A young pre-service teacher I have come to admire, posted on Facebook a while back that one of her professors had referred to future students as “the color blind generation.” She was disappointed that this phrase in particular, and multicultural education in general, have been glossed over without much depth of deliberation. Despite the assumed “good intentions” behind this phrase, I am deeply troubled by its cavalier use.
First, the phrase insinuates that the color of one’s skin is value-neutral. However, this is simply not true. Skin color has tremendous impact on identity. My students need to be valued for who they are. I cannot do this unless I see them. If I am blind to their color, I am blind to the richness of their full identities. They are shaped by their cultural context. I want my classroom culture to celebrate–not merely tolerate–individuality and difference, as well as commonality. I want my students to know that I see them and value the individual experiences and perspectives they bring to the curriculum and classroom community. If you have ever read anything about color theory, you know that color is described in hues and intensities, shades and values. There it is. Colors have values. Value them, not just in magnificent art or in the rainbow spectrum of light after a storm, but in the intensities, hues, and shades of human skin.
What is the absence of color? Painters know this: Whiteness. The insidious subtext of “colorblind” is the “norming” of whiteness. This promotes “othering” of persons of color and excuses the inherent biases and preconceptions all of “us” hold in our minds about “them.” If skin color is ignored, if we are “blind” to it, then we don’t have a duty to examine it and how it influences the literature we study in English class or the society in which we live. We can continue to teach the dead white men canon in peace. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus teaches Scout that you can never understand a person’s point of view until you “climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Skin. There’s that word again. It is one of my favorite books, yet I never considered the possibility that my black students might feel differently about this book than I did, never climbed into another color of skin, until the first time I taught it, and they talked about the bullet to the heart every instance of the “n” word brought them. I never thought about the collective impact of so many students of all colors over the years graduating from high school having internalized the archetype of the white savior because the only black character they were required to meet along the way was the tragically powerless Tom Robinson. Oh, a percentage of them might read The Color Purple, A Raisin in the Sun, The Color of Water, or Native Son, and a few poems and essays sprinkled here and there, maybe even a novel or two, but that is not a truly multicultural education, one that embraces the many cultures constituting our current American heritage, much less our world. We need diverse books is not just a hashtag. I still love the character Atticus Finch. But I am thankful to my black students, and to writer Malcolm Gladwell, for offering me new perspectives, a new awareness on this book I cherish.
I was stunned a couple years ago when I asked my 9th grade honors English students how many of them had read a book in school by a non-white author. Three, THREE out of fifty raised a hand. I knew for a fact it wasn’t an accurate perception. My son was only a year or two behind them in school. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor was required in 6th grade, along with Codetalkers by Joseph Bruchac. “But what if we don’t know if the author was a person of color, Mrs. Paulsen?” My answer, “Then you assume the author is white.” This faulty perception troubles me beyond measure.
No text, no canon of texts, is so sacred that it should be taught without questioning the biases inherent in the writing, the historical context, the curriculum itself, the teacher, and the readers. I have deliberately and vocally fought against the norming of whiteness in my classroom, by diversifying the assigned and choice reading material to include people of many colors and cultures, by examining and discussing works of literature through racial, historical, gender, and archetypal lenses. Most importantly, I attempt to recognize and fight my own biases as a highly educated, extremely liberal white woman, raised in the diversity of Kansas City, educated at an elite, college-prep magnet school, who teaches in a predominantly white suburban college town located next to, yet somehow remaining apart from, the diverse urban center of Waterloo, Iowa. Look at all those filters in my own skin! My personal lenses are the very definition of “white privilege.” I teach my students about my own biases and challenge them become aware of their own. I must not let my lenses trap me as I make classroom decisions, or ALL my students will suffer.
In valuing “color blindness,” the phrase promotes a deliberate ignorance of a colorful reality as well as an alarming deficit of historical context. Awareness of how skin color has shaped history is essential to unlock the layers of meaning in many pieces of literature. If we ignore it, we are giving ourselves permission to ignore slavery, apartheid, Jim Crow and miscegenation laws, lynchings, Manifest Destiny, the suffering of generations of indigenous people all over the world, massacres like Wounded Knee (1890 and 1973), and the abuse of immigrant populations like the Chinese and Irish in the name of white prosperity and progress. But wait, aren’t the Irish white? Apparently, there are even shades of whiteness. Like the pigs on Animal Farm said, some are “more equal than others.”
If you remove skin color from the American history equation, not much is left worthy of study. Some important and powerful men declared that “all men are created equal.” They really meant that all white, landholding men are created equal and everyone else is our property. We pretend they meant the mankind meaning of “men” because it is a convenient warm and fuzzy myth. But our forefathers were eloquent men who carefully crafted every word of that Declaration. If they meant “mankind,” wouldn’t they have said it?
Our mission as educators is to eradicate ignorance, ignorance perpetuated by textbooks that strand Indian tribes on reservations in the 1800s in perpetuity and discuss slavery in the abstract as “part of the triangle of trade” and a “cause of the Civil War” without the accompanying horror of the daily life of a slave, or an examination of the institutional practices and economic motivations behind viewing people of color as property. Who owns the textbook companies? Who benefits from this faulty “color-blindness” narrative? Who is currently driving educational decision-making? Follow the money trail. Where does it lead?
If we ignore the history, we can ignore the present and the future, too.
If we, in our virtuous “color blindness,” ignore the history, we don’t have to face the facts about the inequities and racism that pervade our institutions, and the darkness of our own hearts, today.
If we are color blind, we can safely ignore our own lack of agency in addressing those inequities.
If we are blind to skin color, we don’t have to see the bright flush of our own shame.
We must teach with our eyes open.
Jenny Cameron Paulsen is in her first year as an Instructional Coach for the Cedar Falls School District after 22 years of classroom teaching. She has a passion for young adult literature and nurturing preservice English teachers.