Susan Riley | August 2017

Race and Bias in the Classroom

New York Times Bestselling Author Jodi Picoult stops by The Teaching with Creativity Show to discuss her new book, Small Great Things, and have a frank conversation about how to address race and bias in the classroom.



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[Susan] Jodi Picoult is the best selling author of 24 books with over 14 million copies in print worldwide. Currently Jodi is working on a Broadway musical with her daughter Samantha bandoleer five of her books have been adapted for film or television. And her latest book Small Great Things already has Julia Roberts and Viola Davis on board for its film adaptation. In this interview Jodi and I are going to be having a frank and open conversation about creativity, the act of making mistakes and learning from her vision and how racial bias is woven into what we do in and out of the classroom. Welcome Jodi.

So the first word I want to dive into is that piece as a writer. And so as you know we focus on arts integration across of areas for reading and math and science social studies. How to teach those things in and through writing is truly an art form of its own right. So how do you work through that creative process and find the balance between the art and the science of writing.

[Jodi] I think that you have to keep in mind that used to be an educator before – I was a teacher. I am a writer but I was a teacher and I taught eighth grade English at a school in Concord Mass. So I get asked a lot why and how can I instill a love writing with the kids that I work with. And I think what’s really important to recognize is that there is a difference between teaching kids the tools to write, particularly an analytical essay, and teaching kids a love of writing. Those are two very different things. Yes. So you know just as if you’re trying to teach kids to love to read. You don’t force them to read Moby Dick. You let them read a book of baseball statistics or manga or you know comic books, you know, fiction -anything that strikes their fancy so that they fall in love with the act of reading. So that when you make them suffer through Moby Dick you know they still have this sense of why they love picking up a book in the first place. And I believe that writing is a lot like that as well. So I think that when you start training and to engage kids with writing, you try to do it in a way that allows them to explore many different forms. Because a kid who has a great analytical mind as a writer may be a very poor poet. But a kid who is a poet, you know, may never get an analytical essay. The idea of crossing artistic mediums is also, I think, something that a lot of people struggle with.

You know we we talk a lot about integrating art with with writing or with math. We’re using math and do writing with art or writing with music and having them cross those content areas. It’s like a whole new spark comes up where they are. And again, I think it’s really important because there are kids who will excel in one area who suddenly become much more interested in say the English component of it because you have incorporated music. Which they love and might be very gifted at the idea that there are many ways to tell a story. This is critical when it comes to education. I would argue for you know, thinking about that. How you can tell a story when, for example, your main character lies to your audience. How do you tell a story if your main character is mute. You know, try to create situations for yourself where you have to incorporate a different medium. When I wrote a book called The Circle, I walked into my publisher and I said “So this is going to have a graphic novel middle of it because the main character can’t tell you what he’s feeling but he could show you”. And to their credit, my publisher looked at me and said OK. You know, I did publish it and I found a graphic novelist who was able to take the graphic novel I wrote and bring it to life within the pages of this story. And I love that. I love being able to push that boundary. When I wrote Sing You Home, which is the story of a woman who is gay and who is facing issues with reproductive rights basically.

What you do with a frozen embryo? One of the things I really wanted to look at was gay rights in this country and how sometimes the people who were the most opposed to gay rights were the people who don’t know anyone gay or think they don’t know anyone gay. I wanted the reader to actually hear this woman’s voice, this woman’s pain, this woman’s thoughts. And so I partnered with my best friend who happens to be a songwriter and we together wrote 10 songs that were again woven through our narratives. So that the reading experience wasn’t just about reading text it was also about taking in the voice of this character in this music that’s so stunning.

[Susan] That also leaves me a nice segue into talking about your latest book Small Great Things. So I’m going to go ahead and admit that this book made me feel really uncomfortable as a white woman in America.

I know that is what you wanted the reader to experience – so good job. But there’s a huge foundation in this book about racial bias. Correct? Can you tell us more about that and what you hope that we can learn from this book? Whether the people in our audience today have read it already or if they haven’t.  Just go ahead and let us know more about that and what you hope we can learn from this book.

