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Saying 'I Don't See Color' Denies the Racial Identity of Students

(This is the first post in a five-part series)

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?


It's, unfortunately, fairly common to hear teachers say they don't see race or they don't see color in their classrooms.

There are a lot of problems with that perspective, and this series will try to examine them.

These next five posts are actually the second "installment" in a three-part series.  Last fall, Shannon R. Waite, Ed.D., from Fordham guest-hosted a six-part series on the same topic.  A third—and final—installment of several posts with additional responses will appear in early summer.

Today, Makeda Brome, Ashley McCall, Cindy Garcia, Jamila Lyiscott, Julie Jee, Kendra M. Castelow, Ed.S., Janice Wyatt-Ross, and Maurice McDavid "weigh 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.

You might also be interested in many other previous posts on Race & Gender Challenges.

Do not be a "Racial Identity Denier"

Makeda Brome is an instructional math coach at Fort Pierce Westwood Academy in Fort Pierce, Fla. She is entering her 10th year of teaching and was recently named the St. Lucie public schools Teacher of the Year for the 2019-20 school year. She has two master's degrees: one in curriculum and instruction and a second in educational leadership:

Wow. This is a heavy question, but I will do my best to present the start of an answer. First, I would like to say that most educators who say they "don't see race" might also say they are colorblind. To those that would claim either statement, I would say there is no such thing as being colorblind. I would say that those who "do not see race" or claim to be colorblind are denying the racial identity of their students. My good friend Val Brown recently coined this as someone who is a "Racial Identity Denier" or RID©. When you do not see a student's race, you are denying the very fabric of their being. You are denying something that they cannot and should not "rid" or deny themselves of. How can we deny in others what they cannot and should not deny in themselves? A student cannot not see their race. It looks them in the face every day as they look in the mirror. Their race contributes to the experiences that they have as they navigate through society.

Even if one were to claim that they legitimately "do not see race," one of our jobs as educators is to prepare students to enter society. A society that is in fact not colorblind and sees race as something to be feared rather than embraced. So even with that claim, one not seeing race would still have to know the perspective of seeing the race of their students to prepare students for a society that will. 

Secondly, I would argue that educators who "don't see race" are denying themselves of beautiful experiences in the classroom. The most important thing they deny is relationships with their students. How can you (an educator) have a relationship with me (a student) if you do not acknowledge all that makes me who I am? Diverse relationships should be sought out with the intention to honor one's whole self. Educators should be intentional about building relationships with all their students.

Educators also deny rich classroom opportunities or learning experiences when they "don't see race." How does one talk about the space race without talking about Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson? How do we use GPS to navigate to new places or find our lost phones without Dr. Gladys West? How do we claim to be advocates of social justice and change without the likes of people like Cesar Chavez, Dr. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Dolores Huerta? This barely scratches the surface of people of different races who have made impacts on democratic societies like the United States. They are celebrated now, but at the time of their inventions or call to actions were denied respect, justice, or credit because of their race. Our students and their whole selves should be celebrated and seen in our classrooms now. Not as an aftereffect. I challenge those who claimto  "not see race" to ask the following questions:

  1. When I claim to not see race, what else am I not seeing in my students?

  2. What rich learning experiences am I and my students missing out on when I color (myself) blind? 

  3. When I claim to not see color, do I realize that I am denying someone an essential part of their experiences and existence while simultaneously holding on to mine?

These are not easy questions, nor are they meant to be. They are meant to provoke, prod, and propel you to a better understanding of yourself and the students you teach every day.

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An allegory about peanut allergies

Ashley McCall is a 3rd grade English/language arts educator at Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Back of the Yards (Chicago) where she serves as a teacher representative on the local school council. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna and a member of the Teach Plus Board:

Imagine you are seated at a restaurant table with friends preparing to enjoy an evening meal. A waitress arrives eager to take drink orders and assess the table's familiarity with the food menu. After reading through the day's specials and taking notes on beverage preferences, she turns toward the kitchen.

"Wait," you interrupt. "You did not ask whether or not any of us have allergies. I am allergic to nuts. Could you please make note of this for the chef?"

"Oh," the waitress responds. "I don't see allergies. For years, humans existed on this earth without attention to these whimsical reactions to substances, and it has become a mental crutch for us. We feed everyone the same here, and allergies really are not a thing you need to worry about in this space." Then she walks away.

