele, Siew-Sarju, Chou, Breton & Bernhardt (2017) suggest the use of a “critical learning journal,” a place for ungraded reflections that are not shared with other students or the professor but which encourages self-reflection when hot moments arise in the course. Critical learning journals can be a useful tool for students as they process their learning, while also encouraging students to be responsible for understanding their own emotional responses to course content and interactions.
Principle 3: Meet Students Where They Are

In considering how to teach racial justice content, instructors must consider the overall campus context as well as their individual students. In some contexts, it is not uncommon for white students never to have had a black peer or instructor; never to have deeply considered the impact of racism on their own identity, relationships, or broader social conditions; and consequently, to lack language to talk about race and racism (Delano-Oriaran & Parks, 2015; Santas, 2000; Simpson, 2006; Rothschild, 2003). Even in contexts where students have been exposed to a diversity of perspectives on race, research indicates that the vast majority of white people carry beliefs and understandings rooted in misinformation, bias, or internalized beliefs in white superiority (Sue, 2010).

Meeting students where they are poses a pedagogical challenge, as students in a given class may be in a range of different places. Not unlike a conversation among people with different levels of fluency in a given language, there is ample room for error and misunderstanding. Thus, meeting students where they are requires considering student’s knowledge base, providing tools for constructive engagement with the course material, and helping students develop new understandings.

Strategies for meeting students where they are include:

  • Assessing student knowledge and preconceptions. This can be done in the first day of class via an ungraded pre-test, with short-answer questions related to the core concepts of the course (for example, this may include concepts such as racial socialization, racial disparities, and/or whiteness). The autobiographical journaling described above also functions as an assessment of student preconceptions.
  • Providing skills for dialogue. There is debate around the usefulness of discussion guidelines, with a number of scholars arguing that such guidelines often function to privilege white students’ sense of comfort and safety over critical self-reflection (Leonardo & Porter, 2010; Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2014). That said, numerous scholars suggest allotting time and content in the course to discuss and develop skills for productive conversations about race (Lichty & Palamaro-Munsell, 2017; Smele, Siew-Sarju, Chou, Breton & Bernhardt, 2017; Leonardo & Porter, 2010). For example, Sensoy and DiAngelo coach students to reframe their claims as questions, providing a list of 18 possible prompts designed “to engender humility, develop critical thinking skills, interrogate what we think we know, and practice grappling with new information” (2014, p.194). For instance, when a student responds to a reading with the statement, “I don’t agree that only whites can be racist-that’s not true,” an instructor might coach them to inquire, “The author is arguing that only whites can be racist (etc.) … Can you help me understand that?”
  • Engaging students’ arguments, even when they are flawed. Students who have not thought deeply about issues of race and racism, or who have not been exposed to alternative viewpoints, may voice arguments that are problematic in a number of ways. For example, a student may contend that racism is a phenomenon that exists only in the past or attribute a stereotype to all members of a particular ethnic group. Zembylas (2012) suggests the use of “strategic empathy.” In practice, strategic empathy requires resisting the urge to correct misinformation and adopting instead a stance of inquiry into the complex and contradictory motivations of students in order to promote self-reflection and critical thinking, a strategy that is advocated by others (Delano-Oriaran & Parks, 2015; Lichty & Palamaro-Munsell, 2017; Winans, 2005; Zembylas, 2012). This might look like asking questions about a particular statement. For example, in response to a student’s statement that undocumented immigrants are “taking jobs away from Americans,” an instructor might consider some of the following prompts:
    • Tell me more about that…
    • It sounds like you have strong views on this – have you had some personal experience that might help us understand where you are coming from?
    • I’m glad you brought this up, because this sentiment is something we hear a lot in popular culture, and it’s important to understand and unpack. What are the concerns underlying this statement?

Other scholars suggest “calling out while calling in” by directly identifying flaws in argumentation or factual errors, while still drawing students into inquiry about the function of the argument in perpetuating racism (Smele, Siew-Sarju, Chou, Breton & Bernhardt, 2017). Using the previous example, an instructor might offer evidence of seasonal labor shortages in agricultural industries that have relied on migrant workers for decades and introduce the history of U.S. governmental policies that have brought non-resident workers into the country to meet that demand (i.e. the Bracero program) or cite statistics on the jobs that immigrants create through their consumption and taxes, in addition to other growth effects. They may then ask students to consider why the narrative of immigrants taking American jobs has persisted.

Whether an instructor adopts a stance of “strategic empathy” or “calling out while drawing in”, the recommendation is to meet students where they are, not leave them where they are.

