Teaching Colorblind

I was voluntold that I would be a great candidate for an ostensibly volunteer professional development workshop for middle school and high school mathematics and language arts teachers in our large suburban school district. The first two all-day meetings took place during the summer, which meant I didn’t have to prepare sub plans, and the topic was of some interest to me, so I amiably went along with the principal’s suggestion that I attend.

I had served as a Peace Corps volunteer teacher in Namibia for two years, and then gone back to school to get my teaching license. This was only my second year in the district, my third year teaching in the States. There were a number of unfamiliar faces. Fortunately there were some familiar ones, too, though I wasn’t always sure to which school the teacher belonged. I don’t remember now if we were seated with others from our building or if we were mixed into heterogeneous groups.

The presenter began with a PowerPoint, throwing up various slides with graphs and statistics, all pointing to the nefarious achievement gap that existed (and sadly likely still exists despite some concerted efforts to narrow and reduce it) between the performance of our predominantly White student population and that of our ever-increasing minority student population on a variety of performance markers, i.e. standardized tests, GPA, percentage of population in Advance Placement courses, etc. I’m not sure any of us were exactly surprised at the general tendency — who in Education hasn’t heard of the Achievement Gap? — but it was startling to see the hard numbers, to realize that these struggling students were the ones in our classes.

The presenter finished his opening remarks and as way of an icebreaker asked each of us to introduce ourselves and to tell the group how many minority students were in our classes at the end of last year. As I waited my turn, I thought back to my ninth and tenth grade classes in the spring. I picked out a few names, Royce, Kevin, Precious, and then I kind of drew a blank.

And then, of course, it was my turn to introduce myself and share the number of minority students I taught last year. I stood up and told everyone my name, and then proudly, thinking, I’ve got this, I said, “You know, I don’t know. Maybe six. I don’t really think about it. To me, kids are kids.” See everybody, I’m not racist. This achievement gap isn’t MY fault. I don’t pay attention to the color of my students.

It pains me to think about this now. I was so self-righteous. And I was so WRONG.

Over the course of the following year with monthly after school meetings, several pull-out days (where I did have to prepare guest teacher lesson plans), and a number of readings of both books (one I highly recommend is “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum) and articles, I came to learn that I was teaching colorblind.

By lumping everyone together, by trying to NOT see my students’ races, I was doing a disservice to my students of color by denying them a part of their identity. By attempting to ignore the labels our society, in its social construction of race, attaches to my minority students, I was, in effect, in their eyes, whitewashing them, as if their existence as non-Whites was wrong, was something to be covered up or disregarded, as if their racial identity was unimportant. And that was wrong.

Minority students’ racial identities are a part of them, to be SEEN and to be valued.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Brilliant Disguise.”

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6 thoughts on “Teaching Colorblind

  1. Ah, I remember when you reprimanded me, thinking I was colorblind. It makes sense, what you said. Addressing this issue is desperately necessary. The news is rife with racism and hate-inspired crimes. A growing concern as the world becomes more connected and injustices are more easily communicated using video.

    Being a white male, I’ve discovered that I’m wrongfully privileged based solely on my skin tone and gender. Equality is an easy concept, but difficult in implementation, it seems. Closeted racism and intolerance are making the fight for equality difficult. That was our original answer: ignore it, it’ll go away. Unfortunately, that is never the case. So ignored, hatred festers and grows.

    My first real glimpse into inequality was in college. I worked closely with a brilliant female engineering student. Her skill and knowledge far exceeded mine. She led the project I was on and did a wonderful job at it. I was surprised when she told me she’d encountered chauvinism. I didn’t see it, but I think that was because I was “gender blind”. Considering this now, I believe I was willfully ignorant of the problem.

    Now, with LGBT issues being so prominent, it makes sense to really examine ourselves as a culture and as individuals. These are all civil rights issues and must be confronted, as ugly as they are, so that we can grow beyond the hatred and ignorance.

    This, of course, starts at home with the lessons, intentional or not, that we teach our children. We need to examine ourselves to ensure that when our children mimic us, they are mimicking the qualities that make the world a better place.

