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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

‘I Don’t See Color in Education Means I Don’t See You Unless You Act Like Me’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 18, 2019 21 min read
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(This is the last post in a special six-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, Part Four here, and Part Five here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to respond to educators who say they “don’t see color” when they teach?

NOTE: Shannon R. Waite, Ed.D., a clinical assistant professor in the Educational Leadership, Administration, and Policy division in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University, is guest-hosting and and has edited this six-part series.You can read her introduction to the series here. Additional posts sharing responses to this question will appear throughout the school year.

Her first two posts shared responses focusing on “the historical context and a discussion of the educational impact colorblindness has had on groups who have been ‘othered.’ ”

Part One‘s responses were written by Judd Rothstein and Terri N. Watson, Ph.D.

You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Shannon, Terri, and Chris Emdin on this topic and listen to previous episodes of the show here. You might also be interested in previous posts that have appeared here on Race & Gender Challenges.

Kris DeFilippis and Dr. Gholnecsar (Gholdy) Muhammad shared their thoughts in Part Two.

The third and fourth posts answered the question in the context of: “How colorblindness impacts the experience and quality of education from the perspectives of practitioners, parent advocates, and students.”

Jehan Pitt and Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, Ph.D., contributed answers in Part Three’s column.

Jia Lee, Melissa Payne, and Brady Smith were Part Four‘s guests.

The fifth and sixth posts explore: “Why colorblindness continues to be perpetuated in the field of education and the cost of not addressing it.”

Part Five‘s responses came from Dr. Marcelle Mentor, Jane Bolgatz, and Dr. Akane Zusho.

This series is wrapped up today with contributions from Justin A. Coles, Dr. Chezare A. Warren, and Christopher Emdin. Comments from readers are also included in this post.

Response From Justin A. Coles

Justin A. Coles is assistant professor and program coordinator of adolescent English/language arts in the division of Curriculum and Teaching at Fordham University, Graduate School of Education. His multidisciplinary research agenda draws from critical race studies, urban education, and language and literacy. Through his research and practice, he examines how the literacies of black and brown urban youths inform justice-centered educator preparation, particularly how they inform the development of counter structures to oppressive schooling and societal conditions.

The Impossibility of a Colorblind U.S. Education System

I enter this response centering on white-settler colonialism and U.S. plantation and chattel-style slavery, which are foundational to understanding the role of a person’s skin color. Moreover, I center on these structures as they help paint a picture of how the U.S. is a society organized around skin color and race, thus making colorblindness an impossibility. White-settler colonialism is a structure facilitated by Europeans coming to the U.S. to occupy and assert ownership over lands that did not belong to them. As a result, white-settler colonialism resulted in Native American land theft, removal, and genocide. U.S. plantation and chattel-style slavery is a structure where white settlers brought Africans from West Africa to work for free under violent conditions, particularly with the idea that they were property. Slavery serves as the foundation of the nation’s wealth as a result of free labor from Africans, which established the systemic oppression of black people or what is often referred to as anti-blackness.

I begin with these two structures because our conceptions of race, ethnicity, and culture, including how we have come to define what populations are positioned as people of color in relation to those not of color (white people), is inextricably linked to these structures. The assertion that white settlers were superior and that Native Americans and Africans who are of darker skin were inferior was facilitated by these structures. This color hierarchy has directly influenced our social interactions within society, including society’s institutions such as our nation’s schools.

The formal system of U.S. schooling was birthed in the legacies of white-settler colonialism and U.S. plantation and chattel-style slavery, which are definitive pillars of white supremacy (Smith, 2012). White supremacy represents the ways being white operate as the default values and ideologies of American life to the point that they seem both natural and appropriate. White supremacy imagines being white as the standard of American citizenship and the promotion of this narrative. In a social context of white supremacy, whiteness and white people are positioned at the top of the American racial hierarchy. White people are constructed as the quintessential Americans. In other words, the two aforementioned pillars of white supremacy (white-settler colonialism and slavery) designed the continental U.S. as a society structured around the color of one’s skin.

