Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Cross-cultural Communications Conference

This past Saturday, I had the honor of presenting at the Baobab People conference on cross-cultural communication.  It was a first in many ways for me.  First time using Prezi, first time giving a presentation on "race" and anti-racism, and the first time I spoke in front of people and nearly passed out.   This is only of interest if I tell you that I used ham it up in front of audiences in plays and musicals, choir concerts, and improvisation.  However, I think this took it up to the next level.  My brother who is a Marine tells me that in public speaking, the body responds as if it is in combat.  Which would explain the lack of breathing and the red splotches that appeared on my face and neck by the end.  Sorry, no pictures.

Overall, the conference was wonderful.  Everyone had questions, learned something new, met someone they would not have ordinarily met.  I was so grateful to be in this company of people committed to cross-cultural communication.  Who knows where these relationships will lead us in the future.

For those of you who couldn't make it to the conference, I am linking my Prezi on Social Constructions of Whiteness.   We forgot to record it, but perhaps that is for the best if I was hyperventilating at the time.  Who knows how shrill my voice got, and nobody wants to listen to that.  :o)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Engaging with race in everyday interactions

Mica Pollock takes anti-racist action in the form of teacher education.  In a workshop called Everyday Antiracism for Educators, which Pollock teaches at Harvard University, teacher candidates wrestle with how address issues of race and racism on a day-to-day basis.  Pollock, et al. (2010) examine three tensions that the teacher candidates faced as they progressed in the workshop, all centered around the question, “But what can I do?”  As the teacher candidates read and discussed essays in the draft version of the book Everyday Antiracism (Pollock, 2008), they wanted to know how to apply abstract concepts into practical actions in schools.  They also wrestled with how to address systems of racism and injustice, while at the same time, taking practical steps to address inequality in their classrooms.  Finally, they struggled to reconcile their personal development with regards to issues of race with their professional persona.  

Pollock et al. found that the teacher candidates that left the workshop feeling the most empowered to engage in antiracist activity were the ones who could accommodate the three tensions listed above.  Pollock et al. (2010) suggest that teacher educators explicitly make teachers aware that these tensions may never be resolved over a lifetime.  

The textbook Everyday Antiracism underwent a few other revisions after the initial pre-service teacher workshop.  One of the additions included discussion questions at the end of every essay that can facilitate moving from general principles to strategies, and then concrete actions that one can “try tomorrow.”  The essays are written by wide range of scholars in many different fields, but they are all aimed at helping teachers and parents develop practical strategies for combatting racism and racial inequality.  

The authors offer suggestions about how to talk with students about “race” as social construction, and not a biological reality.  However, the authors also address biases that teachers may harbor about different racial groups.  While most of the authors challenge teachers to talk about “race” in strategic ways, rather than “colormute,” one author boldly maintains that teachers should actually be “colorblind” in their treatment of individual children.  In other essays, authors give examples of how teachers might address unequal opportunities in school, engage students’ home communities, and develop critical multicultural curriculum for children and teenagers.  This textbook offers a substantial amount of information and ideas that answer the question, “But what can I do?”  I believe this should be required reading for all teachers.

The most personally challenging essay was titled Resisting the “Lone Hero” Stance, in which the author draws lessons from examples of two white teachers’ failed attempts to bring an antiracist message to friends and colleagues.  This article is also appropriate considering that 84% of K-12 teachers are white (Simon, 2005).  The author concludes that patience and humility are needed to engage in antiracist work.  Particularly for white folks, the challenge is to listen to the perspectives of friends and colleagues of color in a way that empowers and affirms the work that people of color engage in on a daily basis.  There is a danger for white folks to attempt to create an image as the white person who “gets it.”  This only serves to alienate other white folks most of time.  It can also be a hypocritical stance, as another essay points out.  

It is important that those engaged in anti-racism also examine their personal lives for inconsistencies.  Do I live in an all-white neighborhood, attend a white church and associate with only white people in my social sphere?  How am I raising my children?  What schools do I choose for them to attend?  I blogged about my own hypocritical attitudes recently.

