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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

When People Say They Don’t See Race, ‘I Ask Them If They Don’t See Me’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 17, 2019 13 min read
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(This the fifth post in a special six-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four 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 in this 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 will explore: “Why colorblindness continues to be perpetuated in the field of education and the cost of not addressing it.”

Today’s responses come from Dr. Marcelle Mentor, Jane Bolgatz, and Dr. Akane Zusho.

Response From Dr. Marcelle Mentor

Dr. Marcelle Mentor is a lecturer in the English Education Department at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is an activist, a mother of two sons, a wife, a researcher, a scholar, and teller of stories. She believes in equality in access of education for all.

On being racially colorblind

“Never trust anyone who says they do not see color. This means to them, you are invisible.” - Nayyirah Waheed (Poet)

Having been born and raised in Apartheid South Africa, I was attuned to be acutely aware of my race as I grew up in law-enforced segregated living and educational environments. I experienced my elementary, high school, and undergrad education in institutes demarcated for coloured children. When starting my career as a high school teacher in 1992, as a coloured person, I could only apply to coloured schools. Post-apartheid, in the year 2000, was I was able to apply and teach at a school that had previously only accepted white students. Race and color delineation were completely ingrained in me. Everything about me was seen through the lens of my race definition.

After moving to New York City in 2005, I was not prepared for the very clear lines of racial discrimination in the U.S.A. The laws may have been erased from the law books, but a very definitive and effective system of racial disparity was—to my very trained eye—quite apparent in the educational spaces I navigated in N.Y.C. Money and real estate (ownership of property) were used as ways to make clear delineations based on class and were sophisticated, effective ways of keeping black and brown children out of schools that were higher resourced and in better neighborhoods. So, when people, here, in the U.S.A. tell me they don’t see race, or they’re colorblind, I scoff at them and ask them if they don’t see me.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes that colorblind racism is a post-civil-rights-era form of racism that has a " ... suave, apparently nonracial character ...” but nonetheless " ... is still about justifying the various social arrangements and practices that maintain white privilege.” This is the ugly truth based within this seemingly benign play of colorblindness. It is violent because of its very insidious nature. To many, a spirit of colorblindness characterizes the beginning of a “post-racial” society, but research indicates that colorblindness may actually propagate existing racial inequities. When race is made salient, people shift from viewing colorblindness as a distributive principle (i.e., everyone should have equal outcomes) to viewing it as a procedural principle (i.e., everyone should receive equal treatment, regardless of existing race-based inequalities).

I would argue that when we say that we are racially colorblind, we render black and brown bodies invisible and we render their experiences, lives, and traumas moot and mute. We silence whole truths and whitewash a very real and painful history of people across the U.S.A.

Rather than disregarding the race-based inequalities rampant in our schools and general society, I would urge that we instead address the intricacies of:

· Unpacking privilege

· Acknowledging racial trauma

· Implicit bias training

· Diversity training

The fact that our students are bombarded with images and incidents on social and mainstream media means that they have access to, may be victims of, and, sometimes, are complicit in racial discrimination. In my recent work with Literacy Unbound, an initiative that runs out of Teachers College, Columbia University, we studied and “remixed” Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Some of the teacher and student players asked who we should cast as Janie; for instance, what about talent? Could only a person of color play Janie’s role? This led us to look into the literature on colorblind casting and to explore some deep and troubling occasions where white actors had played the roles of characters who were of color. We also spent time reading about, questioning, and discussing blackface. As I work with teachers and facilitate teacher trainings, I find it imperative to make sure we speak about cultural references. It is also important that I model these teaching practices for students as they occur in the classroom day to day.

Thus, as educators we are called to see each of our students as individuals. We have to acknowledge their lived experience in order to help them navigate the world they live in. The world we live in is unfair and unjust; it discriminates on the basis of race, class, culture, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc. As educators, we are called to teach for social justice and to care for and love all students. Ascribing to the values of colorblind racial ideology makes our teaching less effective. As Evan P. Apfelbaum, Michael I. Norton, and Samuel R. Sommers write, “Shutting our eyes to the complexities of race does not make them disappear but does make it harder to see that color blindness often creates more problems than it solves.”

See references here.

Response From Jane Bolgatz

Jane Bolgatz is an associate professor of social studies teacher education at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education. She also teaches in Fordham’s Contemporary Learning and Interdisciplinary Research doctoral program.

A Conversation between educators about “seeing color”

Robin DiAngelo suggests that people often think of racism as individual, prejudiced people using racist terms, denying a person a job because of their race, or otherwise discriminating. But racism also happens when individuals claim to not “see color.” Nancy DiTomaso writes that white people enact racist policies and foster discriminatory practices unless we self-consciously do something different. As a white person, it is especially important for me to understand how race operates. Feigning ignorance about the ways that whiteness benefits me and hurts people of color by not seeing color is not only dishonest, it is harmful and dehumanizing.

Colorblindness,” color-evasiveness, and white ignorance all serve to support, reproduce, and adapt white domination in our society. Networking and implicit bias are examples. I have networks of contacts through my work, alumni connections, place of worship, and extended family. I can use those networks to help other people secure educational and economic opportunities. Unless I consciously think about race—that is, unless I “see color"—I will not know that my networks are predominantly white and therefore, because networks are self-referential, most often advance opportunities for other white people. Moreover, I have biases toward people in my in-group that I am not even aware of. Implicit bias can compound the effect of my white-promoting network.

Below is a conversation I might have with a colleague who claims she does not see color:

Ellen: I don’t think I should see color.

Jane: Why not?

Ellen: If I don’t see color, then I won’t be prejudiced.

Jane: I certainly don’t want you to be prejudiced. But let’s celebrate racial differences. We want all students to know that they are beautiful. When we say we don’t see color, we normalize whiteness and convey the message that students of color should be ashamed of their race.

