An (aspiring) Educator’s Blog

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Do Teachers Influence Blackness?

with 15 comments

Yes, the teachers in my life influenced the development of my racial identity and my perception of others’ identities. Put another way: all of my teachers have influenced my blackness – from how I see myself as an African American to how I relate with others in and outside of my racial group. Many teachers are not cognizant of the power they have over this domain. When I reflect about the power that teachers had over the development of my racial identity, four teaching approaches come to mind:

1. The colorblind champion.

The most popular approach (especially in the early grades). Uses the speeches of MLK to argue that we live in a colorblind society. Implies that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was wholly successful and that race is a non-issue. Most likely to assign attendance at a “peace assembly” as an extra credit assignment.

Tag line: “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”” – MLK, Jr.

The bright side: This point of view is a large step up from the unfettered bigotry of past decades. It may be an appropriate foundation ideology when talking to young children about race. It reaffirms notions of American meritocracy.

The dark side: Colorblind and Laissez Faire racism: In a world devoid of conversation about race and privilege, institutional systems of bias remain entrenched. The colorblind ideology does not hold up in practice – many factors influence how individuals consciously or subconsciously assess race (ex: stereotyping in popular media outlets). The meritocracy might not exist.

2. The touchy-feely introspective empathizer.

Closely related to the colorblind champion (but with an empathetic twist). Found in mediation sessions, peer counseling meetings, diversity trainings, and leadership camps. Believes that all prejudice of all kinds can be countered if everyone would just “walk a mile in another’s shoes”. Tries to root out the language of oppression (ex: “My gay friend” becomes “my friend who self-identifies as being gay”). Avoids using terms like “black” and “African American” all together. Most likely to assign a diverse team building exercise for extra credit.

Tag line: “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” – JFK

The bright side: Awareness and empathy are positive attributes that are necessary for conversations about prejudice and other hot-button issues. People should reflect about the language they use to refer to others.

The dark side: Since this point of view is usually crammed into a few hours or a “diversity day”, it is hard for students to unpack the complexity of prejudice and language. Also, there may be too much of a focus on PC language (rather than deep intellectual discussion, creating classrooms that are safe areas for the discussion of tough issues, etc).

3. The Devil’s advocate.

Usually found on college campuses. Challenges students to “think outside of the box” when it comes to race. Assigns The Bell Curve and other works that promote ideas that are “counter-culture”. Tells students it is okay to be politically incorrect. Tells a narrative about discrimination against and oppression of white and Asian American men at the hands of Affirmative Action, welfare, race/gender-targeted scholarships, and class-action lawsuits. Most likely to assign a defense of The Bell Curve for homework.

Tag line: “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself.  It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”  – Potter Stewart

The bright side: Students hear new points of view about prejudice and can speak freely about the subject. Many white students feel less threatened. It is a rigorous intellectual exercise to compare alternative viewpoints.

The dark side: Most students weren’t taught how to have non-PC conversations about prejudice – racist comments ensue. Many of these classrooms don’t exhibit diversity (gender, race, or otherwise). Minority students feel threatened.

4. The social justice league.

Most often a (white) liberal member of the university faculty. Rejects race realism, the colorblind framework, and the notion that the Civil Rights Movement was successful. Calls for activism and the total (social/political/economic) restructuring of America. Talks about whiteness/white privilege. Most likely to assign readings from White Like Me.

Tag line: “For now, the important element of his theory is that whiteness serves to preserve the position of a ruling white elite who benefit economically from the labor of other white people and people of color.” – Judy Helfand

The bright side: Calls upon students to examine the role of race in the social, economic, and political realities of America. Motivates students to take action. Provides alternative histories.

The dark side: Can be just as divisive as the “Devil’s Advocate”. Perceived by many to be anti-capitalism and anti-meritocracy.

These approaches are from my experiences – How do you handle race in the classroom? What roles do teachers have when it comes diversity promotion (race, gender, sexuality, etc)?

(Inspiration: WSJ’s article entitled Racial Identity’s Gray Area)

Written by TeacherC

13 June 2008 at 7:15 pm

15 Responses

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  1. Enjoyed these – several pictures of people popped into my head, including myself (in literally all 4 categories).
    Remember that prejudice, racism, whatever you call it can be exploited for or against or by any given individual. If you want “fair” or “equal” this is the example, that we all have the opportunity to choose people over characteristics.

