Advocacy in the Age of Colorblindness

A student of color is courageous enough to share his story, and what do adults do? Dismiss and invalidate his experiences by arguing what they believe he and students in similar situations need. Go ahead, say you are “fighting for students,” but you can’t truly fight for students if you aren’t listening to them–all of them, not just the ones that align with your beliefs.

Recently a teacher shared that her friend posted an article in the national Badass Teachers Association (BATs) Facebook group page that provoked a controversial debate. She shared that her friend got “slapped” for sharing the article in the group. The article covers a New Orleans student who discusses teachers being hired in his community. He notes, “Hiring more white teachers is not the best way to improve education for students, particularly students of color.”

Supportive of the article, and skeptic about the BATs after talking to teachers of color in the past, I had to check it out.

Here is the screenshot of the original post:

 

Post

The post received over 200 comments from BAT members.

 

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What I find frustrating about most of these comments is their complete dismissal of the greater issues reflected by this post. The comments that argue that “there aren’t enough teachers of color” are ignoring the boundaries that keep many people of color pursuing this career. Many had oppressive\racist\non-cultural relevant education experiences, so many are reluctant to enter an environment they grew up hating. Many ignore that college-access, especially for people of color, is limited. Thus, completely leaving out the opportunity to even pursue a teaching certificate. As long as students of color are given more barriers than their white counterparts to go into teaching, the longer teachers of color will be the minority.

 

Another irritating argument includes that “it doesn’t matter what color a teacher is, as long as the teacher is good, that’s all that matters.” That is completely missing the point of the importance and benefits of students of color having teachers who look like them (see: Study: Minority students do better under minority teachers, Why students need more Black and Latino teachers). Yes, all teachers regardless of race can be trained to be effective teachers of black students, but black teachers can “be more adept at motivating and engaging students of color.” Additionally, by having students of color see people who look like them in successful positions, it can help prove to them that they can hold such positions too. Also, comments such as “color doesn’t matter,” is possibly one of the most racist statements one could make. By saying, “I don’t see color,” or “color doesn’t matter,” is basically saying “I don’t see your experiences, your stories, your struggles. Those elements of your identity and life don’t matter to me.” Colorblindness is not justice, equality, or being a good teacher. Colorblindness is ignoring the very issues that your students need you to fight against.

 

It was also frustrating reading people’s personal defense. “Well as a white teacher, [insert defense that his\her students of color love him\her].” I don’t doubt that. Yet again, the larger issue at hand is being completely ignored. It is the fact that ~80% of the teaching population is white.  While BATs are ready to attack Teach for America (TFA) for being a predominantly white organization, they fail to reflect on the own institutions in which they use in defense. They fail to acknowledge that the predominantly white teaching pool of the U.S. existed well before and without TFA.  (see: Changing the Face of Teaching, Profile of Teachers in the US, Black Teachers Black Students).  Yes, we should criticize organizations such as TFA that are a threat to education, but it is just as important we recognize how some of our own institutions may be hindering liberation, democracy, and diversity as well. While BATs are ready to accuse TFA corp members for perpetuating racism, they fail to acknowledge the very racist tendencies of their own members.

 

Now, I understand that the people who identify as BATs vary significantly, so it is hard to generalize all BATs. I am happy that this organization has empowered teachers who once felt that they were alone, but that does not give them a free pass.  As a national organization that claims to be a group that fights for better education and students, it makes me question: For whose education? For whose students? BAT’s mission claims to want to “erase inequality through education.” But the acts of the BATs towards people of color in the past convey otherwise. The only comments on this thread made by the “moderators” included advising for comments to be edited, staying kind and patient, and not to be condescending. Not once was anything mentioned about not being racist, or acknowledging how “ignoring people’s race” may be offensive. I find it hard to support a group that is content with banning people who support corporate education reform groups, but not people who support sustaining an oppressive education system for students of color.

