Critical Racial Literacy - October 2020 Professional Development

Thursday September 03, 2020

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What is critical racial literacy? Critical racial literacy is the understanding that race is a "…socially constructed concept-not a biological reality-that was set up to govern or control people on the basis of their skin color…"[1] and/or other markers of differences.[2] It is a deep-set construct that shapes how our identities are defined, socialized and disparaged based on this concept. It recognizes race as a structural rather than a solely individual problem and that individuals are socialized to function with these racialized beliefs.

Critical racial literacy skills include developing an appreciation for diversity and strategies for discussing race and racism, as well as cultivating social agency. Developing the skills to interrogate this allows students to examine how the concept of race influence the "social, economic, political, and educational experiences of individuals and groups"[3] and how to act on that understanding to achieve equity.

Why is it important to develop critical racial literacy? Critical racial literacy deepens the understanding of the structures that support and perpetuate systemic racism. Developing this in students enables them to interrogate the narratives that hegemonize one group over another.  It works to dismantle racism from within and without by the acknowledgement that racism exists in all aspects of society, the examination of how environments perpetuate it, the interrogation of how identity is impacted by it and the reflection of how personal beliefs are implicated. Developing the literacy elements-vocabulary, analytical ability and the discourse skills-expands students' social awareness.  Dialogue about such topics that are relevant to every student, those who are marginalized and those who are privileged because of their racial identity. To begin the work of overcoming racism the topic needs to be surfaced and confronted, and thus, develop students' ability to recognize it is imperative.  Having the skills and resources to bridge the dialogue with sensitivity, honesty and purpose are essential for lasting impact.

How does testimony and IWitness develop critical racial literacy? Testimony from survivors and witnesses of genocide provide a human perspective to the impact of racism and antisemitism. Their stories detail the realities of these ingrained beliefs and how these beliefs permeated into every aspect of their lives from school settings, to family discussions, to multimedia, to personal treatment, to laws. The racialization of their identities equaled their accepted value in their society. When students engage with these aspects of individuals' stories, they recognize the problematic ideology that leads to entrenched inequities. They recognize it in the testimonies from survivors and witness of the Holocaust, Cambodian Genocide, Armenian Genocide, Guatemalan Genocide, Nanjing Massacre, the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda and from Black American and Japanese-American liberators. These resources prompt examination of themes such as intolerance, discrimination, lack of representation and/or misrepresentation of identities and the politics of identity. Further, they interrogate the emotional and social impact of identity-based hate that is sanctioned and promulgated by government entities. Testimony-based resources in IWitness help students develop the cognitive skills necessary for such critical examinations by building the needed vocabulary for such discussions, framing the historical context of the discriminatory/racist actions, and by posing observational, interpretive and reflective questions.


Teaching with Testimony Webinar:
Critical Racial Literacy Through Personal Stories
Available On-Demand!

Critical racial literacy skills include developing strategies for discussing the structure of racism and racialized identities and cultivating an appreciation for diversity. Testimony from survivors and witnesses of genocide help build these skills because each story provides a human perspective, details the realities of biased ingrained beliefs and makes clear the impact of racism and antisemitism. Students discern the relevance to today and these testimonies allow them to approach the issues from an academic and safe distance before entering into a more personal impact discussion. This webinar will explore testimony-based resources that challenge student thinking, bridge discussions about racism and develop critical racial literacy.

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Stronger Than Hate: Make Black Voices Heard

As an organization that promotes empathy, understanding, and respect, USC Shoah Foundation stands with the Black community and its allies to advocate for change in the face of racism and identity-based hate. 


IWitness Activities to Develop Critical Racial Literacy:

[1] King, LaGarrett J., et al. "A Pathway to Racial Literacy: Using the LETS ACT Framework to Teach Controversial Issues." Teaching Controversial Issues, 2018, pp. 316-322. Web.

[2] Vetter, A., & Hungerford-Kressor, H. (2014). ―We gotta change first‖: Racial literacy in a high school English classroom.Journal of Language and Literacy Education [Online], 10(1), 82-99. Retrieved from

[3] Nash, Kindel, et al. "Critical Racial Literacy in Homes, Schools, and Communities: Propositions for Early Childhood Contexts."Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, vol. 19, no. 3, Sept. 2018, pp.256-273, doi:10.1177/1463949117717293.


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