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'Claiming to Not See Race Leads to Inequity in Education'

(This is the fourth post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to respond to educators who say they "don't see race" when they teach?

In Part One, Makeda Brome, Ashley McCall, Cindy Garcia, Jamila Lyiscott, Julie Jee, Kendra M. Castelow, Ed.S., Janice Wyatt-Ross, and Maurice McDavid "weighed-in" on the question.  You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Makeda, Ashley, and Cindy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Dr. JoEtta Gonzales, Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., Sarah Norris, Martha Caldwell, Oman Frame, Leah B. Michaels, Gina Laura Gullo, Kelly Capatosto, and Cheryl Staats contributed their responses.

In Part Three, Sheldon L. Eakins, Ph.D., Paula Mellom, Rebecca Hixon, Jodi Weber, Kala Williams, Dennis Griffin Jr., and Amanda Koonlaba, Ed.S., shared their thoughts.

Today, Ronardo Reeves Ed.D., R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, Cindi Rigsbee, and Erika Niles add their answers.

'Not seeing race' also leaves the door open for personal bias

Dr. Ronardo Reeves is an associate with CT3, consulting with schools and districts to promote best practices in teaching and creating a positive school culture. He was most recently a turnaround principal, in Syracuse, N.Y., and before that, the chief academic officer for the Special school district in Louisiana:

In my travels, I often hear educators say they "do not see race" when they teach. Hearing that makes me cringe, and as a black male educator, I have immediate concerns for the children they impact. This belief communicates that race doesn't matter and refuses to address realities (to include the fact that school systems operate out of white middle-class norms), suppresses identity, promotes inequities in education, and ultimately supports racism. My typical response is, "Tell me more!" The usual responses include:

  • I see all of my students as equal.
  • I accept these students as they are and teach them according to their level.
  • I'm not racist.
  • All children deserve the same opportunities.
  • Economic status doesn't matter in my class; we have all we need here.

While I agree that all children deserve equity, the fact is that claiming to not see race leads to inequity in education. Not recognizing race means that qualities, norms, hidden rules, and values unique to your community, race, or ethnic group aren't considered in the education process. I see this when supporting schools in moving their teachers to become No-Nonsense Nurturers. The key for these effective educators is building life-altering relationships. That is hard to do if you do not recognize your own bias and are not aware of the students' cultures in your classroom. To build strong relationships, students have to know you care about them as individuals, so not recognizing their race and everything that goes along with that communicates the opposite.  

"Not seeing race" also leaves the door open for personal bias. In general, educators (like the general public) make assumptions about people of different races, ethnicities, and cultures. These personal biases are spurred from many things, such as their own life experiences and the media. In order to be better informed and culturally competent, it is important that educators recognize the different races they impact and have a plan for learning, incorporating, and recognizing differences and similarities throughout the school day.

Many districts have begun to move away from the ideology of not seeing race to being more culturally competent. They have taken actions to educate their staff, students, parents, and community members. This can be seen in cultural-awareness fairs, Juneteenth, Mardi Gras, and Hispanic Awareness Month to name a few. But this shift has met resistance is some areas and is still not a practice in others.

Districts, in some cases by court order, have attempted to address issues resulting from desegregation and the evolution of what was thought to be equality. Districts moved to programs like the Minority-to-Majority program, Optional Transfers, moving white students to better performing black schools (which pushed black students out), and the redrawing of district lines to attempt to create solutions for equality and find balance between whites and people of color. Many of the programs lacked the professional development needed to support a more culturally relevant transition and embrace diversity. As a result, many of these initiatives had the opposite effect.

Many of the schools that went through diversity changes often experienced challenges around the need and request for community schools, district lines being drawn to keep less desirable communities out of certain schools, and teachers not being prepared to teach children with different backgrounds from their own. Subsequently, tensions began to arise due to classroom management and community relations. Parents from differing communities may have had norms that were different from those of the new school. Issues from the frequency of communication, to what was communicated, and to how leadership communicated with parents existed. Race has to play a role in educating our children; educators must confront and adjust their biases in an effort to serve their students. Knowing more about the culture or race of students you support will help to avoid issues and better meet the needs of students.  

So, what is the best way to respond to teachers that say they don't see race when they teach? There are two ways; one is to address it head on by attempting to educate teachers on the issue. The other is to use an Ask/Tell balance. Ask questions to get teachers to come to their own realization that the mindset of not seeing color is harmful and tell information to educate them as appropriate once that light bulb goes off during the conversation. In my experience, allowing teachers to come to their own realization is the most powerful way to address the mindset of not seeing color. Once the realization takes place, support them by helping them come up with better alternatives.

