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.”