While I was frustrated with Pollock for her participation in the silence regarding racism at Columbus, I see how she has taken that experience as a way to launch her into action.  I wonder how many universities have adopted this type of critical multicultural education, though.  And how many white pre-service teachers, when presented with this information, take positive steps towards antiracist action?  How many feel overwhelmed with guilt and cynicism, and withdraw from dialogue?  I don’t want to devalue the efforts of engaging white teachers in antiracist dialogue and action.  However, I also wonder why there aren't more substantial efforts to recruit teachers of color. Whether or not teacher education programs actually took that route might indicate just how committed to antiracism they are.  


Pollock, M. (2004). Colormute: Race talk dilemmas in an American school. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Pollock, M. (Ed.). (2008). Everyday antiracism: Getting real about race in school. New York: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton & Co.

Pollock, M., Deckman, S., Mira, M., & Shalaby, C. (2010). “But what can I do?”: Three necessary tensions in teaching teachers about race. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(3), 211–224.

Simon, C. C. (2005, July 31). Those who can, and can’t. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/31/education/simons31.html

Race wrestling and race talk dilemmas

I feel that I have come full circle in my readings this summer.  I started in schools, and now am ending in schools.  At the beginning of the summer, I found myself shocked and amazed at a new understanding of “race,” how racial difference is socially reproduced in schools, and the fact that racist attitudes and behavior still “happen” in our society. 

At this point, I am less shocked.  As I read Colormute by Mica Pollock (2004), I could see patterns already at the beginning of her story.  She painstakingly laid out the details of a multi-year qualitative study of a multi-racial high school in California.  For me, it seemed too slow.  As I had already immersed myself in theories about racialization and racial stratification, I wanted to point out the “problems” immediately and seek to redress them.

I see great wisdom in the careful, longitudinal approach.  Already someone close to me had warned that people like me go “to graduate level classes where you learn racism or learn hate of people labeled racists” and eventually, “after having become sensitized by reading all this material that you will see racism under every tree, bush, rock…”  This accusation haunted me throughout the summer reading course, and apparently still has a sting.  

 I did start seeing racism, seemingly everywhere.  Each social interaction and news story took on new meanings and dimensions.  My whole framework for understanding “race” and racial difference had been replaced.  I learned new nuanced definitions for racism, as it manifests in both blatant and covert everyday attitudes and actions.  And sadly, I did react harshly with white folks I felt didn’t “get it,” as I unintentionally initiated conversations that confirmed the worst of what they already thought of me. 

The brilliance of Pollock (2004), as with so many other scholars I have read over the summer, is that she goes to great lengths to give a thorough account of what happened on a daily basis at “Columbus High School.”  She is a white woman who taught one year at this racially diverse school, so as she began to collect data about how students, faculty and staff talked (or didn’t talk) about “race,” she was also in process of working with all the stakeholders.  Therefore, she goes out of her way not to paint participants as “racist” people, but simply as they appeared in the drama of the school.  She also includes her own contributions, missteps, and omissions to the racial dialogue of the school, which essentially incriminates her along with anyone else who might be “blamed” in her unfolding story.  Essentially, she does uncover racism, although she rarely names it as such.  

One might argue that is precisely because she was looking for discussions that included or omitted racial terms.  However, she has a few strange twists and turns in her study going for her.  The first is that she initially started out with the question of how “race” affected the way that students “got along” with each other.  As she began to collect data, she began to notice a predictable pattern of how people in the school did and did not talk about “race.”  She then changed her research question to examine when “race” did and did not appear in conversations. Secondly, half-way through her study the school was “reconstituted,” meaning that all the faculty and staff were replaced with new people in an effort to improve school outcomes.  She was able to continue her study with the same students, but all new adult participants.  During this time, she noticed the same patterns in the way that the adults talked or didn’t talk about “race” in the school, and this from a group of complete strangers! 

