The conversation about the impact of race is tense and uncomfortable, if it happens at all. On this day, it was not happening at any level of depth. Presenting to a rural middle school staff on culturally responsive education, we were provoking folks to consider how their own cultural lens might be influencing cross-racial and cross-cultural interactions with students and parents. We were met with silence. Walls were up. Lines were drawn. Deflections deployed. “It’s not race. It’s poverty.” “These families don’t value education. It’s not a priority in the home.” “Back in my day, you would not talk to adults like this. It’s about respect for authority.” We were not getting beyond the defense mechanisms White folks employ to shield themselves from the discomfort of confronting how their privilege, and the accompanying power of that privilege, prevents them from seeing a situation, an interaction, a moment, from the perspective of a person of color. On this day, the turning point came when the middle school principal, a White man, opened himself up to the discomfort. He recounted a moment he had with a parent of a black male student who had received multiple disciplinary referrals: [I was having yet another meeting with Mom. I think it was maybe the 4th or 5th time over a few months about all of Kevin’s referrals. I asked her, “Don’t you talk to him about this at home? These incidents? His relationship with his teacher?” His Mom looked me right in the eye and said, “Mr. Smith, we talk about it every single night. Some nights it’s all we talk about.”] The principal then reflected on his own assumptions. He assumed this parent was not discussing school and the behavior referrals with her son, and he made judgments about that. He reflected that after this moment, he was able to talk at a greater level of depth with Kevin’s Mom and Kevin, and he came to hear that both of them felt their were some racial undertones in the interactions between Kevin’s teacher and Kevin that often resulted in these disciplinary referrals. He came to see and understand the racial undertones himself. The principal shared with his staff that this encounter prompted him to ask the following question in reply to this comment: “It’s not about race.” For who?
We live in a society that is simultaneously “hyper-racial and colormute” (Griffin, 2015; Pollock, 2004), meaning everything is about race, but we just don’t want to talk about it. Racial disparities infiltrate our institutions (schools, the criminal justice system, public housing, private companies), but also our everyday interactions in the form of stereotyping and the ever present persistence of the colorblind myth. Everyday race is a factor. It is the factor. If we are truly looking to deliver responsive instruction, build intentional relationships, and support the positive identity development of our students of color, we can no longer be silent.
You see, Whites can decide when a situation will be about race or not. Derald Wing Sue says “Whites view race as residing in others, but not themselves. They may not realize that Whiteness is the background from which the figure of difference emerges” (2015). The default. There is White and then there is everything else. This power Whites have, this social and cultural capital, is asserted, whether realized or not, in schools, in the workplace, in the grocery store, anywhere where there are cross-racial, cross-ethnic, or cross-cultural interactions. This social and cultural capital serves as a denomination of power. A currency to navigate the codes for communication, behavior, even volume and tone of voice. Expression of emotions. Creativity. Now, when Whites don’t acknowledge this power, or in fact, go as far as disavowing it, denying it, they maintain the status quo. They perpetuate the status quo. Where racial lines determine outcomes, define privilege, and assign power to individuals based on nothing more than their color. The silence about race, power, and privilege speaks volumes to our students. What Ogbu calls the “code of silence” (2003) and Wing Sue calls the “conspiracy of silence” (2015) is the privilege White teachers cash in when it’s more comfortable not to address race.
White teacher hears student use a racial slur in the hallway. White teacher chooses to ignore it. Pretend like it wasn’t heard or said. Or, White teacher addresses it in a cursory way, “Stop that.” or “That’s not appropriate. Keep it movin.” Or White teacher calls the student aside and suspends them. Or, in the best case scenario, White teacher address the student who used the slur, bringing him or her together with the victim of the slur, and facilitates a conversation with the student witnesses to the slur, if not all students, about the use of language with malicious intent versus forms of creative expression, including the potential impact on others. White teacher then reiterates this, if and when, the issue arises again.
For young students, who are still figuring out how they identify and learning how the world identifies them, teachers play a pivotal role in supporting healthy racial and cultural development. Unfortunately, in this “colormute” world (Pollock, 2004), where many teachers are uncomfortable broaching the topic of race, they end up relying on a colorblind philosophy. “I don’t see color.” “I see students.” “I don’t see black or White. I see the human race.” This position is only allowable for folks cloaked in privilege. Afforded the right to distance themselves from difference. They then, in effect, invalidate the historical oppressions people of color have been subjected to and they hide behind the safety of a professed “humanist” perspective. Who can argue with humanism, right?
Furthermore, misguided attempts at being responsive to our students, “getting to know them,” and understanding the factors external to school that affect their learning, can result in increased scrutiny and pathologizing our kids, to the point of lowered expectations and unfounded beliefs about their assets, abilities, and interests in learning. These lowered expectations, these beliefs grounded in stereotypes are never expressed openly. “I have high expectations for all of my students!” They are there nonetheless. Insidious in their invisibility. Illogical in their irrationality. The so-called good intentions behind them cannot compensate for their lack of foundation in reality (Lewis & Diamond, 2015).
What is the solution? What will it take to break the silence and step up to ask when race is at play- be it in under-serving our students of color, over-scrutinizing the behavior of students of color, privileging White students over their counterparts? Well, it requires a number of not-so-ground-breaking commitments:
We must acknowledge that racial disparities are pervasive and embedded, and that we are complicit in perpetuating them.
We must state that we are not okay with racial disparities and that we want radical change. And we have to mean it.
We must constantly question if race, power, and privilege are at play in interactions, conflicts, and broken relationships. If they are, we must own our own roles and check our behavior and assumptions and admit where we have taken action based on misconceptions.
We must confront the disparate outcomes that can arise even from our best intentions.
We must step into the role as critical pedagogues who forefront the assets of our culturally and linguistically diverse students and we must only deliver curriculum and instruction that counters the narratives of inequity and oppression.
We must do better for our kids. Deciding if a situation or a moment is about race is a decision that cannot solely reside in the pocket of the privileged race. Collectively, we must question when a moment may be about race, and we must be prepared to confront the answer.