Racial Questionnaires

Learning Action: Racial Questionnaires

Adapted from: Katz, J.H. (2003, 1978). White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training (2nd Edition) Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Framing the Learning Action

People of colour and aboriginal people are racialized; racism is part of their daily lived experience. This is not to say that all racialized people understand how racism operates and how it affects them personally because they have also been socialized in a white society where white values are privileged.  See institutional racism, internalized oppression. Sometimes racialized participants do not want to understand racism,  this might be a survival tool. It is painful to examine the ways you are different rather than the ways you are “the same” particularly students who want to believe that they “fit in” or are a part of something. It is also difficult to come to the realization that racism happens to you, that racism is institutionalized, that you are oppressed by it - that is a lot to take on. However, understanding racism can also provide a position of power for racialized people because it helps them make sense of their lived experience and not internalize it.

This learning action assists people of colour in exploring their personal relationships or lack of personal relationships with other people of colour, aboriginal people and white people. This process will deepen the understanding of how racism is learned, perpetuated and often present in our lives but not talked about or addressed.  This learning action assists participants to understand how race and racism have played out in their lives - it makes race/racism visible, and this is important because understanding and addressing racism requires an emotional and intellectual commitment (see anti-racism).

This learning action assists white people in exploring their personal relationships or lack of personal relationships with people of colour and aboriginal people. This process will deepen the understanding of how racism is learned, perpetuated and often invisible to white people.  (See Liberal Racism Strategies of Racism).  This invisibility occurs because white people have the privilege of moving through their lives without understanding racism, they do not have to in order to survive on a day-to-day basis. This learning action  assists participants to understand how race and racism have played out in their lives - it makes race/racism visible and personal, and this is important because understanding and addressing racism requires an emotional and intellectual commitment.  (See anti-racism).

Logistics - Things to Consider

Minimum Time Required
Questionnaire: 30 - 40 minutes (completed before or during session)
Debrief: 30-40 minutes

Number of Participants: This learning action can be done with large or small groups, keeping in mind that the larger the group the longer the debrief.

Age Level: Most suitable for Junior High students to adult. For junior and senior high students questions may need to be changes from, “when you were growing up” to “in the past..

Suggested Material: Handout - Inventory of Racial Experience
Participants will also need materials for writing.

Adapting the Action
This exercise can be done in hard copy, on-line, or orally depending on what is appropriate for the particular group. For younger students it might be appropriate to change the wording on some questions. Students with disabilities, depending on the particular disability, my require that the teacher or another student that they trust go through the questionnaire with them.

Ground Rules: 
It would be important for the facilitator to acknowledge that each group aboriginal people, people of colour and white people will have different experiences when the answer their questionnaires and respect for their different experiences and answers if they choose to share them is critical.  See here for more on ground rules.

How the Facilitator can Participate

In addition to the information provided in the Role of the Facilitator,  it is important for the facilitator to complete the exercise personally and share insights from their process with participants before asking them to do it. If you are a white facilitator your personal process through the questionnaire will provide white students with ideas as well as demonstrating expectations for their answers. Acknowledging that the questionnaire is not easy to complete, and that you faced difficulties thinking it through and realizing the gaps in your knowledge provides support provides support for participants.   If you are a white facilitator presenting the Aboriginal Persons' Questionnaire and the Person of Colour Questionnaire to racialized students in the class, it would be important to acknowledge that although your lived experience is different than theirs, and that you do understand, on some level, some of the difficulties they might encounter (provide possible examples).  As a white facilitator presenting the questionnaires to racialized students you will have to understand alternative experiences in order to provide examples. If you are an aboriginal facilitator or a facilitator of colour you will be able to provide support and examples for aboriginal participants and/or students of colour and that although your questionnaire is somewhat different that the white person’s questionnaire to demonstrate that you understand what some of their difficulties might be. 

How Participants can Participate

Participants will fill out their individual questionnaires and share what they are comfortable with in the debrief. Note that is might not be comfortable for racialized participants to share depending on how the numbers in the class play out – how many racialized participants and how many white participants.

Facilitating This Learning Action

  • Before participants complete the questionnaire, it is important to define terms that they may not be familiar with. The terms that need defining are specific to where participants are in their process of understanding racism; for example participants at the beginning of their process may not understand why it is important to use terms such as  people of colour, aboriginal people, white people and racialized people in the context of understanding racism. 

  • Reassure participants that there are no right or wrong answers, that the questions might bring up knowledge gaps or issues that they have not thought about before. Warn participants that questions may trigger emotions and that this is normal and necessary for understanding racism.

  • Let participants know that they do not have to share their answers unless they choose to. Generally it is important to create a supportive atmosphere so that they feel they can answer and not be judged on what they say.


Note: It is important to support participants in their process and with their feelings, and it is as important to present them with perspectives that are different than their own. Throughout this debrief, examples of alternative perspectives are presented.

  • Ask participants why they grew up with so few aboriginal people, people of colour or white people who were close friends. White participants may say that there were no racialized students at their school, and it would be important to ask why that was the case. This might present a space for discussing what schools in the city/area do have racialized students and why - segregation?

  • If some participants grew up with many friends who were people of colour or many aboriginal people, ask why that was. This will have to be unpacked for racialized participants in the context of supporting each other’s survival in dominant society/culture based institutions. For white people in the context of liberal racism, (many times white people confuse understanding racism with having racialized friends – the need to affirm that I am not racist because I have lots of friends who are not white).

  • For white participants who do have close friends who are aboriginal people and/or people of colour ask them if their friends ever talk about racism and how it affects them, if their friends do talk about racism, what do they say and if they don't why not? Have some alternative answers for students. For example if the participant says that their friend does not discuss racism because it is not relevant to their relationship or that is does not happen in their friend's life you might present an alternative view. Racism is relevant because it is systemic and affects all of us, racism may not get discussed because your friend does not know how it affects their life (racialized people also grow up in a white focused society), or it may not get discussed because it is not safe to talk about it with you. Relationships just like people are different and if you are a white person, having a relationship with a person of colour or an aboriginal person does not mean that you understand racism or do not participate in it unknowingly - this bit needs work 

  • For racialized participants who do have close friends who are white ask them if they ever talk about racism to their white friends. If they do how do they talk? If they don’t why don’t they? Be prepared to discuss safety.

  • Ask participants to describe the feeling they experienced during this learning action, and why they thought they were experiencing these feelings (feelings may range from anger, sadness, guilt, shame frustration and so on). It is important that the facilitator present alternative actions or positive steps to move participants forward in their process in order to move through their feelings. This is not to say that participants should not feel the feelings, but not get stuck in them unable to move forward.

  • Ask participants to volunteer to share some of their answers and again be ready with alternatives. For example if the student shares that their most significant experience with a racialized person was being robbed and that now they are afraid every time they see a person from that group, you might ask them if it had been a white person who had robbed them would they then be afraid of all white people. This could lead to a discussion of how stereotypes affect assumptions and behaviours.

Next Steps

As follow-up to this exercise students might be asked to explore their personal biases and where they learned them and to develop a deeper understanding of their personal cultural identity. The Learning Actions; The Ism Prism and Personal Cultural Identity provide guidance for that process.