The general conclusion of Pollock’s study was that the adults at Columbus shared in a “colormute” discourse.  In other words, while they did talk about “race” in matter-of-fact ways in some instances, discussion of “race” and racial groups remained absent from faculty meetings and public communications.  Predictably, adults spoke of racial groups for multicultural events (e.g. “The Samoans are going to do their traditional dance”) or in instances of violence in the school (e.g. “The Filipinos were fighting the blacks”).  Adults also commented in private conversations about “race,” such as the on-going debate about what do about the black students in the hallway and whether it was really only black students.  But these private conversations never surfaced during meetings or discussions with students, and so in the case of the students in the hallway, nothing was actually done about the situation that so many faculty and students noticed.  

Likewise, while patterns student achievement could be analyzed in terms of racial groups, this was never explicitly done.  There was discussion from the predominantly white faculty of how to help all students, who were mostly “low-income minorities,” there were no explicit attempts to examine which racial groups in the school fared worse.  These statistics showed that blacks and Latinos were disproportionately disciplined, had lower achievement rates, and were more likely to drop out and not graduate than other groups.  In fact, the Consent Decree that outlined the desegregation policy for the district contained language that focused on black and Latino students, and the focus of the reconstitution echoed this concern.  However, this focus was never directly communicated to faculty before or after the reconstitution.  And although certain faculty and administrators were aware of the language in the Consent Decree, the discussion of how to meet the reconstitution goals never took place in a public forum.

Pollock concludes with some observations about the difficulties in talking about “race” and racial inequality:
  • We don’t belong to simple race groups, but we do. (i.e. Individual identity is complex; however, students still identified with racial groups at different times, and faculty regularly categorized students into simplistic racial groups.)  
  • Race doesn’t matter, but it does.  (i.e. “Race” is a social construction, not a biological reality; however, social interactions in schools create racial difference and inequality.)
  • The “de-raced” words we use when discussing plans for racial equality can actually keep ups from discussing ways to make opportunities more racially equal.
  • The more complex inequality seems to get, the more simplistic inequality analysis seems to become. (i.e. Even though Columbus was racially and economically diverse, the students seemed to get lumped in to one category, that of “low-income minority.”)
  • The questions we ask most about race are the very questions we most suppress.
  • Although talking racial terms can make race matter, not talking in racial terms can make race matter, too. 
Buehler (in press), in a similar study, found similar discourse patterns in a high school in Michigan.  She, like Pollock, suggests that talking about “race” in strategic ways can actually help to remedy racial inequality in schools.  Buehler begins with the premise that faculty and students are already engaged in “race wrestling,” that is, an internal struggle about how “race” should matter faced with how it does matter.  She recommends thoughtful discussion about “race talk” within individual schools.  These initial discussions should shed light on the ways racial difference and inequalities are being socially reproduced in that particular institution, and hopefully inform antiracist strategies.  Talking honestly and judiciously about “race” is, perhaps ironically, the first step towards moving beyond “just talk” and into anti-racist action.   


Buehler, J. (in press). “There’s a problem, and we’ve got to face it”: How staff members wrestled with race in an urban high school. Race, Ethnicity & Education.

Pollock, M. (2004). Colormute: Race talk dilemmas in an American school. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Friday, August 3, 2012

White Olympics

As I have been watched the Olympics, I have wondered if anyone else noticed that almost every European, Latin American, U.S. and even African team was predominantly white.  The volleyball team from Brazil, a majority black nation (although with admittedly different ways of categorizing black/white than the U.S.), was all white except for one player, as far as I could see.  The U.S. volleyball team was all white, I believe.  Swimmers from all over the world, including Zimbabwe (!), were white, with the exception of one black man on the U.S. swim team and the swimmers from Japan, China, and Korea.  The only exception to this trend was in the track events, in which most of the athletes were black, according to what I have seen so far.  Again, I could be wrong about the exact numbers and I don't have any stats to back up these observations, but I challenge viewers to see if they also spot these general trends.

