Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

"My Eyes Have Been Opened": White Teachers and Racial Awareness

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

"My Eyes Have Been Opened": White Teachers and Racial Awareness

Article excerpt

I thought it was wrong to see color. Like the T-shirts that say, "Love Sees No Color." As I've come to learn, you're missing the person who is that color. You're missing a big part of that person if you refuse to see it.... My eyes have been opened.

--Carol, White elementary teacher

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world.

--James Baldwin

More than 90% of classroom teachers throughout the country are White (National Education Association, 1997), and increasingly they are teaching children from racial, cultural, and class backgrounds different from their own, particularly in high-poverty urban areas where students of color make up 69% of the total enrollment (National Council for Education Statistics [NCES], 1996). In fact, because of the small percentage of students of color in teacher education programs and the population growth in racially diverse communities, there is reason to believe that the racial and cultural divide between teachers and their students will continue to increase in the near future.

This reality demands a multifaceted response. First, teacher preparation programs must recruit (and support) students of color "who bring diverse worldviews and discursive fields of reference to the teaching force" (Sleeter, 1993). Efforts to recruit both traditional and nontraditional students of color into the teaching profession have begun in selected teacher preparation programs (see, e.g., Clewell et al., 1995; Dandy, 1998; Villegas & Clewell, 1998), although a concerted national effort has yet to be realized. Another aspect of the solution has received little attention from policy makers and proved more intractable. That is, How can White preservice and inservice teachers learn to teach for racial and cultural diversity? In particular, what experiences help White teachers reflect on concepts of race and racism, and how might their racial views influence their teaching?


Few research studies have examined how White teachers conceptualize race (their own and those of their students) and how their views about race may influence their classroom practice. The handful of research studies that have been conducted have found that White teachers often claim color blindness. Schofield (1986), in a qualitative study of a desegregated middle school in an eastern industrial city, found that teachers claimed not to see color in their students (i.e., "I don't see color, I don't care if students are black or white or purple") and consequently ignored discriminatory institutional practices toward students of color such as higher suspension rates for African American males. Sleeter (1992), in her 2-year study of 26 White inservice teachers, noted that a staff development program designed to teach multicultural content and strategies did not reconstruct the teachers' basic interpretation of race. They denied the salience of race by adopting a color-blind approach and viewed the experiences of students of color as if they were White ethnic immigrants who would eventually assimilate into mainstream society. McIntyre (1997), in her study of 13 White undergraduate female student teachers, described how participants expressed a belief in racism as individual and attitudinal and resisted conceptualizing it as a system of power and advantage. She also noted that participants constructed difference based on a racial "other" and privileged their own feelings of discomfort when talking about racism.

Some studies have focused on how White preservice and inservice teachers view themselves as racial beings. Using Helms's (1993) racial identity theory, Tatum (1992, 1994) analyzed the stages that White undergraduate students experience when they actively confront racism and racial privilege in the classroom. Lawrence and Tatum (1997) identified similar stages in 20 White inservice teachers in a class on racism and racial identity. …

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