[Jodi] So unconscious bias is the idea that there’s racism all around us -it’s basically in the air we breathe. And even if we ourselves do not have personal moments of racism, even if we would say “oh I’m not a racist”, you know you can’t help the fact that the society we live in is biased toward white people. How you see it in all the little details. Go to CVS, go to the pharmacy, go find a flesh colored bandage. Does it match your flesh or does it match the flesh of someone with darker skin? Go find a greeting card that has people of color on the front of it. I dare you. Really hard. You know the standard of beauty in America is a white standard of beauty and these are the things that I’m talking about when I talk about unconscious bias. It’s not our fault it’s all around us and because we keep ingesting it we are going to unconsciously be biased towards a white society. The idea that whites make up society – that their narrative, that their story – is the one that’s important. Now this is BS. If you want to challenge me on this. Harvard actually has a terrific implicit bias test that you can do on your keyboard if you google “Harvard implicit bias” it’ll come up and you’ll be sitting there thinking I’m totally above this. I’m going to show how incredibly equitable I am and that I am not a racist.

And trust me you will come out on that test as showing implicit bias. It’s a great tool to sort of check yourself a little bit. So the point of me writing this book as a white woman was racism is something that I had wanted to write about for a long time and I really didn’t know how to do it. In fact I started the book and I failed miserably and I shelved the book because I couldn’t create, you know, real narratives and stories and voices of people of color. And I really questioned myself – did I have the right to do that? You know cultural appropriation is a very real thing. Was I trying to profit off somebody else’s oppression? Why did I want to write that story so badly> And it wasn’t until I came across this story in 2012 that actually happened in Flint, Michigan where an African-American nurse with 20 years of experience in a labor and delivery had helped deliver this baby. And in the aftermath the baby’s father called in her supervisors and said “I don’t want her or anyone who looks like her touching my child.” And he pushed up his sleeve to reveal a swastika tattoo. He was a white supremacist neo-Nazi. The hospital wound up putting a post-it note in the baby’s file saying no African-American personnel to touch this baby. The nurse and several of their colleagues banded together. They sued. They settled out of court. I hope she got lots and lots of money but it makes me wonder, what if something had changed? What if that was the only one all alone with that child? And something went wrong.

What if she chose between violating the supervisor’s orders or saving the baby’s life? Well if she were to go on trial as a result of that, what if I could tell the story from the point of view of the public defender who defends her. Who like me, like you, would never say she’s a racist, of the white supremacist dad and of this woman the African-American nurse. So what if I could tell all of their stories as they began to examine their beliefs about race of power and privilege? And essentially I knew that I was going to be able to finish this because I was writing the book to tell people of color with their lives. That’s not my job. That is not my right. There are plenty of African-American authors doing a good job without me. My job was to talk to people who look like you, people who look like me, people who can very easily point to a white supremacist and say oh that’s racist but can’t do this and say the same thing. And you are supposed to feel uncomfortable reading – like you’re supposed to understand that we as white people often don’t talk about racism because we’re terrified of saying the wrong thing and it is so fraught with minefields, the discussion of racism, that we would rather not talk about it at all. Now to a person of color what does that look like? It looks like you don’t even care enough to start a conversation. So we’re on two different sides of the canyon here. And what I wanted to point out was that it’s more important to talk about racism, to make mistakes, to say “I’m so sorry. I learned from that. Thank you” and move forward then to not talk about that at all.

I want to bring up the point that racism is systemic and institutional and unwieldy and massive systems and institutions are made up of people. And if you start to change one mind at a time you can steer the system or institution in a different way. And that’s really how we begin to change. Racism is not the problem of people of color. They’re the ones affected by racism. It is the problem of white people. Because we are the ones perpetrating it. And that’s really what I wanted people to look at. The social justice definition of a racist is someone who has both prejudice and power. And that’s fine if you’re white in America – you have all the power. That’s the reality. So you do have an element of racism in terms of responsibility. Our responsibility – we’re responsible for some of what’s happening there. I like to think about it like the moving walkway at the airport. The white supremacist is the guy who gets on with the suitcase and starts walking. So he gets to the other side really fast, right? A normal white person is a good person at heart who’s doesn’t consider themselves a racist. Gets on that walkway and doesn’t move. They still get to the same place as the white supremacists – it’s just going to take them a little more time. If you want to be actively anti-racist you have to turn around and start running. You have to make significant changes in your life in your attitude.