For example, as outlined in Christine Lesiak’s 1992 documentary, “In the White Man’s Image, beginning in the late 19th century Native American children were sent to boarding schools, with the sole purpose of assimilating them to white culture. The belief was that the white race was superior and civilized in comparison with the Native Americans, who were often conceptualized as less than human. One such way this was represented was through the Carlisle Indian Industrial School motto, “Kill the Indian, Save the Child.”

During and after plantation and chattel slavery, black people were prohibited from learning to read and write, because in a white-settler context their value was placed on the ability for their body to labor (to increase national wealth) rather than for their mind to think. Additionally, violence was used to punish black people who attempted to read and write. Janet Cornelius provided evidence for this in her 1983 article, “We slipped and learned to read": Slave accounts of the literacy process, 1830-1865,” sharing that former slave Doc Daniel Dowdy of Madison County, Ga., stated, “The first time you was caught trying to read or write, you was whipped with a cow-hide, the next time with a cat-o-nine-tails and the third time they cut the first jint offen your forefinger (Cornelius, 1983).” Over the course of U.S. education history, other populations of color also experienced educational exclusion (e.g., Mexican struggles for desegregation such as Mendez v. Westminster) based on their status as outside the realms of whiteness.

As history shows, color structures U.S. society, and in order for schools to become spaces where all students feel valued, a critique of color and race must be central to teacher dispositions, pedagogies, and school policies. It must be understood that people of color are not the problem, but rather the conditions of white supremacy which creates arbitrary racial hierarchies are the problem. Such construction of people of color as a problem has led to a history of racial animus where those not belonging to the white race are always imagined as substandard. As a result of educators not confronting the nation’s color-driven history, colorblindness continues to be perpetuated in the field of education. Despite the countless ways people of color have experienced gross inequities in this country for no other reason than their skin color, a reliance on ahistorical views (a view that ignores historical context) of society makes colorblindness within the field of education seem appropriate. However, this is not true, and colorblindness is in fact deeply harmful and violent.

The cost of colorblindness is that a seemingly anti-racist stance actually operationalizes as a deeply racist one. It works to further oppress people of color. Since white people are not conceptualized as people of color, colorblindness positions whiteness and white people as the standard that we should all see. Colorblindness tells us that white is a color that we should not be blind to but one that we should both see and strive to be like. Colorblindness robs us of the diversity of the human experience that actually contributes to the richness of our nation and our global citizenry. People of color have unique lived experiences that are linked to their histories in this country, and in order to educate for justice and equity, educators must make seeing these unique experiences a top priority.

See references here.

Response From Dr. Chezare A. Warren

Dr. Chezare A. Warren is an associate professor of urban education and teacher education at Michigan State University. He has about a decade of practitioner experience as an urban educator and is author of Urban Preparation: Young Black Men Moving from Chicago’s South Side to Success in Higher Education (Harvard Education Press, 2017). For more information, visit www.chezarewarren.com

Seeing Race for What It Is: Colorblindness and the Quest for Education Justice

Contrary to popular belief, racially and ethnically diverse people would rather NOT play the “race card.” While I cannot generalize this statement to all black, Asian/Pacific Islander, indigenous and Latinx folx, suffice it to say that it’s exhausting, and sometimes, downright humiliating to have to constantly offer public reminders of how particular racial groups have been rendered invisible in the education process. Individuals who are not white, heterosexual, wealthy, Christian, and/or male residing in the United States do not have to look far to be reminded of their marginalization at the intersection of race with gender, class, and/or sexuality. Still, purposely not seeing race, or colorblindness, in an effort to forget, remain ignorant to, or refuse acknowledgement of the residual consequences of 400 years of anti-black racism and white supremacy, too often guides how privileged members of our society choose to participate in debates about educational access.

A proposal for educating New York City schoolchildren that would meaningfully build upon, affirm, and extend their racial and cultural identities was recently the source of one such debate. Colorblindness was foundational to arguments against a policy of Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education (CRSE) in New York City public schools. N.Y.C. schools Chancellor Richard Carranza made clear that the vote was "... about adopting a definition ...” not a specific curriculum or approach. Nonetheless, dissenters lamented that the emphasis on CRSE would detract from a necessary focus on academics. Others remarked that the CRSE policy lacked specificity or the substantive details necessary to be implemented with fidelity across the district.