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  2. I love it when I come upon a brilliantly constructed “new” word. “Voluntold” is such a wonderful word. Thank you, Regan. Now to my response to your post. The “problem” of race, gender, etc. . is one of truly Gordian proportions, and one that cannot be adequately addressed in such a small venue as this. That being said, I think part of the problem, and a very small part it is, has to do more with actions than thinking. “Seeing” people of different races, cultures, sexes (sexual/gender identities), political orientations, religions, or whatever the “flavor of the day” happens to be (there’s always something!) isn’t really the issue. It’s how we treat them that matters; treating people, however different they are from us, with equal respect is what matters. Of course, this is – as it always is – much more difficult to say than to do simply because they are “different”, at least on the surface. It takes a very special kind of person (and I’m sorry to say, I’m not always that special kind of person) to do this but that is not to say it can’t be done, only that it’s extremely difficult. When we begin to see “different people” as simply people, when we choose to look beyond all those things that, on the surface, separate us to the genuine person beyond, the person who hears and sees and feels and wants and needs the same things we do, in the same way we do, then – and only then – can we begin to be “colorblind’. -S-

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    1. Hi Steve, thanks for reading. I wish I could claim the credit for the clever creation of “voluntold,” but, alas, I cannot. I first heard it from a teaching colleague, Bev, and have been trying to use it when appropriate ever since as I agree with you about its brilliant construction.

      I concur wholeheartedly that actions are key, that all people, regardless of race, culture, primary language, gender identity, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness, political leaning, immigration status, spiritual beliefs or non-beliefs, etc. should be treated with respect by others despite differences in these areas.

      BUT it is our thinking about people in these different groups, our way of SEEING them that informs our actions.

      I get what you’re saying about looking beyond the surface to see how similar all people are; and I do think that this is important. As a Peace Corps Trainee, I can clearly remember coming to the realization that my Namibian host family was just like mine, that even though my Namibian grandmother, mother, and sisters spoke a language with clicks in it that I could not comprehend and lived thousands of miles from the place I called home, they were spending time together making jokes and talking about their days and demonstrating in these simple ways how much they cared for one another, just as my own family did. So, yes, I acknowledge that we all need to understand each person’s basic humanity, and treat all those different from us with respect, but I do think that there’s a danger in trying to be colorblind, trying to look past the differences (in whatever form they take).

      Let me try to explain further:

      Members of marginalized groups are denied privileges that those in the non-marginalized groups reap (often without any knowledge that the benefits are privileges denied others, or as Jim says the non-marginalized groups take things for granted that those in the marginalized group cannot). For example, because of our society of institutionalized racism, a Black male child (unlike my White male child) will at some point in his life, have to be told that people see him as dangerous, that just because of his skin color people will make assumptions about his intelligence, his financial stability, his right to be in a certain neighborhood, and so forth. My son has the privilege of not having to both be warned about this nor live in these circumstances. When I’m thinking about what I want to teach my son, how I want to teach him to love (and respect) all kinds of people, I have come to understand that I will have to explain to him that his Black male peers are NOT like him in ways other than their skin color, because they will have experienced the world from a different vantage. He will need to understand that his life is different because he is a White male, that he has privileges that he didn’t ask for, but which he benefits from all the same, and which he receives at the detriment to those different than him. I want him to understand that sadly, a Black male has these additional burdens placed upon him by society.

      Additionally, members of marginalized groups may experience situations differently because of their membership in a particular group. Take the classroom, for instance. In a testing situation, a Black student may experience stereotype threat. (Stereotype threat is the fear of fulfilling a negative stereotype for a given social group.) The negative stereotype in this instance is that Black students struggle academically. As a teacher, I can help mitigate this stereotype threat by acknowledging the student’s previous successes, or complimenting his or her diligent work throughout the unit, or reminding the student of my belief in his or her academic ability. But I cannot do those things if I don’t see the student as different, if I don’t pay attention to the way those differences might affect the student.

      Finally, members of marginalized groups have valuable perspectives to share with those outside of those groups. By not seeing differences, we miss out on learning, learning about other cultures, other languages, other ways of looking at the world.

      So, in summation, I guess I want to say that if we fail to recognize people’s differences from us, we fail to see how those differences have shaped who they are and how they experience life, and we also fail to see their uniqueness. Being colorblind shortchanges us and those we are seeing.

      Phew, I might have to copy this into a new post elaborating on colorblindness. Thanks for helping me get more of my thoughts down.

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