Getting 'Real' About Race: Addressing Racial Issues in Classrooms

Two contributors to the forthcoming book Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School discussed how educators can address race-related issues in more open and constructive ways in their schools.

February 27, 2008

Getting ‘Real’ About Race: Addressing Racial Issues in Classrooms

  • Mica Pollock, an associate professor of education at Harvard University, and editor of Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School, due to be published later this year by the New Press of New York City.
  • Karolyn Tyson, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and author of a chapter called “Providing Equal Access to Gifted Education,” that appears in Ms. Pollock’s book.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):

Welcome to today’s online chat to talk about how educators can address race-related issues in more open and constructive ways in their schools. Our featured guests are Mica Pollock, a Harvard University education professor and editor of Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real about Race in School, and Karolyn Tyson, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. We have a large volume of questions, so let’s get the discussion started ...

Question from Natalie Jones, Teacher, Winterfield Elementary:

Why is it that if a African American child display behavior problems in his or her classroom it quickly determine this child needs EC services and if a child of the same age is white with similar issues this child needs to be challenged more in the classroom.

Mica Pollock:

This is a great question. In our book, Karolyn Tyson’s own essay makes clear that because of long-standing, even unconscious, race-based assumptions about what “giftedness” looks like, white students are more likely to be judged “gifted” by teachers, while black students are far less likely to be judged “gifted.” Further, black students are far more likely, as you say, to have their behavior seen as “disruptive” rather than “curious,” or as “problematic” rather than as indicating a desire for more intellectual stimulation. As my essay in the book notes, these false assumptions that “white” children are more “gifted” than non-"white” children are foundational to several centuries of racism in science itself; check out Stephen J. Gould’s book “The Mis-Measure of Man,” to see 18th, 19th, and 20th century scientists arguing, falsely, that different “types” of people had different abilities. To counteract this aspect of racial bias, Tyson suggests that teachers question their own assumptions about what “giftedness” looks like, and treat every child as if she was “her own.” One would refer one’s own child to Special Education only if such services would assist the child; one would want as many “gifted” opportunities as possible for one’s own child.

Question from Sergio Sanchez K-8 Math Specialist/Equity and ADA Coordinator Monroe County School District Key West, Fl:

Ms. Pollock, which would you consider most important to closing the Achievement Gap: building relationships with minority students or teacher efficacy?

Mica Pollock:

I would consider these two issues intertwined. Teachers who feel most successful (and feel the most “efficacy”) seem to be those who have built successful relations with their students. Many of the essays in our book examine ways of doing this. Heather Pleasants talks about teachers building authentic relationships with students by revealing their own interests to students. Geoff Cohen’s essay is about the huge need for teachers to get their students of color in particular to trust them; that too is an example of building good relationships. Sonia Nieto’s essay is about the need to try to understand students’ actual lives, so that a teacher can figure out how to “care” for each student most effectively. Leisy Wyman and Grant Kashatok wrote a piece about methods of actually “getting to know” a student’s community. So building relationships is key to successful teaching.

Question from Dan Murray, Principal, Wheatland-Chili Middle School:

We have a small population of African-American students who move to this rural school with 88% Caucasian students and almost 100% Caucasian adults on staff. The standard mode of indoctrination is to have African-American students assimilate into this “white” culture. What better ways are there to encourage the African-American students to feel most comfortable in this environment? Thank you!

Karolyn Tyson:

Most of the African American students I’ve studied do not want to be treated as “other” at school. They want to be included in the mainstream and not treated as though they are different. They do not want to be singled out during discussions of slavery or, more generally, during Black History Month. Including African American students in the mainstream also means making sure that you do not have the majority tracked into the lower level classes. Racialized tracking contributes to the sense of difference among students as well as racial animosity. You can also do things to include students in extracurricular activities and student government. Teachers can informally invite African American students to participate in various clubs or other extracurricular activities (“We have a club for..., you should consider joining. I think you’d enjoy it.”). Some schools have also successfully instituted rules to ensure diversity in student government.

Question from Dr. Gwendolyn Battle Lavert:

This country has a foundation of racist beliefs, so how can race ever be ruled out;how can a person be colorblind?

