The Elephant in the Room: Race Conversations in Our Classrooms


The Elephant in the Room: Race Conversations in Our Classrooms

By NAfME Member Jane M. Kuehne, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Music Education at Auburn University

My interest in social justice started almost 25 years ago, just down highway I-35 a few hours from Grapevine, Texas, in San Antonio. I took a job teaching in a “bad” middle school. We had three strikes against us—location, majority of minority students, lack of money. Teacher friends from other schools asked me, “Why do you still teach in that school? You are a good teacher (often I would also hear, you have done wonders with those kids). Why not go uptown and teach in one of the better schools?” They meant schools where most of the students look just like me, white, middle-to-upper class. I learned the difference between good and bad schools is point-of-view and perception.

diversity | IlkerErgun


Fast forward to 2017. I have been teaching at Auburn University for the past 13 years, working to train music educators. Last year (2016-2017) three events at Auburn brought things full circle, connecting my past and present selves.

Three Catalysts

First Auburn selected Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption as our Common Book. We read the book, and he spoke on campus about his philosophy and experiences (you can hear him personally on Ted Talks). Next, my department interviewed two people for a position, and both spoke eloquently and fervently about Critical Race Theory (CRT) and teacher training, including how we must help future teachers grow and learn more about all of their students, beyond the stereotypes they see in media and (potentially) in their own backgrounds. Finally, after courts upheld his right to speak on our public campus, a white supremacist along with his supporters came to speak on our campus. I am not a lawyer, and there is more to the law than what I know, so I am not going to argue constitutional law. But this was the final experience that pushed me to learn more and self-evaluate what I was doing in my own classroom to address prejudice in the classroom.


Figure 1. Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, quotes from p. 18.

race conversations

Figure 2. Six Basic Tenets of Critical Race Theory.


Year-after-year, new music education students enter college. When I ask, “Why do you want to be a music teacher?” they say they want to teach music because of their previous music teachers. Music educators usually teach their students over more than one year, and can positively (or negatively) affect their development. We have the capacity and the opportunity to do the most good, make the most change, and unfortunately, the most harm. How we handle complicated issues like race and prejudice in the moment and in our daily lessons affects how they think about these same issues.

Music educators usually teach their students over more than one year, and can positively (or negatively) affect their development.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) focuses on many areas, perhaps the most eye-opening and thought-provoking site their “hate map” shows identified prejudice-based groups in the U.S. However, they also focus on teaching tolerance and have several resources including a magazine, Teaching Tolerance, and resource websites for educators including, Mix it Up at Lunch Day, and Film and Teaching Kits. I find myself using their materials as I think about and plan for my own classes. In addition, I started reading texts by Mica Pollock that help shape HOW we can think, and talk about race and prejudice in our classrooms and schools.

Pollock (2017) suggests students are influenced by a myriad of people during their school career (see Figure 3) and that each of these has the power to challenge harmful thoughts and assumptions. In addition, Polluck suggests we should use an equity time line to guide our interactions with students. She says, “Equity efforts in education provide supports to give every young person and all groups of young people a full chance to develop their vast human talents. Equity efforts treat all young people as equally and infinitely valuable. And so, they seek to remedy any situation where opportunities for some are insufficient or expectations low, particularly when young people have long been underserved by schools. The Equity Line helps us evaluate which actions and situations offer students sufficient opportunities and supports, and which don’t.”

learning community

Figure 3. The Foundational Image, Schooltalk (2017) 


Figure 4. Equity Line from Schooltalk (2017).


A Discussion about Perception

In my Fall 2017 session at NAfME, we will consider several discussion topics that Polluck raises in Schooltalk (2017).

  1. Make a list of labels you have heard used in a school community you know well (or your own school). Do you have any gut reactions about each, to the extent they help or harm? What is helpful? What is harmful? Why are the helpful labels helpful? Why are the harmful ones harmful?

  2. Can you think of a label you would want someone to use about use that describes one part of your experience or one “thing” you need? If someone used that label to describe you (all of you), would you be comfortable with that label?

  3. Here is a question to ask a young person, or yourself. Do you ever use a long list of labels when taking the freedom to describe some aspect of your own complex identity? Do you ever use single “lump-sum” labels to identify yourself when trying to secure a resource, resist some experience of unequal opportunity, or connect to a community that empowers you? How does that feel, and what are the pros and cons of you using the labels in question?

  4. What assumptions about inner abilities, personalities, or values do we make in schools, based on outer characteristics? Name one example. Do those assumptions also need to be “busted” with equity in mind?

  5. Look around a room full of people. Have you already categorized people by what you see on the outside, by their color, hair color, facial expressions, body language, etc. Have you already made a judgement about what “type of person” each individual is? Did you automatically use stereotypes?

In addition, we will consider Willoughby’s Speak Up at School (2012), which provides help with how to work through surprising moments in our classrooms where we know we should speak up, but we just may not know what to say or do. I will cover these in deeper detail in the presentation, but here is a little taste of his suggestions.

  1. Decide if you will speak up, and if so…
  2. Prepare in advance.
  3. Develop and practice responses.
  4. Develop and practice questions.
  5. Speak up when needed.
  6. Speak from authority.
  7. Model the behaviors we want to see.

In addition, we will consider strategies for what Willoughby calls “in the moment” events. We can start with these questions/situations:

  1. “Why are you brown and I am not?”
  2. “It’s strange that you have two moms who live together.”
  3. “Your dad is white, but you’re not.”
  4. “That’s gay, man. What the heck?”
  5. Student mutters under his breath “n-word” teacher.
  6. Student replicates a common “duhr” as if she (or he) is a special needs student.
  7. A fellow teacher gives “funny award” at the end of the year. One of those awards was the “Pete Fernandez” aware for “most lazy player.”
  8. “Derrick (only black student in class), you’re black. What do you think about Black Lives Matter?”
  9. In the teacher’s lounge, from a teacher, “All those boys in choir, they’re just fags.”

Finally, we will discuss ways to empower students to speak up against prejudicial language (and actions) in the classrooms, in schools, and in their communities.

Teach Tolerance

Addressing race and prejudice in our classrooms is important to consider. It is difficult, as Willoughby says, to “speak up” when we see wrong doing, especially when we live and work in “a rather litigious society,” and when we are not sure we will have the support we need. However, we have the responsibility to learn about our students and teach tolerance for others and their unique differences.

We have the responsibility to learn about our students and teach tolerance for others and their unique differences.



NAfME Presentation: Tuesday, November 14, 2017 at 9:15 a.m.

About the author:

college professor

NAfME member Jane M. Kuehne, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Music Education in her 13th year at Auburn University where she teaches undergraduate and graduate music education, technology, and lab courses, and supervises graduate research. She earned bachelor’s (1992) and master’s (2000) degrees in music education (with PK-12 certification) from the University of Texas at San Antonio and taught music for 8 years in Texas, in early childhood and K-12 settings, specifically general music, choir, and band. In 2003, she earned a Ph.D. in Music Education at Florida State University. Before teaching at Auburn, she taught music education, technology, and jazz choir at Hartwick College in upstate New York.​


Jane Kuehne presented on her topic “The Elephant in the Room: Race Conversations in Our Classrooms” at the 2017 NAfME National Conference last November in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2019 NAfME National Conference!


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