Principle 4: Engage Affective and Embodied Dimensions of Learning

It is critical that instructors use lecture and text to provide students with relevant empirical knowledge related to course content. This often involves providing the historical context needed for students to understand patterns and trends and developing students’ intellectual capacity for engaging in social analysis (Santas, 2000; Estrada & Matthews, 2016). Yet, racial justice education requires much more than simply correcting misinformation or developing and applying a racial justice analysis. Racial justice content is highly affective; indeed, part of the problematic nature of racial categories is the ways they have been constructed to evoke feeling states and emotions (e.g. safety, fear, distrust). Further, students experience a great deal of feelings in response to the course content and classroom interactions.

Relatedly, racial justice courses engage students lived experiences as people who have been impacted by race and racism; and participating in classroom interactions is yet another way that race and racism become embodied, through who they choose to sit next to, who they elect to partner with in class or small group activities, when they choose to speak and when they remain silent. As such, it is essential to engage the affective and embodied dimensions of learning (Bozalek, Carolissen, Leibowitz, Nicholls, Rohleder & Swartz, 2010; Danowitz & Tuitt, 2011; Housee, S., 2008; Estrada & Matthews, 2016; Ford, 2012; Kumashiro, 2000; Lichty & Palamaro-Munsell, 2017; Matias & Mackey, 2016; Rothschild, 2003; Simpson, 2006;  Smele, Siew-Sarju, Chou, Breton,  & Bernhardt, 2017; Zembylas, 2012).

The call to “put the body back into knowledge making” (Sutherland, 2013, p. 739) begins with normalizing the affective and embodied dimensions of learning (Estrada & Matthews 2016) and helping students to develop emotional literacy. As Matias & Mackey contend, students must “learn to take ownership of their own emotional responses to learning about race, racism, white supremacy, and whiteness” (2016, p. 37). At the same time, students must be willing to consider the emotional responses of others, which may be similar to or different from their own. This learning takes place through encounters with the course content, and also through peer-to-peer teaching and learning. Scholars of social justice education recommend that instructors leverage student’s lived experiences as sources of knowledge and learning (Danowitz & Tuitt, 2011; Lichty & Palamaro-Munsell, 2017; Smele, Siew-Sarju, Chou, Breton & Bernhardt, 2017). In practice, engaging the affective and embodied dimensions of learning takes a variety of forms, including: pairing cognitive and experiential activities; slowing down to allow time for students to more deeply engage course content; and incorporating sensory ways of knowing, such as including rituals/mindfulness practices (Danowitz & Tuitt, 2011; Estrada & Matthews 2016; Housee, 2008; Ford, 2012; Rothschild, 2003; Shahjahan, 2015; Sutherland, 2013; Waring & Bordoloi, 2012).

Specific strategies for engaging the affective and embodied dimensions of leaning include:

  • Diversifying course content. Although many racial justice courses rely heavily on academic articles or books, these are not the only sources of knowledge.  Other possibilities include analyzing (auto)biographical narratives/memoirs that can surface feelings, experiences, as well as new understandings (Delano-Oriaran & Parks, 2015; Winans, 2005). Theatre, video, spoken-word, social media, music, web video clips, visual art, advertisements, and games are other examples of often affectively charged ‘texts’ that provide another way to learn about the social construction of race and systemic manifestations of racism.
  • Diversifying forms of engagement. While participation can be a challenge in any course, this can be particularly the case in courses exploring content than challenges students’ beliefs and perspectives. Starting class conversation in pairs or small groups can increase engagement in large group discussions (Santas, 2000; Waring & Bordoloi, 2012). As noted by Barkley, Cross and Major (2014), incorporating active and collaborative learning activities—including meaningful individual, group, or whole class experiences— makes classes more accessible to students of color, women and first-generation students while at the same time drawing on embodied dimensions of learning. For example, the use of theatre/performance, in which students actively take on various perspectives, has been shown to facilitate shifts in students’ understandings of race (Sutherland, 2013).
  • Diversifying forms of assessment. Many racial justice courses assess student learning only in terms of cognitive development, for example through quizzes, exams, or research papers. Including other modes of assessment allows instructors to assess affective and social development as well. As examples, Matias & Mackey (2016) assign preservice teachers to create videos and digital stories that integrate and apply course learning, Finn (2016) describes a multi-media positionality montage assignment for social work students to reflect on how their own identities inform their social work practice, and Bozalek, Carolissen, Leibowitz, Nicholls, Rohleder & Swartz (2010) use an array of visual mapping activities to guide students to reflect on their individual and community contexts.
Principle 5: Build a Learning Community