Now, if this was a real interaction, everyone would find the scene and the waitress' response completely absurd. Why? Because the majority of the population believes in attention to and consideration for human allergies? Because we have scientific evidence of the sometimes dangerous physical and psychological experience of an allergic reaction? Because it would have cost the waitress nothing to simply acknowledge and make note of the allergy and continue with service? Because it is her (and the restaurant's) job to provide the best (and safest) possible service to its customers? All of the above.

Teachers who say they "don't see race" fall into the same absurd trap as a waitress who does not acknowledge the allergy of a patron. This phrase almost exclusively slips out the of the mouths of our white colleagues who believe that by "not seeing race," they take on a colorblind lens which allows them to treat students fairly and provide the same experience for all. Fairness, however, is not the job of the educator. We ought to pursue equity in our experiences with students.

As educators we must, to the best of our abilities, see our students, families, and neighbors in the fullness of their identities. Race may be a social construct, but it informs our students' day-to-day experiences: rides on the bus, walks to and through stores, drives down the Dan Ryan, and kicking back in the park with friends. This construct fuels the school-to-prison pipeline, inflates numbers of students of color referred for special education services, and exascerbates mental-health battles for black and brown youths and adults alike. To say, "I don't see race" is to say, "I don't see you. I don't know you. And I'm not ready and willing to hear and believe you." I do not know an educator that would ever say this to a student. But until all teachers are ready to see and explicitly engage with issues of race in the classroom, we are sending this harmful message subconsciously. 

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Funds of knowledge

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 14 years and is currently the district instructional specialist for PK-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics in the Pasadena Independent school district (Texas). She is active onTwitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

It is important for educators to see race, because ignoring race means ignoring the funds of knowledge that a student brings to school. By not seeing a student's race, teachers are not seeing the full student. Teachers need to support students in using the skills and experiences they have had in their culture to support their learning in school. There is no reason to start at zero each school year, when students have learned valuable lessons at home and in their communities.

When a student's race is acknowledged, it sends the message that their race is not an issue. Ignoring their race might make students feel that there is something off or not OK because it is never taken into account. If a student feels that an obvious physical characteristic, that many times is seen as a negative, is seen as an asset, they will form a positive connection to their classroom environment. It is not necessary to fixate on race or bring it up constantly, but if an opportunity presents itself, then it should be addressed.

If the class is reading a book and the main character shares the same race as one of the students, why not have that student share some of their ideas or thoughts based on their point of view as a person of that race? If you are studying something related to Cesar Chavez or Rosa Parks, why not have students that have race in common with those historical figures share their perspectives as members of the same racial community? If a teacher chooses to "not see race," it does not mean that racial stereotypes or bullying based on skin color will not take place. Choosing to "see race" could help reduce stereotyping or bullying because now they have a better understanding or connection to different races rather than just seeing them as something different. 

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"The impetus to pretend that one is colorblind is essentially racist"

Jamila Lyiscott is a social-justice education scholar, nationally acclaimed speaker, spoken-word artist, and educational consultant. She serves as an assistant professor of social-justice education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she is the co-founder and director of the Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged Research. She also holds an appointment as senior research fellow within Teachers College, Columbia University's Institute for Urban and Minority Education. She is the author of Black Appetite. White Food: Issues of Race, Voice, and Justice Within and Beyond the Classroom:

All educators see race, whether they claim to or not. The impetus to pretend that one is colorblind when it comes to race is a misguided attempt to treat all students the same, when all students, even within any racial group, are different. The impetus to pretend that one is colorblind is essentially racist. It is wielding the power to erase the identity of students. To refuse to see. To impose a blind view on children of color because of racial illiteracy—or the inability to navigate the nuances and realities of race and racism with fluency.

Because we exist in a very hyper-racial society, with unique manifestations of what race means across the world, racial identities play a major role in how we are each socialized. The idea of being socialized means that we do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, since birth, each of us has been shaped by individuals and institutions that color our experiences and perceptions of the world. Exactly how we are shaped by this socialization process depends on many factors, but one major factor is race. Because of the abiding systemic racism in America, for example, one's racial identity will profoundly shape what communities they live in (i.e., American communities remain highly segregated by race), what schools they attend, class status, experiences with our justice system, etc. There are also cultural cues and norms that align with racial identity and shape how each of us experience the world. So the way that an educator sees themselves and their students is deeply conditioned by how they have been socialized to see their racial identity and that of their students from messages at home, representations in media, messages from our justice system and other institutions, as well as exposure (or lack of exposure since our country is still segregated) to diverse racial groups.