There was almost no mention of race and racism by policy protestors, nor did they acknowledge the fact that schooling in New York City is working best for white, Asian, and/or middle- to upper- middle-class children in their arguments. Similar trends in access to educational opportunities exist in other large school districts around the U.S. Admission to N.Y.C.'s most selective high schools, for example, demonstrates how race is highly predictive of who will benefit most from a N.Y.C. public school education. A response to this sort of racial injustice requires a redistribution of resources. The “haves” will need to forfeit privilege to the “have nots.” This is a source of much consternation. As such, it is far easier to deflect from race when explaining inequality, and thereby reject the possibility that racism drives disparities in education outcomes, then it is to concede the salience of race in education practice and policymaking.

In other cases, like that of the primarily Asian protestors opposing implementation of the CRSE policy, race and racism are used as a red herring to target a particular person leading the charge for structural transformation. With T-shirts emblazoned “Richard Carranza is a racist,” earnest Asian families led by two white men (catch the not so ironic irony here) failed to acknowledge their own privilege with relationship to education access in N.Y.C. Carranza is a disruptor. As such, rather than take on an understanding of race and racism as a system of dis/advantage, he—not the years of education inequity in N.Y.C.—becomes the subject of public rage.

This brand of fury centers race with the inverse intention of sustaining access to power and privilege for the beneficiaries of existing policies, rather than leveraging an understanding of race to make room for other people’s children to gain greater access to education opportunity. I am not attempting to generalize this sentiment to all Asian people in N.Y.C. or those in the room where the deliberations about CRSE happened. What I am saying is that the logic of colorblindness impaired these Asian families’ capacity to notice: a) how their concerns about the erasure of Asian-specific needs in N.Y.C. education policy was a fundamental premise of CRSE; and b) how they were being exploited by proponents of a white-supremacist power structure.

On the contrary, proponents of the policy definition were forced in their testimonies to call attention to race as the basis for contesting lack of representation in the teacher workforce, curriculum, and pedagogy in the nation’s largest school district. Colorblindness effectively mutes such concerns, opting to center what is “average” and “normal” (read: white or mainstream) as the gold standard of what should be sufficient for everyone, regardless of their racial or ethnic differences. Calling attention to race as a structural feature of inequity requires that institutions more often change and adapt—not students and families. Put differently, colorblindness assumes that “one size fits all.” It limits the effectiveness of any educational tool, approach, or technology to meet the needs of an exceedingly diverse population of students and families.

In my own work on black boys, colorblindness tints how educators attempt to explain away causes of disproportionality (e.g., over-referral to special education, underenrollment in gifted/talented and honors programs, over-representation in school pushout, etc.). While the research documenting the failure of public schools to adequately educate black boys is compelling, understanding how the history of racist caricatures of black people in popular press contribute to deficit perspectives through which black boys tend to be viewed (in public and in school) would effectively counter colorblindness. Rather than point to students’ individual actions as the source of their school failure, development of a race consciousness enables educators to accept more responsibility for their complicity in preserving racist school systems.

To be fair, one does not know what they do not know. But this just demonstrates how deeply entrenched colorblindness is in American society, to the way that Americans imagine themselves and the stronghold that “all men [being] created equal” has on our conceptions of freedom. The reality is that all people in the U.S. have never been equal, considering that slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples, cultures, and values are cornerstone to American democracy. The America we’ve inherited is a direct result of exploitation along racial fault lines that extend back to the 15th century. Professional learning communities and continued dialogue about race are necessary conventions. While none of us living today is responsible for creating the systems that confer privilege on white people and simultaneously disadvantage people of color, we must, at minimum, concede that such systems indeed exist.

Response From Christopher Emdin

Christopher Emdin is an associate professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he also serves as associate director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education.

Colorblindness, Cloning, and Education

In order to discuss color blindness in education, we must first understand that biologically, colorblindness is a deficiency in the way one sees color. It is not a denial that different colors exist. In education, it is the latter. The biological understanding of the condition must be applied to education. If an educator claims colorblindness, he or she has a deficiency, not a position. Those who claim colorblindness cannot use their deficiency as a claim that color does not exist. The denial that color exists or that one does not see color in a system that is built on and shaped by race is a very different condition from colorblindness. This condition is delusion. Delusion is when an individual holds on to an altered reality despite evidence to the contrary. This is what we have in education.

