Voices in Education

“It’s Our Right...”: The Opportunities Gained by Helping Students of Color Practice Resisting Racism
In carrying out the research for our book, Schooling for Critical Consciousness, we spent hundreds of days over four years observing the programming and practices of six public high schools explicitly committed to fostering their students’ ability to analyze, navigate, and challenge racism. One of the great pleasures of conducting this research was to observe powerful practices that other schools can surely learn from. But there are also important lessons from the ways in which these high schools sometimes inhibited their students’ attempts to actualize their learning about race and racism within the school community.

For example, Olivia,1 a twelfth-grade student at Freedom Prep High School, described what she experienced on a day that she and scores of fellow Freedom Prep students organized a walkout to protest the dearth of faculty or staff of color at the school:
I felt like the response at first was, [the school administrators] were mad. Like really mad, like they started to tell us that students wouldn’t get bus rides home because they’re not really like attending, they didn’t attend a class, so they weren’t like counted as present at school. We weren’t provided lunch. We weren’t provided with privileges of using the bathroom in here, so we walked to somebody’s house over here to use the bathroom. The parents, they ordered us Little Caesar’s pizza and we sat in the front [of the school]. Yeah, they were like kind of like mad about it. But it’s like, there was really nothing they could do. It was like, it’s our right.

As evidenced by Olivia’s description, Freedom Prep administrators and teachers instituted punitive measures to students who participated in the student-organized walkout. These were the same faculty and administrators who also engaged students in powerful action civics projects as part of their core social studies curriculum and facilitated students, faculty, and parents joining statewide protests for more education funding in the state budget.

Research shows that the implications for denying students of color the opportunity to practice or engage in resistance can be particularly dire because this denial can run the risk of reinforcing the dynamics of oppression at micro- and macro-levels.2 In this case, punishing Freedom Prep students for organizing against a lack of faculty diversity likely reinforced a divide between the predominantly privileged White administrators and students of color with far less power and privilege. It also had the potential to send the message that students of color can only engage in social action when the predominantly White administrators give them permission. We understand why the Freedom Prep students were confused, if not confounded, by their school administrators first encouraging them to organize to make sure their school received sufficient funding, but then punishing them for organizing to convince the school to utilize these school funds more equitably.

In considering Freedom Prep’s response to a student protest, we argue that school represents a relevant and meaningful site for students to gain practice in resisting racism, and while it may be difficult for administrators and teachers to acknowledge that their students may be experiencing racism in their schools, adults committed to this work must realize that racism can and does happen even in places trying to intentionally disrupt it.

For this reason, we might have counseled the leadership at Freedom Prep to take a page out of the book of another school participating in our study, Espiritu High School, where students organized a walkout to protest what they perceived as racist rhetoric and policies by then President Donald Trump. Espiritu’s principal Ms. Noreen Thomas described the tension the school faced as the purpose of the student-led walkout flew in the face of some of Espiritu’s parents’ political beliefs or sense of how school time should be used.
With the walkout, a parent called demanding to know why I was permitting the student walkout, um, a parent who’s a Trump supporter. And he was yelling because he wasn’t gonna allow his [children]...to participate in the walkout and what protections were in place for them exercising their own opinions and why did I permit a walk-out to protest the inauguration? ‘This is America,...people shouldn’t be persecuted for their political beliefs.’ So, I [explained] that I encouraged the kids to do it at a time that wasn’t super disruptive...this is voluntary...kids can leave or kids can stay, um, you know teachers aren’t participating in the walk [out] but I’m gonna stand outside and make sure nobody gets run over by a car.

Principal Thomas further described the ways that the school coordinated with the local police and community organizations to ensure the safety and well-being of the students as they walked out. In this example, we see Espiritu teachers and administrators working to facilitate an opportunity for students to resist racism in a way that affirmed students’ voices (including those who opted not to walk out) while also making reasonable assurances for their safety and education.

A growing body of research suggests that helping students develop efficacy with regard to resisting racism will ultimately facilitate their development of important academic and interpersonal skills, enable faculty and administrators to develop authentic and positive relationships with their students, and position all stakeholders in school communities to disrupt racism in schools and beyond.3 In this regard, we urge educators to frame the reasonable opportunities students may take to resist forces of oppression as powerful teachable moments that need to be nurtured for both the well-being of our students and of our society writ large.


1 All of the schools and students in our book and this article are referred to by pseudonyms.

2 Meira Levinson and Jacob Fay, Democratic Discord in Schools: Cases and Commentaries in Educational Ethics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2019).

3 Matthew A. Diemer, Luke J. Rapa, Adam M. Voight, and Ellen H. McWhirter. "Critical Consciousness: A Developmental Approach to Addressing Marginalization and Oppression." Child Development Perspectives 10, no. 4 (2016): 216-21.

About the Author: Scott Seider is an associate professor of applied developmental psychology at the Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development. Daren Graves is an associate professor of education at Simmons University. They are the authors of Schooling for Critical Consciousness: Engaging Black and Latinx Youth in Analyzing, Navigating, and Challenging Racial Injustice (Harvard Education Press, 2020).