Student Well-Being Opinion

Educational Leaders Must No Longer Be Colorblind

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 18, 2016 5 min read
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... because racism has become more subtle, it is all the more difficult to recognize and combat, and it may exert its negative influence with relative ease and impunity (Chin. p.9).

We are thinking more about racism these days. We can’t help it, right? From the Super Bowl to the Grammy’s to the Presidential election. And, yes, closer to home, the achievement gap in our schools, to discipline disparities, to black young people being killed on our streets. And, today, a day after Clinton’s address on race, a talk radio show host discussed a survey on how many potential South Carolina voters believe that the white race is superior. Ironically, that all this is erupting now in the last year of Obama’s presidency but black voters are important in the upcoming election and this may be the right moment.

The word “racist” is a potent accusation for a society or for an individual. Suggesting that one is racist most often causes the accused to enter fervent denial. But step away from that high-powered word and look at the societal and personal actions related to that word, and a troubling scene emerges.

Not Acknowledging Color is a Limiting Goal
As educators we are beginning to challenge the notion that colorblind is enough. But, what is there beyond being colorblind to which we should aspire? Living in a primarily white and middle class world, can we fall into a laziness about what we see and what we don’t see. And, for better and worse, schools are reflections of the society and the communities they serve....or are they? Television, movies, commercials and advertisements have evolved to be more inclusive, or are they? Or are they stealthily socializing generalizations as messages to all of us? There is a growing awareness of the number of young black men who die at the hands of the police. It raises critical concern about bias and equity while also allowing stealth reinforcement of the stereotype of the young black male as a criminal.

According to the 2010 Census, 14% of the population identified as black. 14% doesn’t seem like much, but in real numbers that is 42.9 million individual people. Add to that those identifying as Hispanic, or, now, those who identify as Muslims, and we are talking about millions more. It has been two years already since the 0 to 5 population tipped from minority to majority black and Hispanic. Schools will be the places where the issues of racism must be revealed, discussed and resolved. If we cannot do this, another generation will be lost to latent racism.

Where Are the Models?
As bloggers we’ve learned presenting images are effective. They are relatable. They leave an impression in the words, and sometimes more than the words. So lately we have been searching for images to include in our blog posts. Searching several sites for images that can be shared, whether free sites or paid ones, it has become clear that there are far more pictures of white people than there are of black people. Is it the 86% white and 14% black population mix at work? Is that the reason? Well for educators, that isn’t enough of an excuse. 42.9 million individual people who are parents and students need to see themselves represented, and so do the rest of us. They exist and they count.

“If our society doesn’t reflect me, how do I know how to identify myself?” Schools have the opportunity to offer a different set of models than we have in society. It is difficult enough to find these models in the teachers hired, but the teachers can find them in the books, websites, photos, art and music they choose. Children need and deserve to be seen, not as stereotypes, but as themselves. First comes getting beyond one’s own bias and denial.

When individuals are presented with information or experiences that challenge their beliefs, one possible response is to reject the source. Taking the stance that “it’s simply not true” can end the conversation quickly. This can be a convenient strategy to avoid the potentially painful process of reflecting on hidden bias. (Dr. Pat Clark in Tolerance.org)

Opening Minds, Hearts, and Eyes to See Beyond Colorblind
Minds and hearts must be opened to the question “Am I doing enough to assure that every child sees themselves and their futures in my classroom/school/district?” Revealing our inner blind spots is an important first step and an essential one.

But, maybe, beyond colorblind is seeing color and asking what our sight means. Did being colorblind stop us from seeing how our system perpetuated exactly the things we are working to overcome? The achievement gap isn’t new but we didn’t speak of it decades ago. Now, with all our ingenuity and resources, we still cannot solve it. Why not? Why are black youth expelled more than their white peers? Why aren’t STEM programs filled with minority youth? When was the last time a child’s teacher or leader visited a home in a minority neighborhood or worshipped in a black church? Whose hand goes first across the divide between school and community? It is our work to make that extension.

How a classroom, school, and district embraces this journey depends upon the leaders’ capacity to see deeply, to ask questions sincerely, to welcome the truths revealed, and to walk through this process as a partner with every family who hopes for a bright future for their child. And, also as a partner with every child who doesn’t have the family to dream with and to be safe with. We are their difference in the world....or we are not.

We are not talking about being colorblind. If we aspire to not see color and consider this the highest goal, then we are saying that we aspire to not acknowledging the unique perspective and life experience of the child before us. Seeing color isn’t a bad thing; it makes our world beautiful. Our response to color is the issue. If we are a certain color, from a certain neighborhood, dress a certain way, have a certain surname, speak a certain way, we are culturally defined. To aspire to be colorblind is dismissive of all that richness. What we have to do is be sure that we know our own beliefs and biases, so that we can serve each one fully.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination: A revised and condensed edition (2010) Edited by Chin, J.L. Santa Barbara, Ca.: ABC-CLIO LLC

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.