How to Teach about Structural Racism: An Interview with Ayo Magwood

How to Teach about Structural Racism: An Interview with Ayo Magwood

Introduction: Ayo Magwood (Uprooting Inequity LLC) is an educational consultant specializing in in-depth, evidence-based education on historical and structural racism. These seminars include primary and secondary historical evidence, data, quantitative maps, research studies and original diagrams/images, and each session represents 300-400 hours of research, synthesis, and graphic design work. Ayo is also writing a book on her “ProEquity Framework” (teaser slide deck), an evidence-based K-12 instructional approach that prepares students to work together across differences in ideology and privilege to analyze the root causes of societal challenges and develop equitable policy solutions that promote the common good. The objective of both her content and pedagogy seminars is to contribute to a return to a “we” society (Putnam, 2021; McGhee, 2021), but this time to one that is inclusive and equity conscious. Ayo has over 10 years of high school teaching experience, and has a B.A. in economics and international relations from Brown University and a M.Sc. in applied economics from Cornell University. She is the author of the book chapter “Why ‘Elite’ Independent Schools Can’t RetainBlack and Brown Faculty” in K. Swalwell & D. Spikes (Eds.) Anti-Oppressive Education in “Elite” Schools: Promising Practices and Cautionary Tales, 2021. 

IHE: Your framework for teaching about racism and inequity involves grounding the study of settled empirical issues such as structural racism in data and historical evidence, while approaching policy questions about racism and inequity with what you call a “perspectives consciousness” approach. Can you tell us more about your framework?

Ayo: In my early years as a high school U.S. history teacher, I struggled mightily with how to reconcile my civics teacher ‘hat’ with my social justice teacher ‘hat.’ Specifically, I struggled with how to teach an anti-racist curriculum while still welcoming civic discourse between students from across the ideological spectrum. Some conservative positions on issues of race and poverty contradict overwhelming evidence to the contrary, or are based on racist or classist assumptions. For example, some students insisted that structural racism did not exist, despite a mountain of data and research studies concluding otherwise, and concluded that racial disparities must thus result from Black cultural inferiority (not working hard, not valuing education, etc.).

I eventually came to two realizations that I identified as the two key challenges at the root of this dilemma:

  1. It is simply not possible to adequately understand contemporary issues related to race or economic inequity without an understanding of present-day structural racism, the history of racial and economic inequality from the 1930s to the present, and the ways in which this history impacts the present. Since few U.S. history curriculums (and state-wide standards) include this content in any depth, most students and citizens are not equipped to understand contemporary issues related to racial or economic inequity, let alone to assess potential policy solutions to address them. 

    In the absence of this content knowledge, students rely on myths and misconceptions or universalize their limited personal experiences with racism as absolute truth (despite living in largely racially and socioeconomically segregated communities). For example, if we experience easy access to opportunities and courteous police in our community and never witness any racism, then we perceive those as absolute truth. 

  2. This same ethnocentric tendency to universalize one’s perspectives also leads people to be convinced that their identity group’s values, preferences, or perspectives on opinion/policy issues are “right” or “better” while those of other identity groups are “wrong” or “inferior.” This makes it difficult for students (and citizens) to listen to each other’s perspectives and work together to design workable solutions that promote the common good.

To address these two interrelated root causes, I developed an evidence- and civics-based approach to anti-racist education based on Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy’s “empirical vs. policy questions” framework (The Political Classroom, 2014). Settled empirical questions have a single discoverable answer on which there is broad-based agreement among credible relevant experts, while open policy questions are a matter of opinion and ideology. Note that some settled empirical questions (e.g. “Do humans contribute to climate change?” and “Do vaccines cause Autism?”) are still considered ‘controversial’ by some non-expert members of the public.

With respect to race-related issues, “Does structural racism exist?” is a settled empirical question as there is broad-based agreement on it among credible relevant experts, while “What should the government do about racism?” (e.g. affirmative action, reparations, defunding the police) is an open policy (opinion) question. The belief that structural racism “doesn’t exist” is not an inherently conservative position. But the preference for relatively more versus less government intervention in social issues such as racism is an authentic ideological difference.

The first prong of my approach, which addresses the first of the two challenges I identified above, involves providing students with the evidence-based instruction on structural racism and the recent history of racism necessary to understanding empirical questions on racial and economic inequity. I do not allow classroom debate over whether structural racism exists, as Hess and McAvoy argue that it is inauthentic and problematic to allow students to debate settled empirical questions (2014). 

Instead, I restructured the U.S. History curriculum to make room for the additional content they needed to learn about: present-day structural racism; the history of racial and economic inequality from the 1930s to the present; and the legacy of this history on the present. I didn’t “tell” them that structural racism and poverty exist and that most of us unknowingly reinforce and benefit from these structural inequities; rather, I gave them the opportunity to examine the data, research studies, and historical evidence and let them come to their own conclusions.

I designed a 6-week unit that traced the historical (1930s-present) evolution of three of the most important issues of today: income inequality, racial inequality, and political polarization. These are the issues that our future citizens will be grappling with over the coming decades. Topics included redlining, FHA/VA mortgage subsidy discrimination, white flight, free trade, deindustrialization, the decline of unions, the drug war, mass incarceration, and the subprime mortgage crisis.