Mica Pollock:

As my introduction to the book notes, we’ve had almost six centuries of seeing and treating each other as race group members. We started this process with slavery; our laws gradually distinguished “white” (European-origin) owners from “black” (African-origin) slaves. From slavery onward, laws regulated who owned land, who worked for whom, which immigrants were allowed to come, gain citizenship, and own property, and so forth. All this activity built a system of racially unequal opportunity in America, and racially unequal wealth. Racist “science” entered the picture and tried to “prove” that “whites” were smarter and more moral than non-“whites”; such “science” exacerbated various false beliefs about the inner ability and worth of “types” of Americans. So yes, today, after almost six hundred years, we are unable to just take our race lenses “off” and see each other as individuals; after six hundred years of programming, we all still have many racist ideas in us. So, everyday antiracism involves actively rejecting false notions of human difference, and saying that all people ARE individuals and that race groups have no valid “genetic” basis. At the same time, everyday antiracism also involves recognizing people’s real experiences as race group members, in a racially unequal nation. So, here’s the punchline: rather than pretending falsely to be “colorblind,” educators have to actively emphasize people’s individuality, AND recognize people’s real experiences in a racially unequal world. We also need to engage the false ideas we’ve been programmed to have about which “races” are smarter, more hardworking, and so forth. This is a tough task; it’s why we had to write a whole book about it.

Question from Ray Phelps teacher North hardin High School Radcliff, Ky.:

Race is relevant only to the point that it educates individuals/groups about their uniqueness, history, ancestry, culture, contributions to mankind, etc. Race is not relevant when it comes to opportunities, human worth, desire for security/safety, etc. My question is,"Are we not all part of mankind; period, and therefore we have an in-separable bond.” Agree/disagree

Mica Pollock:

I agree that “we are all part of mankind and therefore we have an inseparable bond.” (see another one of my responses on the non-biology of race categories: genetically speaking, we are also simply one human race.) But I don’t agree that race is irrelevant to opportunity in America (including our schools). All human beings WANT opportunity regardless of race, but not all human beings GET the opportunities they need and deserve. In 2008, “white” students disproportionately show up to schools that are well-funded, and well-resourced; after many centuries of their families accumulating wealth AS “whites,” they are far more likely than students of color to have adequate housing, health care, and college funds. That my grandfather benefited from the GI Bill after World War II (a benefit extended preferentially to him as a “white” person) means that my family accrued wealth; according to research, “African Americans whose parents came of age in the 1940s and 1950s will receive less than one-tenth the inheritance of their white peers.” So it’s hard to argue that race is irrelevant to opportunity, even while we ARE all part of one human race!

Question from Dorothy Singleton Community organizer,Advocates for Communities and Rural Education:

How much responsibility are teachers willing to accept as their role in the problem? Has anyone talked to the students about these issues of race. What baggage does the teachers(motives) bring to the table. Why do we continue to ignore the problem. How long will we continue to have this conversation.

Mica Pollock:

This book proposes that educators need to consider the implications of their everyday actions; even the most well intentioned person can exacerbate racial inequality of opportunity or outcome without meaning to. Teachers who have seen the essays are also sharing them with their students, to get both sets of players talking together about core race issues.

Question from Jill Jacobs Cohen, Doctoral Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Education:

I just learned about a local school that enforces the use of the term “African-American” in the classroom, rather than Black, or other terminology. I found this deeply problematic, as it seems to me that what education about race should do above all else is individualize race -- in other words, deconstruct assumptions and beliefs about entire groups of people. Since racial identity is deeply personal, not too mention fickle and variable, there are differences in the way individuals prefer to be described. I would imagine that schools would want to engage students in determining for themselves -- through critical discussion of history and the implications of racial terminology in the current social and political context -- if and how to be defined racially, not to enforce any particular label. But of course schools then face the possibility of students using slurs, or language so loaded it may cause disruption or even violence. How would you advise an educator to deal with language use in the classroom, given the need for individuality, yet the risks that racial terminology may pose?

Mica Pollock:

Many essays in our book demonstrate how important it is to talk with both colleagues and students about the race language we use. Carol Mukhopadhyay’s piece is about the need to discuss the word “Caucasian,” which really describes no world population and implies subtly and falsely that the category is somehow “biological.” (She suggests “European-American” or “white.”) Kimberly Chang and Rachel Conrad’s piece talks about discussing such issues with young students; Wendy Luttrell talks about how valuable it can be when colleagues start talking about what they do when students use the “n-word.” David Gillborn’s piece suggests that writing antiracist school policies with students opens up important conversations about which words sound “racist” to whom. I agree that simply enforcing a form of language use, and never discussing WHY (or discussing alternative perspectives on the language use) shuts down really important conversations that educators and students need to have. In schools, both colleagues and students can consider together how, whether, when, and why different people feel particular words are acceptable or unacceptable.

Question from Christine Rose, Ex Director, Students and Teachers Against Racism:

What can educators do to update the image of the history, the culture, and the continued existence of American Indians in the classroom as opposed to just racist reflecting propoganda like Little House on the Prairie and Manifest Destiny? What are they doing and what can and should be done? Christine Rose Students and Teachers Against Racism recommends many materials including books, posters and more for classroom use.

