Antiracist Activism for Teachers and Students/Points to Consider for Teaching Anti-racism/Colorblind Racial Ideology
Color-blind refers to the belief that race does not matter in a social context or that it is neutral in a social context. Color-blindness keeps people from raising concerns and questioning the value of race and racial inequalities in daily experiences. Similarly, those who hold a color-blind view are essentially ignoring race and helping to perpetuate racism in society. People will claim that a person of color is playing the “race card” or using “identity politics” to push racial matters into situations where they believe they simply do not apply.
According to Bonilla-Silva (2003), there are “four frames” of color-blindness: abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism, and minimization of racism. Abstract liberalism is when people apply abstract or decontextualized ideas about people of color, such as being supportive of equal opportunity, but in reality rationalizing racially unfair situations or opportunities. Naturalization uses the belief that things are the way they are because it is “natural.” Oftentimes this explanation is used when a White person is explaining the existence of racially or ethnically distinct neighborhoods, the limited contact between Whites and people of color, or why there are clear differences in academic success between Whites and some other racial groups. Cultural racism is when people believe people are supposed to stick with their own culture in social situations and is used to justify people’s positions of power in society. Minimization of racism states that racism no longer exists because it is not in the legal system anymore and life is fine now. Therefore people believe that racism is really not the cause of social injustice but that it is the individuals or particular racial groups own doing as a result of a “bad attitude,” or a not very good work ethic. This attitude results in the belief that everyone is treated equally.
Colorblind Racial Ideology in the Classroom and How to Minimize it
Over the years, there has been a great attempt in the educational system to address issues of inequality. Schools have been legally desegregated, communities are becoming more diverse and some schools are even implementing multi-cultural curriculum. Although laws have been put in place, many schools are still mostly segregated, and there is an over-representation of students of color placed in special education. Many people do not see this as a racial issue because of the laws that have been put in place to combat inequality in education. People have taken the stance that racism is over and they do not see color; therefore, race has nothing to do with why particular school districts are segregated or why students of color get put in special education moreso than their white counterparts.
In this chapter, we will try to expose racism within classrooms through the lens of color-blindness. We will examine the different ways that color-blindness can enter the classroom through what teachers say and the curriculum. We will further explore the ways that this affects students’ opportunities to learn about race and racism.
Examples of Color-Blindness in the Classroom
“I’m not prejudice, I don’t notice any differences in these kids, I treat them all the same” (Tatum, 1999)
The above quote is an excerpt from an interview conducted by Beverly Tatum and is a classic example of how teachers are ignoring race in their classrooms. When teachers say they “don’t notice any differences in these kids,” they are trying to convey their unbiased ideology towards their students. When a teacher implements this ideology in the classroom, however, he/she is causing more harm than good. By treating students the same way, a teacher is actually ignoring the cultural and ethnic differences that exist between the students. The teacher may impose their own culture and ethnic background on their students without having an understanding of their students' needs. This way of teaching can hold some students back and may be the cause for why some students get labeled with learning disabilities.
In Frank Fingarsen’s piece, “Why Do You Force Your Ways?” the author talks about a seemingly troublesome student, Matthew, who just didn’t want to learn. According to his teacher, Matthew’s “school work was dismal,” “his work was of poor quality, his study habits were atrocious, and his attitude towards school was even worse” (Fingarsen, 2006). Fingarsen was determined to change his student’s ways, however, when he met with Matthew’s father, Matthew’s father was actually the one who changed Fingarsen’s ways.
Fingarsen believed that Matthew could not learn because whatever method he used seemed to fail. Fingarsen had assumed that his student had a learning disability and that his attitude meant he did not care about learning. He met with his father to discuss the situation and the meeting turned out to be pivotal for both teacher and student. Matthew’s father pointed out that his son was not learning because Fingarsen was not using Matthew’s experience to relate to the materials in class. Fingarsen realized he had imposed his own values and ways of learning onto his student. If he wanted Matthew to learn, he would have to relate the material in class to that of Matthew’s background and not his own (Fingarsen, 2006).
Matthew’s story is a great example of how teachers use color-blindness in the classroom without realizing the harmful effects it can have on students. By ignoring his student’s culture, Fingarsen was led to believe that his student was in need of remedial help. Without becoming aware of his biases, Fingarsen may have continued to treat Matthew as a remedial student, which could have had detrimental consequences such as Matthew losing interest in school or being placed in special education.