The second prong of my approach, which addresses the second challenge I identified above, involved helping my students develop the ‘perspectives consciousness’ skills and dispositions they need to adequately address related policy questions such as “What should the government do about racial and economic inequity?” A “perspectives consciousness” (Robert Hanvey, 1976) approach to cross-cultural communication and to understanding contemporary issues involves recognizing that our differing viewpoints are the product of our distinct cultures and identities (“positionality”), as well as of our different lived experiences in segregated schools and neighborhoods. We will only be able to understand contemporary issues when we seek to understand the perspectives of various stakeholders instead of universalizing our personal perspectives, just as historians seek to understand historical events by comparing and synthesizing conflicting primary sources. After all, contemporary issues are future historical issues in which the student is both historian and one of the primary sources.

Part of this task involved shifting my students’ perception of “us vs. them” from “my identity group vs. other groups” to one of “young people of various identity groups vs. societal inequities.” Our ethnocentric tendency to see the world in terms of “us vs. them” is too strong to dismantle, but I could subvert it by getting the “us” and “them” to see themselves as a united “we” with a common identity and common interests at a higher level of organization: all young people who wish to work together to dismantle the societal inequities that we adults created and build a more equitable world. Interestingly, this approach to apply selective pressure at a higher level of organization is entirely in line with the latest science on positive cultural change (Atkins, P. W.B., Wilson, D. S., and Hayes, S.C., 2019). I’m now working with a global initiative, Prosocial Schools, to co-design and share this approach far and wide.

Disallowing arguments over whether structural racism exists also erects “safety guardrails” on classroom discussions on race by precluding racist claims that racial disparities are due to inherent Black inferiority. Since it prevents students from making racist comments, it also reduces the possibility that a student will be called a racist by a peer. Once this settled empirical question is “off the table”, the classroom can engage in productive and respectful civc discourse of open policy questions (e.g. What government should do about structural racism?) across ideological differences.

This approach also has the advantage of shifting the narrative from one of fault to one of responsibility—a responsibility they feel empowered to assume as they have been armed with the history and economics they will need to address it.

IHE: How did you come to develop your approach?

Ayo: “Perspectives Consciousness” comes naturally to me as a “cultural border crosser,” someone who has straddled and criss-crossed racial, cultural, and socioeconomic communities my entire life. I am a biracial African-American who grew up in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, Monrovia, Liberia, Saudi Arabia and worked in Belgium and Mexico (where I still maintain close ties). While in the U.S., I have also belonged to immigrant and queer social circles. Those of us who grow up navigating more than one culture instinctively understand the concept of positionality from a very young age. We are also in the unique position to observe how often each group determines that their values and preferences are “right” or superior, while those of other groups are “wrong” or “inferior.”  

In other words, to teach my students “perspectives consciousness,” I simply teach them how to approach the world like we “cultural border crossers” do.

IHE: There are so many myths that you bust in your teaching. What are some of the most persistent, and what have you noticed happens when students learn that so much of what they have believed to be true is actually false? 

Ayo: One of the biggest obstacles to teaching students about racial and economic inequity is the persistent myths and misconceptions about meritocracy, equal opportunity, and “the American Dream” that students absorb from public history, public memory, media, popular culture, and partisan soundbites. While many white Americans did enjoy relatively more equality of opportunity and socioeconomic mobility than in other wealthy nations for decades, socioeconomic mobility has plummeted in the U.S. since the late 1970s, and we now have significantly lower levels than other wealthy countries. For example, the data shows that family wealth is a much stronger predictor of college attainment in the U.S. than test scores.

IHE: Like us, you are critical of the debate approach to education, and you offer the concept of deliberation to counter debate. Can you talk more about this?

Ayo: We are living on different parts of the metaphorical elephant, as described in the ancient Indian parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, making it even more difficult for us to understand or empathize with the perspectives of Americans of different races and classes. Thus, the only way to “see” the entire elephant of contemporary issues and to develop policy solutions to address them, is to talk to those living on other parts of the elephant.

Tomorrow’s citizens need to know how to participate in a deliberative democracy. Successful democracies depend on informed citizens engaging in deliberations (vs. debates) that seek to understand differing perspectives on open policy issues in order to develop policy solutions that promote the common good. 

Unfortunately, schools in the U.S. are much more likely to teach students to “win,” lead, and prove that their opinion is “right” and other opinions are “wrong,” than to teach students how to cooperate, listen to each other, understand differing perspectives even when they disagree with them, and work towards collective solutions. 

IHE: Can you share some stories about the impact of your approach in classrooms and schools? 

Ayo: I will share an anonymous comment on my end-of-the-year student evaluations, as well as an email that a student sent me four years after taking my class:

“This course has prepared me to be an effective citizen by arming me with the knowledge of how history is still impacting us today and what can be done about its negative effects. I feel that in the future I will be able to use the methods of seeing things from more than one side of the “elephant.” My knowledge of race relations and modern-day policies and issues will help me to understand how the world works in the modern day. This class has served as both a window and a mirror by helping me think over my own personal biases and why I have them. Throughout this course I learned about different opinions on many different topics and was able to discover some of my own that I had never thought of before.”

“I truly want you to know that many of my peers and I have taken the curriculum you fostered to heart and have allowed it to lead us in our academic and social ventures. I think my favorite part of your class was in the beginning of the year when you showed us the “elephant analogy.” The idea that multiple people can have completely different ideas on something based on perspective and their relative position with each other was a theme that you carried amazingly throughout the course. Yours was the only class where I truly felt like I was learning the WHOLE story, not just a perspective on it. You even made it a little more meta when you had the students from Cesar Chavez come and we had conversations that made me understand how much perspective and privilege was important and pertinent to my own life.”