At some point during my first full year teaching 3rd grade in Indianapolis, a veteran teacher said something that has stayed with me for nearly two decades. The topic of conversation was the racial make-up of our respective classes, and this teacher—who I respect greatly, by the way—said, “I don’t even notice whether my students are Black or White. They’re just kids.”
I can still recall my reaction to this comment; I wondered what was wrong with me that I couldn’t be “colorblind” to the kids in my own class. I felt guilty that I could have told anyone the exact number of Black and Latina/o kids in my class. And so I kept my mouth shut, feeling a sinking sensation in my gut: I had SO MUCH to learn.
Well, yes… I DID have a lot to learn (still do, in fact), but one thing I’m certain of: the notion of “colorblindness” is a hugely flawed one. In a recent post on the open book (Lee & Low’s excellent blog), Tu Books Publisher Stacy Whitman points to research showing that the approach is damaging for children of all races, writing, “[N]ot addressing difference does not make children colorblind—it only encourages them to absorb the implicit racial messages of American society.”
That is a pretty huge deal. And think about it: this slow and insidious poisoning of our children (sorry to pull a Mrs. Lovejoy, but it’s true) is happening across America simply because most White people are too “polite” (i.e., wimpy) to take a risk. Because it is risky to bring up race as a White person—most of us simply don’t know what to say. I will readily admit that I struggle to have conversations about race with anyone, be it people of color and First/Native Nations or other White people. But that is no excuse not to try, or to simply ignore race—if I close my eyes, it will disappear, right? Nope. And make no mistake, the “colorblindness” is yet another manifestation of White Privilege. I can afford to not think about my Whiteness. But think of how devastatingly easy it is to find proof of just how often a person of color and First/Native Nations is reminded of their race (and that link is just the tip of the iceberg). The idea of a colorblind/Utopian society where we all eat Bon Bons and ride on shiny unicorns is something we White people really need to put to bed. It’s up to us to take that risk, to start the conversation, and not just to hear what is said, but also to see who is doing the talking. So pull up a chair, open your ears and your eyes, and let’s start a conversation.
I'm curious, Sam... did you come to understand the fallacy of colorblindness while your were teaching third grade and, if so, how did you raise discussions about race in your classroom? If not, were there times kids brought things up about race that you either had to address or that you didn't address because it made you uncomfortable? And what about that "colorblind" teacher? Did anyone every call her on it?
I am very interested in learning more about classroom culture related to race, particularly best practices for White teachers.
In the 90s, I read research on the reasons that color blind approach doesn't work.
In the 90s, I read articles where White writers objected to efforts to get more multicultural literature published.
Obviously the research an conversations in the 90s didn't get us very far.
I wonder what it DOES take for an idea to be one held by most members of a society?
That's a very good question, Debbie. I think the post-racial / colorblind society myth is wishful thinking on the part of a lot of well-meaning White people who are experiencing, for lack of a better term, "diversity fatigue." They may feel they have done their part by reading -- and enjoying -- Sherman Alexie and Yuyi Morales and Jacqueline Woodson. They note that we have a Black president now, a Latino Poet Laureate, a Black Newbery winner, an Asian Caldecott winner, so isn't that proof that everything is better? And yes, yes, yes, that's great. Can we move on now?
I see this fatigue on the faces of many White people when I speak about the CCBC's multicultural literature statistics or when I talk about diverse books in general. They consider themselves to be very good, liberal, progressive people, but they are officially DONE talking about this topic.
I'm not sure we'll ever reach a place where we move beyond this until White people feel comfortable talking about race and we can honestly address our sorry past.
"It’s up to us to take that risk, to start the conversation, and not just to hear what is said, but also to see who is doing the talking."
And that conversation needs to take place in all contexts of our lives, and we need to constantly examine ways to take it deeper. One of the things We Need Diverse Books did for me on a professional level was help me begin to see that it wasn't enough to talk about great multicultural literature, which is something I was doing all the time at work, or even the statistics we maintain here at the CCBC, without attaching them to the broader context of publishing (whose voices are valued; who makes decisions?) and society. To not just assume everyone gets it, but to look for ways to articulate that we need to understand WHY we've been having to have this discussion about numbers for forty years. (It's one of the reasons I think Lee and Low's Diversity Baseline survey is so important:
But what about when I leave work? What are the conversations I'm having in my book club or around my dinner table? Figuring out how to navigate these discussions as the White parent of a White child is something I've struggled with. Colorblind never made sense to me because it's so obviously not how my own child and other children were seeing the world--why would we tell them something experience has already shown them isn't true? (Like reverse cognitive dissonance). But in rejecting the fallacy of "colorblind" I should be willing--must be willing--to approach "race" as a topic at home. I'm trying to be more intentional in doing this, feeling my way...