And then, of course, there was gymnastics, where we have one celebrated Cuban-American on the men's team, one African-American man, and the now gold medalist, African-American Gabby Douglas.  Following her gold medal performance, Bob Costas gave a controversial commentary in which he said that Douglas was the first African-American to win the all-around.  He then proceeded to say that the "barriers have been down for a long time" (i.e. legal segregation), and indicated that the lack of African-Americans in gymnastics has to do with "how one sees oneself" (i.e. internalized racism on the part of black people).  He then proclaimed that he was pretty sure there were African-American girls watching Douglas and thinking, "I want to do that, too."

I did a search on the Internet to see what people were saying about race and the Olympics.  There were almost no blogs that I could find.  There were a variety of reactions to Bob Costas' commentary.  Interestingly, the trend on social media had to do with the audacity of Costas to even mention race.  People tweeted, "I didn't even see her [Douglas] as 'black' until you pointed it out."  They said, "Thanks for making a 'non-issue' an issue."  In scrolling through these comments, I should point out that the majority of the photos by the tweets were of white folks (based on profile pics).  But to summarize this trend, people were saying that Bob Costas made "racist" comments simply by pointing out that Douglas is black.  

Scrolling through the tweets from black folks (based on profile pics), comments centered more on the fact that Costas had called Douglas the "flying squirrel" and that a commercial featuring a monkey doing gymnastics had followed her gold medal win.  These are both valid observations, although one might chalk them up to accidental (in the case of the commercial) and unfortunate (while it may well have been her nickname, it sounded strange coming from Costas).  There were a few comments about how Douglas should be a role model for all girls, not just black girls.  Finally, there was the uproar from black women about how Douglas should or should not have worn her hair, which I will leave to black women to discuss since I can only begin to imagine what it is like to live in a society where my hair is constantly under-represented and devalued. 

Taking these arguments one at a time, is it "racist" to notice race in the Olympics?  In my introduction, I commented about the racial make-up of the Olympic teams.  Why should that matter?  Is this a "non-issue" as some would say?

My stance is that given a history, both in the U.S. and worldwide, of systemic anti-black racism it is not inherently "racist" to notice the race of the athletes, especially when it is directed at pointing out racial inequality.  My concern with the mostly white Olympian teams is that blacks in various countries are not afforded equal opportunities to enter and compete.  In the end, the Olympics are not about who is the best athlete of any given country, but who has the right combination of wealth, access to facilities, social networks, and lastly, athletic ability.  Only rarely do we hear about a true "rags to riches" story.  The first three elements I mentioned, wealth, facilities, and networks, all indirectly correlate to race.  In the U.S., people of color have unequal access to these resources, or social capital, due to the cumulative effect of "white privilege" and racism in all arenas of society.  So Bob Costas' remark that Douglas was the first African-American to achieve gold in the all-around was first, a factual observation, and second, a celebration of a young woman who had overcome barriers to racial equality.  Noticing race in this way is useful because it acknowledges that people from different racial groups have unequal life experiences because of the way racial difference is socially constructed through daily interactions.

Having said that, there are instances where mentioning race could be "racist."  A famous historic case involved Jesse Owens, the famed African American track runner, who won several gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  More commonly cited is the fact that Hitler refused to shake hands with Owens.  Less commonly known is that the President of the U.S. also failed to shake Owens' hand.  Further, upon return from Germany, Owens was forced to undergo rigorous medical testing.  No, they weren't looking for drugs; they were looking for an extra leg bone.  You read that right--they were trying to find out how a black man could have performed so well in these games.  Scientists failed to find anything drastically different with Owens' physique (contrast this to Michael Phelps, who actually has strange proportions, but which are never attributed to race).  However, with black athletes Jesse Owens and Joe Louis came a shift in the ways white Americans viewed black Americans.  Suddenly, athletic ability was seen as unrelated to intelligence (blacks were still considered to be mentally inferior), and the "exceptional black athlete" stereotype was born.  To this day, many white folks, and potentially some black folks, hold the belief that blacks are genetically more "athletic"  than white people (although only in certain sports).  This is a racist belief because it holds that one race (i.e. the "black race") is superior to other races in one arena (generally sports, but more specifically basketball, football, and track), but inferior in other areas (education, business, etc.).  It also ignores the fact that race is not a biological reality.  See this article from the "Race: The Power of an Illusion" website for more information. 

