Teaching the ABCs of Race and Identity in Schools

Authored by Angelica Zamudio

Dr. Waller at her installation ceremony, where family, friends, former and current colleagues, plus the wider BC community, celebrated the beginning of her leadership at The Berkeley Carroll School as the first Black, female Head of School, and one that deeply understands progressive education.

C for Class. D for Difference. R for Race. An ABC of Equality is a children’s book addressing social justice concepts via the alphabet. Increasingly, grownups are exploring subjects related to equality with their children. Why? Because our world is changing. By 2060, no single racial majority will exist (Kotler, Haider, and Levine 2019, 6). Talking about race is thus imperative, and the earlier the better.

About 9 million Americans chose two or more races in the census and the multiracial population is growing exponentially (Pew Research Center 2015, 6). Furthermore, most multiracial adults say they have been subjected to racial slurs or jokes (Pew Research Center 2015, 5). Research also suggests racial bias may begin in babies at 6 months (Xiao et al. 2018). Race cannot be ignored and understanding identity should begin early. However, parents rarely discuss race, ethnicity, or class with their children (Kotler, Haider, and Levine 2019, 7). Schools are left to teach this information, yet teachers are not actively encouraged by school leadership to talk about identity with students (Kotler, Haider, and Levine 2019, 9). Enter Dr. Lisa Waller and The Berkeley Carroll School.

Berkeley Carroll (BC), under the new leadership of Dr. Waller, is unabashedly bringing race conversations to the forefront. Dr. Waller is the first Black woman appointed Head of School and it couldn’t come at a better time.

At her installation, pictured above, she declares that “our society is tested by racism, sexism, homophobia, and other affliction…[yet] this is not a time for despair” (The Berkeley Carroll School 2019). BC is implementing an anti-bias curriculum across all grades and engaging in diversity and inclusion work (The Berkeley Carroll School, n.d.). Dr. Waller’s appointment is emblematic of these efforts. Not only is she a Black woman, but she understands how the underrepresented are claiming spaces that were previously closed.

Dr. Waller’s family experienced segregation, including acts of terrorism like the murder of Emmett Till (The Berkeley Carroll School 2019). Her mother moved to Chicago as part of the Second Great Black Migration. There, Dr. Waller says, family elders reestablished communities, created new ones, and nurtured a new generation to live out long deferred dreams (The Berkeley Carroll School 2019).

Today, Dr. Waller envisions “students and adults from myriad backgrounds and with different interests [coming] to BC each day, aiming to live and learn in a rigorous, inclusive, and transformative community” (The Berkeley Carroll School 2019). This mirrors St. John’s Vincentian core value of Respect, which affirms an “awareness of and esteem for all individuals” (St. John’s University 2019). She is committed to establishing a school anyone can call home. This is no small task, but she is paving the path forward.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, says people think in “us” and “them” categories and that leaders around us help define these categories (Tatum 2017, 53). For children, leaders are parents, but also their teachers. Faculty at BC are thus helping children understand identity and differences. And “feeling positive about one’s identity is associated with greater self-esteem and tolerance and with better outcomes in adolescence and adulthood” (Kotler, Haider, and Levine 2019, 6). It’s too early to see the results of BC’s efforts, however research points to positive developments. Children and adults will hopefully develop a greater understanding of self and grow their esteem for others, just as St. Vincent de Paul would do.


Bauld, Andrew. 2019. “BC Welcomes its New Head of School.” The Berkeley Carroll School Magazine, Fall 2019. https://www.berkeleycarroll.org/uploaded/Publications/Alumni_Magazine/BCMag_2019_Fall.pdf.

Dean, David. 2019. Dr. Lisa Waller Installation Photo. Photograph in JPEG format from The Berkeley Carroll School, Brooklyn, NY, https://www.berkeleycarroll.org/about-us/news/news/~post/bc-installs-new-head-of-school-20190923.

Kotler, Jennifer, Tanya Haider, and Michael H. Levine. 2019. “Identity Matters: Parents’ and Educators’ Perceptions of Children’s Social Identity Development.” New York: Sesame Workshop.

Pew Research Center. 2015. “Multiracial in America: Proud, Diverse and Growing in Numbers.” Washington, DC: June.

Scott, Bartie. 2018. “Opening Our Doors: How BC Serves All New Yorkers.” The Berkeley Carroll School Magazine, Fall 2018. https://www.berkeleycarroll.org/uploaded/Publications/Alumni_Magazine/BCMag_2018_Fall.pdf.

St. John’s University. 2019. “Our Mission.” Last modified October 2015. https://www.stjohns.edu/about/history-and-facts/our-mission.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. 2017. “‘Why Are All the Black Kids Still Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’ and Other Conversations about Race in the Twenty-First Century.” Liberal Education 103, no. 3/4 (Summer/Fall): 46-55. https://www.aacu.org/liberaleducation/2017/summer-fall/tatum.

The Berkeley Carroll School. 2019. “Dr. Lisa Waller Installed as BC Head.” Published September 23, 2019. https://www.berkeleycarroll.org/about-us/news/news/~post/bc-installs-new-head-of-school-20190923.

The Berkeley Carroll School. n.d. “Diversity & Inclusion at Berkeley Carroll.” Accessed October 13, 2019. https://berkeleycarroll.org/about-us/diversity.

Willoughby, Vanessa. 2019. “Chana Ginelle Ewing Unpacks Power and Privilege in Debut Intersectional Board Book.” Published August 19, 2019. https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=chana-ginelle-ewing-qa.

Xiao, Naiqi G., Paul C. Quinn, Shaoying Liu, Liezhong Ge, Olivier Pascalis, and Kang Lee. 2018. “Older but not younger infants associate own-race faces with happy music and other-race faces with sad music.” Developmental Science (21): 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12537.

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