• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


An Honest Question

Explaining structural racism.


April 16, 2015

I know that questions like these often bring out the very worst in internet trolling, but I’ve been consistently impressed at the judgment of my wise and worldly readers, so I’ll take a chance here, because I’m really struggling with this one.

How do you explain structural racism to a thirteen year old?

The Boy is thirteen and The Girl is ten. They’re great kids -- good-hearted, smart, considerate. They’re uncommonly courteous for their respective ages.  

I don’t want them to only get the approved public school version of American race relations. It’s well-meaning, in its way, but so reductionist that it tends to lead to some serious misunderstandings.  

Racism is usually presented as a character flaw. It can be that, of course, but if that’s your only understanding of it, then it’s easy to take discussions of structural racism as some sort of personal attack, and to respond either in kind or dismissively. I’ve seen it too many times.

That said, though, something like “social structure” is a tough concept for an eighth grader, even a bright one. And while I want to convey a sense of reality as I see it, I want to leave enough room for their own interpretations to develop. I’d like to convey a sense that there’s something beyond individual attitudes, but to be open-ended enough that they don’t just hear it as dogma.  

So far, the best approach I’ve been able to come up with has been to discuss context around certain news stories, like police shootings. That way it doesn’t seem forced or contrived. But those stories can also fit under the “character flaw” narrative, and they necessarily focus only on a narrow slice of life.

I’m asking because as they get older, I want the kids to be able to apply their sense of decency to larger issues, and not to commit some of the sins of obliviousness (and defensiveness when called on it).  

Age-appropriate sociology is tough enough. Focus on race and it’s that much tougher. But I don’t think that ignoring it, or defaulting to the “character flaw” narrative, solves the problem.  

So, wise and worldly readers, I seek your help. What’s an age-appropriate way to introduce the idea of structural racism to a thirteen-year-old?


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