Creating a sense of belonging within a classroom is increasingly recognized as a critical element to learning; students learn best when they feel connected, cared for, and that their perspectives are valued (Samuel, 2017). This is particularly true when teaching racial in/justice, where building community within class increases comfort and willingness to engage in “threshold” learning (Delano-Oriaran & Parks, 2015; Lichty & Palamaro-Munsell, 2017; Santas, 2000; Smele, Siew-Sarju, Chou, Breton & Bernhardt, 2017). While we highlight a number of strategies for building a learning community below, it also is important to acknowledge the differential risks of students (and faculty) of participating in such communities (Smele, Siew-Sarju, Chou, Breton & Bernhardt, 2017). Leonardo & Porter caution that some “whites turn racism into an intellectualist problem, rather than a lived one” (2010, p. 149).  The intellectualization of race and racism by some students, while others intimately grapple with the lived experience of racism, creates uneven ground upon which to build a learning community. Though it is still possible to do so, it requires greater intentionality on the part of the instructor.

Specific strategies for building a learning community include:

  • Making yourself accessible. Building community within a course often starts with building student-instructor rapport. Endeavor to learn students’ names and use them. Create a low-stakes assignment for students to visit your and/or your teaching assistant’s office hours during the first two weeks of the semester to begin to build rapport. Be transparent about your commitment to racial justice, while also reflecting humility and your stance as a life-long learner. Let students know that you welcome hearing about their experience in the course, and how you can be more effective.
  • Designing opportunities for meaningful peer-to-peer learning. When designing small groups, it is critical to be mindful of who the conversation is “for.” In racial justice courses, too often the knowledge and experience of students of color is exploited to advance the learning of white students. At times, an instructor may elect to use intragroup caucusing wherein students who share some aspects of social identity (e.g. black students, first generation students, white students, etc.) explore similarities and differences among their experiences, offer peer support, and learn from and challenge one another’s perspectives (Leonardo & Porter, 2010). At other times, intergroup dialogue may be most appropriate, and an instructor may intentionally create small groups that are diverse along any number of axes, including ethnicity, gender, or geography. Creating meaningful intergroup dialogue on issues of race can be challenging for instructors working in ethnically homogenous settings. Some instructors have experimented with cross-institutional course design, bringing together students from two universities in both online and face-to-face sessions (Leibowitz, B., Bozalek, V., Rohleder, P., Carolissen, R., & Swartz, L., 2010). Groups that meet over time have the potential to form deeper bonds while also providing greater intellectual challenge. Suoranta and Moisio (2006) describe the use of a ‘Study Circle’ wherein students are divided into groups of four to eight participants. These small groups meet a given number of times over the term to discuss readings, taking turns presenting summaries and leading discussions, while documenting their collective work. The group represents the products of their collective inquiry in the form of a portfolio turned into the instructor.
  • Seeking a learning community for yourself. Just as our students are more likely to engage in transformative learning when they feel a sense of connection and belonging, instructors bring our best to teaching racial justice content when we are part of a learning community that offers ongoing support, challenge, and innovation. Some universities and colleges offer formalized learning communities for instructors. For example, the Smith University School of Social Work offers a weekly workshop titled “Pedagogy and Diversity” where faculty gather to share strategies to integrate antiracist content and practices into their courses, and troubleshoot teaching dilemmas (O’Neill & Miller, 2015). Where such formalized networks do not exist, interested faculty can self-organize a reading/discussion group, skill-sharing workshops, or other convenings to discuss racial justice pedagogy and enhance their professional development.

There is significant momentum in higher education to integrate social justice education into the curriculum in a broad array of disciplines. While there is a burgeoning field of literature related to best practices in teaching racial justice, there remains much for all of us to learn. Inevitably, there will continue to be situations that stump us, moments when we are not sure the most effective way to respond, where we cannot see the best path toward serving our students’ diverse needs. At times, student learning may be modest, and uninformed perspectives may remain entrenched. In any given course, our students will walk away with less or more than we may have hoped, both as a result of and in spite of our contributions. As Simpson concludes, “Given the opportunity, our students learn in ways that make sense to them, and often in ways that we cannot predict. Likewise, it is our students who will decide what to take and leave from our classes…” (2006, p. 89).  As instructors, we too need to increase our comfort with not knowing the answers and to embrace humility, just like we ask of our students (Simpson, 2006; Lichty & Palamaro-Munsell, 2017; Leonardo & Porter,2010). Indeed, teaching is an emergent process. Even with the best laid plans, we cannot always anticipate the challenges and possibilities that will arise in a given course.


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Citation: Thurber, A., Harbin, M.B., & Bandy, J. (2019). Teaching Race: Pedagogy and Practice. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved June 19, 2023 from


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