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Classroom Q&A

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

The ‘Colorblindness’ of Schools Has ‘Failed Children of Color’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 07, 2019 11 min read
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(This the first post in a special six-part series.)

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: Racism is obviously a huge problem in our country and in our schools. Unfortunately, one of the many ways it manifests itself is when teachers say they “don’t see race” or they “don’t see color” and when our school instituations exhibit the very same attitude.

Many responses to this question will be published here over the next 10 months.To start us off, 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, will be guest-hosting and editing several posts over the next 10 days. You can read her introduction to the series here.

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.’ ”

Today’s responses are 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.

Response From Judd Rothstein

Judd Rothstein began his teaching career as a social studies teacher in Rye, N.Y. He is currently serving as the assistant principal of Pelham Memorial High School and pursuing an Ed.D. in educational leadership at Fordham University:

An Alternative Perspective on Colorblindness

“For the most part, we all existed in harmony, but there were a few key moments in which I learned that harmony—the absence of outright conflict—often leaves deeper complications untouched.”

- Austin Channing Brown

I equate teachers who insist that they “don’t see color” to photographers who simply point their camera at an object, look through the viewfinder, and click the button. It’s not necessarily that the teachers are consciously doing their students a disservice, but their declaration, which is myopic at best and deleterious at worst, precludes true and authentic teaching and learning. Similarly, the photographers may believe that they are capturing an image in its true form and essence and rendering it indelible, but they fail to recognize their limiting and simplistic action.

Photographers have so many different options at their fingertips. They could decide to change the lens in order to capture a minute detail or to frame a much wider perspective. They could adjust their filters to bring out different colors and accentuate particular details and aspects of the object. They could alter the aperture, thus determining what remains in focus and what becomes blurry. All of these different choices provide tools to improve the viewing experience and enrich the potential of the photograph.

Teachers who recognize that they must see color to truly reach all the learners in their classrooms also wield these tools. These educators are well served by understanding the historical background of the negative effects that colorblindness has had on populations of students who have been “othered” throughout history.

In Unlearning colorblind ideologies in education, Jung-ah Choi wrote “King (1991), refers to colorblindness as ‘dysconscious racism’ since colorblind ideology sustains and justifies the culture of power.” This culture of power was well-established in American educational history. In the wake of the Civil War and the establishment of Freedmen’s Bureau schools, through the Jim Crow era in the North and South, and into the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, pedagogical colorblindness proliferated because relying on a traditional curriculum and sanitized instruction was a de facto approach taken by those who had learned under the same structure and who saw no reason to disrupt it. Before, and even after, the rise of Black Nationalism, which finally witnessed an emphasis on Black Studies, classrooms of diverse students learned about the contributions from white male mathematicians and scientists, read books by white authors, and studied an American history rife with white founding fathers, white male entrepreneurs, and white hero figures.

The implicit biases of these teachers resulted in colorblind teaching and perpetuated a one-sided, limited curriculum that didn’t value or emphasize teaching to or about “others.” Jenny Gordon writes in Inadvertent complicity: Colorblindness in teacher education: “Colorblindness is a bid for innocence, an attempt to escape our responsibility for our white privilege. By claiming innocence, we reconcile ourselves to racial irresponsibility.” This irresponsibility is damaging to both our students of color and our white students, but it does not have to continue unchecked.

The teacher who employs a “my-students-are-all-the-same-in-my-eyes” mentality misses the opportunity to draw from the strengths of a diverse set of learners, to acknowledge and study the historical and institutional hardships they faced and still face, and to work toward creating empathy and understanding among the students who don’t bring the same experiences to the classroom. Curriculum isn’t monolithic; it is layered, nuanced, and sometimes painful.

Teachers who view their lessons and students in a one-size-fits-all construct fail to capitalize on the assets in front of them. Imagine a humanities teacher trying to help her students investigate and analyze the events in Ferguson or Charlottesville and not being cognizant of how discussing and learning about the precipitating actions in both cases could specifically impact students of color to a larger degree. The teacher should want to first understand the perspectives and opinions of the students of color, then provide an opportunity for their feelings to be validated and heard, and finally create learning experiences for all students that foster empathy and create consensus around a positive path forward. Imagine a music teacher choosing a program for a concert that exclusively consists of pieces from the traditional canon (white male composers) or an art teacher choosing to teach about schools of art from a purely Western tradition.

Those teachers should want to choose among a multitude of genres and techniques not only to represent the contributions of cultures that are present in their class but also to expose all their students to variegated styles in order to enrich their learning and provide more examples to connect to and draw from. Some of the greatest lessons that I have observed involved teachers who were perspicacious enough to incorporate their students’ experiences and cultural understanding into the learning. During these lessons, student voices are amplified, student engagement increases, differences become an opportunity for unity and acceptance rather than divisiveness, and the “deeper complications start to be touched,” as the teachers use all their tools to bring depth, focus, and perspective to their teaching.