For further reading, check out Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity, and Violence Against Women by Kimberle Crenshaw.

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"White Fragility"

R. Tolteka Cuauhtin is a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified school district in Los Angeles. He is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford. His new co-edited book, Rethinking Ethnic Studies, is available at www.rethinkingschools.org:

At times, the best responses are further inquiries. When an educator says, "I don't see race when I teach," two good questions to start with are, "Why not?" and "What do you see?" These questions help you ascertain more of where the educator is coming from, and point of view/perspective is always important to deepen others' understanding of the relevant concepts.

A common response to these questions is, "When I teach, I don't see race. I see my students as human beings. If I see their race, and am conscious of it, I think that would make me a racist."

However, seeing race isn't being racist, it's called having race consciousness, or even color consciousness. That means seeing and acknowledging race. Race is a social construct. It is inevitable for people of color to feel and see race in our society. And yes, you can have race/color consciousness without being racist.

Being racist means propagating racism, which happens on four levels: ideological, interpersonal, institutional, and internalized racism. People of color experience these forms of racism every day, often just by living in our world. And this happens implicitly and explicitly, intentionally and unintentionally. Some people have more racial privilege (that's why we call it white privilege) than others. Even within communities of color, there is sometimes what's called colorism, the glorification of lighter skin over darker skin.

If you don't see race when you teach, you are not acknowledging the past and current racist experiences of your students of color. Ultimately, you're doing a disservice to your students because you are ignoring, devaluing, neglecting part of who they are. This is called Colorblind Racism, Racism 2.0, or "Racism without Racists," and it is very harmful. If you don't see and acknowledge race, then you also don't see disproportionate inequities affecting communities of color at institutional levels, including education.

It can be uncomfortable for white people to talk about race. That is a phenomenon we call white fragility. Robin Di Angelo's website provides a variety of free resources to help all of us understand many concepts more deeply, including race, racism, white fragility, and white privilege.

Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? How can we all relate to each other more humanely today and for future generations? These are the questions we must answer, and we can't answer them in our society today if we don't see race and the pervasive impact it has. Remember, race can be used both for destruction and oppression as it was first designed by Eurocentric colonial power structures "justified" by the "neutral" and "objective" and "independent thinking" of eugenicist "scientists" in the Western academy—and it can be used for empowerment and liberation from that oppression, as community-of-color power movements embraced in the 1960s and others (e.g., ethnic studies teachers and advocates) continue to do today.

Biologically, when it comes down to it, we are all the human race. Socially, we have a long way to go to achieve that. An important first step is to develop and demonstrate racial consciousness. Next, engage in conversations and take actions that acknowledge and educate everyone about the impact of racism on all of our students and our society. Social-justice and ethnic-studies resources are a great place to start!

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"They aren't the same"

Cindi Rigsbee is a national-board-certified ELA/reading teacher currently serving as a K-12 literacy coach in North Carolina. With over 30 years in education, Cindi was named the 2009 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and is the author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality's Collaboratory, Cindi was a contributing author to Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future. She blogs at cindirigsbee.com:  

I vividly remember those teaching days back in the '90s; we were all so proud to say, "I don't see color—I don't care if they're black, brown, white, or purple, ... they all look the same to me!" We thought we were so accepting, so open to teaching ALL kids. 

But then I taught my first class of every shade in the rainbow. I had my "Latina Lovelies," girls from Mexico and the Dominican Republic who may have looked alike but who were each individual and different. They taught me about life in their homelands; they shared Quinceanera pictures and food representing their cultures. That same year, I also taught students who came to America on a boat from Vietnam. Their stories were heartbreaking, but they were eager to share them with their classmates. I taught gang members from the inner city and students who got up at 5 a.m. to milk cows. After getting to know each and every individual child, I was embarrassed and sorry that I ever said I didn't see race, color, and background.

Later, I sat in my district's Teacher of the Year interview and heard this question: "How do you honor diversity in your classroom?" For a second, I thought back to those days when I said they all looked alike to me. I felt my blood start bubbling. I was angry at myself and at my colleagues who had uttered those words, and I said,

"I used to say my students all looked the same to me, but you know what? They AREN'T the same. They are every shade imaginable and every personality imaginable. We can't be colorblind. We have to see every single student! We have to celebrate every color, race, ethnicity, learning ability, every single nuance of every single child!"

