3 Skills To Discuss Racism with Emotional Intelligence

You do not look how I expected you to look. Are you Asian?”. He turns to my husband and asks “Don’t you think you should have told us your wife was Asian?”.

A former colleague recently posted these sentences on Facebook in response to the article “Go Back to China” recently published in the New York Times. Reporter Michael Luo was told to go back to China when walking with his family and friends on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on a Sunday morning. My colleague was among many others who replied to Luo’s article describing their own experience of racism and discrimination. The response was overwhelming. In his open letter, Luo explains having a persistent sense of otherness; where no matter what he does… he doesn’t belong. He often feels like an outsider.

Belonging means acceptance as a member or part. A sense of belonging is a human need, just as food or shelter. A sense of belonging to a greater community improves motivation, health, engagement with the world, and general well-being. Racism and discrimination do exactly the opposite: they divide people and generate isolation; they disempower individuals and damage community cohesion. And they negatively impact students’ learning in school. A recent study from Northwestern University found that the stress of racial discrimination negatively impacts students’ concentration, motivation, and learning in schools. Many students in the study reported feelings of separation and exclusion, which impacted their ability to focus in the classroom. Although many factors contribute to academic achievement, knowing how race-related stress affects students can help schools and educators put in place interventions that will address achievement disparities.

Promoting positive ethnic racial identities and reducing student exposure to racial discrimination are two of the strategies suggested in this study. And they start with having difficult conversations about race, racism and discrimination in our classrooms. This is not an easy task, but a necessary one if we want to create supportive learning environments that address students’ basic psychological needs for safety, belonging, autonomy and competence. Elena Aguilar, transformational leadership coach, writes “there’s no way we have these conversations without experiencing emotions. And there’s no way we can transform our schools without having these conversations. The road to equity is paved with emotions.” Let’s start there: using our emotions and what we know about Social Emotional Learning to engage in these important conversations.

In earlier posts, I have discussed how social and emotional skills can help students and adults deal with setbacks, persevere in solving problems, navigate emotions and be ready to learn. The good news is that these SEL competencies can also help students and educators have important conversations about difficult topics, such as racism and discrimination, in safe and meaningful ways. Today, I’ll use the Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence to illustrate how these skills can support you and your students when discussing these topics in class.


Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence begins with three important pursuits: to become more aware (noticing what you do), more intentional (doing what you mean), and more purposeful (doing it for a reason). These 3 pursuits are presented in a circle, because applying emotional intelligence is a process! As students and adults move through the circle they gain positive momentum.

Know Yourself – Clearly seeing what you feel and do.

Choose Yourself – Doing what you mean

Give Yourself – Doing it for a reason.


3 Skills to Discuss Racism with Emotional Intelligence

1. Emotional Literacy is one of the main skills in knowing yourself (the first pursuit). It means being able to identify, name and interpret your emotions. Did you know that there are 3,000 words in the English language to describe emotions? Let’s use them! When discussing race and racism in your classroom, allow and encourage students to name their feelings. They might feel anger, blame, guilt or shame. You will have feelings of your own. It will be uncomfortable… but there is no shortcut. Encourage your students to be curious about these feelings. What are these feelings trying to tell them? What is the message? Use this graphic organizer from Teaching Tolerance to prepare for the conversation and read this interview with Tonya Mosley, host of the Truth Be Told podcast.

2. Consequential Thinking means evaluating the costs and benefits of your choices, a key skill in choosing yourself (the second pursuit in the EQ model). In the context of how we can use emotional intelligence to discuss racism and discrimination, applying consequential thinking means being able to think proactively and thoughtfully about our choices. It entails being able to:

a) Pause before making a choice. This pause is the key to move away from reactive behavior (“Where are you really, really from?”) and engage in responsive behavior (“Where did you grow up?”).

b) Evaluate the pragmatic AND emotional components of the situation.

 You can help students develop consequential thinking by presenting articles, such as Luo’s, that illustrate racism and discrimination or have students write scenarios based on their own experiences. Once you have these materials, get students to define the event and/or problem and have them brainstorm 2/3 possible solutions. What are the choices of the people in the article or story? Then, have students think about the consequences of each solution. What might happen next if they choose solution 1? Solution 2? When thinking about the consequences, encourage students to consider both the pragmatic and emotional consequences. Will someone feel hurt/isolated/rejected? Finally, have students pick a choice. You can use this problem solving graphic organizer for this activity.

This is an important skill for each of us to arrive at our own decisions. The goal of applying consequential thinking is not to get students to do what the teacher says or what is “socially appropriate”, but for students to become better equipped to make their own decisions. What would change in your classroom or your school if students applied this skill? What would change in your classroom or school if adults applied this skill?

3. Increase Empathy. When we feel enraged, lonely or ashamed, it may become difficult to think about how others might feel. It is a process, and students might not be able to show empathy on day 1 or day 2. Give it some time, and keep creating spaces in the classroom where people can tell their story and their experience. Empathy is the first step to understand one another, and a key skill in giving yourself (the third pursuit in the EQ model). Empathy moves people to take action, because they are able to understand a different perspective. Watch the film Bully with your students and use the activities in the Fostering Empathy and Action in Schools guide, and incorporate Developing Empathy activities from Teaching Tolerance during your classroom meetings or advisory period.

Addressing racism and discrimination starts with having difficult conversations in our classrooms. This is not an easy task, but a necessary one to create the safe and supportive learning environments that our students deserve. Social and emotional competencies, such as emotional literacy, consequential thinking and empathy, can help you and your students have these difficult conversations in class. Let’s use our emotional intelligence to create meaningful connections with people, and take action to fight racism and discrimination in our schools. It affects all of us. For, as Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.


  1. treasureandchange October 19, 2016 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    I love this perspective of confronting racism and engaging in difficult conversations about race. I’ve never thought about it through a lens of emotional intelligence; it makes complete sense to address this aspect as well, since as you quoted, “The road to equity is paved with emotions.” Thanks for posting this, Lorea!

    • Lorea Martinez, PhD October 19, 2016 at 12:54 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Joanna! I have found these skills to be very helpful, especially when dealing with situations where emotions can escalate quickly. Acknowledging that it will be that way and preparing for it can lead to meaningful discussions in the classroom. Take care!

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