Years ago, I gave a professional development at a school where I was teaching. It was on cultural competency and cultural responsiveness and I was presenting to elementary school teachers. I remember a kindergarten teacher who made a comment that she didn’t believe her students saw color. She said something about her students never brought it up in any conversation. She was an older aged White woman. Her students were Black and Latino students. I didn’t believe her in the slightest. I personally knew I was Black at an early age and it was normal to me. But I really understood the difference my Blackness was when I attended karate school with a bunch of White kids; that’s when I realized that I was different – I was 6. I began to see my world of color as my home and the wider world with White people in it as such; the wider world. That was my experience. However, I had no real experience teaching younger students. So I took the high road and digressed from her comment and moved to the next comment. I knew that she was off base with her comment. Her comment wasn’t an indictment of my presentation; it was an indictment of her own mindset. She projected her thoughts onto her students… They saw their own color, however she chose not to.
Many educators subscribe to the “colorblind gospel.” The philosophy of colorblindness is a feel good mantra that is the prescription for White guilt. It is also the foundation for the belief in the ideal that everyone has an opportunity to make it in America. However, the colorblind narrative is a false one. To deny a person their “color” is to deny them who they are. Put another way, you cannot willingly live in a society with socially constructed categories of skin color and choose not to recognize skin color to prevent your own discomfort. When we see color, we see people in their totality; we see the history, the experiences and the soul of an individual. Some believe that seeing color divides us, however, seeing color can only bring us together. While many of us act like color doesn’t exist in education (although race colors everything we do in education), our children see in full and living color. I wish I were able to speak to that teacher that made the unsettling comment those years ago. I would say to her that she is wrong. I would tell her that my own son’s racial identity development is proof that she is wrong.
A few months ago, my wife and I decided to cut the cord. Life without cable has had its challenges but we’ve been resourceful in our life after cable. I purchased a high definition antenna to watch regular broadcast television. One of the networks that we pick up on the antenna is called Bounce; an African-American owned and operated television network. My wife and I have found some shows that we grew up watching and we’ve enjoyed sharing those shows with our children. One such show is the Cosby Show. I am aware of the various allegations surrounding Bill Cosby. Nevertheless, the Cosby Show was a groundbreaking show in American history. Bill Cosby, a doctor of education, and Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard psychiatrist, created a show that portrayed Black people as creators and consumers of fine art and education; a show that tackled issues that were both synonymous to all communities and specific to the African American community. The positive images of Black people and Black culture provided the world with a taste of what Black culture truly was. The images of the show also showed Black people who they really were. My son is 5 years old. He’s paying attention to the Cosby Show. He likes Malcolm Jamal Warner’s character, Theo Huxtable. My son, at 5 years old, sees himself in Theo. He identifies with Theo. Theo is a young Black male with a mother and father and sisters, just like him. Now my son likes Star Wars and Luke Skywalker. He also likes the Power Rangers and the White Ranger Tommy. But Theo has become his favorite guy. It goes to show, he can tell the difference between who he sees himself in and who he doesn’t.
That teacher might counter and say that my son could see himself in Tommy, Luke or any TV character. I would argue that children can make comparisons and they can make connections. Children do so each day as they grow and develop. My son is no different. Sure, Tommy and Luke are boys like my son but if my son can identify with someone because they are male at the age of 5, he can certainly identify with someone because they are Black like he is. While he may not speak about race in casual conversation, he has internalized it and expresses it in a way that any adult can see that he has an understanding of it. He starts kindergarten next year… He won’t be the only child of color who is developing their own racial identity. The myth of children as young as kindergartners not seeing color is just that. It is nothing more than a mindset to escape White guilt.
If you teach young children of color, do not assume that they are too young or too oblivious that they don’t see color. If you are a White teacher who teaches children of color, don’t be so naïve to think your students don’t know you are a White teacher… they know it and they also know that they are not White. So what does this all mean? It means that you should (you MUST) go out of your way to project onto your students, positive images of people of color on a daily basis. Don’t assume they see such positive images of themselves at home. Even if they do, it does them good to have such images reinforced in the classroom. Here are some ways that you can do that on a regular basis…
- Use text(s) that feature people who look like your students. Whether it is math, social studies, science or literacy, find a text that highlight individuals that represent the students you teach. If your text(s) doesn’t do that, don’t use it and find documents that do. Don’t just find resources that only show black and brown faces, but that show black and brown spaces, words, thoughts, feelings and truth.
- Tell the truth about the history of people of color in the United States. Tell the truth about the experiences of Native Americans, Latinos, Asians and African Americans. Speak on the past and their perseverance in the face of their oppression, their polarization and exploitation. The story of America is as much about their experiences under the authority of White people; the triumph and the tragedy.
- Put pictures in your classroom of accomplished people of color in your content area. Find pictures scientists, mathematicians, doctors, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, barbers and hair stylists, cosmetologists, pharmacists, and any professional that can be connected to your content area and put them on a wall in your room. These individuals do not have to be famous.
- Invite people from the community to your classroom. Whether you realize it or not, there are lots of successful professionals that live where you work. In fact, some of them are the parents of your students. Invite them to your classroom to speak to your students. You don’t have to wait for a career day to do that.
- Encourage your school and/or district to hire more educators of color. Chances are that your school and/or district is not heavily populated with teachers, counselors and administrators of color. Unfortunately, you may have more people color among the administrative, maintenance and janitorial staff. Those occupations are honorable and absolutely vital to a functioning school. However, students of color shouldn’t only be able to see themselves in those occupations. They should have a healthy representation of those who look like them in every occupation at the school. Lastly, while support staff interact with students and have meaningful relationships with students, educators have the power, influence and agency to have a tangible impact in the lives of students academically and legally if necessary. Advocate on behalf of your students for your school and/or district to hire educators of color to make the difference that your students need.
I understand the desire to jump on the colorblind train… the train is a popular one. But don’t. You’ll be the only one in your classroom getting on as your students wave to you goodbye. If you have a colorblind mindset in an urban classroom, you might as well be gone. Black and brown sons and daughters are in the midst of their own personal racial identity development and you play a critical role. See their color for what it is… beauty, power and strength. Choosing not to see the color of your students isn’t a recognition of how great our country is. It is affirmation that self-denial equates success. That is not a message any child should have to hear.
Let’s continue to press towards the mark!