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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

There Isn’t a ‘Switch’ That Blocks Out Race in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 13, 2019 6 min read
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(This the third post in a special six-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 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 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.

These next two posts will answer 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., contribute answers in today’s column.

Response From Jehan Pitt

Jehan Pitt is a N.Y.C. public school student and a current senior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, president of the Flatlands Leo’s Club, member of Teens Take Charge, and youth ambassador for Organizing for Equity New York:

The Nature of Being Human

The best response to give to educators who assert that “they do not see race” while teaching, is that they are blatantly lying to not come off as a racist or biased. There is no switch that works for the purpose of blocking out race while you are teaching in the classroom. As bullheaded or ignorant as this may sound coming from a high school senior, it is, in fact, the truth.

Before being a teacher, you are a human being. A component of the psyche in all human beings is pointing out the differences in each other (intentionally or unintentionally). We are all guilty of it. To believe that the profession of being a teacher supersedes the nature of being human is surreal. Claiming to “not see race” while teaching is impossible and conveys the opposite message from what is, hopefully, the intention of the majority of teachers. A better claim for teachers would be to accept the fact that they do see race while they teach and make it clear that race is not a deterrent since teaching is their priority. This was the perspective of all the teachers I have had in my educational career.

Throughout my educational career in the New York City public school system, I have attended schools where the majority of the student population is black. However, the compilation of teachers I’ve had has been very diverse. There has never been a moment where I have questioned whether or not a teacher was racist because they saw our (students) skin tones and were focused on our work ethic. The symbiotic relationship of the teachers being as committed to teaching as we are to learning caused me to flourish inside and outside the classroom. It is truly a blessing.

I cannot even begin to imagine how students of teachers who claim “they do not see race” bear it. If those were my circumstances, it would honestly be horrific and saddening. Questions such as, “How do you now see me once the last school bell rings?,” “Do you accept me as a student, or is this all a facade because it is part of your job description?” would circulate through my brain, and [I imagine] a greater rift between teachers and students might be created which may cause the quality of educational experience for that semester or term to be limited.

Response From Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, Ph.D.

Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, Ph.D., is assistant medical professor at the City University of New York School of Medicine in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Biomedical Sciences. She is a neuroscientist, a mom of two boys, and an activitist in support of educational equity and anti-racist practices:

Implicit Bias Training Is Part of Creating Culturally Responsive Classrooms

The clinical definition of colorblindness is an inability to distinguish between certain colors; it is a color vision deficiency that is inherited more so in men than in women. In education, “colorblindness” is a common ideology that erases the notion that privilege exists and all of our students are created equal. The clinical term is supposed to be a metaphor for the ideological concept; however, they are very different. Although for decades we all thought this was how we should train educators, to believe all children are equal in our classrooms, science has shown us the opposite is true.

When taking a holistic look at critical race theory, cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and sociology, we now understand that by supporting the ideology of “colorblindness” we continue to negate the systemic and institutional racism that exists in our schools. This ideology erases the fact that educators come with their implicit biases to the classroom that support racialized structures and pedagogical practices that can be traumatic for children. One effective way to counter colorblindness is by intentionally recognizing and engaging in implicit-bias training for parents and educators as partners in the support of children and their learning.

Although my Afro-Latinx child attends one of the most integrated, progressive schools in New York City, at the age of 6, as we were walking into his school building, he asked me, “Mami, when are the brown kids going to stop competing with the white kids?” I was shocked and dismayed by this statement. His teacher was Puerto Rican, his paraprofessional was black, and most of the children in his classroom were of color.

I am one of the fortunate parents whose child attends a school that is intentional about culturally responsive practices and was able to bring my concerns to his teacher and principal. They had conversations to follow up with him and his classmates about their feelings and race and were intentional about addressing his needs directly, in order to make him feel seen and heard. Unfortunately, my son’s experience is not unique and is often shared by the students we serve. Biases that are cognitively consolidated in our brains, constantly reinforced by society, media, books, and our own experiences regulate our behaviors and how we engage socially, as parents, educators, and citizens.

In order to disrupt these cognitive schemas, in ourselves and the students that we serve, we must expose the brain to counternarratives and actively engage in anti-racist work. For white people, this means acknowledging their power and privilege and elevating students of color. It means looking for creative and intentional ways to create inclusive and equitable classrooms by embracing culturally responsive practices that support children for who and where they are. For people of color, it means acknowledging that we exist in systems that have been colonized and that students are suffering from our lack of training on how to dismantle Eurocentric practices in the classroom. Therefore, anti-bias training is an initial step to disrupting colorblindness or any other ideology or theory of practice that erases race in the classroom. It is a way to actively disrupt these unconscious, but deeply ingrained, ideas that can cause harm to our most vulnerable students.

Our brains will tap into their cognitive schemas in less than two seconds to make judgments based on stigma and stereotypes consolidated in our brain when presented with a problem. However, if we wait six more seconds, our brain has the ability to tap into new information and tap into cortical regions that will allow it time to engage in adaptive-learning processes that disrupt bias. Six seconds that could change someone’s life forever.

See References here.

Look for Part Four in a few days...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.