Reading about the
I read an excellent, and illuminating article by Sarah Hannah Gomez the other day that explored this topic http://mclicious.org/2015/09/22/white-discomfort-and-seeing-no-color/
I'm loving all the resources being listed here. I will add one of my own that I come back to time and again:
Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race http://www.academia.edu/3094721/Children_Are_Not_Colorblind_How_Young_Children_Learn_Race
This one backs everything up with solid numbers, real-life scenarios, and practical suggestions for language to use and behaviors to engage in that are counter-colorblind, and therefore, counter-cultural.
Thanks for this post, Sam. I particularly like the idea that "if I close my eyes, it will just go away, right?" is the subtext behind pro-colorblind approaches. Wouldn't life be easier for us White people if racism would just go away? And with a colorblind approach, we can tell ourselves that it has.
Well, even though I didn't exactly deflect race-related questions (or discussions) in my classroom those first few years, I can't say I really engendered a great deal of discussion on the matter. If it came up based on a book we were reading, I certainly let it happen as naturally as I could. And yet I didn't really got how wrong the colorblind thing was until I was in grad school and took part in a discussion (it wasn't a full course, I think it only met for 8 weeks or so) called Conversations on Race. It absolutely blew me away. I had been teaching at that point for 3 years, but that was really where I GOT it. And then I went back to teaching for another 3 years and definitely paid attention to what was going on; I wasn't flying blind (if you'll pardon the pun) on race any more. But at that point, the "colorblind" teacher was no longer teaching (career change).
Just found this article that addresses your questions, Debbie:
In a study published in the November issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, L. Taylor Phillips and Brian S. Lowery point out that progress on racial equality is limited by the fact that many whites deny the existence of inequities.
“Despite this reality, policy makers and power brokers continue to debate whether racial privilege even exists and whether to address such inequity,” the researchers noted. “One reason for this inaction might be an unwillingness among Whites to acknowledge racial privilege — acknowledgment that may be difficult given that Whites are motivated to believe that meritocratic systems and personal virtues determine life outcomes.”
We need more courses in college like Conversations on Race.
I especially like Megan's comment about after work. I love steering my White and wealthy second grade students through the challenges of discussing race and our country's shameful history of racism and slavery, but am a lot less successful when I am not In Charge.
I love listening to kids learn to negotiate these topics as 7 and 8 year olds, but admit that they are a lot better at this negotiation than grownups are.
Thanks for this.
Robin Smith (no idea how to get rid of the silly moniker fibercontent!)
Megan, I don't have children so I cannot really speak to that awkwardness, but since
I have fully "outed" myself on this blog, and because I am a bad liar, I have just tried "walking the walk" more in conversation, and when somene says something that strikes me as wrong, perhaps like Sam's colleague, I'm trying to say something. I'll admit I'm still a little fragile-white-polite about it depending on the company, but I just try to name the ugliness that entered the room. And while it doesn't always lead anywhere... I am not finding push back. If anything, maybe a little relief to have it named and acknowledged. I like to think of Jacqueline Woodson as a role model, though I have far to go to get there... She has a way of putting things that does not let you of the hook, yet somehow..... Invites you to remove yourself from you own hook and step down into company. But you have to do it yourself.
Robin, do you ever get any push back from parents for these sorts of classroom discussions? And do you think they're easier to have in an all-White classroom? (I'm thinking of how challenging it might be if you had just one or two students of color who might feel as though the spotlight is put on them in such discussions.)
What a wonderful way of describing what Jacqueline Woodson, does, Nina, and also, how to think about this in general. You are right that at the least it begins with not ignoring what we see and hear around us, challenging things that need challenging rather than staying silent. And at other times looking for ways into having the discussion. And really, sadly, we never have to look far.
I agree! Should be required for all (White) incoming freshmen.
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