When White Teachers Avoid Conversations About Race, We Marginalize Students of Color
When you teach in a predominantly White community, conversations about race can be uncomfortable, even in professional settings. Educators are not just unsure of how to talk about the race of students, they often question the necessity of having the conversation. While they may feel they are being polite or even respectful, the truth is that we White teachers often lack the courage to include race in critical conversations about student performance.
When I first began teaching in Northern Utah some 29 years ago, my class roll listed three or four students of color in a class of 30. Over the years, our communities diversified so that during the last 10 years I could expect a third of my class to include students who were Black, Hispanic, Native American, Polynesian or Asian.
A few years ago, I had a Black student in my class who struggled with reading. Her initial fluency score was very low for her grade level. After trying different interventions the first few weeks, she made progress, but there were still gaps in her reading skills and I wanted to do more for her. I went to my school's case management team for suggestions.
As we discussed her needs, I expressed my concern that her performance on the initial fluency test may have been compromised by the way she pronounces some of her words. Immediately all eyes in the meeting turned to stare at me. One of the teachers asked what I meant. I said, "Her pronunciation. She is Black, and she speaks with a Black vernacular. I think the reading coach may have misunderstood her pronunciation of some of the words that she was actually reading correctly."
The reaction was swift. It was as if I had used profanity. People shifted in their seats and a few coughed. One of the teachers said, "Oh, you can't say that." I said, "Why? She's Black. She pronounces some words differently than a White or Hispanic child." Perhaps our ears, quite familiar with the accents and inflections of White children or Hispanic children in Utah, weren't quite discerning that unique characteristics of her speech. Thankfully, the speech pathologist agreed with me and took my student's test results to analyze the errors.
I left the meeting feeling very strange. I was openly discussing my student's needs, and yet I felt spurned by the reaction of my White colleagues. We had Black students in nearly every class in our school, and yet just mentioning race as a factor in a student's performance shifted the focus and caused obvious discomfort for several in the group. White teachers can easily refer to a Hispanic student's accent when the student is learning to speak English as a second language, but these same professionals were uncomfortable talking about the difficulty a White adult may have interpreting a Black student's pronunciation while reading aloud.
The next day our speech pathologist came to share with me her diagnosis. The pattern of her errors was consistent. Just as I thought, the person administrating the test most certainly had misunderstood my student's pronunciation of specific words due to her Black vernacular.
Unfortunately, White teachers in predominantly White communities are often uncomfortable talking about race, and this can put students of color at a disadvantage. We can be overly cautious about looking racist—to the point where they avoid even talking about race. Some White teachers will proudly announce their color-neutral approach to teaching: "I teach every child. I don't see color, just students." This is especially concerning, however, because we should see color; it's not a shameful characteristic.
The most effective teachers understand they must teach the 'whole child', and this includes skin color, accent, cultural background, and all the other amazing parts that make up the beautiful humans in their classrooms. Making connections with students involves recognizing their unique characteristics, and this includes recognizing race when it is relevant to a student's academic and social needs. For White teachers, however, the fear of looking racist can swallow up an objective viewpoint, and a well-meaning teacher may actually miss out on significant opportunities to help students of color succeed. Averting conversations about a student's race perpetuates an atmosphere of ambivalence and may discourage other teachers from digging deep to solve learning problems for students of color.
Where do we begin? Recently, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year released a series of short videos called Courageous Conversations About Race in Schools. As Josh Parker, 2012 STOY from Maryland says in one video, "Whatever you can do, is where we can start." For some White educators, simply learning to use appropriate racial descriptors can be a first step in lessening the fear of sounding racist. As a teacher of 29 years, I have found myself unsure of which adjective to use when speaking about students of color. This can be especially true of Gen-X teachers. However, as educators, we should be willing to ask questions and learn appropriate descriptors rather than avoid a conversation involving a student's race.
Although White teachers may feel they are being respectful, avoiding conversations about race serves to further marginalize students of color. No matter how uncomfortable they may feel, teachers of all experience levels and yes, all races, must have the courage to openly discuss race when finding ways to improve the academic and social skills of individual students.
Allison Riddle is the 2014 Utah Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She is the Elementary Mentor Supervisor for Davis District I in Northern Utah.