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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

‘Practicing Colorblindness Suppresses the Individuality of Our Students’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 06, 2020 21 min read
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(This is the third post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

In Part One, Makeda Brome, Ashley McCall, Cindy Garcia, Jamila Lyiscott, Julie Jee, Kendra M. Castelow, Ed.S., Janice Wyatt-Ross, and Maurice McDavid “weighed-in” on the question. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Makeda, Ashley, and Cindy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Dr. JoEtta Gonzales, Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., Sarah Norris, Martha Caldwell, Oman Frame, Leah B. Michaels, Gina Laura Gullo, Kelly Capatosto, and Cheryl Staats contributed their responses.

Today, Sheldon L. Eakins, Ph.D., Paula Mellom, Rebecca Hixon, Jodi Weber, Kala Williams, Dennis Griffin Jr., and Amanda Koonlaba, Ed.S., share their thoughts.

Stop pretending that you don’t see race

Sheldon L. Eakins, Ph.D. is the director of the Leading Equity Center and host of the Leading Equity Podcast. With over 11 years in education, he has served as a teacher, principal, and director of special education. Dr. Eakins has a passion for helping educators accomplish equitable practices in their schools:

When we use the phrase, “I don’t see race,” we are choosing not to accept the unique differences and experiences racial groups face. We further perpetuate oppressive practices that expect students of color to put their culture aside and mimic the norms of whiteness.

The reality is, unless you are legally colorblind, you see color.

Often, educators will attempt to justify their colorblindness by adding that they grew up in a diverse community in which they were trained not to see color. Or that they were taught to treat everyone the same. I’m a firm believer in equality for everyone; however, we must address the realities of how equity is different from equality. Treating everyone the same does not address the individual needs of our students. Students of color live in a world that constantly tells them to speak “proper English” rather “speak English only” or “to not be ghetto” when they speak and behave in demeanors that are most familiar to them. Here are two questions to reflect on:

  1. How do my beliefs in the way students are supposed to behave in my class impact my approach to teaching students of color?

  2. Have I Imposed my worldview and background as the norm and simultaneously suppressed the cultures, customs, and standards of my students?

I remember a day as a principal when I was in a classroom substituting for one of my science teachers. The teacher left detailed lesson plans which required me to have the students read a few pages within the textbook. I had the students take turns reading a section out loud in the book and remember vividly a comment a white student made. “Why are all the students in this page black?” This student was used to seeing people that looked like him in textbooks and was appalled to realize the lack of representation of white people on a page in his book.

My response to the student was simple: “Look at the page before, and the page before that, and the page before that. What do you see?” As the students looked through the rest of the textbook, a common theme was discovered. Most of the pictures in the textbook included white people, and this page was part of a small amount of people of color portrayed throughout the science book. I used this instance as a teachable moment to a class of all white students in the value of diversity and the impact of our implicit biases. We discussed how a simple flipping through the textbook and the rest of their textbooks provided plenty of representation of white people but lacked representation of nonwhite people. We further discussed the many contributions to science and medicine from people of color and how this information often lacks in depth or is completely omitted from the text.

Why is colorblindness problematic? When it comes to diversity and inclusion, students want to feel a sense of belonging. Additionally, if you are striving for equity, how can you address social-justice issues if you do not acknowledge race and the challenges students of color face?

If I can’t see a problem, how can I address it? Avoiding issues associated with race such as school discipline and achievement gaps will not magically solve these issues in our schools. Instead, we must begin to take a courageous stance on how we can better serve students of color. Rather than succumbing to the fear of talking about race in public spaces, engage in actively discussing the challenges students of color face daily. Talk to your colleagues about their beliefs on race, reflect on your own implicit biases and beliefs, and understand the value in diversity.

Practicing colorblindness suppresses the individuality of our students. It forces students of color to assimilate to dominant norms and practices that are different from their racial identity, language, experiences, and culture. Instead, embrace the languages, cultures, and races represented in your classroom. Use them as assets and challenge others who encourage you to do otherwise.

It starts with you.

As an educator, you spend a large portion of your day impacting the lives of your students. If you have students who come from a different race and background as your own, get to know them on their level. Allow students to be themselves and learn from them. Operating on a “one size fits all” approach because “all students are the same” is detrimental to the success of students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Impacts on CLD (cultural & linguistic diversity) students

Paula J. Mellom is the associate director of the Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education (CLASE). Rebecca K. Hixon is a postdoctoral research and teaching associate for CLASE. Jodi P. Weber is the assistant director of professional development for CLASE. CLASE is a research and development center housed within the University of Georgia’s College of Education. Together, they are the authors of With a Little Help from My Friends: Conversation-Based Instruction for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) Classrooms.