“I treat students as if they’re like my own children” (Delpit, 1990)
It is not uncommon to hear teachers use this phrase when asked how they treat their students. Teachers may feel that by comparing their students to their own children it will prove they do not treat students with a certain bias. As well-intentioned as this statement may be, it also implies that teachers expect their students to have the same knowledge and background as their own children, and in theory, themselves. For many White teachers working in predominantly non-White school systems, the misconception that students possess the same knowledge as their own children can lead to many obstacles. When teachers instruct their students based on what they believe they should already know, some students may get left behind. In other words, “the child who did not come to school already rimed with what was to be presented would be labeled as needing “remedial” instruction from day one; indeed, this determination would be made before he or she was ever taught” (Delpit, 91). Students as early as kindergarten get held back due to this type of approach.
By taking this approach, teachers are not recognizing differences in culture and again may impose their own culture onto their students. For example, if a White student threw a book on the floor and the White teacher asked the student whether or not the book belonged on the floor, the White student would most likely pick up on the cue to pick up the book or get in trouble. A student from a different culture may not comprehend a subtle hint and may take the question at face value leading them to not pick up the book. Something so simple could lead to some students getting labeled as trouble makers when in fact it could be remedied by something as simple as a more direct response from the teacher such as “please pick up the book”. Because of the cultural difference between a teacher and a student, a student may not pick up on these veiled commands (Delpit, 93) and, as a result, could be labeled as having behavioral problems.
Just Another “kid put down” (Lewis, 2001)
Amanda E. Lewis found clear examples of color-blind racism from the ethnographic case study that she conducted at Foresthills Elementary (2001). Lewis’s study found that White students learn racist thoughts and behaviors from their parents and schooling ideology. Color-blind racism was most apparent when racial conflicts occurred between students as well as during explanations of the multicultural curriculum of the school. For example, when the only biracial child in a fourth grade class was called “N…” by a White student and soon after “Blackie” by another White student, the teachers and principle explained to Lewis that the child was “misunderstanding” the significance of race in these situations. The teacher further explained that the child would often play the “race card” in her reasons why she didn’t like school. The teachers were minimizing racism by explaining the child misunderstood the comments and by claiming that race was not the reason for the child’s unhappiness. By not taking the opportunity to educate the children on the harmful effect of the words used, the children were left with no understanding of what racism or racist acts are. This example demonstrates the teacher’s tolerance for the use of racial slurs as just being like another “kid put down” (Lewis, 2001). The biracial child was viewed by the teachers as the one who had the problem and was making a big deal out of nothing. Acts such as this can lead a child to lose interest in school, detach from others, and decrease his/her academic performance.
Color-blindness ideologies held by teachers are rooted in the claim that teachers do not see color, but just children. A teacher from a different school claimed that she “Wouldn’t even be able to tell ..how many African-American, Latino or Asian students she had in her class because she just didn’t ‘notice’ such things” (Lewis, 2001, pp. 792). Later in the same interview, the teacher explained she felt that Blacks and Latinos did not have the same sense of success or concept of what success is, compared to White and Asian students. As often occurs with color-blind ideology, the teacher who claimed not to see race also held racial biases based on stereotypes. She claimed to support equal treatment of all her students, but at the same time she separated the meaning of success by racial groups.
The teachers' lack of support for multicultural education was another example of the color-blind ideology used at Foresthills Elementary. As part of Lewis’s ethnographic study, she posed questions about the multicultural curriculum in the school. The teachers and principal responded their school was not diverse, therefore, race was not an issue and multicultural activities were not important for their students (Lewis, 2001). This finding demonstrates the color blind view that race is only an issue for people of color. The teachers’ and principal’s color-blindness was being used as a reason for not incorporating cultural, ethnic or racial differences in their curriculum, thus limiting the education of their students. Without a multi-cultural curriculum, students do not learn how to view the world through different lenses which can lead to the continuation of institutional racism through the education system. A multi-cultural curriculum places value on race, ethnicity, and cultural practices that allows students to value differences in our society. The standard curriculum can help perpetuate the belief that White cultures and lessons are the only ones of value and are the “right” lessons to teach. The color-blind ideologies of teachers are further supported within the curriculum and classroom resources, including textbooks, toys, lesson plans and large group activities.
Color blindness is also prevalent in most school curricula as well as many lesson plans and student activities. Teachers do not recognize the diversity in their classroom and implement lessons that cater primarily to White middle class students. Many teachers in elementary and middle schools focus on a curriculum that is geared to White students and, as a result, students of color develop tendencies of dissatisfaction with school because they feel that the material presented is not relevant to them.
In the current curriculum, teachers focus on the basic subjects such as mathematics, reading/language arts, science and social studies. Teachers do not focus on nor implement multiculturalism in their classrooms. Many feel they are being sensitive to both students of color as well as White students by the textbooks they use in their classrooms. Most textbooks have pictures portraying White students studying as well as being the heroes throughout history. The problem with these textbooks is that they solidify racial stereotypes in children and are an example of tokenism. In many textbooks, the portrayal of students of color is not accurate which can be seen as another example of perpetuating stereotypes. For example, in many illustrated children's books, students of color are depicted with exaggerated features.
