Mica Pollock is an anthropologist who teaches at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. She has two new books coming out this summer: Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real about Race in School (on which she has written the FAQ below) and Because of Race: How Americans Debate Harm and Opportunity in Our Schools. Her first book, Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School, won AERA’s 2005 book award. And she has just launched a new blog, schoolracetalk.org. Head on over to her site for what promises to be a provocative discussion.
1) What is “anti-racism?”
By “everyday antiracism,” we mean acts educators can take daily in schools and classrooms to counteract racial inequality of opportunity and outcome, and to counteract racist ideas about “types of people.”
I should note that by “racism,” we don’t mean the willful harming of people of color by white people. (This is how the law has often framed it.) Rather, the authors collectively define racism as any act or situation that, even unwittingly:
- tolerates, accepts, or reinforces racially unequal opportunities for children to learn and thrive;
- allows racial inequalities in opportunity as if they are normal and acceptable;
- or treats people of color as less worthy or less complex than “white” people.
2) Do you think that history, custom, teachers, or students themselves most often propagate racism?
All of the above. Still, this book focuses on acts by educators. They have great power to “deal” with race issues in schools, for good or ill. Students also react to educators’ everyday acts. This is also why educators are so powerful! In my introduction to Everyday Antiracism, I write that:
In schools, people interact across racial lines, distribute opportunities moment to moment, react to “outside” opportunity structures, and shape how future generations think about difference and equality. Interactions in educational settings help build or dismantle racial “achievement gaps.” To a student, one action can change everything. Everyday acts explored in this book include how we talk with our students and discipline them; the activities we set up for them to do; the ways we frame and discuss communities in our curriculum; and the ways we assign students to groups, grade their papers, interact with their parents, and envision their futures.
Everyday Antiracism shows that educators take many acts in educational settings that harm children of color, or privilege and value some children over others in racial terms, without educators meaning to at all. Further, many racist ideas about “types of people” are programmed into our heads as educators, despite our intentions. So, we want educators asking: which everyday acts by me counteract a racially unequal society, and racist ideas about “types of people”?
3) Some authors in your book deny the validity of racial categories, while others claim that to deny the existence of racial inequality is foolish. Explain.
Racial categories are social realities built on biological fictions. As Alan Goodman discusses in his essay in Everyday Antiracism, 20th and 21st century genetics show that there are no biologically meaningful “racial” subdivisions to the human race. How could race categories like “white,” “black,” “Asian,” or “Latino” be genetically valid if someone labeled “white” in Brazil can be labeled “black” or “Latino” here?
Race categories are things people made up. Over six centuries of life in the Americas, people used law, “science,” and everyday activity to distribute opportunities along the lines of physical traits that were simply too small a portion of our genetic makeup to be valid ways of categorizing human beings (skin color, nose shape, and hair texture, for example). Still, we have made these categories socially real in the past nearly six centuries of American life. So, racial categories are false biologically, but real socially.
This is why the “antiracist” educator must negotiate between two antiracist impulses in deciding her everyday behaviors toward students. She must choose between the antiracist impulse to treat all people as human beings rather than racial group members, and the antiracist impulse to recognize people’s real experiences as racial group members in order to counteract racial inequality.
4) Do you think the promotion of anti-racism in schools will lead to the continuation of anti-racism post-graduation and in the workplace?
If our children are educated in settings where children of all “groups” are treated as equally smart and valuable, they will learn to see one another more that way, too. What children learn in school is typically the opposite. One author in the book, Karolyn Tyson, has studied almost-all-black schools in North Carolina where the “gifted” class is completely white. The very existence of that “gifted” classroom teaches students a lie: it teaches them that some “race groups” are more “gifted” than others. Another author in the book, Beth Rubin, discusses how racially patterned tracking “teaches” students the same false lesson: that some “race groups” are smarter than others. How could these false ideas not continue after graduation? Conversely, if students are schooled in environments where educators actively treat students from all “groups” as smart and “gifted,” how could they not learn to see one another more that way, too? And how could that not continue after graduation?
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