Learning to Challenge Racial "Colorblindness" - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

February 1, 2021

Learning to Challenge Racial "Colorblindness"

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Equity
Professional Learning

The tragic death of George Floyd last spring illuminated glaring inequities in our society that had seemingly remained hidden for those seldom impacted by racial injustices. The aftermath of outrage, fear, and determination to protest the raw cruelty of his death rocked communities, leaving many educators to question their stance and understanding of systemic racism. For these educators, it was a moment of reckoning as they confronted the reality that life experiences and quality-of-life outcomes are inextricably tied to racial identities.

For some, however, the claims of social injustice were arbitrarily dismissed and attributed to anything but systemic racism. Even when faced with the visual evidence and factual data of historically preserved inequities, it is difficult for some people to acknowledge racism in our society or own the ways in which we contribute to its perpetuation or benefit from its existence. Colorblind ideology, grounded in the belief that race is not a determinant factor for social, economic, or academic outcomes, can preempt real learning in the principles of equity, cultural competency, or antiracism. Its emergence during equity training can prove challenging, if not disruptive.

How Colorblind Ideology Thwarts Learning

Colorblind ideology underlies many of the rationales used to explain racial disparities and inequalities without acknowledging the influence of racism. Those who embrace colorblindness deny or dismiss the existence of individual or structural racism; blame generalized character attributes for disparate outcomes; normalize inequalities; and minimize or dismiss the long-term effects of systemic racism (Bonilla-Silva, 2015, 2017). These ideas prove especially challenging for leaders endeavoring to further discussions about racial disparities in schools. In a professional learning situation, they can deflect conversations away from racism, suppress people's ability to address racial issues, and ultimately serve to preserve the status quo.

The following are actual comments I've heard in the course of my work as a consultant in schools, comments that reflect colorblind ideology:

  • A white middle school teacher in a school where I consulted pulled me aside and said, "Don't take this the wrong way, but some of us are tired of hearing about racism. It's like that's all we ever talk about around here anymore. I'm not a racist. I treat every kid in my class like my own child. I don't care what color they are."

  • A bus driver expressed her concern about a school staff member wearing a Black Lives Matter mask to school. Although she was speaking to one person, the volume of her voice suggested she wanted to be overheard. "I'm disgusted. All lives matter; not just Black lives."

  • An elementary school's faculty plainly saw, while reviewing academic outcomes from the previous year, that there were gross disparities between outcomes for students of color and for white students. Their response: "We've seen this for years, but these students are already below grade level when they arrive. There isn't much we can do about it."

The challenge with colorblind ideology is that it may at first sound perfectly logical and reasonable. But on further examination, you can find the flawed assumptions, which, unexamined, can keep understandings about racism from evolving. The main faulty assumption is denying the significance of race in explaining disparities. The ideology assumes a racial utopia where racism is nonexistent and our sordid history of oppressive practices is merely a ghost of the past.

I'm sure the middle school teacher who pulled me aside strove to be racially neutral and effective in her practices. However, her dismissal of the need to discuss race reflects a position of privilege that her Black and brown students do not share. She did not seem to consider that students of color still face vastly disproportionate outcomes in discipline, academics, social capital, and other quality-of-life measures. Until that's resolved, educators need to learn more, not less, about racism and how to dismantle systems that perpetuate inequities.

Similarly, the bus driver's dismissal of advocacy for Black lives minimizes the trauma afflicting Black families, who are terrorized by the excessive force some police officials use and the growing number of associated deaths of Black people. These incidents reflect a historical pattern of systemic racism, excessive force, and inequitable judicial outcomes directed toward Black and brown people—which the driver completely ignored. In comparing Black people's trauma in encounters with law enforcement to the experiences of people in general, she was posing a false equivalency. Most important, her anger was misplaced; it was directed at a fellow staff member's method of advocacy rather than at the racialized circumstances that created the urgency for calls for justice.

And while the elementary school staff worked hard on behalf of students, their analysis of achievement gaps was insufficient without considering the critical effects of systemic racism on academic outcomes. Black children are disproportionately more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts. They may also be subject to racial bias or discrimination from teachers as well as food or housing insecurities (Leath et al., 2019). This staff's benign indifference to the influence of structural racism, their readiness to frame academic patterns in terms of student deficiency, and their tacit refusal to consider their own role in contributing to disparities are acts of colorblind racism. These teachers could have—and should have—committed to learning more about systemic racism and how it affects academic outcomes. They could have, for example, examined their pedagogy, dispositions, and behaviors to see where they might be replicating systemic inequalities.

Learning More and Doing Better

Educators aren't helpless in the face of achievement and opportunity gaps and inequities. They can know more and do better; they can take actions that will change the trajectory of each child's academic and economic future. Increased understanding about the effects of racism and changes in practice should be the goal of professional development for equity, antiracism, and cultural competency. We can't let colorblind ideologies stand in the way.

