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Taking the Color Blinders Off

An educator approached me about writing this guest blog as the start to a courageous conversation. Talking publicly about race and education can be challenging. The author has asked to remain anonymous. I assured her that the CTQ Collaboratory is a great place to shed light on these topics without fear. As always, let’s engage.

“As an elementary school teacher I do everything I can to ensure every student in my classroom has access to an excellent reading program. Why? Well, because I want them to be able to communicate with others. I want them to be able to extract information and learn something about the world around them. I want them to lose themselves in books and dream about possibilities. I want them to function later in life and be able to provide for their families. Researchers found that if a student isn’t reading at third grade they are four times less likely to graduate by the age of 19. As an elementary school teacher I know this to be the cardinal rule: they have to leave elementary school reading or else.

Never during all of my planning and analyzing, though, did I stop to consider issues that were counteracting the work that I was doing. It never crossed my mind that no amount of guided reading strategies or high-interest text would do anything for some of my students; unless other aspects of their experiences were addressed too. 

I realize now that I had never considered the messages that many of my students had received throughout their schooling: the messages that they aren’t as smart, aren’t as good, aren’t talented in reading. These are messages that some of my students have felt every day. However, I have had no personal experience with these messages because I am not a minority. I am a white, middle-class woman.

If you think racial inequality isn’t going on in the state you live in, in the town you teach in, at the school you currently work in; you may have grown up in a place similar to where I call home, in a place where everyone looks like you and where your background is similar to the majority of people in the surrounding areas. In addition:

  • You may have never been the only person of your racial background in your classroom.
  • You may not feel the need to dress better than everyone around you in order to simply be considered for something that you are equally, if not more, qualified for.
  • You most likely don’t have to think twice about leaving work early for a doctor’s appointment and reconsider because your co-workers could consider these actions lazy and typical.

These are all real examples from the past few years that have been shared with me. The examples are also eerily similar to Peggy McIntosh’s piece, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack written 25 years ago, and are similar to the examples Nicholas Kristof writes about in a series of columns, titled “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” in the New York Times.

These realizations sadden me. I thought I had it right. I thought when I said, “I don’t see color,” I was making everything equal and fair. I never stopped to consider that some of my students didn’t have the luxury of being color blind. I didn’t take into account that not acknowledging the differences in experiences only helped me.

I am taking the blinders off. As an educator I am going to do everything I can to make sure every child has access to an excellent reading program in an environment that acknowledges equity does not mean same. There are differences that as educators we need to address and discuss just as much and as often as we discuss the latest assessment results.”

9 Comments

Jozette Martinez commented on November 30, 2014 at 4:33pm:

Self Reflection is Key

Esteemed Colleague,

I am commending you for articulating your personal reflections regarding racial inequity. You are correct, it is happening everywhere; sometimes it is conscience and in some instances, it is happening as a product of ignorance or privilege. 

These are the conversations that we as educators working to create a better world, must have.  I used to work with a teacher who often said said she was "colorblind." (I think this phrase was born of political correctness, when the realization that race needed to be studied, but fear and unawar-ed privilege did more harm than good.) 

No one is color blind- nor should we be. We must embrace our differences and still strive for equity, strive for effective responses to cultural differences. It is not wrong to acknowledge that I am a Mexican American teacher- it is evident when you look at me. Stating it is not racist- stating that I might be lazy, or on welfare, or a product of a gang, etc. of course are the racial prejudgements that can create oppression. (Incidently, I was one of very few Mexican American students growing up a a predominently white neighborhood and school system. It was impossible to think I was anything other than brown, even among friends and teachers.)

Keep writing, and please, keep exploring and sharing your thoughts. They are of value.

 

Val Brown Val Brown commented on November 30, 2014 at 6:18pm:

Reflection and Action

@Jozi, I knew I could count on you to help start the conversation. :)

I didn't have to think of my brown in the same way that I think of it now growing up because I lived in a city with the third largest population of brown people in the United States. However, in college, when I was often the only black person in my class, I often searched for people who looked like me. My 4-year-old daughter is experiencing that now. I wonder if she thinks about it... 

You and I still have to find a way to collaborate. You inspire me. 

Renee Moore commented on November 30, 2014 at 7:58pm:

Beyond Blindness

Thank you, Val, and your colleague for this much-needed conversation, especially now. 

I would heartily recommend looking at some important resources on Cultural Proficiency, particularly the Cultural Proficiency Continuum, that was developed by a very experienced and thoughtful group who have worked with people on these issues for a long time (including Randall Lindsey, Kikanza Nuri Robins, Raymond Terrell, Franklin CampbellJones, Brenda CampbellJones). They have written a series of books available through Corwin Press, which are very helpful. 

The Continuum gives six descriptions of responses to difference, ranging from being culturally reactive or tolerant to proactive and transformative. Color (or cultural) blindness is one of these points, and the authors identify it as being one of the more problematic and harmful responses. Although, further developed than cultural destructiveness, it does represents an area in which one is not yet culturally competent. I can't do justice to the information in this short response, but it is a topic worthy of serious study by every educator. 