If the BATs are an organization that wants to “stay neutral” and abstain from being vocal about issues on race, then I don’t want to be a BAT.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” – Desmond Tutu

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35 thoughts on “Advocacy in the Age of Colorblindness

  1. When we say white, we mean of European ancestory? I identify as Asian and I would’ve really appreciated an Asian teacher to be a role model of an Asian American to me. Most of my childhood I learned how to be “white” American and to reject my culture not simply because of my white peers but because of the adults in my life that didn’t understand my culture. Now I see how important that us. Understanding POC isn’t about skin color (despite the term), it’s about culture and shared experience especially growing up in America where only a small population is actually native to this land and those people have a rich culture that is different than the current predominant culture in America so culture and experience DOES matter. When will people understand SKIN color is biology but the culture behind that skin color means a lot. Thanks Stephanie for writing this.
    Mia

  2. Nice post. It’s evident from the screenshot that few if any of those who replied cared in the least about the perspective of the KIDS and how their perceptions, desires, beliefs, etc., impact their day-to-day reality in school (no small part of which is their engagement with teachers and lessons). It’s as if the fundamental reality that matters is strictly that of white (or non-black, non-Latino) teachers in particular. Of course, not all BATs are in fact white (not all are K-12 teachers or educators of any flavor).

    But this shouldn’t be terribly surprising. First of all, it reflects perfectly the reality of American education which in no small part reflects power relationships in the larger reality of American daily life and culture: only the thoughts, feelings, and desires of those in power matter. In classrooms, that is, at least traditionally, the teacher. In the school building, it is the administrators. In the district, it’s the Superintendent and the School Board. And so on.

    But second, it reflects perfectly the way BATs has operated as an organization from very early on in the game. It’s run by one very big ego and a bunch of folks willing to do most of the dirty work to ensure that that ego stays satisfied. Dissenters are neither wanted nor tolerated. In fact, they are quickly censored, banned, and made into non-persons, in the best tradition of old Joe Stalin and friends (or insert your favorite dictatorship).

    Of course, there are nuances that deserve to be examined and discussed regarding the impact of teacher ethnicity on student learning, particularly in today’s mostly black and/or Latino high-needs urban schools. But frankly, BATs webpages aren’t the place to have conversations that involve nuance or that might make some members, particularly the conservative and moderate ones that the Fearless Leader appears terrified of every offending, however mildly, the least bit uncomfortable. They might resign en masse, and then how could he brag of his x-thousand members when ignoring the criticism of people who aren’t willing to accept his every thought and action? It’s a tough life being big fish in a small pond.

    • So many good ideas here…where to begin? I taught for 34 years at an incredibly diverse high school with only 2 black educators…an incredibly gifted college counselor and (you probably guessed this) a dean. I was lucky enough to teach both of their children. Why so few black educators? Very few applied. Department head requirements were tough; for instance, my dept. head would not even interview an educator with Cs in major classes. Beyond that, I wouldn’t know.

      How I wish I had had more knowledge of the black culture, the Asian culture, the Hispanic culture to help my students. Yes, I was a good teacher, but if I knew more of their ethnic/racial/cultural backgrounds, I bet I would have been even better. Education IS about the kids…isn’t that the main point on which we agree?

      I am the teacher Stephanie mentions above and it is my friend, a Chicago preK teacher, who was the original poster and “slapee.” I posted the article on the Progressive page because I was certain it would draw interesting discussion…and it did. I learned quite a lot from several people and even more from Stephanie’s blog.

      I am also an ex-BAT admin/mod who left for many of the reasons Michael stated. I jumped ship when the egos were ballooning and before my “dissension” got me banned. I have seen recently that they support the few (mostly on the east coast) and ignore long-time BATs who need help. That is not the same organization I joined almost a year ago.

      So, I thank you, Stephanie, for educating me through your well-written blog. And, Michael, thank you for letting me blow off some steam. I am sorry, though, for doing it here.

      • No need to apologize to ME, Robin: it’s not my blog, after all. And I wasn’t exactly operating with kid gloves on (well, compared to some of the things I’ve written about particular BATs people on FaceBook, I guess I was being more gentle than usual). ;^)

        I also left very early, as soon as people were getting kicked off in bunches one weekend in the late summer or early fall. And this was BEFORE I locked horns directly with Mark Naison (which happened after I quit, but before I realized he and I very nearly crossed paths via SDS in the late 1960s). I am all for solidarity in the philosophical sense of wanted to be able to view a wide range of people as “like me” in terms of basic desires, feelings, needs, etc. But I’m not much of a group person in terms of working within organizations UNLESS they are fun with minimal egotism and bull. BATs very quickly went from seeming like a good idea to a sad, selfish joke. And I’ve seen similar unpleasantness emerge on some of the hidden BATs pages that were supposed to be more progressive and strictly anti-censorship. There was a lot of concern about whether the BATs leadership had moles in these groups, very limited tolerance for dissent, and a distinct lack of humor on the part of some of the group leaders. The acorn apparently doesn’t fall far from the tree. :(

