On the intersection of being White and being a math teacher

Two of the books that I read this summer, Why are the All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum and Blindspot by Mahzarin R. Banaj and Anthony G. Greenwald, utterly blew my mind. 

So while the summer winds down, I’ll leave it at the end of this month with so many concerns about my teaching and how I address racism.

A. For my entire life, just like a lot of other White people in this country, I considered myself colorblind. I claimed that I was blind to the race of the people I interacted with. And I took a lot of pride in this fact, too. If I didn’t see people’s race, I couldn’t discriminate or play favorites. I conned myself into this line of thinking. Being born and raised in the inner city, and one of the few White people in my neighborhood and school, race wasn’t a “thing” for me. This perspective continued into adulthood and pervaded my teaching. Even with students, I either claimed the colorblind stance or simply avoided conversations about race. It isn’t until now that I realize that this is, and was a huge, huge problem.

B. Most White people don’t think we live in a racist society. Most White teachers don’t either. But we do. I’m not talking about outspoken racism, like that of white nationalists. I’m referencing the systematic racism that pervades in the air we breathe here in America. In many ways, we choose to not think about it because it’s uncomfortable. White privilege is a very real thing, even if we chose to look the other way. It existent in every aspect of society. Most White people don’t see it this way because we are (myself included) inside the box — we are part of the dominant group. That inherently makes it harder to understand the advantages we have.

C. What’s especially damaging about this is that every single White teacher I know is a good person. They don’t intentionally aim to do harm to students of color. Heck, most of these teachers teach in schools with large proportions of students of color because they want to help interrupt the cycle of inequality and injustice that these kids experience. But our hidden biases, which strongly favor our culture of Whiteness, can still significantly affect our judgment in ways that we aren’t even aware of.

D. What does this mean? It means that if we teachers (and especially our school leaders) don’t develop an anti-racist stance that fosters a critical consciousness about life being more than White privilege, our schools and classrooms will be a mere reflection of the racist society in which we live. It means that if we don’t mindfully recognize the systemic racism that our students of color, and colleagues for that matter, encounter every day, how can we attempt to take a chance at interrupting it?

E. So how do we, as teachers, bring up such a sensitive topic with colleagues and administrators to help push the needle in the right direction? There’s fear, dread, and detachment in people’s eyes (not just White people, either) whenever race is brought up. I know because it used to happen to me. I have no idea how to address this, but I think open, safe conversations with one another are vitally important — like at staff and department meetings. Provocative, reflective prompts are needed (Jose and Wendy!). A simple discussion can go a long way. Norms need to be set. I would hope that administrators can be present and active. Anxiety is natural, but I like to think that if we’re sincere and honor one another, the right words will always find their way out of our mouths.

F. Self-discovery might also help. Here are various research-based tests that we can take online to help determine each of our hidden biases. They are called Implicit Association Tests. Here’s some background on them.

G. I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m at a loss here. I’m no expert on how to make this happen. Progress seems so far away, but this post is a start for me, I suppose. A grueling and uncomfortable path lay ahead.

H. One more thing that I want to add. Right now, 75% of my mathematics department at my school is White male. That bothers me. At times, I worry about the subliminal messages that this sends the 90% of students at my school who are Black or Latino — especially if we (White males) aren’t actively taking an anti-racist approach to teaching and learning mathematics.



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5 Responses to On the intersection of being White and being a math teacher

  1. Sam Williams says:

    Item H is a concern of mine. Except at my school, it’s 75 percent white female. I used to joke that if my school couldn’t bring in a black male math teacher, I would build one myself out of the many students I routinely encounter who show talent in the classroom but who see that first sub-70 score on the Algebra Regents and take it as a signal to look elsewhere in terms of a career.

    Like the author, I’ve had to reassess my own hidden biases. I now file the above thinking (joking or otherwise) under the heading “white savior complex” and have to remind myself daily that it’s not about me turning people of color into professional mathematicians. It’s about me doing my part to make the overall profession of mathematics (from Kindergarten to the Fields Medal level) more welcoming to people of color.

    Anyway, I’ve been hooked in with NYC Men’s Teach over the last year. It’s a good attempt to correct the demographic imbalance you cite. Alas I think it’s hitting the sunset phase. Fingers crossed, there should be a surge of new recruits hitting the pipeline to justify new funding..


    • brian says:

      Hi Sam, it’s disappointing to have a teaching force that so weakly represents the student population of our schools, let alone our city. I’m no formal researcher, but I’m uncertain that folks, especially in mathematics, realize the hidden impact that this can have on students of color.

      Here’s to persistence, Sam.


  2. Thank you so much for your reflection. I also would love to start the dialogue among coworkers. I will be following your journey.


  3. steph says:

    Catching up on your blog, and this one makes me really excited about the PLC work we can do this year.
    It’s only a small step toward a big problem – in the world at large as well as the math world – but if you want a copy of the two posters – Latinos and Women in Mathematics – that I have in my classroom they are free from the American Math Society. (http://www.ams.org/posters)


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