Using race-specific language can help in school improvement efforts

Using race-specific language as a routine of professional practice can be an effective lever for overall organizational improvement.

Reviewed by Gaby Aboulafia


How school leaders discuss, or avoid discussing, race and racism is consequential to students’ educational experiences. “Race talk” is a term used to describe communication individuals use to discuss race and racism. In the context of education, “race talk” is when teachers speak explicitly about race and racism, as opposed to avoiding discussion of the topic at all. “Race talk” research examines how school leadership teams discuss changes in school demographic composition, how racial language is used in conversations about school discipline policies and enforcement, and how race-evasive language has been used to maintain white privilege in classrooms. However, many schools still do not actively consider how their use or avoidance of appropriate racialized language may directly affect school improvement efforts.

In this study, Dr. Decoteau Irby and Shannon Clark considered how race-specific language can advance organizational learning about the racialized nature of school problems. By analyzing conversations among teachers and staff at a suburban high school, the authors tested whether the use of race-specific language was associated with a more holistic understanding of racialized discipline disparities. The study was broadly designed to understand how race-specific language can lead to more comprehensive thinking and problem framing among school leadership teams.

Dr. Decoteau Irby is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education. His research focuses on how equity-focused school leadership can improve Black children’s academic and socio-emotional experiences and outcomes. Shannon Clark is a doctoral candidate in Educational Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, graduating in 2022. Her research focuses on the experiences of Black educators, families, and students in hyper-segregated public schools.

Methods and Findings

Irby and Clark designed the study to answer the following questions:

  • During conversational exchanges, is a teacher’s use of race talk associated with how they frame school discipline problems?
  • What do association patterns suggest about the impact of racial language on educators’ abilities to analyze discipline problems? To answer these questions, the authors used data from focus groups at a high school that served around 800 students during the 2012-2013 academic year. The school was composed of 75% white , 10% Latinx, 9% Black, 4% Asian or Pacific Islander and 2% multiracial students, but attendance among students of color was starting to increase. The 60-person teaching and support staff team was almost entirely white.

The authors analyzed 28 conversations from a set of focus groups in which 44 teachers discussed problems related to school discipline over one hour in groups of a maximum of 7 participants. These focus groups were held to discuss racial inequities in discipline that had emerged at the school as the number of students of color increased. In their analysis, the researchers focused on the presence of race-specific language (e.g. “African-American students”), race-proxy language (e.g. “non-English-speaking families”), and race-mute phrases, as well as the ways in which school leaders described and made sense of behavioral problems.

When teachers and staff used race-proxy and race-specific language, they were more likely to express the interconnected roots of disciplinary problems across multiple “problem frames,” including historic and systemic factors, school contextual and procedural factors, and inter and intrapersonal factors. Teachers and staff who used race-mute language spoke with the lowest levels of complexity about discipline problems.


This research shows that race-specific language enabled teachers to better understand and articulate racist dynamics related to school discipline, compared to exchanges using only race-mute language, which more often assigned blame to individual students or administrators rather than addressing systemic problems in how the school was functioning.

This study underscores the importance of race-specific language for school improvement. The findings suggest that leaders who regularly use race-specific language as a part of professional practice will develop teams that are better equipped to address organizational disparities related to race and racism in schools, as compared to those who do not.

Developing the capacity of teachers and staff to use race-specific language should be a priority for schools. The authors suggest that future research could explore specific ways that school leaders can promote race-specific language use among staff. Prioritizing actions that promote race-specific conversations among school teams can increase the potential for antiracist change in schools.

Helping teachers and administrators find ways to explicitly discuss race and racism, instead of reinforcing color-blind ideologies, is critical to achieving antiracism in education.


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