Mica Pollock:

Several essays in our book address this issue. Teresa McCarty discusses the need for educators to keep questioning whether the images of Native Americans (in books, and films) are accurate; she suggests that educators can also invite Native American people in their local communities to class, so that they can represent themselves. She explains the various minefields of this approach, too. Guest speakers should never feel that they are asked to represent ‘all Native Americans’, or to emphasize traditions at the expense of explaining the complexities of contemporary Native American life. Donna Deyhle has a piece urging that educators and students evaluate whether posters on the wall exhibit images of Native Americans that students (Native American, and non-) can see as complex, rather than stereotypical or anachronistic. Finally, Paul Ongtooguk and Claudia S. Dybdahl talk about the need to teach actual facts, rather than stereotypes, about Native Americans’ history and contemporary Constitutional status.

Question from Tabitha Dell’Angelo, The College of New Jersey:

How do you feel the teacher’s understanding of his or her own culture impacts their ability to address race and other aspects of culture with students?

Karolyn Tyson:

It depends on what that understanding is. If a teacher’s understanding of her own culture is that it is better than the culture of her students, she will likely have a difficult time addressing race and other aspects of culture with students. However, if the teacher’s understanding is that her culture is different from the culture of her students and that all cultures are valuable and useful in particular contexts, I would imagine that discussions with students about race and other aspects of culture may be less difficult. This latter understanding, because it does not devalue other people’s culture, will not alienate students; therefore, the teacher should be able to have a more open and engaging discussion.

Question from Dr. Rodney Johnson, Principal @ SOAR/LINC Evening High School:

Do you think a person’s perspective regarding race...and students...and adults...and equity...can be seperated from a person’s responsibility to provide an environment of equal education in America’s schools?

Mica Pollock:

This book assumes that educators must take some key responsibility for creating “an environment of equal education” in our schools. The book suggests that while educators are not SOLELY responsible for student outcomes (housing plays a role; health care does; parents do; students themselves do), educators play a key role in students’ futures, and so they need to think about the consequences of their everyday acts. So each essay asks the educator to think more concretely about: “How do my everyday acts exacerbate racial inequality? How might my everyday acts instead counteract racial inequality?”

Question from John Dobyns, Biological Sciences Instructor, Freedom High School:

WHY does the biological side of this “argument” never get highlighted. We are ALL 99.9% the same genetically.....and continuing to equate a skin pigmentation hue with the idea of a “race” of Homo sapiens is moronic. There is ONE race...the human one....culture is different than color is different than country of origin....."race” means and is NOTHING...that is “getting real” isn’t it? The next level of consciousness in this country will be to discard the historically recent (in terms of our hundreds of thousands of years on this globe) idea of races of humans and move on....THAT is what posters and talk shows and the educated masses should be striving for isn’t it?

Mica Pollock:

I suggest four principles of Everyday Antiracism in my introduction to this book: 1. Rejecting false notions of human difference; 2. Acknowledging lived experiences shaped along racial lines; 3. Learning from diverse forms of knowledge and experience; and 4. Challenging systems of racial inequality. So you’re right, biologically speaking, we ARE all one human race; race categories in the biological sense are bogus. But we’ve organized life opportunity, school opportunity, friendships, marriages, and so forth around these (biologically bogus) racial categories for almost six centuries now, so racial INEQUALITY is real, racial IDENTITIES are real (though complex), and RACIST IDEAS ABOUT TYPES OF PEOPLE are real. That’s why there are many “race issues” to deal with in schools, despite the fact that biologically speaking, “races” are not valid subgroups of the human race.

Question from Akisha Jones, Research and Evaluation Associate, Edvantia:

My questions are more general in context, but I am interested in knowing what the authors thoughts are. Have you found evidence that the race of instructors impacts academic achievement? What is your opinion on this? Can you discuss any implications that race relevant curriculum promotes learning and academic acheivement?

Karolyn Tyson:

I have not directly studied the impact of teacher race on students’ academic performance. I’ve seen some studies that show no significant effect of teacher race on achievement outcomes, such as standardized test scores and track location. Teacher race may make a qualitative difference for students’ experience in the classroom, but I can’t recall seeing any studies showing an effect of teacher race (all else equal) on academic achievement.

Question from Dr. Rodney Johnson, Principal, SOAR/LINC Evening High School:

“When should educators be race-conscious and when should they be colorblind?”...M. Pollock. “When should educators be race-conscious and when should they be colorblind?”...M. Pollock. Equity is not something you turn off and on...How will students and educators of color determine when this quote is arbitrarily practiced and implemented in “real time” by non-minority administrators ?