        By the way: I’ve worked extensively with students, teachers, and administrators in K-12 schools in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and other high-needs communities/districts in SE Michigan, as well as in NYC. And any way you slice it, there are serious problems with the quality of the teaching in some classrooms, though of course there are loads of good and highly dedicated people working in very difficult conditions and with little or no support from above. I would be the last person to claim to have “The Answer,” but I will say that there’s no shortage of teachers of color working in Detroit Public Schools, so that by itself isn’t sufficient to make things better. Given the financial realities of the district (and the politics in the state and nation as a whole) that isn’t too shocking, and it doesn’t negate the concerns raised in this blog piece or that article. The problem is trying to have a meaningful conversation about it, or anything where “race” is involved and there is a lot of input from people who seriously push the notion of “color-blindness” in this country.

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  4. Being a nice, white liberal who respects the culture of the students and thinks carefully about it when choosing reading and making assignments isn’t enough, even if it’s all you can do. The kids have to see themselves in their teachers.

    I can have an innovative curriculum and be tech-forward and all the good stuff we’re demanding from teachers, but I’m not going to get into their hearts like a black teacher can. They know I don’t go home to their neighborhood. We can both listen to some Houston rap and talk about it, but they know we are from different worlds and share different destinies. And they can know that while they know I love them and work for them every single day.

    I can sit with them and read “Space Traders” by Derrick Bell all day long, but at the end of the day I’m still a white male. That’s not a bad thing, *there’s nothing wrong with being a white person or a male person*, it’s just not the whole meal they need to eat. It’s good to have some of me in the mix, but I can’t be all the options on the menu.

    A kid shouldn’t have to go all day without seeing multiple, successful people reflecting their lives and cultures. That’s injustice. We would never accept that for our kids as white people. It’s unimaginable.

    All of these modern reform movements exacerbate that injustice. Destroy unions. Hire unqualified short-timers from the Ivy. Close predominantly-black schools and fire that school’s black teacher population. Institute “objective” teacher judgement while eliminating real teacher development (“watch some webinars!”).

    Somehow we BADASS TEACHERS choose focus on standardized testing? Why, because that is an issue that *also* impacts the power (read: white) group. Those other things don’t really impact us, but our kids also have to take these tests, so let’s pretend that’s the real issue.

    Oh man, I’m rambling. Stephanie, you got me going… I need a drink.

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  6. As a white teacher in an urban upstate NY district with an 80% f/r lunch population I always thought teachers and more importantly admins should reflect the color/experiences of the student population. But after reading some of the comments on both sides of this issue I began to take my thinking a step further. If it applies to students based on color, doesn’t it then hold true for all types of students? Does it mean that obese students should have obese teachers or white upper middle class students should have white teachers in the same socio-economic category? Should students be taught by teachers with the same religious beliefs? Should we expect teachers of color to work in only inner city high needs districts? Isn’t the logic assuming that having the same color means having shared experiences? Because I’m white, should I only be teaching white students? Should I or my children have not been taught by a teacher of color? It terrifies me to think how far this argument could be taken. It moves backwards to a pre Brown vs. BOE school system. For the sake of our society, we need to change the course of the dialogue. The discussion should not be about the color of who is in front of the classroom or in charge of the building; it should be about the fact that this discussion exists due to the socio-economic segregation of neighborhoods and the policies and practices of our government that created them and the steps our elected officials should be taking to resolve it.

  7. Think on this: Systematic racism is the reason behind “not enough qualified candidates”, teacher salary keeps many from the profession, there are multiple factors keeping minorities out of teaching in some areas of the country. Growing up on the west coast, I had mostly AA teachers most of them were excellent. I also had dome great Caucasian teachers. I also had some duds especially in high school. The teachers and administrators that had the most significant impact on myself and my peers were the AA teachers. And those AA educators helped students of all ethnicities, not just the AA students. I realize this does not happen everywhere.

    Also if there are more AA male and minority teachers guess who will be teaching your white children. Let’s see if you are still colorblind then. White children seeing minority professionals daily is one step to help to curb racist generations.
    And you thought some people lost their mind when we elected a Black President.