Even though research has demonstrated current curriculum taught in the educational system can be detrimental to the development of children, biased resources continue to be used throughout the country. Changing the curriculum to add multiculturalism is like opening Pandora’s Box. Many teachers are not ready for that change and others fear the questions that may arise in their classrooms. Many find it easier to follow a curriculum that has been implemented from previous years than integrating a new one which may raise challenges. In addition, many teachers are not equipped with the necessary knowledge to bring multiculturalism into their classroom, and others feel that it is not necessary due to their color blind approach.
Results/Effects of Color-Blind Ideology in Schools
Due to the use of color-blind teaching in schools, students, particularly White students, learn to “mask” or “disregard” race, while simultaneously absorbing the racially based stereotypes as facts. The color-blind approach teaches children that racism is over and therefore they are unable to recognize the institutional inequalities that people of color face. Students do not learn the historical and present racism that allows for the inequalities to exist. Instead, students learn to put the blame on the individual and adopt the belief that we all have the same opportunity to succeed. For example many white students put the blame on people of color for the achievement gap in the educational system.
Color-blindness can have psychological damaging effects on children in the classroom and beyond, specifically those who are marginalized by their ethnicity. One major psychological effect color blindness has on children is a loss of identity. When people do not recognize who you are and your differences from other students it can create a very stressful environment and cause students of color to question their identity and try to fit in with mainstream White society. Most of us find our identity based on how other people perceive us. People of color are constantly being left out of school textbooks and popular media which ultimately reinforces White society as the norm. When people of color are portrayed through these outlets it is usually in a negative way. Most colorblind teachers do not realize that they represent some races and ethnicities in a negative way or don’t recognize them at all which can leave students feeling left out. It is important for teachers to understand the importance of identity development in their students and how it differs for students due to their culture.
What Should Teachers Do?
Teachers can implement a multicultural education. Multicultural education can be used as a challenging tool which provides equal opportunities for all students to learn about social inequalities and the celebration of differences (Lewis, 2001). This does not mean that a teacher should focus on “bettering” the education of students of color or assimilating non-white students into a white culturally based curriculum. Multicultural education should not take the form of having one day of diversity by posting images of Martin Luther King Jr. up and then taking them down a few days later.
Multicultural education teaches students how to challenge and critique social inequalities. Such a curriculum or system uses resources and lessons which focus on institutionalized racism and other forms of oppression that are found inside and outside the classroom. This approach does not use the excuse or blame the students’ cultural experiences like traditional education may do. Restructuring a classroom’s or school’s curriculum is a major project that needs to be supported by teachers, school administrators and even parents.
In addition to changing the curriculum, teachers can make personal changes in how they approach students’ identities and social conflicts in the classroom. For example, Tatum (1999) suggests that identities are lost when not acknowledged by a teacher; therefore teachers must take opportunities to support and respect all identities brought into the classroom. No two students are the same; therefore no two students will come into a classroom with the same understanding of academic subjects, language uses or valued cultural lessons. Teachers must not assume all students are bringing in the same experiences. Regardless of the demographics of a classroom, every child can learn a great deal from a multiculturally rich curriculum.
- Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). “New Racism,” colorblind racism, and the future of whiteness in America. In Doan e, A.W. & Bonilla-Silva, E (Eds.), White Out: The continuing significance of racism (pp. 271–284). New York: Routledge.
- Delpit, L. D. (1990). “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children.” In N. M. Hildalgo, C. L. McDowell, and E. V. Siddle (Eds.), Facing Racism in Education (pp. 84–102). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educational Review.
- Fingarsen, F. (2006). “Why Do You Force Your Ways?” In E. Lee, D. Menkart, and M. Okazawa-Rey (Eds.), Beyond Hereos and Holidays (pp. 96–97). Washington, D.C.: Teaching for Change.
- Leiding, D. (2006). Racial Bias in the Classroom: Can Teachers Reach All Children? Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
- Lewis, Amanda E. (2001). There is no ‘race’ in the schoolyard: Color-blind ideology at an (almost) all White school. American Educational Research Journal, 38:781-811.
- Sedlack, W. E., Brooks, G. C. Jr. (1976). Racism in American Education. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
- Tatum, Beverly D. (1999). Color-blind or color conscious. American Association of School Administrators. Retrieved on December 7, 2007. from http://www.aasa.org/publications/saarticledetail.cfm?ItemNumber=3433&snItemNumber=&tnItemNumber=