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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

If We ‘Don’t See Race,’ We Don’t See ‘Students’ Magic’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 11, 2019 10 min read
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(This the second post in a special six-part series. You can see Part One 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 editing several posts over the next 10 days. 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 will share 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 share their thoughts in today’s post.

Response From Kris DeFilippis

Kris DeFilippis began his teaching career as a social studies teacher for P.S. 71 in the Bronx. He is currently serving as a middle school associate principal in Orange County, N.Y., and is pursuing his Ed.D. in Fordham University’s ELAP (Educational Leadership, Administration and Policy) program:

Whiteness as Colorblindness

Tattooed on my left bicep is Disney’s representation of Robin Hood. When the caricature was permanently etched into my skin as an older teen, I thought of it as a rebellious confrontation to some sort of dubious structure, or perhaps as Big Rube named it, a snarky smirk to the “crooked American system,” as described in True dat (interlude).

As an adult, I find the notion behind Robin Hood is an embodiment of what it means to be white in America. In such a metaphor, I am not referencing his fight to topple the phony Prince John or disparaging his role in the struggle for the righteousness that was needed. I am simply highlighting his ability to be laid back and carefree while bouncing between being an outlaw and the “savior” of the good folks of Nottingham. He is able to wear a magical cloak of sorts that pardons his behavior because he is well-intentioned and only seeks to restore things back to the way they used to be. This is a core tenant of whiteness. With a great deal of experience as a white male and not many opportunities to live as someone “othered,” this unique concept of American whiteness is qualitatively burned into the depths of my soul in ways that shape my core and outward expressions as an educator.

In 1993, law Professor Cheryl Harris defined the social construct of whiteness as akin to owning property, complete with the cultural practices and understandings needed for its possession. While I cannot do it proper justice, in summary, Harris points out that, culturally, whiteness is the lens through which American norms are not only viewed but established. My Dad was a carpenter. When I was 9, I watched him, (and pretended to help) build a shed from minimal supplies and scrap pieces of wood. What amazed me was the strategic way he placed nails and poured cement to ensure that the structure would stand the test of time. As it is with whiteness.

Carrying around the identity of Caucasian is not only one’s own cultural heritage (as I often hear amongst my white brothers and sisters) but is also the root and the foundation of American oppression for all those who do not possess it More clearly, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz explains, “We live in a society where default whiteness goes unremarked—no one ever asks for its passport.” Diaz’s truth highlights that the myth of the ‘“collective Caucasian race” continues to carry out the purpose of its origin: to maintain power structures that seek to alienate those who may be outside of the white-centric and white-only worldview.

In 2019, whiteness is in a place of dichotomous ambivalence. Being “colorblind” while also being in love with the “feel-goodness” associated with diversity days and cultural celebrations are bandages designed to ease the tensions created by an unjust system. These tensions are surface level and are cloaked around the fear (unconscious, dysconscious, or conscious) of losing the fundamental power that swells from whiteness. Anecdotally, this is how the same person who continues to brush off the white supremacy of Donald Trump can applaud Jay-Z’s partnership with the NFL.

Better still, this is how someone like the viral barbeque Becky can call the police on law-abiding citizens and still not think of oneself as racist or biased. White people can proclaim the horrors of prejudice and oppression against various racial and religious groups or members of the LGBTQ community as unacceptable, while maintaining a comfortable and safe position. Actively participating in dismantling of the system that props up one’s systemic power has proven much more difficult.

As educators, it is required that we understand the reasons for the social construction of whiteness and how the educational system serves the values that maintain systemic oppression of repressed and marginalized students. As white educators, it is urgent and compulsory that we recognize and embrace our whiteness; ignoring its presence only exacerbates the issue. Defensiveness or fragility cannot embed itself in our thinking; instead, we must rage with passionate and poised urgency when we recognize these traits in others.

Further, we cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of understanding by phrases such as “privilege,” “fragility,” or “cultural competence.” We must continue to educate ourselves at every turn regarding the ways in which whiteness and the associated power structures negatively impact all of our students and recognize that we will never fully grasp what it means to not be white in the United States. Our students need a teacher in the classroom who champions everyone’s individuality in a way that enhances our collective experience as we build a new equitable system. We need to enter our schools every day with the mantra that loss does not have to be associated with change and that complacency in the face of an evil we know to be wrong is indefensible.

Finally, our classrooms are not about us. We are not the heroes. Perhaps this was the greatest flaw in Disney’s version of Robin Hood. Grounded in a selfishness that likely continued to perpetuate the same system that allowed for tyranny to grow in the first place, his victories did little to actually create a progression for those who cheered him on. As teachers, unless we actively seek ways to break down the systemic oppression that is sustained by the social construct of whiteness, we will continue to make the story about us and not our students. Audre Lorde poignantly wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house"; accordingly, we help to dismantle the system through collective implementation of progressive pedagogies that actively acknowledges whiteness in its truest essence.