The problem is not that we are different. Educators should and must center the diverse wealth of racial, linguistic, and cultural beauty that exists powerfully in the lives of our students. The problem is that we ascribe racist stigmas to difference and, thus, reinforce racial oppression. So to any educator who claims not to see race: We are not invisible. It is your duty to see us.

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Not seeing race is "solving nothing"

Julie Jee has been an English teacher at Arlington High School in New York since 2001. She teaches 12 Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition and sophomore English at the regents level. Julie loves to read, run, take photos, and spend time with her husband and three children:

"Not seeing race" is an easy way out because if those educators saw race, they would see how systemic racism has affected every aspect of the education system, from the government level down to the books that are taught. They would see that racism has deep roots in our country's history. They would see racist violence and other acts of hate as examples of that pervasive racism, not simply isolated incidents that have no connection to each other throughout history.

When educators tell me that race doesn't matter, I say that they've erased an opportunity to be anti-racist. They've squandered the moment and made it about them and their so-called forward way of thinking instead of actually doing what's best for their students. Students of color need to be seen in their entirety. That understanding needs to combat systemic racism in our education system. When educators say they don't see race, they are abetting this system and solving nothing.

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"One size fits all" is not conducive to learning

Kendra M. Castelow, Ed.S., is an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher in a public school district in Georgia.  She is a member of the Conferences Professional Council at Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) International Association and past president of Georgia TESOL.  As a member of the 2016 Leadership Robins Region class, she seeks to nurture and maximize public and community relations among political, economic, and business sectors:

There is a 19th-century proverb, "A hit dog will holler."  It implies that a defensive response to a statement indicates guilt.   When educators say they "don't see race," I view it as that defensive response that shows educators who say it are guilty of seeing race and using that race against the person.  At the very least, these educators say they "don't see race" to simply avoid discussions about race.  When you use race against a person, you vilify racial differences and reduce the impact and/or importance of those racial differences.  If educators say they "don't see race" when they teach, then I would internally decide that those educators have already been accused of being racist by students' families or fellow educators.  Furthermore, the same educators have said some things or behaved in some ways in their classroom that would cause students discomfort and/or would offend educators.  

After you plod through your own internal dialogue of clichés, clear out your own dusty closet of hidden bias and wipe off that cloudy mirror you use to reflect upon your own actions, experiences, and theories.  Consider taking one or all the following approaches:

1.  Respond with your own story about when educators or other people didn't "see race" with you.  If educators said that when they taught me, they didn't "see race," I would say that they didn't see me.  It would make me feel invisible.  I know that educators' hidden biases are obvious when rambunctious students of color are sitting away from the groups of classmates, up by the board, or back in the corner.  Educators must see race when they teach, because there may be some students who have been bruised by past educators who ignored social and cultural cues.  Educators who "don't see race" are blind to the results or impact of racism and marginalization and will miss the opportunities to repair damage and reverse wrongs.  

2.  Respond with ways a teacher can use their privilege to challenge and remove modes of racial discrimination from their educational environment.  Research and cite historical facts that demonstrate the result of unchallenged privilege and how it allowed people to use race to discriminate against others or to remove race from an issue.  The saying "majority rules" should be applied in the education of diverse learners.  For example, Jim Crow laws were put in place to intimidate former slaves and tip the scales in the white residents' favor.  Although slavery was abolished, the freed slaves struggled to live independently, and those in power (and place of privilege) created the Jim Crow laws to take advantage of those freedmen and further intimidate and incapacitate them.  When educators don't "see race," they are selectively blind to the condition and mindset of racially diverse people and risk creating additional policies that will further intimidate and incapacitate those racially diverse students.  

Educators hold a place of privilege in their classrooms and in their schools/learning organizations.  Culturally proficient instruction places the educators as advocates for their learners and in the perfect position to remove obstacles and barriers that are not conducive to learning.  For educators to become advocates, they troubleshoot their learning environment and identify obstacles and barriers, such as racial and other hidden biases.  In order to do this effectively, educators must be aware of their own mindset, including racial and other hidden biases that positively and/or negatively affect their classroom environment and rapport with their students.  It is a good idea to give students "a fair shake."  Once transparent and personal reflection occurs, then focused advocacy and differentiated instruction can truly take place.

