'Is the Teacher a Racist?'
“Do you think that the teacher is a racist?”
Does this question offend you? Does it depend on the context? Does the context matter?
Here is the actual situation: the special education team is reviewing referrals from general education staff. One teacher (not present) has referred a fourth grade student for concerns about his reading and math skills. The student is identified as African-American in a school where the majority of students and staff are identified as Caucasian. This student would be considered a minority at his school and within the greater society. The administrator asks the team, “Do you think that the teacher is a racist?”
What would have prompted this question?
• District sanctions for disproportion: Perhaps the district had faced fines for having too many students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds receiving special education services, as compared to the general population.
• Referral rates: Perhaps the school had a history of referring many children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds for special education services.
• Over-identification: Perhaps the school had a history of inappropriately identifying students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds as having a delay or disorder.
• Cultural sensitivity training: Perhaps the administrator had recently completed a cultural sensitivity training and considered this to be a reasonable question.
• School culture: Perhaps there were concerns about school climate and inclusive practice within the school community.
All of these issues are serious concerns. An entire discussion about institutional biases within educational systems is valid, as schools have a symbiotic relationship with society. It is appropriate to ask about the role of cultural and linguistic factors in the classroom. It is not appropriate to ask one staff member if another staff member is a racist.
SEE ALSO: American Disabilities Act at 25
‘Racist’ is a dichotomous term reflecting identity. It is often used to imply an inherent trait within a person and presupposes a permanent mindset of ‘racism’ consistent across all settings and contexts. ‘Racist’ may be used as an accusation.
Yes, people may demonstrate behaviors that are (or appear) racially biased. It’s likely that all of us have inadvertently, or even purposefully, demonstrated negative racially biased behaviors. We live within a complex society, which grants hierarchical levels of privileges to different groups based on racial/ethnic identity, among many other variables. We are all affected by pervasive, systemic issues across media, business, policy, law, infrastructure, etc. It is essential to question these issues, however, we can explore the role of cultural and linguistic factors without using accusatory language:
• “I would like to hear more about cultural factors in the classroom.”
• “I’m wondering about the role of racial and ethnic communication characteristics for the student and the teacher.”
• “Let’s talk about diversity in the classroom and how it may be affecting student performance.”
There are no simple solutions to entrenched societal challenges. We can advocate for thoughtful consideration of the issues. We can find safe and respectful ways to start these discussions.