While discussions of cultural and linguistic diversity are complex and can lead to uncomfortable conversations, they are essential if we are going to “see” our students, acknowledge their experiences, and truly activate the assets they bring to the classroom.

Silence, weighted with things unsaid, appears to be a hallmark of any classroom where the politics and socioeconomics of cultural and linguistic diversity (CLD) underscore an imbalance of power between the teacher, as the keeper of the “standard,” and the student, whose goal it is to gain access to the mainstream by acquiring and assimilating to that standard.

Often well-intentioned teachers who want their CLD students—both those who speak languages other than English and those who speak nonstandard varieties of English—to learn and use Standard English end up not treating those students fairly. In an effort to “treat CLD students equally,” they are effectively denying the richness of their experience and ignoring the assets that they bring with them to the classroom. By treating CDLs “the same” as native-English speakers, teachers fail to recognize that they may be underscoring their differences and effectively silencing them—both when they speak their home language and when they attempt to speak Standard English. Bombarded by reminders of their failure to achieve what other students can do “naturally,” CLD students may begin to despair of ever meeting the Standard and often just shut down and refuse to continue trying at all. Immigrant children often retreat into silence—rejecting their home language and refusing to speak or even acknowledge it in an effort to become “equal” to their native-English-speaking peers.

But this isolation of linguistic silence is not unique to CLDs. Frequently, teachers and administrators are silenced if they attempt to expose and critique the sociocultural power structure that maintains the imbalance between the Standard and everything else. Teachers are often actively discouraged from discussing issues of class, socioeconomics, or race as they apply to language. Many of us grew up with the myth of Horatio Alger and the American dream: that anyone who works hard enough, regardless of his or her origins (linguistic or otherwise) can succeed. However, the empirical evidence doesn’t support that myth, and our students bear the brunt of it. By silencing these conversations, we bury and discredit their experience.

To acknowledge the political and socioeconomic injustice implied by linguistic discrimination would be tantamount to unraveling the rug of silence that covers it, revealing the contradictory and controversial dirt swept underneath. Silence is insidious and deadly, but the antidote is readily identified if not so easily administered: open dialogue founded on respect. Students should be encouraged to discuss and discover the underlying assumptions behind language use and cultural diversity rather than to just accept them as normal. Respect for others’ feelings, thoughts, experience, and language should be the cornerstone of classroom practice. We are a nation of immigrants, colonizers and colonized. Our cultural and linguistic diversity is a richly patterned quilt which aches to reveal the history that informed it. However, most of us never stop to think about the historical connectedness implied by our words—by opening conversations around linguistic and cultural diversity and its impacts on our different experiences and understandings, we open spaces for increased empathy, community building, and deeper teaching and learning.

“Educators must see race by embracing it as a positive”

Kala Williams is a primary-based education consultant and managing director of Bright I’s Education Consultancy. She is a trainer, coach, and strategy-focused practitioner in reading teaching:

When I first reflected on this question I felt inclined to speak to other teachers just to hear their own viewpoints. I thought it important to do this as a black educator myself because I immediately had the knee-jerk response that declared, “This is impossible.” I was glad I did, because if anything, it challenged my own perceptions of race from a minority perspective and encouraged empathy. Gathering the viewpoints of other educators gave me a balance of views worthy of exploration. Based on the discussions I had, I could understand why an educator would say this in a world where there seems to be a negative preoccupation with removing other races and cultures who seem to impose on what is regarded as the ideal society both in America and in the United Kingdom.

One person’s comment to my enquiry went as follows:

” ... if we let children believe [grown-ups] always ‘see’ race and consider it a valid difference, an actual marker of difference, it reinforces the idea they are different because of race. They aren’t. They are different because of culture, tradition, and family. Those are the things teachers should see ... if we consider that teachers only look at the surface of a child, we are demeaning our work... Teachers shouldn’t see race, they should deliberately look past it.”