At this point, I realized I was raising my voice. I apologized and said, "I'm sorry. I'm just really passionate about this subject." 

And I am. 

Now I ask my students about heritage. I facilitate surveys. I beg the students to bring food from different cultures to class. I ask them to share their stories with each other (and with me.) And I share mine. 

The classrooms of my childhood in the segregated South are so different from classrooms today. I celebrate the opportunity to facilitate my students' understanding of those who are different from them. What a great way to learn about the world and to become individuals who are more accepting of others and open to differences. 

And it can all begin in a classroom, a classroom that is led by a teacher who sees student differences and celebrates them.

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 "Pushing colleagues thinking can be difficult but ... necessary"

Erika Niles is an instructional coordinator in St. Louis and has served in the field of education for over 20 years as a teacher, instructional coach, and specialist. She works relentlessly to develop systems that ensure all students feel a sense of belonging while learning at high levels:

Schools and teachers that operate with a colorblind rhetoric are quite damaging to the case for equity.  If you don't see race, you don't see racism.  If you don't see racism, you won't connect with students of color.  A teacher who claims they don't see race is trying to carefully tread in the water, when the reality is, it's much more effective to dive right in and go deep.  When a teacher claims to not see race, typically his or her intent is that they treat students equally without discrimination.  While being respectful and fair are two components of an effective teacher, knowing your students is the most important aspect of being an effective teacher.  Race and ethnicity are integral parts of a student's identity.  When we fail to understand a student's experiences and beliefs, we miss out on opportunities to deepen our relationships with students and to help them make relevant connections to the learning.  

So, what might we say to an educator who says they "don't see race" when they teach? First, we must be willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of our students.  Pushing colleagues' thinking can be difficult, but in this case, it is necessary as they are speaking with a rhetoric that is damaging to both the social-emotional and academic well-being of students.  In many ways, our silence is just as bad as a person's colorblindness.  

"How can you not?  Tell me more."   This is a noninvasive way to gather information and to proactively have people check their own biases.  Asking this clarifying question can get people to explain their thinking, often building their own understanding that it is impossible not to see race.  

"What makes you say that?"  This is another response that allows the teacher to dig deep into his or her own beliefs.  Often a person will unpack his or her own biases, while they reflect on the support to their claim.  

"I appreciate that you see everyone as equal; however, people are treated differently because of the color of their skin."  This is an empathic response that will lead to a deeper conversation about how people experience the world differently based on the color of their skin.  This may also lead to a conversation that acknowledges the history of oppression many people of color have faced and still face based on appearance.  

"We have a beautifully rich community, and not seeing and celebrating different identities and races takes away from the that richness."  This is an approach one may take with students.  However, in order to help combat racism, this conversation should go deeper than multicultural education and into the identity of the people within the community.  

"I'm wondering if you know that failing to see race oppresses people of color?"  Perhaps it is not something they've thought deeply about.  However, bringing awareness to the current narrative, which in many ways remains unequal for people of color, can help them see the damaging effect a colorblind rhetoric can have as we seek to build systems that are socially just. Knowing your current events is helpful, as the more specific you are, the better people will understand the impact of their statement.

"Race does matter, and here's why:  It impacts the way our students live their lives."  There are multiple examples of ways in which race impacts income, job opportunities, equity in education.  Sometimes you need to blatantly point that out to people.

As educators, we owe it to our children and to their families to get extremely comfortable with being uncomfortable when we talk about race.  Being colorblind is safe, but it's harmful, and it doesn't shift the narrative.  It is our main job as educators to create a safe environment where all students learn at high levels. This is only achievable by bringing attention to the differences that shape our experiences and the way in which we see the world. We must educate and equip ourselves on what to say to kids, parents, colleagues, and leaders, both proactively and reactively, regarding privilege, bias, and racism.  Not being racist is not enough.  We must be anti-racist if we want to ensure the deepest relationships with our students.  Being colorblind is not an option.

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Thanks to Ronardo, R. Tolteka, Cindi, and Erika for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first eight years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom-Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin the School Year

Best Ways to End the School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Cooperative & Collaborative Learning

Using Tech in the Classroom

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Administrator Leadership

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Instructional Strategies

Best of Classroom Q&A

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Classroom Organization

Mistakes in Education

Project-Based Learning

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Look for Part Five in a few days.

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