An (aspiring) Educator’s Blog

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Has My Race Become a Commodity? (A Reflection About Teacher Ed Admissions)

with 6 comments

“How would factors such as your background, work and life experiences, special interests, culture, socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity contribute to the diversity of the entering class, and hence to the experience of your classmates? Please describe these factors and their relevance (700 characters maximum)”. This was the topic of the second essay for my teacher ed program application. The first essay I wrote explained all of my teaching, academic, travel, extra-curricular, and work experiences in detail. In this essay, I had to take a page to describe why my socioeconomic status (SES), blackness, and cultural elements should matter to the university.

I completed this part of the application last – I didn’t want to sound like a race radical/separatist or an “Uncle Tom”. How could I explain how my views on my SES and blackness – views that have developed over the 22 years of my existence – in the space of a page? Why does diversity matter in teacher ed programs (or education institutions in general)? Should I talk about race at all? Has my blackness become a commodity (see commodity fetishism)?

The issue of race commodification in education has bothered me for some time. Elite institutions that lack diversity provide me with financial incentives to endure the environment and create learning experiences for students. On one hand, this is necessary. In most of my classes (from politics and economics to literature and science), I was the only African-American student. These classes discussed many issues pertaining to race, gender, and SES. My input provided students with a POV they had never heard before. On the other hand, am I a human zoo? Do the responsibilities/burdens of being the lone black voice in the room undermine my sense of self?

Here is what I wrote:

As a learning lab for the next generation of teachers, ____ must create an environment where aspiring teachers are aware of issues regarding race and socioeconomic standing. The ultimate goal of teachers will be to create learning environments that are tolerant of many cultures and identities. The ___ classroom must be populated with students who are not afraid to discuss their own identities and explore different cultures. I believe that I would be a discussion leader in the classroom. I know how to create a learning environment where people are not afraid to explore these challenging issues. As an African-American educated in environments that lack diversity, I have learned how to make my diversity a positive learning experience for my peers and myself.

The path of my intellectual development is intertwined with the development of my racial identity. When I was a student in elementary school, I did not consider myself to be a black child. I grew up in a predominately white middle-class suburb. Although African-American students comprised 20% of my elementary and middle schools, I was cloistered from those students. I sat in the front of the classroom and took accelerated classes. I noticed that most African-American students populated special education courses or sat in the back of the classroom. As I grew older, my racial consciousness increased. During middle school, I noticed that my race had a tangible impact on my relationships with teachers and other students.  My black peers accused me of “acting white”. They were hostile toward me. My white peers never explicitly ridiculed my “blackness” but their confusion about my identity was implied by their actions. They questioned my academic interests and joked my bad 7th grade basketball tryout. The influence that my race had on my peer relationships was not as troubling as the effect it had on my relationships with teachers. Before teachers knew my name or my level of academic achievement, I was grouped with low-performing students in the back of the classroom and given information about remedial classes. When my teachers realized that I excelled in academics, they paraded my achievements in front of other students of color, as if to say “Candace is black, well-mannered, and talented…Why can’t you measure up?”.

In the 9th grade, I decided to find a social and academic environment that was more sensitive to diversity. I transferred into an all-girls international boarding school. In many ways, the environment was less diverse than public school. Even though most of the student body came from foreign countries and spoke multiple languages, I found that I was still the only black person in the classroom, and one of few people struggling to pay tuition. This environment did not create feelings of isolation because students treated socioeconomic and cultural differences as learning experiences rather than barriers. In the classroom, when we discussed literature, politics, history, or economics, my peers made it clear that they wanted to understand my point of view on issues of race. Their questions led me to explore areas of my identity that I had not explored before. I read academic research about race, politics, and economics; tried to analyze history from a new perspective that questioned popular ideas about race; and worked to create an environment where my peers and I could challenge each other’s ideas about race and class without becoming defensive or resorting to personal attacks.

When I started college, I found that most of my peers had never conversed with a person of color, did not think that race was an issue worthy of discussion or study, or were defensive about the topic. Instead of remaining passive about issues of race and dismissing its importance in my life, I decided to become a discussion leader. When people ask me questions about my racial identity, I take the time to answer their questions and ask them questions about their experiences. I continue to research the topic. If I feel like my peers are being insensitive or using hate speech, I am not afraid to ask questions about their comments, and explain my stance. I believe that my ability to integrate this kind of discussion into classroom activities will create a positive experience for my peers.

What are your thoughts on these issues? Why does diversity matter in teacher ed programs?

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6 Responses

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  1. Nice. I do think it matters, but I believe it matters more in the actual field than the training (although that obviously manifests in the field). It is important for our students to see a variety of people – ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, etc. in a variety of positions around them. The student that can relate to someone who is successful gains confidence.

    Marshall

    18 June 2008 at 4:42 pm

  2. I think it matters in training – it is important for student teachers to hear diverse viewpoints within their program (not just race – views about how one’s sexuality, geography, SES, etc influenced their education opportunities). For many, teacher ed programs are the last chance that they can be exposed to diversity before they enter a classroom as a full-time teacher. Also, we have to think about how teacher ed admissions shapes the teaching force.

    educatorblog

    18 June 2008 at 9:52 pm

  3. I have taught in schools that have high Asian/Asian American student populations but many times I am one of the few Asian/Asian American (and only half at that!) teachers on staff. When working at an international school in Tokyo, Japanese students loved that fact that I could connect with them on a level (culturally, linguistically, etc) that the other teachers could (or would) not.

    While race/ethnicity is rarely explicitly discussed, it is a focal point for first impressions and misconceptions. I agree that every institution should struggle for diversity rather than take the easy road of a homogeneous group. What is important, in my opinion, is to stress that nobody speaks for an entire race/gender/ethnicity/culture and that no group – regardless of how you classify it – is a monolithic entity that can be encapsulated by one individual.

    Clint H

    23 June 2008 at 4:58 am

  4. That’s a good point – I’ve been in classes where I’ve been asked “So, what do black people think of XYZ?”. Questions like that reinforce the idea that all people who are of a certain race are part of a homogeneous group.

    educatorblog

    23 June 2008 at 7:17 am

  5. Great post. I think discourses in diversity matter in both teacher ed training and in the actual teaching in the classroom. I think issues of this buzzword “diversity” can be so generalized and so -not- multifaceted. It’s also dangerous when it’s limited to a discussion for, and of minorities. Everyone (code:whites too…) needs to see themselves as having their own ethnicity and being a part of the multiracial framework that we have in the US.

    N.T.

    26 June 2008 at 9:08 pm

  6. Excellent advice. I will post a link of this podcast on my blackboard website for my students. Anything you said works well with discussion boards too.

    Armando Vanecek

    6 February 2011 at 3:05 pm


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