Another educator shared a personal experience:

” ... a teacher saying they don’t see race means that during their teaching, they don’t consider it as children are children and race makes no difference to the way they are taught. The same as when working with a colleague you don’t consider if they’re a different race or gender etc.; you just get on with them. ... But at times I’ve been asked by people why I work at the school I do and other questions—based on the cohort of children in my school—and it annoys me that people notice the colour of children’s skin first and make assumptions based on that—so I might say in those circumstances that I don’t see race—what I mean is, I see children first.”

Two very different views but both based on the fact that it was acceptable to say educators “don’t see race.” The first was summarised in the fact that we “shouldn’t see race” and must “deliberately look past it’ for fear of ‘demeaning our work.’ ” However, this is only justifiable based on the educator’s reference to teachers potentially “only” looking at “the surface of a child.” My argument here is if race is only what is seen, then that is the significant problem. A child is made up of many components, and although one educator lists them as “culture, tradition, and family,” I believe there are far more, including race and real-life experiences and interactions that affect prior and present knowledge. The concept of removing the race element from teaching and learning seems to be held in this perspective as a kind of power the educator has in order to not ‘let children believe’ grown-ups ‘always ‘see’ race’. As educators, I ask, should we have this kind of power over beliefs? Is it our job to influence beliefs by omission or openly address them once encountered or realised by the children?

In a world where every form is attached to a checklist of categories based on racial origin and every statistic is underpinned by racial demographics, are we honest in saying that “grown-ups” don’t always see race? To imply children are not different because of race is an ideal and, if anything, a utopian view of the world many perhaps wish we lived in. To prepare our children for life is not to deny them that which they will face but to empower them with the tools and facts that build their knowledge and understanding so that they can handle what life presents. By seeing race as well as all the other things that make up a child, you see every part of that child, not just the parts that make us as educators comfortable.

In fact, what “demeans our work” is thinking that children cannot handle this cognitive process of difference because it is perceived this will result in a negative understanding of that which makes us individuals. I experienced this recently when discussing the Holocaust with 10-to 11-year-old children where not one knew that racism played an implicit role in the near genocide of the Jewish people. By omitting such crucial understanding, how were they to truly know why anti-semitism is wrong or recognise this as racist if experienced?

The second perspective of an educator saying they didn’t see race was done to challenge obvious stereotypes that this educator experienced personally when stating they worked in a majority-ethnic- minority school. This educator felt it necessary to shame the perspectives into self-reflection by stripping away the race element in order to challenge these individuals to see the child first in terms of their humanity which is in kind with all races, not their colour first. Of course I understand why this would seem the appropriate response, especially when trying to be the least offensive. However, I ask, is it not right to bring such viewpoints to task by directly calling out such racial stereotypes for what they are?

Such attitudes make it important for us to show children racial discrimination is very much a part of seeing race, ensuring we teach along the laws of the land that wholly oppose such behaviours and treatments despite legal injustices still persisting. But is the racial stereotyping and discrimination the only view into race that must be explored? Certainly not. This is where the belief will come from, that seeing race is indeed a negative thing. What if these were balanced or even outdone by the wealth of positive discussions around race that existed from all viewpoints? Surely this would mean educators saw all there was to see about race as opposed to certain elements that would bring racial difference into disrepute.

Needless to say, throughout the discussion there were overwhelming opinions that I fully agreed with:

“It would presume that seeing colour is a bad thing. What is wrong with recognising people’s differences?

A fantastic rhetorical question that should really challenge every educator’s own view of race. Why is it that race is perceived as something one can choose to “unsee”? The fact is you cannot ignore the obvious but you can choose to. If this is a choice, I would ask educators what is at the root of this decision? Ignorance comes from not knowing. Therefore, not seeing race is a disregard of complete knowledge that renders us as educators ignorant. We cannot teach effectively from a position of limited knowledge in any instance.

“A teacher who doesn’t see race is one who is ignoring that personal and social factors do affect a child’s learning and achievement.”

“We see differences within our own race. ... I have brown hair while other “white” people have blond or red hair. We should be able to see / describe such “differences.” Seeing / commenting on race is only racist if there is racist intent!”

These points resounded with me. Race is a part of any human’s existence and very integral to their culture and belief systems. To ignore it is to ignore the full being of a child, and as educators, we ought not to fail on that. If we say every child has a voice and brings a unique experience which individualises our approach to classroom practice, then acknowledging race as a part of that being does not deny their myriad of complicit abilities as being determined by their race but celebrates the entirety of their existence and normalises their difference. Race isn’t a secret—it is a fact. And seeing it cannot be racist if done with positive intentions.

