April 19, 2021

Unpacking Privilege With Children Through Sports

Since the death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arber, and Breonna Taylor, amongst others from the Black community,  our social and news feeds have been filled with a racial reckoning and resurfacing of the powerful phrase “white privilege”.

In a recent newsletter to my CraftED Community I wrote:

I have concluded we all need courage, strength, love, integrity and empathy-with a paradox of patience and urgency, combined. I continue to reflect on how much of our current context is new, while much of it is simply a magnifying glass shedding light on things that aren’t new at all. 

More of the white community have voiced and shown up to display their support for Black Lives Matter than I have seen in my lifetime; but we all know it isn’t enough — we could do better…but what does that mean?  I  know for me personally, I have experienced many emotions but one being frustration for my own community by the oversimplification of the deeply rooted issues we are watching unfold- engaging in the easy (and now trendy) work, but not the real work-the hard work. While searching Amazon this weekend for some new reading material, I saw that “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo was completely out of stock. And in my immediate community there were three organized BLM events this weekend. Maybe my community was doing more than I thought to deeply unpack systemic racism in our country? Maybe I needed to just be satisfied that the small steps around me were at least being made? So let’s just assume that many people in all communities are voraciously reading and thinking deeply about our current racial context — my text and social media feeds are still blowing up with ‘what am I supposed to do — how am I supposed to talk to my kids/students about this?’ 

I believe small steps can happen alongside bigger steps — I mean the work of questioning, discussing and teaching our younger generations to look at the world and their place in it differently; while leaders and policy makers do their part. 

Some people won’t like what I’m going to propose as an entry point to this work; it may feel stereotypical, too removed and naive, or “not enough”. To those people, take a moment to contextualize what I’m about to propose. For many white children, all they know are other people who look like them. You could spend all day arguing “that’s what’s wrong with America” or “that’s why privilege and position  is perpetuated”; but it’s the reality many have lived in, namely those who are new to the white privilege party.  And while we continue to work to undo the larger task of systemic oppression-I simply want to offer up something concrete that parents and teachers can do TODAY, alongside our bigger work. I propose using sports as an entry point to critically discuss racial tensions in our country, so that children will be compelled to act in meaningful ways.  Whether it’s right or wrong, sports may be the largest extent or familiarity some children have with racial issues and tensions.  Yes, they all know about Martin Luther King Jr or Rosa Parks, but those figures can feel pretty removed, especially when they are only celebrated one day or month of the school year out of context from every day teaching and learning (another issue for another article). It’s hard for children to develop empathy when adults don’t know how to start the conversation with them. So let’s explore what leaning on sports could look like as an entry point to discussing racial tensions today with children.

Step 1- Start with awareness

There are plenty of parents that choose to keep their children living in a bubble, and there are plenty of educators that opt out of addressing the current context. (THIS IS A PRIVILEGE -more on that in plenty of other places, but that’s not what this article is about). Educators and parents must first and foremost commit to making their children aware of the depth of racial issues in our country happening right now. There are many ways you can do that, and one small entry point could be to use any of the following well-known examples in sports as an in-depth case study to explore together:

You can ask children thought-provoking questions like: “What do you think their experience was/is like?”, “Why do you think this happened?”, “What do you think that felt like for them, their family, and their teammates?”, “What characteristics must that have required for them to persevere?”. Beyond reflective questions for discussion or processing, you can also use any number of the following empathy-building activities:

Step 2- Connect to today 

Reflecting on what we can learn from history is a powerful tool- like the cliche says “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. But I also think it’s worth reflecting on what we haven’t yet seemed to learn from history, by asking critical questions like:

  • “How different are we from 10/20/50 years ago? Based on what have seen on the news recently, are we different and how are we the same?” 
  •  “In what way do sports reflect the larger binary racial narrative in our country, in the past and today?”.  In what ways does NASCAR reflect (and perpetuate) racial tensions in our country right now? 
  • “In what ways have sports been a platform for awareness of racial (and gender!) issues in our country? Has that awareness led to progress?”
  • “How do racial issues differ across different sports (ie., MLB vs NHL)-Why do you think that is?”