The attempt to be "colorblind" in America, is sometimes well-intentioned, but more often a thin disguise for wanting to ignore real differences and more important--ignore the real systematic inequalities that continue to be imposed on people. Celebrating and learning about our differences, on the other hand, gives us all the opportunity to grow in our humanity, build genuine respect, and together finally redesign the systems that hurt us all. 

Val Brown Val Brown commented on November 30, 2014 at 7:55pm:

Thank You!

Thank you so much for sharing those resources Renee! I will check into them immediately. 

 

Bill Ivey commented on December 1, 2014 at 12:53pm:

Thank you all so much...

... for the conversation and the resources. I can offer three more possibly useful resources.

The first two are more as background information, one a take on Peggy McIntosh's piece by a poor white person that integrates the lens of class privilege, and one a video on "Courageous Conversations about Race" by Glenn Singleton. The third is a book for older elementary school students, or possibly middle school kids who don't mind something at an easier reading level - an Andrew Clements book, The Jacket, which gets mixed reviews as some find it simplistic but which might nonetheless serve to start some good conversations with your kids. As a middle school teacher, I've often proposed Jacqueline Woodson's books as options for different units my kids design; If You Come Softly has been chosen the most often. You may have seen her recent op-ed, "The Pain of the Watermelon Joke."

I'm one of those people who has to listen carefully and uncritically, to reactions to what I might personally say and do (those painful moments you have to acknowledge if you're going to grow), to reactions to what other people said and did which might reflect something I could have said or done (from which I can nonetheless learn and hopefully prevent similar mistakes), and to reactions people have when I refer to well-meaning words and deeds that nonetheless may reflect racism (which can guide me in finding ways to help bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice as quickly as possible). I find all of this especially delicate with well-meaning middle school kids of privilege - how best to open their eyes to that privilege in a way that is 100% respectful of who they are and want to be? This is where fiction can help, or sometimes their own research (see this post-Ferguson blog I wrote for one example).

Also, since I teach in a girls school, gender prejudice can be an effective lens for approaching the study of privilege, oppression, and isms in general as they all have been affected by patriarchy (whether or not they know the word). As a gender non-conforming person, I actually share that with them as well, albeit from a rather different perspective.

Thanks again for starting this conversation. I look forward to what other people have to say.

Susan Graham commented on December 2, 2014 at 5:43pm:

The Danger of Losing Sight

I was forever changed by my first teaching job. Texas is a big place and I moved 850 miles from my home town which was close to Louisana border and my college town which was just outside Dallas, to a small, economically deprived, cotton farming community on the Texas/New Mexico border. The student population was about 80% Hispanic and  probably half of those were first generation American citizens. Most of the teachers grew up within a 50 mile area and the majority of them went to the same two colleges. Spanish was the first language of at least half of the community, and it was the second language for almost everyone else. I didn't speak Spanish. When I tried to call role the first day I mispronounced most of the names. They laughed at me. They called me La Gringa.

  I was the minority.

It was a culture shock, I thought I was the norm but I was suddenly the outlier. I learned through experience that being colorblind is, in some ways, a form of denial. I thought I was inclusive, but I realized that my version of inclusivity meant "It's okay if you are not like me. I accept you anyway."  Here's what I discovered about being colorblind: It subtly says, "I am not seeing you as a stereotype based on your skin color. But neither am completely attuned to how your experiences, perspectives, and responses may be different from mine."

In an effort to be colorblind, it seems that we sometimes become tone deaf as well. We ceae to recognize and honor what makes each of us uniquely ourselves and in the process we unitentionally render the people around us invisible. 

 

 

 

 

 

Lymaris Santana commented on December 7, 2014 at 8:42am:

To Win the Race,There Should Be No One Way Focus

A few years ago, while working at an urban school in New Jersey, a teacher created controversy when she posted on her Facebook account that she felt like a “warden” overseeing and handling “future criminals.” Without foreseeing the consequences of her comments, she tapped into a sad reality lingering in that community and she unveiled an unspoken teacher bias. Who were these “future criminals”? Her mostly African American and Hispanic first grade students!

The public opinion divided between those who adamantly defended her right to free speech and those who defended protecting the right of those first graders to have a teacher who believes in them enough to give them a fair chance to succeed. There were also those who took no part in the debate, as if the incident was an isolated case of bad judgment in a social networking site, with no meaning or relationship to the student’s race and  no repercussion in the wider spectrum of the school system. This was the color blind side.