In your conversations and in your teaching that will inspire those conversations and others and that’s what I really hope to do with this book and it’s truly phenomenal.

[Susan] One of the biggest pieces for me was the idea that her lawyer – that Ruth Jefferson who is the African-American who is on trial here – her white woman lawyer would not touch racism in the courtroom because she kept saying it’s not about race. It’s about what happened while you were on the job. And it resonated with me as an educator because as an educator we’re told, whether you know explicitly or not, don’t touch the subject in your classroom. I don’t care what your classroom looks like you’re not going to talk about race because we’re going to be treating all students equally and we’re going to be colorblind. So we struggle with that, right?

Now. It’s horrible. But it’s so big and I identified with that so much because my superiors have told me time and time again, “do not touch this subject”. But it’s so important that we do, so I think so many educators kind of worry about tiptoeing around that.

So how do we approach those kinds of courageous conversations and how can we allow the arts to maybe be a part of that?

[Jodi] Right. So I think that first of all, it’s so important to have this conversation. Second of all colorblind is not a thing. When you say “colorblind”, what you’re really saying is “I am not acknowledging the fact that your skin is darker than mine and that has made your life different from mine.” Now none of us really mean that, right? What you really mean is we’re color aware. So be color aware in your classrooms. Try to find a way to be color aware.

So an example I give all the time when I’m talking about this book is, you know, I say no matter what your sphere of influence is, use the fact that you are white to bring that discussion to the table. People always want to hear what white people have to say. I don’t know why they do, but they do. And sometimes the best thing you can do is make room at your table so that someone who traditionally hasn’t had a voice does get to speak. So how do we extrapolate that into the field of education. Well if you’re a parent, for example, and you have a second grader in a predominantly white class, go to the teacher and say hi. Just wondering what are you teaching this year about African-American history and culture. Is it about slavery and victimization or maybe we can learn about some great heroes who also happen to be African-American. Some inventors, for example. There are people who have invented incredibly important things that we never covered in school. Lewis Latimer, for example, you use his inventions all the time. You know most people have no idea who he is.

So why not start by expanding the curriculum to make sure that whoever we’re covering includes people of color and not just African-Americans. You know we’re also talking about Latino people Native American people in any way we can. Broadening the scope of what we teach. The same holds true in an English classroom. So for example, what’s in your curriculum? What are you reading? How many authors of color are you reading? And is it one for one? You know, one white author to one author of color. If not, why not? If we only read the people who look like us we learn nothing. We have to read the people who look and sound different and have had different experiences than we have. That’s how we broaden our minds. Make sure that there is a vast stocked library in your classroom even if you have to pull it off your own personal bookshelf. Of people like, you know, Justin Ward and Ta-Nahisi Coates and Angie Thomas is a great new writer for Y.A. who wrote a terrific book called The Hate You Give. There’s a book coming up this fall by a woman named Nick Stone called Dear Martin that should be in every single high school classroom. All of these are stories that are real and raw and tell the real truth of what it means to be an African-American youth in this country. We need more of that and we don’t need it just for the kids of color in our classroom. We need it for the white kids. We need diverse books. It’s a movement that of course happened in the publishing industry about publishing more writers of color and getting these stories out.

And it’s not just about getting the stories out. It’s about getting the white kids in the classroom to understand that experience is important to you too. Right. So again try among all the requirements that that are standards now, try to find a way to integrate that again into the curriculum and to find those ways to not fall into, I’d say, the old habits. Don’t read books by just old dead white guys. Don’t just talk about slavery and say we’ve covered African-American history. You know, find other ways to bring that conversation front and center. And if you can, you know, try to go see a local performance of something like Raisin in the Sun. Talk about how that that can be extrapolated to today’s world and today’s culture. Find the ways that you as a community as educators can really poke that discussion with a stick. You know, it is uncomfortable. And you are going to have parents calling. That’s a good thing. I hope that you have administrators that are so inclusive and are so strong in a culture of acceptance that they can have a message to provide to parents about why this study is important.

[Susan] Well I want to make sure that we honor your time. So thank you so much for taking time out to chat with us today and I really thank you all for doing the good work you’re doing.

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About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, Common Core State Standards, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan