General Articles

Sex ed is a vehicle for racial justice.

By Zach Eisenstein, Senior Communications Manager

At the start of the year, SIECUS announced its new framework: sex ed for social change. This blog post explores one of many social issues that sex education can play a role in advancing: racial justice. Race Forward defines racial justice as “the systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all.

How can sex education help to advance racial justice? To dive in, we spoke with two leaders in the field with decades of experience working with communities of color: Nakisha Floyd, a North Carolina-based sex educator, member of Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WOCSHN), and PhD student at Widener University, and Mariotta Gary-Smith, an Oregon-based sex educator and co-founder of WOCSHN.

We need to start by recognizing the issue.

In order to identify how sex education can be utilized to advance racial justice, it’s important to first learn the ways in which sex education fails to reach young people of color.

Unfortunately, many sex education efforts across the country have been designed for or by white people—drastically impacting the ability to successfully reach young people of color. Nakisha Floyd explains more about our failure to reach young people of color with sex ed both systemically and through day-to-day classroom activities below:

Too often, the language we use within sex education programs paints young people of color as ‘problems’ or ‘risks.’ That needs to stop.

“Problem-centered language is constantly creating this narrative that black and brown kids are broken; they are problems that need to be fixed. A lot of research around things like teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections identify race as a risk factor instead of identifying the systematic things that disproportionately affect people of color as the real risk factors. Race just so happens to overlap with some of those things but race in itself is not a risk factor. This racial undertone really doesn’t serve our populations very well.

And this impacts an educator’s mindset. If someone is constantly reading or listening to information based on racial stereotypes, they begin to internalize and believe those narratives. Whatever a person thinks or believes will eventually show itself. So, when that person goes in to deliver information to those young people, those racial undertones come out—even subconsciously. Young people pick up on that negative energy, leaving the educator unable to connect with the youth they’ve been hired to serve. This may leave the youth wondering, ‘are you coming from a place of caring or are you coming from a place of judgment and trying to fix me?’” – Nakisha Floyd

To provide young people of color with sex ed that works, we need to keep the impacts of racism–both past and present–at the forefront of our programming.

“One thing I automatically think about as an educator in the South is discussing the topic of contraception. Here in North Carolina, we have an ugly past with eugenics. Many students may have family members who were affected by the eugenics movement that took place not too long ago. I can use my family’s trauma as an example. My aunt was a survivor of being victimized during the eugenics era. She was poor, she was black, and she was deaf. Her doctor, essentially, coerced my great grandmother into believing that my aunt didn’t have the capacity to birth and parent a child. With that, they decided to take away her reproductive rights. She was excluded from having bodily autonomy and making decisions about her own life and well-being. My aunt’s story is just one of thousands of North Carolina women impacted by this practice that ended in the late 1970’s. The residual effects of this historical trauma are still very real.

History informs the present and the future. There are so many historical traumas that have impacted communities of color. It helps me to keep these issues at the forefront of my work as an educator.” – Nakisha Floyd

And racism shows up in the minor details of our day-to-day sex education activities, too.

“Think about how it is so difficult to find anatomy pictures or anatomical models that feature skin tones that reflect people of color. We show up in spaces with whatever diagrams or pictures we have and tell a room full of youth of color that ‘These parts look like your parts,’ just to hear them say ‘No, those parts don’t look like mine,’ because the flesh tone is not the same. For some people, this might seem like an insignificant detail but representation matters. Representation matters in everything that we do. Youth of color need to see people who look like them showing up to teach lessons with culturally relevant resources. Trying to find ways to make these types of changes will help us address how race and racism play roles in sexuality education.” – Nakisha Floyd

We need to understand that people of color are not monolithic.

When we talk about young people of color who also identify as LGBTQ, a lot of them may experience more racism from the LGBTQ community than they do homophobia from their racially-identified community. Many organizations continue to serve LGBTQ youth from a limited perspective that centers white LGBTQ youth.

People of color are not monolithic. We show up in a lot of different ways. Whether that’s our ethnicity, our sexuality, our ability, or a host of other identities — we need to make sure that educators are aware of that. That they are not targeting youth of color from this monolithic lens but, instead, meeting the needs of our youth as they show up in our classrooms.” – Nakisha Floyd

Despite our multitude of failures, we can all start working to advance racial justice today.

Clearly, there are lots of ways in which sex education fails to fully serve young people of color. But the good news is that there are also a lot of ways in which we can do better. Mariotta Gary-Smith offers additional insight into how we can utilize sex education to advance racial justice below.

