Claiming to Not See Race Leads to Inequity in Education

A post about anti-racism.

This post originally appeared in Education Week’s Classroom Q&A on February 9, 2020.

(This is the fourth post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to respond to educators who say they “don’t see race” when they teach?

‘Not seeing race’ also leaves the door open for personal bias

Dr. Ronardo Reeves is an associate with CT3, consulting with schools and districts to promote best practices in teaching and creating a positive school culture. He was most recently a turnaround principal, in Syracuse, N.Y., and before that, the chief academic officer for the Special school district in Louisiana:

In my travels, I often hear educators say they “do not see race” when they teach. Hearing that makes me cringe, and as a black male educator, I have immediate concerns for the children they impact. This belief communicates that race doesn’t matter and refuses to address realities (to include the fact that school systems operate out of white middle-class norms), suppresses identity, promotes inequities in education, and ultimately supports racism. My typical response is, “Tell me more!” The usual responses include:

  • I see all of my students as equal.
  • I accept these students as they are and teach them according to their level.
  • I’m not racist.
  • All children deserve the same opportunities.
  • Economic status doesn’t matter in my class; we have all we need here.

While I agree that all children deserve equity, the fact is that claiming to not see race leads to inequity in education. Not recognizing race means that qualities, norms, hidden rules, and values unique to your community, race, or ethnic group aren’t considered in the education process. I see this when supporting schools in moving their teachers to become No-Nonsense Nurturers. The key for these effective educators is building life-altering relationships. That is hard to do if you do not recognize your own bias and are not aware of the students’ cultures in your classroom. To build strong relationships, students have to know you care about them as individuals, so not recognizing their race and everything that goes along with that communicates the opposite.

“Not seeing race” also leaves the door open for personal bias. In general, educators (like the general public) make assumptions about people of different races, ethnicities, and cultures. These personal biases are spurred from many things, such as their own life experiences and the media. In order to be better informed and culturally competent, it is important that educators recognize the different races they impact and have a plan for learning, incorporating, and recognizing differences and similarities throughout the school day.

Many districts have begun to move away from the ideology of not seeing race to being more culturally competent. They have taken actions to educate their staff, students, parents, and community members. This can be seen in cultural-awareness fairs, Juneteenth, Mardi Gras, and Hispanic Awareness Month to name a few. But this shift has met resistance is some areas and is still not a practice in others.

Districts, in some cases by court order, have attempted to address issues resulting from desegregation and the evolution of what was thought to be equality. Districts moved to programs like the Minority-to-Majority program, Optional Transfers, moving white students to better performing black schools (which pushed black students out), and the redrawing of district lines to attempt to create solutions for equality and find balance between whites and people of color. Many of the programs lacked the professional development needed to support a more culturally relevant transition and embrace diversity. As a result, many of these initiatives had the opposite effect.

Many of the schools that went through diversity changes often experienced challenges around the need and request for community schools, district lines being drawn to keep less desirable communities out of certain schools, and teachers not being prepared to teach children with different backgrounds from their own. Subsequently, tensions began to arise due to classroom management and community relations. Parents from differing communities may have had norms that were different from those of the new school. Issues from the frequency of communication, to what was communicated, and to how leadership communicated with parents existed. Race has to play a role in educating our children; educators must confront and adjust their biases in an effort to serve their students. Knowing more about the culture or race of students you support will help to avoid issues and better meet the needs of students.

So, what is the best way to respond to teachers that say they don’t see race when they teach? There are two ways; one is to address it head on by attempting to educate teachers on the issue. The other is to use an Ask/Tell balance. Ask questions to get teachers to come to their own realization that the mindset of not seeing color is harmful and tell information to educate them as appropriate once that light bulb goes off during the conversation. In my experience, allowing teachers to come to their own realization is the most powerful way to address the mindset of not seeing color. Once the realization takes place, support them by helping them come up with better alternatives.

For further reading, check out Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity, and Violence Against Women by Kimberle Crenshaw.

By Ronardo Reeves, Ed.D., CT3 Associate
Read more about Ronardo’s background as an educator here.

Check out CT3 Education programs such as No-Nonsense Nurturer, Real Time Teacher Coaching, and Real Time Leadership Coaching to find out more about Professional Development for Teachers and Leaders, classroom management strategies, and building relationships with students and their families, and properly addressing important issues in the classroom and school.
Category: Culture, Teaching