Mica Pollock:

You’re right that “equity is not something you turn on and off,” but I do think that educators (both teachers and administrators) need to think hard about WHEN they are overlooking someone’s individuality by treating them racially, and WHEN they are refusing to acknowledge someone’s race-group experience. Sometimes, framing a student as a “Latina student” first, rather than as an individual, can be harmful; it can put stereotypes in play, or miss the individual student’s actual needs. Sometimes, IGNORING her experience as a Latina student can be harmful. Patricia Gandara’s piece in the book talks about pursuing equity while acknowledging both these things. While Latino students shouldn’t be ghettoized involuntarily in all-Latino programs, Latino students can sometimes benefit from some time voluntarily “cocooned” with other Latino students, to have a chance to discuss in a safe environment any schooling and life experiences they share AS Latinos. Educators thinking hard about WHEN to group “Latinos” for such programs aren’t ‘turning equity on and off"; rather, they’re pursuing equity very carefully, and consciously. The real question is, “which action pursues racial equality? Which action exacerbates racial inequality?”

Question from Kim Martin, Principal, Harvey High School:

Does race-consciousness and colorblindness only refer to students of color? Does an analysis of race-consciousness that focuses only on students of color further disenfranchise students by classsifying them as the “other”?

Mica Pollock:

Great question. Educators also need to consider how they think about white students -- and white educators also need to think about their own experiences as “white” educators. So you’re correct, “race” is not just about people of color. Many of the essays in this book deal with issues affecting white students or white teachers. Beth Rubin’s piece in the book, for example, shows that in schools where there has been tracking, white students, students of color, and teachers all dangerously come to see white students as “more smart,” simply because they have been tracked into higher-skill classes that themselves offer more opportunity. Karolyn Tyson’s piece talks about white students disproportionately being seen by teachers as “smart” and thus referred to “gifted.” These are all forms of race-based treatment. So educators also have to ask: how am I treating my white students as race group members, rather than as individuals?

Question from Christine Langeneckert, ELL Teacher, Naperville North High School:

In his new genetic study, Dr. Spenser Wells proves that in ancient times, we all came from the same area of Africa and that “race” does not really exist. Shouldn’t we get “real” about race and let students know that “race” isn’t real?

Mica Pollock:

I had to respond to this one too. We have indeed all stemmed from Africa and are one human race -- racial groups are not biologically valid sub-groups of the human race. What ARE real, after six hundred years of history (since colonialism and slavery), are very different EXPERIENCES for people typed (falsely) as members of different “races.” Since we’ve been distributing opportunities to people along these (false) lines of “race” for centuries -- Americans gave property and rights to people from Europe whose skin was lighter, and took those things from African slaves whose skin was darker -- race group experiences and racial inequality are real in 2008, even though race categories are not biologically valid. Alan Goodman’s piece in the book is about talking to students about this complex issue.

Question from Jack Knaack, Associate Principal Appleton North High School, WI:

What are the actions teachers can take in classrooms that will yield the greatest impact in chipping away at the acheivement gap? Outside of the forthcoming book, what resources would you recommend to a staff looking for more ideas to impact the classroom?

Mica Pollock:

This book is really about synthesizing knowledge on this issue. Each essay suggests another “action” for chipping away at the achievement gap, or counteracting racial inequality and racism in society at large. The book is full of resources that each author has found crucial in shaping their thinking. It’s full of organizations’ websites, films, and research, in each essay and in a lengthy bibliography.

Question from Kate Deshaies, HS English Teacher, Coyle & Cassidy H.S., Taunton, MA:

Would admitting to prejudice (and then “seeing the light”) to a class be productive? What would be the best way to approach the topic? Would making such an admission weaken my position as an authority figure?

Karolyn Tyson:

I think your students might be inspired and encouraged by your honesty. Your telling of your journey may serve as a critical opportunity for your students to reflect on their own attitudes and behaviors and to have an open and honest discussion about issues of race and ethnicity. Your students may also be more likely to see you as authentic and caring. Many studies show that it is important to students to feel that the adults at their school care about them. My sense of the literature makes me believe that your admission will open up rather than close off avenues of communication between you and your students. I would suggest approaching the topic in the context of some class-assigned reading related to issues of racial and ethnic inequality, discrimination, prejudice, etc. (e.g., Invisible Man).

Question from Keith Hardy, director, St. Paul Board of Education:

What are successful actions that have been beneficial in reducing dropout rates for American Indian, Latino and African-American students?