Every decision a teacher makes in the classroom or an administrator makes in policy has far reaching impacts for children. It behooves every educator to understand how racism and the insidious assumptions of white supremacy have been embedded in our culture, our thinking, our media, our institutions, and our way of life—and how we can challenge those assumptions. Ongoing learning opportunities can deepen our knowledge, skills, and ability to confront racism and foster equity. Here are three ways to implement PD that helps educators learn about and challenge structural racism, without getting sidetracked by colorblind ideology.

Form Equity-Focused Communities of Practice

One very effective way to process your thinking and to learn is through dialogue. Communities of Practice (CoPs) centered on the challenges of dismantling inequity give educators an opportunity to create a shared discourse, shape their understandings, build common background knowledge, illuminate deficit perspectives, and move toward reflective professional practices that consider the influence of race and racism.

The formats of equity CoPs can be as diverse as the participants. One group might focus on listening to, reading, and understanding the lived experiences of people of color. Other groups might examine the history of structural racism in the United States, focus on learning about culturally responsive instruction, or gather and analyze feedback from students on issues of racism and equity in a school. Surveying teachers about their interests may guide leaders in differentiating learning to meet teachers' needs, while furthering the overall goal of advancing equitable practices.

Conduct an Equity Audit

Equity audits are useful tools. They use a data-driven approach to evaluate an organization's climate, practices, policies, and outcomes through an equity lens (Skrla et al., 2004). An audit serves as a working document to help schools and districts review their approach to providing equitable education, identify opportunity gaps, and prioritize action plans. In an equity audit, internal staff (or a third party) use available data to evaluate the policies, practices, and culture of the school or district related to equity and cultural competency. Auditors collect and review documents, such as assessment data and student attrition rates disaggregated by race, looking for evidence of academic achievement gaps or the retention of students of color in the school. They may also interview or survey various groups in the school asking about incidents of racism or discrimination or querying particular individuals or groups about their willingness to address institutional racism and equity in schools. Additionally, they may analyze data such as advanced placement enrollment by racial categories and critique the student recognition program through an equity lens, analyzing who is recognized, how often, and what behaviors are rewarded and reinforced.

Serving on an audit team can be a powerful learning experience for staff, as it illuminates the experiences of students and parents of color in the school and utilizes data to demonstrate the connection between racial identities and disparate student outcomes. Auditors make recommendations for improvement and growth, providing a road map for how to commence professional development work focused on equity and antiracist education. This takes the guesswork out of identifying the varying experiences of students of color in the school and prioritizing growth areas for staff learning and topics to address and policies to reexamine.

Set Personal Growth Goals Related to Equity

One challenge of providing professional development in equity is helping staff identify specific practices, behaviors, or dispositions that a culturally competent educator would demonstrate and designing ways to implement those practices and demonstrate their growth. A tool like the Cultural Competence Continuum (Mayfield, 2020) or a similar framework that identifies behaviors characteristic of antiracist educators, can help with this. For example, statements in the continuum I developed include:

  • I can recognize privilege in society and organizations.

  • I understand how white privilege affects me and others.

  • I recognize the various kinds of racism.

At a minimum, staff can self-assess knowledge gaps and areas where they need to grow professionally, including their understanding of systemic racism. As they deepen this knowledge and understanding, they may begin to make the historical connections between racial bias and disparate outcomes. They might also design their own PD plan for expanding their knowledge and skills in other areas where they need to grow.

Confronting Colorblindness

Most of us have been exposed to narratives that normalize inequity, ignore racial history, or attribute disparate life outcomes to personal character deficits. However, professional development in equity can intentionally make transparent the colorblind language and behaviors that are counterproductive to fostering more equitable and inclusive schooling.

Let's critique the language used to discuss and explain inequities. Ask yourself and your peers, "Does our language move the conversation in the direction of behavioral change, self-examination, or personal responsibility to dismantle inequitable practices? Or does it serve to deflect from racism, shift the focus, and offer no meaningful way to address disparities?"

Expressions that underlie colorblind ideology are neither innocent nor inconsequential. They negate the experiences of people of color, suppress dialogue, potentially derail equity work, and serve to maintain the status quo. When it comes to educating staff on racism, the words of Mueller (2017) apply: We must "make ignorance more difficult." Professional development that is inclusive of helping participants recognize and critique colorblind ideologies can further this goal.

References

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2015). The structure of racism in color-blind, post-racial America. American Behavioral Scientist, 59(11), 1358–1376.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2017). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America, 5th ed. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Leath, S., Mathews, C., Harrison, A., & Chavous, T. (2019). Racial identity, racial discrimination, and classroom engagement outcomes among Black girls and boys in predominantly Black and predominantly white school districts. American Educational Research Journal, 56(4), 1318–1352.

Mueller, J. C. (2017). Producing colorblindness: Everyday mechanisms of white ignorance. Social Problems, 64(2), 219–238.

Skrla, L., Scheurich, J. J., Garcia, J., & Nolly, G. (2004). Equity audits: A practical leadership tool for developing equitable and excellent schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 40(1), 133–161.

End Notes



Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?