See References here.

Response From Terri N. Watson, Ph.D.

Terri N. Watson, PhD is an associate professor of educational leadership at the City College of New York, the City University of New York. A Harlem native, her research examines the practices of successful school leaders and the impact of education policies on children of color. See her Ed Week series on “How should schools and districts respond to discipline disparities affecting black girls?here.

The Problem With Colorblindness and Other Misnomers

In 1935, African American scholar, historian, sociologist, and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois asked the age-old question, “Does the Negro need separate schools?” His response troubled America’s problem with race and highlighted the impact of racism on the schooling of black children. Importantly, Du Bois surmised:

The proper education of any people includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil; knowledge on the part of the teacher, not simply of the individual taught, but of his [her] surroundings and background, and the history of his [her] class and group (p. 328).

For Du Bois, in order for “any people” to be successfully educated, teachers must be made aware of not only “who” they are but also “whose” they are. Meaning, children need teachers to understand them as individuals and as members of a cultural group who have a shared identity and agency. Du Bois rightly understood that relationships were fundamental to teaching and learning and that if teachers failed to ‘see’ their students, they would be neither effective nor affective in their instruction.

Historically, the places that we call schools have consistently failed children of color in general—black boys and girls in particula—under the guise of “colorblindness.” This reality is confirmed in the opportunity gaps, graduation rates, and school discipline data culled from schools across the nation. Ironically, when educators assert that they are colorblind, they are proclaiming that they “don’t see race” and that they treat all children the same. This is troubling on several fronts. For one, as racism is systemic and pervasive in schools, teachers must be keenly aware of their students’ racial identity and culture. Historian and scholar Ibram X. Kendi explained in How to be an antiracist that until we become part of the solution, we are by default part of the problem. Hence, if we are to reimagine schools as equitable and loving places, teachers must “see” their students in all of their beautiful hues and practice anti-racism. The latter is a transformational concept that challenges teachers to think of themselves and their students in new and liberating ways.

Next, it must be noted that colorblindness is antithetical to teaching and learning as it treats all children the same. Children should not be treated the same: They are inherently different. As such, rather than sameness, children must be treated equitably. To do so, teachers must “see” the whole child. And, as race and culture are central to one’s identity, teachers must understand, appreciate, and respect their students’ racial identities and cultures. Furthermore, effective/affective teachers find ways to help students understand, appreciate, and respect all races and cultures. In her text, Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, noted activist and scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings found that good teachers employ a rigorous curriculum that is culturally relevant. Accordingly, rather than being colorblind, effective/affective teachers celebrate diversity while providing all students with the opportunity to learn and grow.

Last, the practice of colorblindness is problematic because it serves to privilege whiteness, a social construct created to give people who identify as white material advantages. In addition, when coupled with femininity, whiteness serves to further disenfranchise black girls from their respective school community. This is particularly alarming due to the fact that black girls have unfailingly led the charge for equitable and socially just schools. The following section details the efforts of Sarah Roberts, Linda Brown, and Barbara Rose Johns—trailblazers who helped change the course of public education:

Sarah Roberts was born in 1845 and was the first black girl to lead the charge for equitable schooling. At the age of 5, she was mandated to attend a segregated school that was located several miles from her home and in disrepair. After losing her lawsuit against the city, she petitioned Boston’s legislative body for several years, protesting the city’s “separate and unequal” public schools. As a result of Sarah’s actions, in 1855, Massachusetts became the first state to ban segregated schooling.

Linda Brown and her parents were part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) suit. Like Sarah Roberts, Linda was denied entry into her neighborhood school based on the color of her skin. As a 3rd grader, she was forced to walk over an hour and across dangerous railroad tracks to attend an all-black school. In 1951, Linda’s parents (Oliver and Darlene Brown) joined nearly a dozen other black families and filed a class action against the board of education of the city of Topeka, Kan.

Barbara Rose Johns. The Brown case was a combination of five lawsuits (Brown v. Board of Education, Briggs v. Elliot, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Gebhart v. Belton, and Bolling v. Sharpe). Of the five suits, Davis was the only one that began as a student protest, and 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns led the dissent. She organized a schoolwide boycott and led 450 classmates to the homes of school board members in an effort to make them aware of the deplorable conditions of their high school.

In sum, in response to the question, “Does the Negro need separate schools?” I argue, “No. Black children do not need separate schools.” All children need teachers who are anti-racist and utilize culturally relevant curricula. Moreover, teachers must understand how whiteness functions to marginalize black girls in the classroom and endeavor to find meaningful ways to transform schools into equitable and loving learning communities.

See References here.

Look for Part Two in a few days....

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