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Posts Tagged ‘racism

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

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“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?


Teaching Blackness: Four Popular Theories (Comic)

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This comic accompanies my post entitled Do Teachers Influence Blackness?

“That Works….” – An EducatorBlog Comic

On Teaching Blackness: Four Popular Theories

Written by TeacherC

14 June 2008 at 12:58 am

Do Teachers Influence Blackness?

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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

Was I Racist in the 4th Grade?

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I woke up this morning to this:

My ‘Aboriginal ceremonial mask’ that I made in the 4th grade for a social studies assignment. I haven’t noticed it in years. For some reason, it blends in with my varsity letters, Mariners memorabilia, and other pre-college memories hanging on the walls.

I made this submission to Dangerously Irrelevant’s Dismaying Assignment Contest:

In the 4th grade, I had to make an ‘Aboriginal ceremonial mask’ for our Australia unit. It was an exciting project – the masks were fired in a kiln and took about 2 weeks to complete. So – what’s the problem?

We didn’t really study the Aborigines. Our understanding of their culture was based on stereotypes and a few photos from National Geographic.

I’m looking at the mask right now (I noticed it hanging in my room this morning). There are ‘tribal’ engravings. Not to mention a lot of blood (and anger). I’ll probably take the mask down tomorrow. It wasn’t my fault that no one took the time to educate me about the indigenous peoples of Australia, but I try to stay away from racist decor.

Why does this mask matter? It reminds me that cultural sensitivity is learned over time. I can’t expect young students have a culturally sensitive perspective on the first day of class. That being said, assignments and the classroom environment  influence the cultural sensitivity of students. The assignment could have helped students become aware of issues affecting indigenous peoples – from genocide to economic and social oppression. This mask was created in ignorance and students missed out on the opportunity to make bold artistic representations of important social issues.

I hope that I can create a classroom environment that helps young students understand issues of social justice. I wasn’t a racist in the 4th grade because I wasn’t at the stage where I could make informed decisions about race, culture, and society. What would have happened if educators, parents, and other leaders hadn’t exposed me to issues of social justice? This?

Written by TeacherC

10 June 2008 at 12:09 am