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Building Racial Literacy

By Ashlee Jeannot

If we’re more alike than different, then so are our questions and fears about diversity. The issues and challenges around difference and belonging, though details vary between geographies and industries, are ultimately universal. Privilege, allyship, bias, uncertainty, awareness and more play a role in every fight for equity across cultures. At IBIS, we know that our clients thrive when we are able to adapt best practices from one setting to another, to test the things that work and discard the things that don’t.

What can we learn from the field of education? Are there emergent best practices from the classroom that can be put to use in the boardroom?

We think so. This month we dig into guidance on facing and understanding racism. We know already that racism is an uncomfortable conversation for many; it is uncomfortable because discussing race inevitably sparks an emotional dialogue that for many can cause painful emotions and feelings, such as sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, defensiveness, and hopelessness. As a result, people tend to avoid the topic of race altogether.

The first steps to begin to learn how to even hold these conversations are hard. Many do not know where to begin and allow their fear to cause them to avoid the conversation entirely. But that approach helps no one and ultimately upholds the systems we are trying to dismantle. IBIS’ Project Coordinator and a recent graduate from Tufts University’s Masters program in Diversity and Inclusion Leadership, Ashlee Jeannot created a guide, Knowing How to Discuss Race in the Classroom, to help those who do not know where to begin in their journey to racial literacy by equipping them with tools that are vital to help them.

“I want to equip readers with the tools needed to engage in conversations and discussions centered around race,” says Ashlee, “and provide them with steps to address the emotional toll and impact of race. Practice embracing ambiguity, while seeking intentional learning and speaking your truth.”

Below are some principles Ashlee encourages readers to adopt on their journey of racial literacy:

Preparing Yourself for Talking About Race

To begin to engage in this conversation, you must address the fear(s)or other factors that have led you to avoid the topic in the past. You must acknowledge the privilege you hold as a white person who can avoid the remnants of race and racism.

  1. These conversations are emotional and require emotional intelligence (and resilience).

Talking about equity, race and racial literacy involves strong emotion and will elicit anger. We should be angry that these racist and oppressive systems still exist and continue to impact generations and generations. There is no way to have these conversations without experiencing a range of strong emotions. This is why emotional intelligence is key.

  1. These conversations do not guarantee safety; you need bravery. Lean into the discomfort.

To be quite frank, no space is completely safe. Regardless of how safe you try to make it for yourself physically, emotionally or mentally, there are greater forces, both visible and invisible that could be triggering and therefore penetrate that space. But what must be talked about includes whiteness, racism, anti-Blackness, etc.

  1. Do not shy away, or become defensive. No one is blaming you, but your actions will inadvertently be called out.

Center your emotions and feelings on what can and should you be doing to help Black and Brown students. Center your emotions and feelings on how to be an ally, an advocate, a better listener and better friend. If your instincts are causing you to feel like retreating or reassuring yourself that you are not racist and are not part of the problem, think instead, ‘what am I doing to contribute to this problem? How am I upholding racism? How and what should I be doing?

  1. Manage racial stress with mindfulness.

Howard Stevenson, an expert on racial stress mindfulness and management, created a mindfulness technique in which participants who are engaging in a dialogue on race that is stressful, can manage their stress and refocus through four steps: calculate, locate, communicate, breathe and exhale (Stevenson, 2007):

  • Calculate it: ‘What feeling am I having right now, and how intense is it on a scale of one to 10? How stressful was it? Did it shift, spike?
  • Locate it: ‘Where in my body do I feel the stress?’
  • Communicate it: For example, “I’m feeling stressed at the level of 9 and I feel a tightness in my stomach.” Tell a trusted friend, and or disclose appropriately within the dynamics of your work. Communicate asks you, ‘What are your thoughts? What images and or moments are coming in your mind?’
  • Breathe & Exhale: Stevenson recommends breathing and exhaling slowly.
  1. This is not going to be quick; this will not be easy. This will forever be an ongoing internal and external workshop to become better and demand better. 

It is important to commit yourself to accept non-closure. This will be a forever ongoing journey, a journey that will have a lot of roadblocks, and require you to reflect daily, challenge yourself daily, learn daily, be an ally daily, and educate those around you daily. Practice embracing ambiguity, while seeking intentional learning and speaking your truth. 

To learn more about Ashlee and her inspiration for writing this guide watch this video developed and produced by IBIS producer Teja Arbodela.


Ashlee Jeannot is the Project Coordinator for IBIS Consulting Group. She has a wide range of experience in racial literacy, racial equity, diversity and inclusion programming, diversity and inclusion curriculum design, and project development and coordination.