Mica Pollock:

One key link to consider is the link between disciplinary actions in schools, and students’ tendency to drop out. When students of color are asked to describe why they dropped out, often they cite repeated incidents of discipline that either made it impossible or undesirable to come back to school and learn. In his essay in our book, Pedro Noguera notes that discipline in school often excludes students (and disproportionately, students of color) from educational opportunity, which is counterproductive to the goal of keeping students committed to schools. (Noguera also notes that discipline often humiliates students, which also contributes to their lack of desire to come back to school.) Students suspended for long terms are missing classes, and thus more behind when they come back. Noguera thus suggests trying to pursue disciplinary strategies that explicitly attempt to reconnect students to the benefits of education – to reconnect students to their school communities. Such strategies go beyond suspension and expulsion (removal from school) and emphasize actually working with students to improve their relationships with school adults.

Question from Kimberly Thompson, Board of Education, School District of Beloit:

1. What sort of policies should a board of education kraft to address racial disparities? 2. What professional development must take place with teaching staff?

Mica Pollock:

Great question. This book is designed to get people paying attention to the everyday activity of educators inside schools, but people on boards of education can a) provide time and opportunities for educators to examine their own everyday activity like this; and b) convene conversations that include, alongside educators, OTHER opportunity providers whose actions play a role in student outcomes (students’ families; the superintendent; local employers; local gang prevention counselors; local youth workers; local realtors; and so forth). School boards can play an exciting role in organizing an entire community around analysis of necessary opportunity provision. On professional development: this book was designed precisely for supporting professional development: its short, concrete essays prompt educators to inquire into their own daily work. There are many other such resources in the field -- great essays and books that really get educators thinking concretely about improving their service to students. But educators are given WAY too little time to actually ask questions about their own practice -- how their everyday interactions with students are going, how to provide the opportunities that students need, and so forth. Educators need TIME to inquire into their work. So a school board can help make time and space for that.

Question from Shirley Pauler, Professor in Education, Asbury College:

How can we get away from special emphases (e.g. “Black History Month”) on the contributions of persons of color to our nation’s history, culture and current society in favor of a more thoroughly integrated curriculum in our schools?

Mica Pollock:

Meira Levinson has a related piece in the book about the need to go beyond occasional references to “extraordinary” role models of color, like Martin Luther King, as they suggest implicitly and dangerously that only some people of color change the world. She urges that educators can include “ordinary role models” of color in the curriculum on an ongoing basis; a former social studies teacher, she talks about successful efforts to invite to class various local people who change their communities for the better every day. This technique, if done well, also gets students thinking about possible careers, and community actions they can take themselves. Carter Woodson, a black historian and educator who planted the original seeds for Black History Month, hoped that as the curriculum came to talk about African Americans’ achievements, contributions, and lives on a regular basis, a “month” (or, at his time, a week) would eventually become unnecessary.

Question from Paul Dosal, Executive Director, ENLACE FLORIDA:

High school students today seem much more open and tolerant of racial and ethnic diversity. To the extent that teachers of an older generation concentrate on issues of race, do we also risk perpetuating the very stereotypes that we hope to break down?

Karolyn Tyson:

It depends on what you mean by concentrate. Is the teacher’s concentration on race affecting which students are placed in which classrooms? Is the concentration on race influencing decisions about which students get disciplined for which infractions? If so, then you do risk perpetuating stereotypes. However, if the concentration is to encourage open and honest discussion, it is more likely to tear down stereotypes.

Question from Barbara Randolph, Teacher CoachColumbia College of Chicago:

Why would a teacher or any educator ever want to be “colorblind”? What is the benefit to anyone in a class learning and growing together to be “blind” to each other’s color or racial background? What would be the disadvantages to “colorblindness”?

Mica Pollock:

Great question. “Colorblindness” is really too blunt and misleading a word for the real necessary action. An educator should never IGNORE or REFUSE TO EXAMINE racial inequality, or IGNORE or REFUSE TO EXAMINE the racial experiences of the people in the room. But I think she SHOULD ask: “when should I emphasize individuality, rather than see someone primarily as a member of a ‘race group’? How could I avoid employing false or negative assumptions about someone’s “race”? Whenever someone trying to be “colorblind” REFUSES TO EXAMINE racial inequality or REFUSES TO EXAMINE people’s actual race-group experiences, she’s essentially refusing to examine real issues in the world. That’s never good.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):

Thank you for joining us for today’s important discussion. And a special thanks to our guests for providing thoughtful and informative answers on a very controversial topic. This chat is now over. A transcript of the discussion will be posted later today on

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