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  10. Yes, students are better off when they can see themselves in their instructors. There ‘s another side of this to unpack, though. I’ll share my deepest personal reflections, because this is important, despite the vulnerability I now share with everyone else who has posted.

    While I taught pregnant and parenting teen girls in Roxbury in the late eighties, I was carrying my youngest son, reaching for great joy after great sorrow. After he was born safe and healthy, his college student babysitter brought him to me at work on my breaks. Then, my students started bringing their own babies from the baby room, to nurse in a safe place. I was much older than them (They joked, “Pregnant?! An older lady like you! That’s dirty.”). Whichever colors they were, they saw themselves in me, and I saw myself, my daughters, and my sisters in them. I taught them algebra and science.

    I grew up “poor white trash”, with my family sometimes taunted for race-mixing with the Massalinas or the Musgroves in previous centuries. I fought welfare for medical care for for my firstborn, eventually losing. Within that history, there was inequality of privilege in all directions, but as we were living it, my many colors of sisters and I never even wanted to turn that into an accusation against other women who might have been spared one grief or another. NOT ONE of us would have put her troubles or pain on another.

    Life and safety, creativity and prosperity are rights, not privileges. We aren’t trapped fighting each other for them. That’s the device of our real enemy, who was NEVER each other. This is also true in education “reform” today. People who have “privilege” to dispense have made themselves comfortable, hoping we’ll all fight like dogs for their scraps.

    I’m about to celebrate my 65th birthday, and yet I know I haven’t seen everything that can be in human hearts and minds about racial and human identity. Neither have you, whoever you are. Accusations of racism might be tweeted at me for saying so.

    We are one people, and the only path to justice and full humanity is if we allow ourselves to know that. We can all see ourselves in our children, and they can all see themselves in us. We, as a people, will get there.

  11. Stephanie, Thank you for writing this important and insightful piece. As a member of BATS, your post certainly does reflect some of my views. I’ve been a member since the beginning, but I have been increasingly frustrated by a lack of dialogue and critical reflection in BATS. I have noted many instances where member comments present simplistic views of complex social, political, and cultural issues. The bigger problem, I think, is that when other members challenge these views, they are “scolded” for dissent and for having opinions. This is especially evident in any conversations about race or class. I have been scolded by the moderators a few times, but I haven’t been banned…and I haven’t quit…yet. I stay mostly to read and to make an occasional post to encourage more dissent and dialogue. I understand the need to moderate such a diverse public group. But, I think BATS have been over-moderated to the point where there is little room for meaningful conversations and critical dialogue about important issues. Thanks for taking a stand and for the courage to write this post. Well done!

    • Hi Michelle, Thank you so much for your comment and taking the time to read my post. I understand that some moderation can prevent meaningful conversation, but I’m concerned with who is and who isn’t being banned/moderated, and whose opinions are being restricted and whose isn’t. From what I have learned from talking to ex-BATS (both who left on their own and who were banned), the people who have often been banned and silenced are those whose opinions are not popular/align with the moderators or founders. For instance, there was someone who brought up the issue of white privilege in the group and this person ended up being banned for the sake of protecting the group’s popularity. I agree that moderators should leave room for meaningful discussion, but there should also be fairness on who is being banned/moderated (like I noted, those who make racist comments should be just as penalized as those who support corporate reform in the group). I hope that makes sense. Thank you again for your response! I hope this post continues to provoke important reflection of BATs.

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  13. Thank you for taking this on Ms. Rivera. As soon as we see nonsensical rhetoric about “reverse racism” and the like, we know we’re dealing with the most intractable of white supremacist thought. I’ve long been on record as saying that the actions in New Orleans, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, etc. were intentionally targeting teachers who were predominantly women of color. Within the framework of neoliberalism, the divide and conquer strategies of the ruling class have counted on many whites not seeing the critical importance of calling out the racism inherent both in reform, and within their own ranks.

    I am horrified by some of the comments reproduced above. Lacking proper analysis, especially the tools to see these oppressions intersectionally, these individuals don’t see that they are exacerbating all of the race and class issues they might think they are combating. BATs are not alone in this problem, but they should be on the leading edge of fighting it instead of tacitly defending it.