Ellen: To tell you the truth, I’m scared to say anything about race. I’m white. What can I say?

Jane: I hear you. Talking about race and racism can be challenging. You can start by mentioning race. Instead of saying, “See the lady in the blue coat,” if she is white, say “See the white lady in the blue coat.” And then you can start to ask questions. “When I look at my students’ grades, I see patterns that fall along racial lines. What might be going on here?” You might discover that you have biases that you didn’t know about. The only way you can tackle these implicit biases is to investigate them. You are probably going to make some mistakes, but it is better to try and talk about race than not.

Ellen: Why? Why can’t I just teach?

Jane: Teaching involves seeing the students in front of us, understanding and appreciating them. If students don’t feel valued and respected, how can they learn? But “seeing color” is not just about the color of people’s skin. Seeing color means understanding that our lives are forged through racialized experiences and histories. Race positions students. For example, I have had particular educational and economic experiences because I am white, and my white son has advantages as a result.

Ellen: How?

Jane: Despite being Jewish, my dad’s whiteness enabled him to buy a home in an all-white community. Precisely because it was in an all-white (read “good”) neighborhood, the value of that home increased over time. My white parents could borrow against the value of that home to send me to private school and college without a lot of student debt. In turn, then, I could buy my first home and accumulate more of my own wealth. I can give my son all sorts of enrichment activities like expensive private music lessons (Hamilton, Darity, Price, Sridharan & Tippett. 2015).

Ellen: So, isn’t it all about class differences?

Jane: You can’t separate race and class. My white family is able to go to “better” schools and accumulate wealth because of racism. When whites think too many people of color are moving into a neighborhood, they leave or are not willing to pay as much for the real estate there. You need to see race in that dynamic. You need to understand your own and your students’ racialized experiences.

Ellen: So what am I supposed to do? I can’t solve these huge issues.

Jane: No, but you can make sure that your words and actions do not position whites and whiteness as normal and good and everyone else as different or “other” (Kay, 2018). How does your curriculum help students celebrate diversity? Who are the characters in the books your students are reading? What are the names and where are the settings in the math problems your students are solving? And how does the curriculum help students interrogate injustice? Who is central in the histories you are teaching and who is on the periphery? Who are you using as model scientists? Artists? Musicians? Do students learn how people have perpetuated and fought racist systems (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2016)?

Ellen: OK. But what if parents complain?

Jane: Your school probably has a mission statement that says something about preparing citizens for democracy or for our global society. Pretty hard to do that if you do not talk about race, racism, and equity (Bolgatz, 2005). Think about “seeing color” like teaching fractions. You wouldn’t avoid fractions because you might make a mistake, or a student might ask a question you cannot answer, or parents don’t like your approach. You get in there and tackle the subject. Do the same with race and racism. Our humanity is at stake.

See References and Resources for conversations about race here.

Response From Dr. Akane Zusho

Dr. Akane Zusho is currently a professor of educational psychology in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. She received her B.A. and M.A. in psychology as well as her Ph.D. in education and psychology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Uncloaking the Model Minority Myth

What comes to mind when you think of Asian Americans? Often, you hear comments such as, “Oh, they’re good at math and science,” or that “They’re quiet and studious—they all want to be doctors and lawyers.” Such comments often perpetuate the model minority myth (MMM)—a stereotype that suggests that Asian Americans are more academically and economically successful than other racial minority groups given their hard work, perseverance, and their unabiding belief in the American dream.

However, it is important to note that the MMM is much more than a stereotype. The term dates back to a New York Times Magazine article during the civil rights era, where it was used by William Petersen to advance the myth of meritocracy and ultimately, white supremacy. In the article, Petersen attributed the success of Japanese Americans to their “Tokugawa” values of diligence and need for achievement—at once valorizing and othering Japanese Americans to shame African Americans—a process described by Claire Jean Kim as racial triangulation.

Racial triangulation occurs through two intertwined processes (Kim, 1999; Poon et al., 2016). It occurs when a dominant group (whites) partially validates or valorizes another minoritized group (Asian Americans) to shame a third group (African Americans). However, in an effort to limit the political and civic voice of the valorized group, emphasis is placed on their “foreignness,” effectively othering middleman minorities such as Asian Americans. Petersen did this, for example, by referring to Japanese Americans’ Tokugawa values, insinuating that their values could never be American.

The process of racial triangulation—of which the MMM is a prime example—essentially places Asian Americans in a racial bind between whites and other people of color. To that end, as Poon and her colleagues underscore, “the MMM is not simply a stereotype of self-sufficient, high-academic minority achievement. Instead, it is a much more insidious racial device used to uphold a global system of racial hierarchies and White supremacy” (p. 474). It has resulted in the homogenization of Asian groups into an Asian/Pacific Islander panethnicity, effectively silencing the lived experiences of members of Pacific Islander and indigenous populations. It is the embodiment of cultural racism—a tool used to distract us from scrutinizing how systems of white dominance are replicated and maintained.

Indeed, it has even distracted well-minded scholars. A recent review of the literature on the MMM has found that much of the scholarly conversation at the higher education level has focused primarily on discrediting it, rather than critically analyzing its origins and its intent (Poon et al., 2016). In doing so, we have more often than not fallen prey to a deficit narrative by pointing to statistics on educational failure and experiences with barriers to success, thereby highlighting educational deficits among certain segments of the Asian population.

We cannot afford to be distracted any longer. There is too much at stake. Rather than pitting one group against another, we need to promote a narrative that builds all students up—a narrative that documents the diverse lived experiences of all students and that highlights the factors that allows them to thrive and not just survive. To do that, we could all benefit from a more critical race perspective on our work. Let us move on from the MMM.

See References here.

Look for Part Six 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.