When Race Enters the Room: Toward Racial Literacy in America’s Schools

Most people who grew up, attended school, or lived many years in the U.S. have a worldview shaped by their own racial identity that informs their understanding of race and what it means to be associated with a particular racial group. Yet these groups are dynamic, and each generation interprets them differently. In addition, the increasing share of students who identify as “multiracial,” “international,” or “other” further complicates efforts to make sense of race, its relationship to academic achievement, and its contribution to the larger project of attaining diversity, integration, and inclusion in schools.

Additionally, the growing racial diversity of America’s student population has far outpaced that of our teaching and administrative professionals. In the case of NAIS schools, during the 2014 15 school year, students of color made up 29 percent of total enrollment. Yet roughly 83 percent of instructional support and 88 percent of administrators who work in NAIS schools are white. Such trends are not, however, unique to independent schools. In fact, this demographic divide between educators and students continues to fuel what researchers have described as “cultural mismatch” between home and school that leads to cultural conflict and misunderstanding. 
Although the current discourse on school improvement and leadership focuses on closing achievement gaps and improving academic outcomes among students of color, race remains an “undiscussable” in many regards. It is a topic that most would prefer to avoid but that has become increasingly hard to ignore. As education professor and theorist Gloria Ladson-Billings explained based on her decades of research in schools, “race almost always enters the room.”

The Proverbial Elephant in the Room

Over the last few decades, the education discourse has been overwhelmed with national, state, district, and school-level data reflecting troubling disparities in student achievement based largely on race. Moreover, school resegregation trends and discipline gaps that feed a distressing school-to-prison pipeline are also informed heavily by race. These developments have spurred a growing interest in talking about race in schools.
But how do you prepare for such conversations? Where do you begin? What role should educational leaders play in advancing conversations about race? And to what end?
As Edith Rusch and I wrote in a 2009 article, “There is mounting evidence that aspiring school heads who feel unprepared to talk about racial and cultural perspectives and differences have limited ability to effectively lead in diverse social contexts.” In our study of educational leadership preparation programs, we found that aspiring school leaders who lacked opportunities to participate in constructive talk about race and other complex social issues tended to engage in “deficit thinking.” In The Evolution of Deficit Thinking, Richard Valencia defines the term as “the notion that students (particularly low income, minority students) and their families experience deficiencies that obstruct the learning process (e.g., limited intelligence, lack of motivation and inadequate home socialization” (Valencia 1997, x). Sadly, such focus on the deficiencies of students based on the meanings we attach to race gives power to harmful stereotypes, which often lead to lower teacher expectations for students of color.
As such, this proverbial elephant in the room has been harder to ignore in an education policy environment where school leaders in independent, traditional public, and charter schools alike are expected to improve educational outcomes for all students. Such correlations between race and achievement — absent an understanding of the origins of race that we’re about to discuss —can lead us to incorrect conclusions, and even assumptions, about racial differences in schools.
So what is “race” exactly? Where did it come from?  Is it real?  If so, how do we know?

Understanding Race: From Literacy to Reconciliation

In my work, I have argued that racial literacy is essential to constructive conversations about race because it focuses on the origins, function, and persistence of race as a social and political construction. In the 2003 PBS documentary, RACE: The Power of an Illusion, historian of science Evelynn Hammonds explained, “Race is a concept that was invented to categorize the perceived biological, social, and cultural differences between human groups.” 
This is an extremely important concept for educational leaders to understand. It helps to give much-needed historical, social, and political context to contemporary manifestations of racial inequality in schools, such as the “achievement gap” and other disparities that tend to fall along the color line. When we know that race was, in fact, created to sift and sort individuals into a racial hierarchy that places some groups on top while others remain on the bottom, we are better equipped to recognize and respond to the reproduction of racial inequality in classrooms, schools, and society. Despite the evils and pervasive nature of racism today, we can take some solace in the fact that because race is a human invention, we can reinvent or reconstruct the ways in which we imagine race.
The graphic below provides a brief description of each stage along the multi-step progression from racial literacy the ability to understand what race is, why it is, and how it is used to reproduce inequality and oppression to the aspirational goal of racial reconciliation. I present more detailed discussions of these concepts in my previous works (Horsford, 2011, 2014; Horsford & Clark, 2015).
Much like the proverbial elephant in the room, the troubling legacy of race continues to manifest itself in the very places we should want to protect from such discrimination, inequality, pain, and injustice our schools. School leaders can and should play an important role in navigating the issue of “race,” and whenever and wherever possible, consider the meaning, function, and power of race when it enters the room. 

Racial Literacy Resources

Below are selected recommendations and resources for school leaders and teams interested in increasing their racial literacy as part of a larger commitment to advancing educational equity, diversity, and inclusion in school communities.
Adelman, Larry. RACE: The Power of an Illusion. Directed by Christine Herbes-Sommers, Tracy Heather Strain, and Llewellyn M. Smith. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2003. Online resources retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/race.
Horsford, Sonya D. 2011. Learning in a Burning House: Educational Inequality, Ideology, and (Dis)Integration. New York: Teachers College Press.
Horsford, Sonya D. 2014. “When Race Enters the Room: Improving Leadership and Learning through Racial Literacy.” Theory into Practice 53(1): 123-130.
Horsford, Sonya D., and Christine Clark. 2015. “Inclusive Leadership and Race.” In Inclusive Leadership for Increasingly Diverse Schools, edited by George Theoharis and Martin Scanlan, 58-81. New York: Routledge.
Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 2005. “Reading, Writing, and Race: Literacy Practices of Teachers in Diverse Classrooms.” In Language, Literacy, and Power in Schooling, edited by Teresa L. McCarty, 133-150. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Milner, Richard H. 2015. Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Nieto, Sonia. 2010. The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities (10th Anniversary Edition). New York: Teachers College Press.
Rusch, Edith A., and Sonya D. Horsford. 2009. “Changing Hearts and Minds: The Quest for Open Talk about Race in Educational Leadership.” International Journal of Educational Management 23(4): 302-313.
Schieble, Melissa. 2012. “Critical Conversations on Whiteness with Young Adult Literature.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 56(3): 212-21.
Thompson, Aaron, and Joe B. Cuseo. 2012. Infusing Diversity and Cultural Competence into Teacher Education. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.
Valencia, Richard. 1997. The Evolution of Deficit Thinking: Educational Thought and Practice. London; Washington, D.C.: Falmer Press.
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Sonya Horsford

Sonya Douglass Horsford is an associate professor of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Her research interests include the political and policy contexts of education leadership with a focus on school desegregation and education reform in the post-civil rights era.