In a world where society is still fighting issues of civil rights in court, ignoring race in pedagogy might seem practical and easier. However, having open discussions about race and teaching, about the link of race, socioeconomic status and academic achievement would allow teachers to examine underlying causes of the infamous “achievement gap” in order to be part of the solution. Ultimately, social injustice and inequalities in education have historically been hidden under claims of meritocracy. While it is true that students’ rationale of schooling is, many times, a strong deterrent to their own progress. The way minority students perceive school, however, has deep roots on discrimination and the inferior education provided to minorities them.   Although making generalizations about race dangerously overlaps with stereotyping, is almost necessary to open up this unsettling discourse, risking sounding naïve or offensive. Being color blind is not an option.

Even after deliberately considering, understanding and embracing the concept of cultural relevance to empower students, a challenge for teachers lies in that we cannot fully separate our teaching from our system of beliefs. There is enormous power in what teachers teach as facts to persuade and influence students, whether this is done consciously or unconsciously. There is massive power in what is not been taught and said because of personal bias. Furthermore, the seemingly inconspicuous impact on those students to whom teachers relate to outside of the lesson, is ironically everlasting. Students, whether consciously or instinctively, also have their own bias and perceptions of this process, and it is often this perception what determines their reception of the lesson, the curriculum or the teacher.

Social justice, thus, begins with teachers becoming students’ allies in equalizing the scale and closing the gap, and this can only be achieved by searching within ourselves, educating ourselves, and moving beyond our comfort zone. Constantly reflecting on the personal beliefs that rule our pedagogy is the first step because regardless of what the economic situation, migratory status, skin or eye color has outwardly predisposed for any of our students, one thing is certain: we are “wardens” entrusted with overseeing the integrity of their education. Doing so with colorblinders on is doing half the work.

Thank you for this powerful piece, Valeria!

Lymaris Santana commented on December 7, 2014 at 11:24am:

To Win the Race,Focus on All Sides

A few years ago, while working at an urban school in New Jersey, a teacher created controversy when she posted on her Facebook account that she felt like a “warden” overseeing and handling “future criminals.” Without foreseeing the consequences of her comments, she tapped into a sad reality lingering in that community and she unveiled an unspoken teacher bias. Who were these “future criminals”? Her mostly African American and Hispanic first grade students!

The public opinion divided between those who adamantly defended her right to free speech and those who defended protecting the right of those first graders to have a teacher who believes in them enough to give them a fair chance to succeed. There were also those who took no part in the debate, as if the incident was an isolated case of bad judgment in a social networking site, with no meaning or relationship to the student’s race and  no repercussion in the wider spectrum of the school system. This was the color blind side.

In a world where society is still fighting issues of civil rights in court, ignoring race in pedagogy might seem practical and easier. However, having open discussions about race and teaching, about the link of race, socioeconomic status and academic achievement would allow teachers to examine underlying causes of the infamous “achievement gap” in order to be part of the solution. Ultimately, social injustice and inequalities in education have historically been hidden under claims of meritocracy. While it is true that students’ rationale of schoolingcould many times be a strong deterrent to their own progress, the way minority students perceive school, however, has deep roots on discrimination and the inferior education provided to them.   Although making generalizations about race dangerously overlaps with stereotyping, is almost necessary to open up this unsettling discourse, risking sounding naïve or offensive. Being color blind is not an option.

Even after deliberately considering, understanding and embracing the concept of cultural relevance to empower students, a challenge for teachers lies in that we cannot fully separate our teaching from our system of beliefs. There is enormous power in what teachers teach as facts to persuade and influence students, whether this is done consciously or unconsciously. There is massive power in what is not been taught and said because of personal bias. Furthermore, the seemingly inconspicuous impact on those students to whom teachers relate to outside of the lesson, is ironically everlasting. Students, whether consciously or instinctively, also have their own bias and perceptions of this process, and it is often this perception what determines their reception of the lesson, the curriculum or the teacher.

Social justice, thus, begins with teachers becoming students’ allies in equalizing the scale and closing the gap, and this can only be achieved by searching within ourselves, educating ourselves, and moving beyond our comfort zone. Constantly reflecting on the personal beliefs that rule our pedagogy is the first step because regardless of what the economic situation, migratory status, skin or eye color has outwardly predisposed for any of our students, one thing is certain: we are “wardens” entrusted with overseeing the integrity of their education, and doing so with color blinders on is risking doing half the work.

Thank you for this powerful piece, Valeria~!

Yolanda Lowry commented on December 8, 2014 at 12:29am:

The Reality of Race and Culture

Valeria & Others,

     Thank you for this much necessary dialogue. In our current societal cimate, this is a necessary conversation. When we recognize our own "baggage" in regard to race and culture, we can begin to work more productively with our students. We are not color-blind and everyone is not "the same." Our students are the sum of their experiences just as we are. I think it is important for educators to positively impact the experiences of our students. Don't "tolerate" who they are but "learn" who they are as people. Try to understand their perspectives and offer positive outlooks in return. Remember that race and culture are not the same and should not be treated as interchangeable topics.

     When we acknowledge our differences, it is easier to embrace our commonalities. America has never really been a melting pot; instead America is more of a tossed salad with individual ingredients that, combined, make something unique.

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