“By saying they don’t see race, they are ignoring racism and racial inequality rather than helping to solve it.”

Indeed, if an educator says they don’t see race, they will struggle with empathy and render themselves incapable of objectively handling any discrimination or unequal treatment a child may very well experience because their race has been used to negatively affect them. To invalidate race is to invalidate anybody’s experience of race. Educators must see race by embracing it as a positive which will in effect challenge stereotypes, racism, and ignorance and create inclusive classrooms and, hopefully, future societies.

Do not deny “the powerful gift of sight”

Dennis Griffin Jr. serves as the principal of Brown Deer Elementary School in Wisconsin. He has seven years of experience as a middle school educator and is entering his sixth year as an administrator. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies in educational leadership at Cardinal Stritch University. Dennis believes all students will be successful in school when they develop relationships with educators that value their gift, cultures, and individuality:

How do you identify Batman, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Iron Man, Captain America, or Superman? Your eyes connect with the hero, and very intricate details are sent to your brain. Their countenance, their costume, the color of their skin. The intricate details create your schema, which often tell you how to respond. Schema is a natural human reaction. Oftentimes our schema is the foundation for our biases. If you do not believe me, go back and read the names of the heroes I mentioned. Did your mind get a mental image of them? Was the mental image in color or was it black or white? Did you receive a particular reaction based on the hero?

My experiences as an African American male educator has often pushed the envelope on this conversation because I have often found myself being one of the few, if not the only educator of color in the room with my colleagues. There are times I have been the only educator of color that my students get to interact with. At my school, I am referred to as Batman (did a mental image of Batman enter your mind?). A few years ago, one of my students said to me, I do not mean to be disrespectful, Mr. Griffin, but you can’t be Batman. I knew where it was going and asked him why? He said because I was black, and Batman is white. My student clearly understood the dynamics of color in our society. Not only did he understand it, but the notion of me being Batman challenged his schema. We compared and contrasted me to the fictional character Bruce Wayne. The conversation left the young man with a shift in his paradigm, and he acknowledged that I was Batman for him and the students that I served.

It is often uncomfortable to discuss race with one another because of the history that our country was built upon. To say that we do not see color is in direct opposition to how our brains are naturally wired; more importantly, we are unable to create the diverse and equitable future that we deserve. I encourage you to begin to question your schema vs. denying the powerful gift of sight that has the power to connect us, validate us, and empower our communities on our journey.

Color is what makes this world so beautiful”

Amanda Koonlaba, Ed.S., is an educator with 15 years of classroom experience. She blogs at Party in the Art Room and serves as a content specialist with Education Closet. She is a sought-after consultant, speaker, and presenter for arts integration and STEAM. She was the Mississippi Elementary Art Educator of the Year in 2016:

I live in Mississippi, and many educators I know have been taught their whole lives not to “see color.” Having grown up the same way, I understand at the most basic level this is supposed to be about seeing human beings no matter what color their skin. That notion sounds well-meaning, but we have learned so much about diversity and inclusion in education in the past couple of decades. Those of us who acknowledge and understand how important it is to celebrate and embrace diversity have to be the leaders on this, especially in the South.

My children’s father is Thai. They have the most beautiful brown skin, and it has been interesting to me as a white parent to watch them develop their awareness of the differences in themselves and other children. I’ve known for a long time that “not seeing color” was not working, but my experiences as a mother have helped me better understand how to talk to others about it. My children have already experienced issues like being told they are white and their daddy is brown. They’ve heard strangers ask me if they “are mixed with something.” So, we have had to do a lot of talking about this in our home.

From my experiences as an educator and a parent, I have a simple phrase that I like to bring up when I hear another educator say they “don’t see color.”

It is OK to see color. Color is what makes this world so beautiful.

Most people know that I am an art teacher and a big advocate for arts education. So, when I put color into perspective like that, I can usually get them to agree with me on that statement. At this point, the door is open for a deeper conversation.

There are also so many great resources online that you can suggest to other educators. If you are so minded, there is a Facebook group called the National Anti-Racism Alliance that you can join. The community there will support you as you work with your colleagues, and you can find lots of great things to read on the subject there as well.

Thanks to Sheldon, Paula, Rebecca, Jodi, Kala, Dennis, and Amanda for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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