Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Am I the only one who noticed?

According to Spencer and Dornbusch, adolescents engage with society in ways that will help them construct their identities - “This is who I think I am - what do you think?” (Nakkula and Toshalis, pg. 131).  Mr. Keith (a colleague of mine) has been known to occasionally recite the same sentiment to his students, but in the form of “You are not who you think you are.  You are not even who other people think you are.  You are who you think other people think you are” (Unknown).  I like both of the quotations because I hear students talk all the time about whether their teacher like them - or not, and I cannot help but to chuckle because so many times they have no idea.  Yet, those perceptions can become prophetic as students try to live up to their self made billing, as was the case between Antwon and Ms. Peterson (from chapter 1).  Such behavior on the part of adolescents can be positive or negative which is why we, as teachers, must take care in the interactions that we have with our students.

On a greater scale we must be prepared to combat the messages about race that come from people as well as - or especially from - the media.

To paraphrase Dr. Bogad (again), poor people can fake richness, gay people can fake straightness, non Christians can fake Christianness, but people of color cannot fake whiteness.  Thus for them there is no such thing as blending in.  Which may be why over time as more racial groups were imagined (“Omi and Winant call racial categories “patently absurd reductions of human variation”) the “black” Irish simply became the Irish in American society (Nakkula and Toshalis, pg. 123).  I might also use this to argue that John F. Kennedy was not only the first Catholic President of the United States of America, but also the first black President.

Consider the following quote while reading the story below.

Is it possible that whites work “optimally,” that is, uninterrupted, when [they] don’t have to discuss race and ethnicity and that students of color can only be engaged and most unburdened when race and ethnicity are squarely on the table? … It seems likely that students of color are “stuck” until “race” is discussed, while White students are “stuck” once race is discussed.  (Nakkula and Toshalis, pg. 125)

You are a White man living and working on a Caribbean island where the great majority of the population (including those in power) are Black.  After having lived on the island for long enough that you are acclimated to and comfortable with the culture as well as the locals, you know them and they know you.  One day, you board a bus (local transportation) where you suddenly become very aware that you are the only white person on that bus.  Which would make you feel more at ease?  
  1. No one says anything, and you remain alone with your thoughts.
  2. Someone breaks the tension by asking (in a friendly tone), did you get on the wrong bus?

Now consider that this scenario plays out quite frequently in our classrooms.  What must it be like to be the only minority student in classroom full of white students?

The same idea could be applied to any situation - independent of race - in which one person was the newest member of a group.  If the new member is not made to feel welcomed there may be some discomfort which prevents optimal participation from that new member.  On the other hand, if someone were to point out that the new member was not properly welcomed into the group, the other group members might feel discomfort with the prospect of having to acknowledge that they failed to properly welcome the new member resulting in less than optimal participation.

Could it be that our minority students think that our view of them is the same as what the media portrays of their racial group?  How might that feel?

Here's to breaking the ice.


  1. I looked at that video and I almost put it on my blog. I loved the part in the video when she talks about how she and the senator were mistaken for the help. It's funny,
    I was that white person on the bus. When I was in college I lived in Washington DC for two years. I lived in a predominately white neighborhood but I worked in a black neighborhood. I used to take the bus to work. Many days I was the only white person on the bus. I remember thinking about how black people must feel being in a room full f white people. I do think that it is important that we can have empathy for others.

  2. JFK was black Irish? Are you sure? I need to find more TED talks/YouTube videos pertaining to Latinos that are like this. I feel like race does make people uncomfortable; especially white people. It does seem "risky" when coming from the perspective of being white and discussing ethnicity, but I tried it this week (after a disastrous SWAAMP last year) and it went okay... what makes it awkward is when you have only one person of color in each class. Do you address race at all with your students?

    Good Bogadian paraphrase again this week. It's true that anyone can "fake" anything, but why should they? I think we need to deal with our discomfort and have these kinds of conversations with our students, as hard as it may be. I am lucky that I have a diverse set of friends, including a Hispanic one, let's call him Mr. Gabe from #TheCohort, so I can relay some of your stories too. It is sometimes nice to borrow stories like those of even the characters in Nakkula and Toshalis when addressing race in the classroom. My beliefs on this are so strong on this that I have a hard time doing it from an unbiased perspective... very pro-diversity, but many of my students come from white majority environments where they have no exposure to diversity yet.