Returning to Costas' commentary, was it helpful to mark Douglas as a role model for black girls?  This is potentially the section of the commentary that is most rife with inherently problematic beliefs, so I will need to deconstruct it first before answering.  We must go back to the comment that came before, the one about barriers having been removed for a long time, and "how one sees oneself" contributing to success or lack thereof.

The view that "slavery was a long time ago" and "segregation is a thing of the past" is a prevalent one among white Americans.  While these statements appear true at face value, they ignore the cumulative, generational effect of slavery and legal segregation that I mentioned before.  They also fail to recognize the de facto segregation that exists in U.S. society today, almost to the same extent as the de jure segegration during the Jim Crow era.  And finally, these statements blatantly disregard discrimination currently experienced by people of color on a daily basis.

The other issue I have with Costas' remark about "how one sees oneself" is that it essentially blames the victim.  In other words, according to Costas, there aren't many black gymnasts because black girls have poor self-esteem.  If they could just visualize themselves succeeding and work hard, they would make it.  While there is value in seeing black role models achieve at high levels, the idea that there are not many black gymnasts in the Olympics due to a wide-spread epidemic of poor self-esteem in the "black community" is far-fetched at best.  First of all, this negates the apparent good self-esteem held by black gymnast Dominique Dawes, who reached Olympic gold without seeing any black, female role models in the same position, not to mention the self-esteem of any other black gymnasts who have competed at lower levels in the past.

Secondly, this seriously downplays the effect of discrimination in a sport like gymnastics.  Consider it takes at least ten years to make an Olympic-level gymnast (6-16 years old), take into account that legal segregation ended almost 60 years ago, and then factor in that the Olympics only take place every 4 years.  Now, I'm not good at higher math, but I calculate that in an ideal world, that would have allowed for 4-5 generations of black female gymnasts, if young black girls had been allowed start training the day segregation ended.  However, this would have required that black people immediately be allowed access to white neighborhoods where the gyms were located, which still doesn't happen because of illegal deed covenants and racist real estate practices.  This would also have required that white coaches start actively recruiting black girls for the gymnastic teams in these white neighborhoods, which was unlikely considering that the eradication of racist laws did not also immediately eliminate racist ideology.  And this also would require that these black families have a large amount of money for the cost of training, which takes generations to accumulate in the form of real estate (highly restricted by whites), good paying jobs (also restricted by whites), and inheritances (preceded by two elements I just mentioned).

The ideal situation is above, of course, not what happened, for reasons I mentioned.  So the achievements of Dawes and Douglas happened in real time; in other words, they overcame barriers that still exist in our society today, contrary to what Costas would have us believe.  In that sense, their achievements should be celebrated all the more.  The extent to which they were able to overcome historical and current racism and racial inequality is a tribute to the strong character and strength they and their families possess, and it gives us hope for positive change in our society.  However, the fact that there are not more black Olympians from the U.S. and other countries indicates to me that we still have a long way to go.  Since we have thoroughly disproved genetic/biological racial difference, and since we know it's not that black people don't value hard work and success like white people (i.e. example of cultural racism), then we must conclude that systematic and related barriers are still in place for black people and other people of color.  Until this systemic racism is dismantled, we will not see a truly representative parade of nations at the Olympics.

Postscript: I will not comment at length about the "flying squirrel" comments or the ridiculous "monkey commercial," except to say that networks have been known to do stupid things before.