There’s a large body of research that explores how academic performance is tied to a student’s racial identity, and the conclusions of experts are bleak: Students of color, generally speaking, face a serious achievement gap in schools. Addressing the myriad barriers to getting a proper education — factors like poverty, inadequate facilities, and the racial abuse that ultimately takes a toll on students’ motivation, attendance, and ability to learn — will require necessary systemic and cultural change.
In the meantime, experts have been exploring the surprising link between how students feel about their racial identity and how that affects their academic performance. By implementing novel programs that, through a holistic approach, allow and encourage students to explore their racial/ethnic identities in a safe space, they’ve found that students end up feeling more engaged with their education. Racial self-esteem is not the most influential factor in a student’s education — the racism of the system is — but institutions and schools can quickly implement these positive racial identity development programs to make immediate headway in closing the country’s achievement gap.
Positive Racial Identity Through Short-Term Curriculums
Janine Jones, the director of the University of Washington’s School Psychology Program, recently designed a study based around a cultural awareness group curriculum for a small group of middle school girls that allowed them to explore their racial-ethnic identities in six once-weekly meetings. Each week had a different theme — purpose, unity, respect, self-determination, cooperation and believing in oneself. The participants were free to having conversations around those topics in the context of their racial identities. By the end of the study curriculum, the participants were measurably more engaged with school and had higher ratings of their identity compared to a control group who had simply attended an informal girls’ gathering.
Jones explained to the university paper that having a positive sense of ethnic identity is critical to academic engagement. “There are a lot of girls who check out in school when they feel like they’re not seen, not understood or invested in by school personnel. There are a lot of negative perceptions of African-Americans, and the perception they receive is that it’s not a good thing to be black.” The curriculum she implemented for the study had an Afrocentric theme, but Jones added that this style of curriculum could be adapted for other racial and ethnic identities and that broader diversity programs would likely be beneficial for an entire student body. “It’s about how hearing the humanness of the other person — encouraging people to develop relationships with people who don’t look like them, makes all of us grow,” she said.
Harvard researcher Adriana Umaña-Taylor developed a similar 8-week curriculum called the Identity Project that, in only an hour per week, supported its adolescent participants who represented a diverse mix of racial-ethnic identities. The program was designed to give adolescents “the agency to explore their backgrounds on their own” during a formative period of their self-identity. (To be clear, the program does not focus on frameworks like ethnic/racial pride or biological ancestry.)
The outcome? Like Jones’s study, participants had higher levels of self-esteem and better academic performance. The program also had the added benefit of reducing symptoms of depression and, of course, improving the teens’ sense of racial-ethnic identity. Importantly, the positive effects of the Identity Project were measurable a year after the program’s end. Implementing this style of programming in primary and secondary schools is critical to supporting our children’s long-term academic success, but college students also stand to benefit from interventions that repair and develop their racial identity.
Race conscious programming works, in part, because the experience validates students’ racial or ethnic identity. “The single most important thing is for teachers to not adopt a color-blind ideology, which essentially says that we’re all the same, and we really shouldn’t focus on the differences that exist between or among us,” Umaña-Taylor explained in a statement. “The idea that we’re more similar than we are different invalidates the real experiences that adolescents have, whether they’re experiencing discrimination themselves or whether they’re experiencing it vicariously by seeing it happen to somebody else.”
Representation in the Classroom Helps Validate Racial Identity
This sense of validation can also come from having teachers who look like your child at the head of the classroom; similarly, simply having the presence of Latinx figures in these positions (as well as in school governance) can make it more likely for parents to get involved with their child’s education, improving their academic performance. Beyond feeling seen, having teachers who are representative of the student body can reduce the chances that a student will have to endure racial abuse, discrepancies in treatment that ultimately can take a toll on academic success, motivation, as well as if and how a student gets disciplined.
A 2017 study that analyzed test results of students from six different public school districts across the U.S., comparing academic performance with whether a student had a teacher of the same racial identity. What the researchers found was a small but significant positive effect when black and white students were assigned teachers who shared their racial identity. Middle schoolers who matched the race and gender identity of their teacher were more likely to report thinking of going to college, while kids in elementary school were more likely to feel like they could better understand what they were learning.
This is the case for Latino students too. A study cited by Univision found that when Latino students had Latino teachers, they were more likely to take advanced classes and college admissions exams, and did better on standardized tests. Unfortunately, while Latinos make up a quarter of the US student body, only about 9 percent of teachers in US public schools identify as Latino. As a whole, the national student body is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, but the diversity of teachers is not keeping pace with this growth.
Laying the Groundwork for Racial Identity From Home
Even if your kids don’t have access to programs or mentors that will help them develop positive racial identity in their school years, there are some simple things that you can do from home to help expand kids’ understanding of race and ethnicity in America. For young children, introduce them to the breadth of racial-ethnic identities by making sure their media reflects more than just the dominant i.e. white culture of society. Point out negative stereotypes that you see in this media and counteract these with accurate portrayals; simply questioning the stereotypes can go a long way.
NBC’s Today suggests you get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations about race with older kids. School-aged kids should be taught that racism exists in terms that they can understand — e.g. what is fair as opposed to unfair —while teens may need you to step in and address racist ideas or words that they may be peddling on social media or among their friends. “All you have to say is that their words are not acceptable,” an expert told the program. “Then, ask them where they heard it or what they think it means. It’s OK to let them squirm a little.
Finally, you’ll need to do your homework. A good place to start, regardless of your racial or ethnic identity, is Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s part-memoir, part-guide How to Be an Antiracist. In the book, Kendi documents his personal journey with developing a positive racial identity and illuminates the traps that many of us fall into when developing our own. Most importantly, remind yourself that it’s not possible to raise a “race-blind” child in today’s America. The goal here is to raise race-conscious children who are able to be curious listeners and contributors in conversations about race, giving them and the people around them space to develop positive racial identities.