See References here.


Response From Dr. Gholnecsar (Gholdy) Muhammad

Dr. Gholnecsar (Gholdy) Muhammad is an associate professor of language and literacy at Georgia State University. Her work is situated in historical foundations of literacy development and the writing practices among black communities:

The Oppressed Limb

“Human race are members of one frame, since all, at first came from the same essence, when by hard fortune one limb is oppressed the other members lose their wonted rest, if thou feels not for others’ misery, thou don’t deserve to be called Human” (Chapter 1, Story 10, 1258).

This poem was written in the year 1258 by a poet named Gulistan of Sa’di, who was from Iran. This piece is especially dear to me because I was named after this writer by my Persian father. The “Ghul” sound is reflected in both our names and means “the garden or flowers.” My name is Gholnecsar, which means sharing flowers.Gulistan of Sa’di is best known for writing literature about roses, yet his poetry is uniquely grounded in sociopolitical consciousness and wisdom. And although this particular poem was written over 760 years ago, it still has significance today.

In the sonnet, Gulistan compares humanity to one whole body. Moreover, when one limb of the body is oppressed, marginalized, underserved, or mistreated, and other members of the body don’t lose rest, the poet argues, they (the limbs) don’t deserve to be called human. The oppressed limb Gulistan champions could be black lives, Latinx children, immigrants, or Muslims. Similarly, in schools, colorblindness and neglect for the humanity of black and brown lives and their education is, too, inhumane.

Gulistan of Sa’di pushes us to ask, What does it mean to be human? What is our personal responsibility in the wake of racial violence, oppression, and mistreatment in the lives of black and brown children?

We have too many recurring headlines of the marginalization of youths of color in and around schools across the nation that reflects Gultistan’s message. In just the last year alone, white teachers dressed up for Halloween as “Mexicans” and “border walls"; teachers simulated slave auctions; black girls were strip-searched at school for laughing too loudly; teachers asked black students to lie on the floor to experience slavery, and a teacher sent a note to a parent requesting that she not teach her daughter to have black-girl magic. And, more recently, children are once again being detained, forcibly separated from their families, and are being traumatized/experiencing trauma. Children are being “othered,” and adults are treating them in ways they wouldn’t treat their own children. This inhumane treatment should incite widespread outrage. Teachers, administrators, parents, school board members, politicians, and all concerned citizens should be furious at these injustices.

Last year, I offered a plea for teaching identity and criticality (along with intellect and skills) in conjunction with mandated state standards—for students across the United States (Muhammad, 2018). Currently, schools only teach skills. Youths should not have to wait until post K-12 experiences to learn who they are or understand the world through a sociopolitical lens. It is reprehensible that we even have to remind educators to humanize their approach toward youths of color and give them the education they deserve.

When educators say they don’t see race, they are expecting students to conform to a skills-only curriculum and whiteness. Beyond race, they are also choosing to not see students’ cultures, genders, religions, or their magic, while not honoring black and brown brilliance in teaching practices.

A solution to this must begin in systems, standards, and processes. We need learning standards that are collectively designed to lift students’ of color and not just white students or those who have benefited from whiteness. All students need instruction that advances identities, skills, intellectualism, and criticality (what I name as a model for historically responsive education). In other words, as teachers strive to teach in responsive ways, they should ask themselves four questions:

1. Identity: How does my curriculum and instruction help students learn something about the racial identities of black and brown lives?

2. Skill: How does my curriculum and instruction respond to or build students’ skills in content areas?

3. Intellect: How does my curriculum and instruction build students’ knowledge and capacity for critical thinking?

4. Criticality: How does the curriculum and instruction build students’ understanding of power, equity, and the disruption of oppression?

We will always be limited for teaching students of color as long as the state tests, common-core standards, and teaching evaluations do not explicitly address and hold teachers accountable for teaching racial and cultural identities and criticality. Before they get the job, teachers should be asked about colorblindness and questioned on their knowledge of black and cultural histories. Then they must be evaluated on their abilities to teach anti-oppression and anti-racism. Black and brown children need a curriculum designed for their histories and identities, or else they will continue to be “othered” in schools, all while learning from other people’s curriculum. This means as more “limbs” are oppressed dysconscious teachers will continue to create more harm than benefit, neglecting the “limbs” in the body of humanity.

*For colorblindness research, see the work of Christine Sleeter, Robin DiAngelo, and Mica Pollack.


Look for Part Three in a few days...

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