    Marshall

    13 June 2008 at 8:56 pm

  2. The problem, is that people don’t seize the opportunity to ‘choose people over characteristics’ because they never stop and think about their own identity and how they perceive the identities of others. There have been a few studies about children and television that found that children who were exposed to television under the age of 3 were more likely to have gender, racial, and other negative stereotypes. Notions of race and ethnicity are hardwired to our existence. Colorblindness/’tolerance’ doesn’t work – usually, the colorblind person is one who is blind to their own ignorance and problems in society. I think that a better alternative is cooperation and acceptance – understanding how social history and economic realities influence the existence of groups. I think that people need to try to understand the differences that exist between groups, instead of just ignoring them. That being said, I’m not a race realist.

    educatorblog

    13 June 2008 at 10:18 pm

  3. [...] Teaching Blackness: Four Popular Theories (Comic) Posted in Uncategorized by educatorblog on June 14th, 2008 This comic accompanies my post entitled Do Teachers Influence Blackness? [...]

  4. Interesting post. And a topic I wonder about. I’m white. My class make-up last year was 24 white, 1 bi-racial, 1 black. Both the black child and bi-racial child were adopted by white parents.

    One topic that we explore is American slavery. The kids (as most do) usually ask why we have to learn about andy history since it’s over. I try to approach it from a “this is part of our identity as Americans”, and I try to *carefully* point out that African-Americans have this as part of their history to a deeper level. Some families have traced ancestry back to slavery, states are considering apologies for slavery, etc.

    However, I always feel on a slippery slope when trying to give my students an understanding of race. And, truthfully, I even feel unsure about saying anything about the African-American experience. I usually just try to allow for open dialogue with a lot of me saying, “That’s a good question, and I really don’t know the answer to that.” I probably fall on the side of “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” as I try to lead them to come up with their own conclusions to their answers based on what they might feel.

    More posts on this would be very helpful. I sometimes fear that by discussing “African-Americans” this way, I’m helping to add to the “us and them” situation.

    And, another question that comes up…students ask, “Why do we still use the term African-American when most have been born here for generations? And every black person you see is not descended from Africa. Some are from Jamaica, etc.” Can you give me a good reply to that? I’m never quite sure what to say.

    Thanks!

    J

    14 June 2008 at 8:24 am

  5. Educatorblog makes a lot of sense and I applaud the way you phrase this. My belief, however, is that each individuals PERSONAL experiences will build their belief system. Bi-racial individuals help to cloud our colorblindness because the actions of that person can not be attributed to a specific term, like white, black, hispanic. If I have been treated well by all 20 “green” people I have met, I have a positive feeling. If I have been treated poorly by those 20 “green” people, I have a negative feeling. What another person tells me about white people fails to compare with my own experience.

    J asks one I don’t know – how long until you are considered “American” and why are all blacks “African”? Same is true for Asian, but not really for Hispanic and Caucasian. This type of discussion helps a lot as we look for ways to prevent the “us and them” that J references.

    Marshall

    14 June 2008 at 8:39 pm

  6. Marshall – I don’t argue that personal experiences have nothing to do with racial identity – instead, I argue that teachers have an impact on students’ personal experiences with race. Most ‘personal’ experiences you are talking about involve more than one person – they are INTERACTIONS.

    Bi-racial individuals aren’t raceless – look at the social and political history of race in the United States (especially how we used to do our census and Jim Crow laws – you should read that WSJ article I mention in my post). Depending on geography, social history, and other factors, biracial individuals are assigned a status based on how they look. In fact, there are many biracial individuals who argue that they are treated worse than people who are not biracial because they receive prejudice from more than one group.