Once we reconcile the ambiguities around what colorblindness means in education, we can start gaining insight into what has led to this condition. We can also begin to understand why changing the hearts and minds of people who claim colorblindness is so challenging. Psychologists state that patients with delusions hold on to their perspectives, even in the face of facts that counter their position. They will offer responses to questions about their condition that have no connection to the question. White teachers in black schools will deny that they see race even when they were recruited to work in the school by an organization that uses phrases like “low income” “inner city” and “socioeconomically challenged” as code for black and/or Latinx people. Black and Latinx teachers who have adopted middle-class norms and upward-mobility philosophies will say they don’t see race in urban schools because all students can learn without a consideration for how particular students learn. And how they learned.

We have an education system where schools in some major cities are more segregated today than they were before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools. At the same time, we have constructed a system that is focused on making all students act, react, and engage in singular “respectable” ways. We love quiet students with hands up and backs straight staring at the teacher. We call these students smart even though they have only shown evidence of their ability to follow instructions. We label students as disruptive or challenging if they come from places where being heard, talking with your hands, and being multimodal is one of the ways that intelligence or ‘smartness’ is conveyed. Schooling then becomes a performance of colorblind notions demonstrating smartness, requiring that students natural inclinations of expressing intelligence, which come from their communities, be stripped away.

I don’t see color in education means I don’t see you unless you act like me or the way I want you to be. If you become a clone of me, I will see you as smart—the way I see myself. Colorblindness in education is saying I don’t see race while supporting a system that positions folks of color as having worth only when they are clones of people other than themselves.

In biology, cloning is the process of producing an organism with the exact genetic makeup of another through either natural or artificial processes. Colorblindness in education triggers a cultural cloning—where society supports schools that only value youths when they are not themselves but the same as some invisible white docile, attentive, and “well-spoken” child that all curriculum is geared for.

Colorblindness and the cloning process that accompanies it require academic standards that do not consider humanity, curriculum that is static and does not reflect the culture of young folks, and assessments that do not capture the complexity of social life. When we see these phenomena in schools, it is because the rhetoric of colorblindness has been allowed to fester. This is particularly the case with a type of teaching that I call shock pedagogy—which attempts to jolt students into being clones by reducing the flow of their lives into instruction in much the same way that electric shock reduces blood flow to the human body.

Biologically, the process of cloning requires forcing a cell to adopt foreign genetic material and then applying an electric shock to the cell so it can fertilize this foreign material and grow it within itself. In much the same way, colorblind folks enact shock pedagogy to trigger an adoption of norms that are foreign to the student’s culture.

A few years ago, the world got footage of shock pedagogy when a teacher in a prominent charter school network that pushes the colorblindness narrative was secretly recorded by an assistant teacher. On the video, the teacher was seen berating a child who got the answer wrong to a math question. She shrieked at the child, ripped up her work, and then barked at the rest of the students to “show her how to do it the right way.” The students all sat with arms folded not moving in a way that looked like they underwent electric shock. When the public responded in outrage over the video, the school network made the argument that decrying the teacher equated to not believing students of color can be academically successful. This irrational response exemplifies the serious issues with colorblindness in education. It falsely attaches academic rigor and high expectations to shocking students into complicity until they become clones of people who do not look like them.

Teachers often ask me how I reconcile the tension between valuing young people of color and meeting high academic standards. I am always baffled by this question. To me, high standards/ academic rigor and creating contexts for cultural expression are one in the same. Welcoming the culture of the youth, in its varied forms, is a precondition to engaging in rigorous work. Whenever there is tension in the mind of a teacher or school leader who works with youths of color around this fact, it reminds me that the current system of education has convinced otherwise intelligent people to draw senseless conclusions. The reality is that any young person will adjust their investment in academic tasks to the love the teacher expresses for their blackness, Latinxness, or Asianness. That cannot happen if the teacher refuses to see their color and their culture. It is impossible to teach well if the pedagogy is more about shocking them into sameness than seeing them for who they are. Good teaching cannot happen if you are colorblind.

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