As a Black Schoolteacher in NYC I've Seen How 'Colorblind' Ideology Preserves a Racist Education System

Americans have yet to formally confront the reality of race in the classroom.

Photo Credit: Mills Miller

The following is an excerpt from the new book Teaching While Black by Pamela Lewis (Empire State Editions, 2016): 

Speaking up never came easily to me; one of my earliest memories proves as much. When I was four or five, I recall, I was awakened from a very peaceful slumber by my bickering parents. I don’t remember exactly what they were fighting about, but I had seen them argue so often that I used to resort to putting my hands over my mother’s mouth whenever she started to say anything to my father.

“Shhhh,” I’d insist, shaking my head and trying to convince her that silence was best. She could have been ready to do something as innocent as ask for a glass of water, but I always assumed the worst.

My parents in turn decided to save their arguments for after my bedtime. But this particular night the fighting had escalated beyond their desire not to be overheard.

I lay there not knowing what to do. Should I say something? Cry? The intensity in their voices made me wonder if anything I did would make a difference. If my crying did make them stop, I’d be embarrassed, because then they’d realize that I’d been hurt by their decision to fight in front of me. I was also aware of how my crying would make my parents feel; they’d feel guilty, like unfit parents, and I didn’t want them to feel that. I also felt slight contempt that I had to alert them to my presence at all. Didn’t they realize that their fighting might wake me up? Didn’t they care enough about my feelings to not fight at all? Feeling both worthless and powerless, I decided to fake sleep.

I took all the necessary precautions. I made sure not to move a muscle except for taking deep breaths that suggested deep sleep. I kept my eyes tightly shut. Opening my eyes to see my Strawberry Shortcake bed sheets, their loft bed above mine, the freshly waxed hardwood floors, or the Teddy Ruxpin talking bear that a friend of my dad’s had bought me for Christmas would only make my presence more real. Or worse, opening my eyes would allow me to possibly catch a glimpse of them. I would be there, in the apartment where my parents were screaming at each other at the top of their lungs. Though I could still hear them, closing my eyes gave me the opportunity to not see them. As a child, I always believed that if I could not see you, you couldn’t see me. I made myself invisible, no longer bearing witness to their dysfunction and leaving their dignity intact.

That night was the first time I experienced some sort of dual or double-consciousness. I was introduced to these terms through the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, whose work I had been introduced to by Yvette Christiansë, a professor of mine at Fordham University. The term double-consciousness had first been articulated by Du Bois, who used it to describe what he called the “peculiar sensation” or challenge that African Americans experience when they are forced to view themselves not only from their own perspective but also from the perspective of others. Du Bois theorized that whites do not face this challenge. Rather than acquire a double-consciousness, they are allowed to see the world from only their own perspective, thus making African Americans and our perspective invisible.

While that early memory of keeping my eyes shut while my parents fought does not pertain to race, the experience set the stage for the many times in my life in which double-consciousness would, first as a student of color who attended a mostly white college, and later as a public school teacher. Being employed in a public institution of learning that serves many students of color yet employs an overwhelming number of white teachers—82 percent at last count—often means looking at oneself through the eyes of another. My students were me, and I had no choice but to take personally the way my colleagues viewed them.

Still, my feelings were constantly conflicted because in many ways my lens was the same as that of my white-teacher peers. I constantly struggled with whom to defend. Was I a proponent of teachers’ rights or was I for the people, my people—that is to say, students and parents from the community? What exactly did I stand for? Whom did I represent?

You might expect me to say I represented both, and that it was possible to support the people of my community as well as my colleagues, who were as weary and beaten down as I am. To some extent that is accurate.

However, in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York; Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland; Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas; and countless others, as much as I might have shared my fellow teachers’ discomfort with education reform, I am certain that many of my colleagues did not gasp for air after learning that neither Darren Wilson nor Daniel Pantaleo, the officers involved in the first two aforementioned cases, respectively, was indicted. In fact, some wore T-shirts in support of the New York Police Department to school. They did not understand how such an action could be regarded as a conflict of interest. In their minds, Michael Brown and Eric Garner were criminals—they had broken the law. They did not see the race of these men, nor did they believe that the police officers had. They did not question the sheer ridiculousness of Freddie Gray severing his own spine. They condoned officer Brian Encinia’s excessive force against a woman whose appropriate questions to the officer were too sassy for their liking. The story was always the same: They were criminals, they didn’t follow orders, they resisted arrest, they did it to themselves. Race had nothing to do with it.

To be color-blind in the United States is to commit a grave injustice to us all. It deprives those who are still oppressed the right to be angry and, more important, the ability to overcome. Not seeing race preserves racism by implying that it doesn’t exist, and thus there is no longer a need for a head start, a way to catch up to those who’ve always had one. Color-blindness impedes the progress of people of color because it makes us and our issues invisible. These issues run deep in the fabric of our history, and the problems that have resulted will not be solved overnight. However, the first step toward arriving at solutions is to acknowledge the problem.

Americans have yet to formally confront the reality of race in the classroom. Race is so sensitive a topic in the United States that we often choose to remain in a state of denial. We acknowledge that there is a gap between the academic achievements of black and white students, but we fail to include the notion of race in any of our solutions. Instead we look for the smartest teachers around, expecting their intelligence and academic credentials to serve as an antidote to poverty. Rarely do people consider how the race of one’s teacher can affect a child’s psyche, or how detrimental it can be to a child’s belief in the ability and intelligence of his own people to have mostly white teachers throughout his school career.

Some attempts have been made to bridge the gap between teachers and parents, yet we as a society have yet to confront one of the real reasons so many inner-city parents do not trust the education system. In addition, few people will admit that race is often the reason for divisions among staff members within a school. While we conduct background checks on teachers, requiring fingerprints, proof of degrees, and certifications, we do not consider teachers’ feelings about the race of students they may be teaching before hiring them in predominantly black and brown communities.

We teachers of color can feel so torn, so defeated, so at a loss on how to reach some of our children and parents that we sometimes forget why we decided to teach in the first place, which was to uplift the people of our communities, to make students who feel invisible feel visible again, and to give them the confidence they need in order to want to achieve.

I challenge teachers of color to speak up for the sake of our children, to not be afraid of hurting the feelings of your colleagues. We’re all adults, and uncomfortable conversations can be had respectfully. We must remember who comes first. We must remember that the only group that should feel entitlement is our children. They are entitled to an education that considers their needs and desires. They are entitled to love themselves and to feel worthy of the best. They are entitled to understanding and respect.

I also hope to challenge the thousands of educators of other ethnic backgrounds to not be color-blind. Rather, I challenge you to consider ethnicity, race, and color in all that you do, to ensure that you are uplifting our children as much as humanly possible. I ask you to consider Du Bois’s theory of double-consciousness in an effort to try to understand those who are different from you. Instilling black pride is not a threat. It is a necessity.

Adapted from Teaching While Black by Pamela Lewis with permission from Fordham Univeristy Press.  Copyright © 2016 Fordham University Press and published by Fordham University Press. (// All rights reserved.

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