Neutral Doesn’t Work When Talking About Race
When people take a “neutral position” on race, it doesn’t work. This describes the main finding of a study I explored in my doctoral dissertation at University of California, Los Angeles. The study, conducted in 2020 and guided by Pedro Noguera, consisted of in-depth interviews with 30 recent alumni of color, representing Black, Latinx, and Asian perspectives who attended predominantly white independent schools (PWIS).
This “neutral position,” as described by participants, refers to a tendency of some PWIS teachers to remain silent on issues of race and/or ethnicity. This can manifest either as a colorblind stance (“I don’t see color”) or ignoring the obvious dynamic of race when addressing racial incidents in the classroom. Henry (participant names have been changed to protect privacy) described core classes at his PWIS as “colorblind” and his teachers as generally exhibiting race-avoidant tendencies. “If race was not brought up, then we can all work under the assumption that it’s not a problem,” he said. Similarly, Opal recognized the difficulty her community seemed to have around the topic of race, noting, “No one will talk about [race].” Others like Ben described class discussions as centering whiteness and how nonwhite perspectives would only be included if students in the room seemed to desire diverse perspectives.
This race-avoidant tendency can seem like a personal choice that is limited in impact, but the consequences are dire. The ramification of colorblind classroom curricula is the regular exclusion of the racial or ethnic identity of those who identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC) in the classroom. This can result in BIPOC students feeling less engaged during class discussions or having more difficulty connecting to classroom content. When teachers are hesitant to address race and ethnicity in the classroom, they are failing and hurting all students—particularly BIPOC students.
Teachers Need to Model Racial Inclusivity
The way teachers interact with BIPOC students is critical to modeling effective cross-racial relationships. If teachers do not have the cultural competency to teach a classroom of diverse students, their colorblind ideology and implicit bias can impact their students’ ability to form healthy cross-racial relationships in school. Teachers are the classroom facilitators who set the tone for racial inclusivity, and as such, they need to embrace their role accordingly.
Several study participants noted a stark difference in their white peers’ level of acceptance or intolerance depending on the behavior of their teachers. Pam, for example, described a class in which she initially felt discounted by her peers whenever she voiced her cultural perspectives during class discussions. This changed for her, however, when her teacher stepped in, and because of the teacher’s affirmation, Pam felt she subsequently received greater respect from her peers. She explained, “the teacher really gave value to my perspective, [so] I felt even better about sharing.” However, Pam says she saw eyerolls in her other classes when teachers did not create a space for race or ethnicity to be a formal part of classroom conversation. In these instances, perspectives that did not center whiteness seemed to be regarded as more “annoying” and as part of a BIPOC agenda.
Others echoed these sentiments. Jackie talked about how a teacher’s role is paramount in modeling inclusive behavior toward her peers: “If you show other students that our voices matter and that [we] have as equal validity as every other student in the classroom, that not only sends a message to the students, but it sends a message to the specific student of color who is maybe in a situation where they don’t see any of the teachers who look like them.” Teachers’ classroom conduct had a strong role in impacting a sense of belonging for many BIPOC students at PWISs.
BIPOC Students Are Doing the Work
Being left out hurts, and to BIPOC students navigating predominantly white spaces, a colorblind classroom environment can result in them feeling marginalized in their school community. However, there were also stories of tremendous strength and resourcefulness from study participants. Several, for example, described poring through books by James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates to further their own identity development. They also described instances in which they took it upon themselves to actively make connections to BIPOC perspectives during an otherwise white-centric classroom discussion.
Throughout the process, many participants talked about how, because of their PWIS experience, they learned how to navigate and develop their own healthy sense of identity. One participant said, “I wouldn’t take any of it back…[as] the negatives also have informed me so much and have been probably much more instrumental in my growth than the positives have.” BIPOC students are doing the work. Are educators doing the same?