    educatorblog

    15 June 2008 at 3:32 am

  7. J – Those are interesting questions. I think that you should discuss the social history behind terms like African-American, Black, etc (see my post on swearing for examples of how these conversations about language are important). You’re not trying to create a classroom environment where students think that you have all of the answers about race – instead, try to create a safe space for discussion about human experience. Take examples that are relevant from students lives – news stories about prejudice experienced by first generation immigrants, new propositions/laws dealing with the issue of affirmative action, etc. I think that there is an ‘us and them’ situation in this country and the only way to stop that is to give students the tools to recognize those behaviors in their communities and talk about those behaviors in diverse settings. We shoudn’t be colorblind – we should understand our own prejudices and have tools to eliminate prejudice (it’s impossible for a human being not to have prejudice – prejudice is an intellectual short-cut our brains make when we lack information). I’ll try to think of more posts on these topics.

    educatorblog

    15 June 2008 at 3:40 am

  8. Marshall – to make my point clearer: teaching is an interaction. The rules that teachers set for the discussion of prejudice, how teachers exhibit their own prejudice, and how teachers resolve instances of prejudice in their classrooms have an impact on how students understand race. Students learn many social behaviors in the classroom (including conflict resolution). You can’t deny that teachers have an impact on the identities of students (not just racial). It’s why we should value diversity (socioeconomic, racial, etc) in our classrooms – if students don’t learn how to discuss these issues and deal with them while they are young, it is impossible to root out these negative (and often subconscious) behaviors in the workplace. There are so many studies that can isolate the impact of race (controlling for factors such as SES, geography, education, etc) on the ability to get a car/house loan, on the probability that someone will get the death penalty, on the rate of promotion and hiring (Devah Pager’s studies about discrimination in low wage markets are a MUST READ), etc. I think that the ‘we should all be colorblind’ theory is nice, but in practice it allows people to ignore their own prejudice.

    educatorblog

    15 June 2008 at 3:50 am

  9. Educatorblog – I agree that being cognizant of ourselves is a must in many areas. Isn’t this one of the reasons you blog? It is for me. Questions I don’t ask myself can arise to challenge my current POV. You also accurately point out that our interactions as teachers carry more weight than those of students to each other. You also are correct when you describe the shortcut we use to categorize (prejudice). For example, I would do this when I see a large, physically fit man with calloused, dirty hands and worn blue jeans. My take on this (prejudice) is that he labors for a living, and that may extrapolate into my belief that he is a hard worker, honest, and I don’t want to make him mad. Any or all of these could be right or wrong. These are the ways that we create a body of knowledge or evidence – that categorizes similarities and experiences. Unfortunately, we are impacted by the comments and beliefs of others (to a lesser degree than our personal interactions) that may not support our own body of knowledge or evidence. That is where our natural response fails us and becomes a victim of stereotype.

    Marshall

    15 June 2008 at 6:49 pm

  10. I can see myself in all of the four teaching categories at one time or the other.
    Teaching diversity is not easy, most teachers IMHO try to do the best they can.
    I do approach it differently now that I have bi-racial family. Open conversation is my approach at this point. I do not think there is open conversation in schools , we must be politically correct and let the flow of conversation always go that direction. I agree that many students are not able to have open conversations with the PC terms that keep from threatening .Perhaps these open conversations should be dealt with in the college arena where the students are more mature, or are they?
    Building relationships with students and students with each other make open conversations possible.
    What teaching category would you put a teacher in who really cared for their student?
    I think I missed that description.

    Tina K.

    15 June 2008 at 7:24 pm

  11. Tina K – I think that all four types can care for their students. These aren’t strict categories – just an easy way to summarize my experiences. As I said in my ‘Was I Racist in the 4th Grade?’ post, cultural sensitivity is learned over time – so the sophistication of discussion and classroom environments should increase.

    educatorblog

    15 June 2008 at 8:56 pm

  12. [...] from An (aspiring) Educator’s Blog wonders, “Do Teacher’s Influence Blackness?” An aspiring educator ponders the role that teachers have in shaping racial [...]

  13. [...] Intriguing Post About Race I found this post about how teachers can influence racial identity on this week’s Carnival of Education,  I think it’s a particularly timely post, as we watch [...]

  14. [...] presents Do Teachers Influence Blackness? posted at An (aspiring) Educator’s Blog, saying, “A post about race in the [...]

  15. Normally I do not make comments on blogs, but I have to mention that this post really forced me to do so. Really marvelous post

    Leo Nunez

    3 March 2010 at 3:09 pm


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