Sex educators need to remove themselves from the work and, instead, focus on what young people are saying they need.

“If I’m someone that has been asked to come into a space to engage young folks of color specifically around sex ed, my job is to create a space that is inviting and safe so that young people feel that they have the ability to speak and have their words heard and validated. I am responsible for honoring their truth.

There’s a balance between where I need to temper my own experience in what’s happening because my job is to be a conduit. My job is to share information and create shift and change–especially as we talk about young people of color in the varying ways that they identify because of all of the things that they experience with their intersectional identities. While I can relate to and understand this, my experience looks different from theirs.” – Mariotta Gary-Smith

We need to stop relying on sex ed tactics of the past. It’s time to adjust our efforts to center the young people who are showing up in our classrooms and in our communities right now.

“I think it’s important to note that conversations are happening. Things that were on the margins are now moving to the center. We are seeing a shift in perspective around who is holding these conversations and how they are moving. Folks are realizing that young people, particularly this generation, are vibrant. They have a very different way of engaging and holding conversations. And this has been impacted by the technology that young people use.

There is a shift in how we, as sex educators, need to be able to reach young people. We have to actually figure out something different as opposed to what has worked traditionally in the past. Now, folks of all intersecting identities are pushing us to be held accountable for the ways in which we are engaging with them. This generation has experienced a lot of change around race, white supremacy, white nationalism, LGBTQIA equity, and overall cultural understandings (at least domestically). And that’s causing new conversations to happen.” – Mariotta Gary-Smith

And if we want sex ed to truly advance racial justice, we need to look beyond educators and students. We need to address racism within the field of sex education and, particularly, re-examine who the decision makers are.

“Of course we need to bring people of color to the decision-making table. A lot of people use the statistics from communities of color to show the need or get the grant. But the people in advisement roles do not reflect the populations in which they are working.

We need to be bringing people of color who are experts in the field to the table. We need to be bringing them into director positions, to serve as board chairs, and to fill other high-level roles. And we also need to bring young people of color to the table to say, ‘this is what we need.’ There’s this ‘savior complex’ that ultimately can create more harm than good. But if people were more intentional and honest about their hiring practices, we could really move the needle in the right direction.” – Nakisha Floyd

And these changes are not the responsibility of our colleagues of color in the field. Rather, this work needs to be done by the white folks who hold the most power, access, and privilege.

“In my experience, it’s usually folks who have power and access that have the conversations above the ground. A lot of these folks making these decisions are older than the young folks they’re trying to reach or serving. Many of them do not represent the communities they are working in. They’ve been white folks, they’ve been cishet* folks, they’ve been able-bodied folks, they’ve been well-educated folks. They’ve had access to disposable income and all these other things. So there are all these variables that have impacted what these conversations look like.

But we’re starting to see a shift. For folks of color who have traditionally been the ones doing the groundwork in communities, there is a better understanding that their wisdom and resiliency and strength are necessary to turn the tide. These folks are not responsible for seeking out those in positions of power, those who are in positions of power and decision making are actually responsible for figuring out how to do better. That’s another key piece that is shifting conversations right now. It doesn’t mean these conversations are happening all of the time, or that they’re easy, or welcomed, but that’s what’s changing some of how folks are engaging.” – Mariotta Gary-Smith

*cishet: (adjective/noun): a term used to describe someone who is both cisgender (identifies with their gender assigned at birth) and heterosexual (exclusively attracted to people of the opposite sex).

A recap of tips for all of us to start using sex ed to advance racial justice:

  • Avoid the use of problem-focused language (For example, claiming that being a person of color is a “risk factor” or a “problem” needing to be fixed).
  • Acknowledge our communities’ histories of racism and keep that information at the front of our minds as we provide sex ed.
  • Actively search for the ways in which racism and white supremacy show up in our day-to-day classroom and community activities and work to identify, uproot, and eliminate those practices.
  • Stop relying on old sex education tactics and approaches. Instead, start listening to the young people in front of you.
  • Address racism that shows up in the hiring practices of sex education organizations. Specifically, ensure that people of color are in leadership and decision-making positions.
  • Do not place the burden of advancing racial justice solely on folks of color. It is up to the people with the most power and privilege—mostly white people—to do the work.

At SIECUS, we’re committed to reshaping sex education to help advance racial justice. If you are already doing this work or know someone who is, feel free to reach out. Let us know what you’re doing. Let us know what else we can do to truly and effectively utilize sex ed as a vehicle for racial justice. And don’t forget the join the conversation online using the hashtag #SexEd4SocialChange.