How to Avoid Colorblindness All Year Long

Guest blogger Jennifer Henderson shares: I don’t have any lessons for Black History Month. I don’t have any articles, videos, or coloring sheets. There’s just something about focusing on racial equality, social justice, or the color of my students’ skin for only one month a year that always seems a little… well, racist.

I have the honor of working with amazing educators every day. Jennifer Henderson, a teacher and coach in Aurora, Colorado, is one of those amazing educators. She has a passion for teaching and learning in ways that support ALL students in maximizing their gifts. This year she has chosen to prototype a culturally responsive teaching project to connect academic learning with the real-world interests of students. It is an honor to share her words here:

I don’t have any lessons for Black History Month. I don’t have any articles, videos, or coloring sheets. There’s just something about focusing on racial equality, social justice, or the color of my students’ skin for only one month a year that always seems a little… well, racist.

I hope that I use the entire year to make sure my classroom is filled with books by authors from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures. I want my students to explore the writing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Julia Alvarez, Chief Joseph, and others all year long.

However, I do have some advice for anyone who works with a diverse population of students.

Don’t be color-blind. Look around and notice. Notice everything.  

Notice the colors and hues of the faces you see in the Honors and AP classes.

Notice those in the remedial classes.

Notice the faces of students who are sent to the office as well as those who stand on stage to receive awards.

Recently, I sat in the Winter Pep Rally at my school. My school is very diverse, with white, Latino, and black students each making up about 30% of the student population. At the pep rally, I found myself experiencing both pride and dismay:

  • I was proud that some of the loudest cheers were for the two male cheerleaders, and that the royalty court consisted of students with every color of skin imaginable.
  • I cheered when six of the top athletes came out with dunking skills to rival the Harlem Globetrotters.
  • I was dismayed when those same young men, all black, left the court and the students with the best GPAs were called. Not one black face among them.

So this February, my advice is to take that first step and notice.

We can all open our eyes and our minds a little more and see the truths—both good and bad—that make up the school lives of our students.

I am not naive enough to believe that my students are living in a world that epitomizes Dr. King’s vision. In fact, amid recent events, my students may live in a world where badges represent injustice and being “color-blind” means to turn away from the reality of inequality.

In any case, it is my belief that my students are living in a world that is moving swiftly towards unrest and controversy of historical proportions.

But, as educators, school is our domain.  

School is where we make sure that our students can dream, and where we provide them with the tools and pathways to reach those dreams.

But in order to do this, we must first open our eyes to the possibility that we, unwittingly or not, are acting as a barrier to those dreams:

  • Telling the pretty girl that she should try out for cheerleading.
  • Assuming the student who speaks only Spanish is not a proficient reader, writer, and scientist.
  • Believing that the court is the only place where black students can shine.

So this February, stop being color-blind and take a look around.

Then, be brave and begin the much-needed conversation. Are we making sure that we push all our students to academic success? Are we listening to the dreams they have for themselves, or are we forcing them into the dreams we believe they should have?

It might be upsetting, and it will probably be uncomfortable. But a little bit of discomfort can go a long way to making big changes—the kind that open up a multitude of paths for all of our students to reach their dreams.

Jennifer Henderson has been teaching for 19 years, from fourth grade through post-secondary. She currently enjoys a hybrid role as a Teacher Partner and 10th grade English teacher in Aurora, Colorado.  Jennifer is a virtual community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality and a group leader for the Teacher Leadership Initiative (TLI).

This blog appears as part of the work of CTQ-CO’s culturally responsive team. Learn more about their projects here.

  • ReneeMoore

    Teaching With Our Eyes Wide Open

    Thank you for this piece and for the reminder to be more aware of our cultural surroundings. Sometimes the most important thing a teacher can do for a student is to really notice.

    • JenniferHenderson

      Thanks Renee!  Sometimes I

      Thanks Renee!  Sometimes I feel like we get bogged down with looking at which kids are getting in trouble all the time and we forget that we should also be thinking about which kids we are pushing to excel.

  • amberbourgeois

    American History Months!

    I couldn’t agree more with every word from Ms. Henderson. The statistics which caused for your dismay are all too common in our community, and our country. When I started teaching, I always did big projects for Black History month in February and Women’s History month in March. Now, on the other hand, I incorporate these lessons throughout the school year. Instead of focusing on one race, religion, gender…. for a month and then dropping it, I have been weaving these lesson into my Kindergarten curriculum year round for a few years now. The impact is so much more powerful. Students are retaining more information about important people and events in our country’s history and are able to talk about these events, even when it is not hte “month” for it. For too long educators have been taking the color blind approach, which only leads children to feel ashamed of who they are. We need to recognize, acknowledge, learn about, and celebrate all of our wonderful differences. The only way to eliminate hate is to educate!

    • JenniferHenderson

      How amazing…

      …that you’re starting in Kindergarten!  Your kids will grow up to be the leaders – the ones who speak out when they see discrimination and the ones who feel pride in who they are and where they come from.  Awesome!

  • chaleseholland

    Celebrate all American Throughout the Year!

    Thank you Lori for you thought provoking and very articulated post.  As an African American teacher working in a diverse school, I have no problem incorporating different cultures throughout the year.  Granted, it take more preparation, but it is very empowering to my students.  It let them know they have worth and are valued as an individual.  I think when teachers choose to be “color blind” they are guilty of their own injustices, which is the very ideology we try to teach them to move away from.  Consider enriching all students and showing them how their individual culture influences the entire scoop of our history and what a difference it makes.  Don’t marginalize the teaching of history let all students know they matter by honoring each group that exist in your classroom throughout the school year.  Perhaps these disturbing stats will change over time, but a good starting point is recognizing the importance of all students.  Self worth is the key to success in any culture, so give it a try.  We have the power to change the course for the future.

  • CherylRedfield

    I have always think it

    I have always think it strange when well-intentioned people chime, “I don’t see color, only character” as if a person’s color was a bad thing or limitation. I would hate for someone not to notice my color-coordinated outfit, because I wear it on purpose, not as a mistake.

    In the same way the color of a person’s skin, hair, eyes are just as much a part of who they are as the character underneath all that beauty!

    Addressing the needs of the whole-child means that we must “see”. And appreciate what we see, and not succumb to stereotyping or biases.

    So I much prefer your approach Jennifer. Let’s look.

    Let’s take a good look and appreciate the rich cultural awareness our students bring to our classrooms. Every day.