3.  Respond with how seeing race can help a teacher differentiate their instruction and use culturally proficient instructional strategies with their students.  "One size fits all" is not conducive to learning for all learnersSome teachers refuse to differentiate their instruction because all the other students "get it" and the racially diverse student in question should "get it," too. Various types of data concerning a variety of groups of learners should be examined through the lens of cultural proficiency.  For example, just because the standardized scores of a subgroup of African American boys are lower than others' does not mean that those African American boys are not capable of learning.  It might mean that those educating those students need professional development in utilizing culturally proficient instructional strategies.  The building-level and district-level educational administrators should collect qualitative data on the educators to guide their professional learning and development sessions.

I have had many people tell me the same: "I don't see race."  This cliché is a smoke screen.  When people have communicated this to me, they have said it in the same way a leader distracts their followers and makes them look the other way so as not to see the injustices inflicted upon the past or done behind their backs.  This deflection ("I don't see race.") has caused me to ponder, what are trying to hide? and So what do you REALLY think about me?  Therefore, I ask you:  What do you really think about your students?  

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"There is nothing racist about...what you see with your own eyes"

Janice Wyatt-Ross is the program director for a dropout prevention/re-engagement center in Lexington, Ky. She and her husband of 23 years are the parents of two daughters:

As children, we are taught to identify and sort by color, shape, and size. Are we to suppose that we lose this skill as it relates to people?  Realistically speaking, humans, and that includes children, exist in all shapes, colors, and sizes. Educators who say that they "don't see race" when they teach are disregarding the existence of entire groups of students. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging a person's skin color. People of color do not have the privilege of not addressing or acknowledging race.  For many of us, there are daily reminders that we are not white. Our skin tone is the first thing we see in the mirror each and every day.  If you are honest, it is the first thing you notice when you see me or my likeness.

The argument is often made that people should not be judged by the "color of their skin" but by "the content of their character."  This argument has been taken to the extreme as to erase an aspect of someone's humanity.  To be truly equitable and inclusive requires a real look at who is sitting around the table or whose voice is recognized and amplified.  This notion of "colorblindness" leads to all white spaces.  Teachers should be conscious of race in their classrooms for things such as grouping students for projects, lesson planning, curricular decisions, and even in their hiring practices.  It is important that various perspectives are represented. 

I acknowledge that I am black.  It is a fact.  There is nothing racist about acknowledging what I have known all of my life and what you see with your eyes. It becomes racist when you work to exclude me because of my skin color.

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 Begin with 'understanding"

Maurice McDavid earned his bachelor's degree in elementary education with a minor in history and Spanish. He has taught middle school history, English, and Spanish, as well as high school geography. He was dean of students for three years and is now in his first year as an assistant principal at a bilingual elementary school.:

My response to teachers when they say, "I don't see race," begins with understanding.

I can remember when colorblindness was pushed as what was politically correct. I quickly remind staff that as a black male educator, I am made aware of race every single day. I have been employed in buildings where I was the only certified black staff member and in other buildings where I have been one of two, and that causes an awareness of race for me. Black students seem to flock to me as do teachers who are having an issue with their black students. For those who are willing to engage in conversation, I then ask them to consider how being black has impacted me and impacts our students in ways that are real and tangible. I share with teachers that my mother raised me and that she grew up during the '60s and '70s. So while I have not seen marches for voting rights, I was raised by someone who has experienced blackness in a generation of outright racism. It impacts the way I see everything and colors the way I experience life.

I share with them that race still has an impact today that goes beyond history. I remind them of the power of imagery and the need to see someone who looks like you having success. If popular imagery of black people includes athletes and entertainers, then it does become difficult to envision oneself as a teacher. As a high schooler, I had a young black girl tell me that my hopes and dreams of law school were for white people. This is the reality of race in modern America. There is so much more to say on this topic, but to summarize, teachers who do not see race are refusing to see an integral part of the identity of their students. The response to these teachers should be personal on one hand and should include data on the other. The combination of personal testimony and the data helps to open the minds of those interested in learning. 

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Thanks to Makeda, Ashley, Cindy, Jamila, Julie, Kendra, Janice, and Maurice 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

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Mistakes in Education

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

Look for Part Two in a few days.

 

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