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Diversity Toolkit: Race and Ethnicity

Found in: Teaching Strategies

Teaching about race and racism in the United States is a complex and emotional process. While many of us think of race as fixed categories - Asian, Black, and White, for example - many scholars have noted that race is not a biological category, but an idea, a social construction, that people use to interpret human differences and justify socioeconomic arrangements in ways that benefit one social group over another (Adams, Bell, Griffin 2007). For data collection purposes, the U.S. federal government defines Hispanic as a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.

In contrast, ethnicity describes a grouping of people based on geographical region, nationality, or culture (e.g., Afro-Caribbean, Japanese, Hmong, Kurdish).

Racism is a system of advantage based on race and supported by institutions, policies and practices that benefit dominant groups and disadvantage subdominant groups. Racism is a social expression of power and privilege.

Main Issues

Race and ethnicity drive many debates and policies in public education:

Public policies such as the U.S. Supreme Court's limitations on postsecondary institutions' use of race-conscious measures in admitting racial minorities ("affirmative action") is just one example of race and ethnicity based policies that support a system that benefits one group and disadvantages another. This systemic support of racism is often reflected at both the institutional and individual/group level. At the individual/group level, schools are faced with increased incidents of race-related bullying, harassment and violence. At the institutional level, schools may consciously or unconsciously engage in racial bias in decisions on academic tracking, assignment to special education classes and promotion, and suspension or expulsion. Many school districts have few minority education employees relative to the racial makeup of the student population. Similarly, some districts lack culturally competent educators who are attuned to the cultural or linguistic needs of their students.


  • Learn more about the social construction of race and racism in the United States, including how race provides systems of advantage and disadvantage
  • Reflect on your own racial identity and how it has shaped your life experiences—personal inquiry is a necessary prerequisite to facilitating inquiry among others
  • Foster a sense of safety around conversations on race by encouraging participants to take responsibility for their own learning and interactions, to respect each other, to avoid blame and snap judgments, and to allow for mistakes
  • Create a meaningful blueprint that includes sustained inquiry, examination of challenges, and a plan to meet the needs of colleagues or students as they explore the emotional territory of race.

In addition, in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge 2007), Adams, Bell and Griffin offer the following "logical" or "psychological" sequence of learning activities to introduce students to concepts on race and ethnicity in a safe and effective manner:

  • Begin with low-risk activities. Learners need to feel safe in order to express and examine deep feeling. Begin with activities moving from individual reflection to discussion in pairs or small groups before engaging in whole group discussions.
  • Move from concrete to abstract. For students to understand the concepts of race and oppression, they must first see examples of these concepts that are rooted in concrete experiences.
  • Move from personal to institutional/societal. Before examining how race affects institutions or society, students should first explore the impact of race on a personal level.
  • Move from difference to dominance. Allow students to talk about their own experiences as members of a racial or ethnic group and listen to others talk about their experiences before introducing concepts of societal dominance, social power and privilege.

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