Almost every major city has experienced protests in the past few weeks-some peaceful and some violent. Adults can highlight the ways in which athletes have protested throughout sporting events, and make a connection to those choosing to also speak out for what they believe in today, as it relates to race. Some important points to call out include:

  • The intended message behind the movement. 
  • How media and society has responded 
  • The ways in which people are using their voice
  • The power of the masses
  • How leaders are responding 

Some specific examples within sports today that you can explore with children are:

Step 3- Process privilege 

Processing one’s privilege is heavy; it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it or that it’s not as heavy as what others experience-I’m just acknowledging that it’s hard and therefore people often avoid it. This heaviness is also why adults choose not to expose children to the concept-out of fear that they aren’t ready for it. Kids are resilient and also hear more than we think they do, and in the absence of information they will create their own narrative. Adults have a unique opportunity right now to lead from within and bring children along with them on their journey of understanding white privilege. To aid in this process, some questions that you can ask children about examples of racial tensions in sports include: 

  • How were teammates’ experiences different, because of the color of their skin?
  • When a teammate did speak up about a racial injustice, why was their voice heard? How did their position or being white impact who listened?
  • How would you/how do you like to think you would have acted in any of those given situations? What would have been hard about that? 
  • How does it make you feel to know that things similar to these stories in sports are happening today in our community? 
  • How can athletes, or other prominent figures, use their platform to raise awareness to issues related to inequity?
  • In the example of Jackie Robinson, DiAngelo reminds us to call out that Robinson didn’t do this on his own and it wasn’t based on his talent or merit that HE broke the color barrier; rather it was those with privilege who used their position of power and race to allow him to play. These distinctions are critical to point on with children as we process the role of race and privilege historically, but also today. 

Step 4- Compel to act  

Yes, I recognize this is a privilege to have the choice to act, but it is ultimately what we all are hoping to instill in our future generations. After entering into these conversations about racial tensions in sports and highlighting that similar things are happening right now in the larger context, we need to help children arrive at the desire to act-to use their privilege to create change right NOW. In the newsletter to my community referenced above I also shared the following:

I believe at my core that PBL is something our children need now more than ever-the opportunity to have and share a voice, to develop empathy and agency, to grapple with provocative questions,  to engage in work about issues around us, to learn about the past and apply it to solutions for the future-this is PBL. I fully acknowledge that PBL won’t be our silver bullet to solving all problems we face right now in society or schools, BUT I do think it’s something worth continuing to fight for, amongst many other things.  

I love that I am seeing children attend peaceful protests, but based on my recent Instagram feed, I also think if we aren’t careful showing up and posting #BLM support pictures is also simply going to become a trend. Here is a list of ideas for how adults can facilitate meaningful and lasting learning experiences for children to use their developing understanding of racial issues to process their privilege and more importantly, help spread awareness to make steps toward progress within our communities. Using sports as entry point for developing empathy and understanding, children can help broaden their lens and transfer their understanding of race and privilege to broader, current contexts. To do this students can…

  • Engage in, publish and share story writing as a way to process. My new favorite style is narrative free verse poetry like the book Home of the Brave
  • Rewrite racial history in the US through an alternate ending story with a divergent Driving Question; for example: “what if Rosa Parks hadn’t given up her seat?”
  • Create a documentary that captures how your local community is responding to recent events.  Or capture a series of photos from your community to write photo essays to tell the story of what’s beneath the surface. 
  • Analyze Point of View on current affairs with 2 Voice Poetry 
  • Conduct a community letter writing campaign to policy leaders or leaders of prominent sports organizations. 
  • Collect written stories and news articles to put together Blackout, or Found, Poetry to share the experiences of others, past or present, with racial tensions and systemic oppression. 
  • Create an interactive timeline using the app Thinglink for a traveling exhibit to educate other students and communities about the background of current affairs.  
  • Get inspired by Share the Mic-perform in any medium that suits you and share it with the world via the channel of your choice.

I realize that what I offer up is nowhere near “enough”; but I think it’s an important starting point. It’s my hope that by unpacking the questions and concerns of the white community, along with offering up concrete steps (albeit small ones) toward progress,  we will continue to dissolve excuses to ‘do the work’. No step toward depth is too small to make right now. 

Additional resources for talking about race


Search the K12 Hub

More From Teaching Channel

Brunette teacher with face in hands sitting at desk
10 Tips to Reduce Overthinking

Teaching is a rewarding profession that allows educators to shape the minds of the next generation. However, it can be a challenging job that requires

Want to partner with us?

We’re always looking for new authors! If you’re interested in writing an article, please get in touch with us.

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Get notified of new content added to K12 Hub.

Great News! Learners Edge, Insight ADVANCE and Teaching Channel are now under one umbrella. Learn More

Welcome to the Education Evolution

Learners Edge and Insight Advance have merged with Teaching Channel to become your single source for graduate-level courses, professional development, video coaching, plus lots of free resources—all in one place.

Teaching Channel logo