    One of BAT’s leadership verbally attacked a woman of color who I know personally and respect a great deal. She holds a doctoral degree and has some of the most insightful analysis of Common Core’s inherent racism I’ve ever seen. When she pointed out the dangers of aligning too closely with the reactionary, racist wing of Common Core opposition, she was excoriated by BATs. She was told by many white BATs that she just didn’t get it. Ultimately, they don’t get that uncritically aligning themselves with right-wing CCSS opponents is tantamount to aligning themselves against people of color.

    At the end of the day students should not only be able to have a number of teachers at their school that they can identify with, but they should have curricula that reflects their own history and lived experience as well. If we are going to combat the white supremacy inherent in Common Core (via E. D. Hirsch J.R.’s racist core knowledge), we also need to address racist attitudes among our own organizations.

  14. Of course a student wants to see people who may look like them in their schools. It would be great if all schools had a diverse staff which represents people of all races, ethnicities. In my school it would be great if we had teachers from Bangladesh, to reflect the rapidly growing number of students from that country. If parents opt for bilingual Bengali classes for their ELL children the school would be required to create programs. Unfortunately, most do not choose that option. If lieu of having teachers who reflect our student population it is great that we at least have parent volunteers of different races/ethnicities. Students can see adults who look like them and speak their language involved in the school community. I don’t really see this issue confined to only those who are POC.

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  16. For the record, the posts you don’t like were also being talked down on the discussion page. People with different experiences and some with research bringing things to the table. In a group that encourages people to talk about their thoughts on things. Why wouldn’t you want educators to discuss topics like, oh, education? Even weirder, why would you expect 100% agreement on something as politically divided in this country as race and it’s affect on one’s life. I saw posts up there from teachers that I just don’t agree with, on dang near any topic. I know at least one isn’t teaching any more, and I don’t mean voluntary retirement. Let teachers talk to each other about things, and hopefully those that aren’t culturally/socially aware enough to understand the context of their current beliefs can be awakened.

  17. Sadly this group also marginalized teachers who do not work in traditional classroom settings as well. Some of us do not feel empowered to share our experiences at virtual or charter schools fearing to be judge or ridiculed for not be a “public school teacher. ” The students at virtual schools are trying to pursue their education while handling children, legal issues, financial issues, sickness, and extreme learning disabilities. Traditional classrooms have failed these students. BATS want to stop the injustices happening to children, but our not willing to entertain the thought that maybe some virtual and charter schools have a place. There are many highly qualified teachers helping students with very serious issues outside of the traditional classroom setting. We should be given a voice and respect too. Our students needs, many described in the original article, are being met and exceeded. Majority of thinking in this group is “one size fits all education” with no reflection of how our students and families are crying out for nontraditional classroom settings.

  18. Thank you for your blog. You have given me much to think about and helped me better understand my discomfort with some of the BATs.

    Someone in this discussion thread mentioned racism and white supremacy inherent in the standards – can you say more about that? Link to some articles, perhaps? I’m always happy to find suggestions on how to improve, and if there’s a racial bias in the standards, I want to be sure I overcome that.

    I’m a white teacher teaching English in a mainly white high school in Wisconsin, but I try to bring diverse viewpoints to my students.

  19. Theresa – I am a charter school teacher and have been a member of BATs from the beginning. I had the experience of being dissed at first, but I when I was able to explain that I supported and believed in public schools, I have been listened to and accepted for who I am. I respect the concern about charter schools and I think I have been able to be a voice for the “good charters” (the schools that were founded by parents and teachers with the intent of offering an alternative method of education). Virtual charters have their place, too, and those that offer homeschool support are important since there are so many different ways that children learn. BAT Association is offering teachers a voice during a very troubled time for public education in our country. So, even though I’m not a “public school teacher” (although charters ARE public and I hold a public teaching credential), I am glad that this group exists and that they are trying to make a difference.

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  22. I like how everyone assumes each person’s experience is the same. All black people have the same experiences so let’s lump them together. All women have the same experience so let’s do that to them as well. And, hey, just about every other marginalized group as well, right? And that means all white people had the privilege of going to the best schools, having the best families and the easy ticket to college. The left and the right do the same and don’t realize it. Hypocrites each and every one of you.

    • I won’t attempt to speak for anyone but myself, let alone all of any group, and I can say that on behalf of myself that I found your comment was ignorant and simplistic. Note that I make no generalizations, no assumptions, just my honest reaction to YOUR specific remarks. The unmitigated gall of someone make blanket accusations of hypocrisy against everyone who has weighed in here is beyond belief.

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