Reflection on Racism in American Schools
If there are any memories from my early schooling years that sometimes make me question the notion that America is the land of equality, it is the assumption by most white teachers that is normal for white students to outperform their counterparts of color. Of course, this was not a fact that they stated explicitly. Neither did I interpret it in this light back then; I also thought that black kids were supposed to be the dump at worst, and at best of average ability in comparison with the white kids. Now I realize that these were subtle messages of racism, a conclusion any objectively critical mind could have arrived at after seeing the way teachers reacted with surprise and a sense of new revelation when a student of color gave a correct response to a question that the rest of the class could not an answer. Perhaps what is appalling is the realization that they never doubted the correctness of the response; what they could not fathom, but cannot say it, is the fact that an evidently undernourished, poor black kid from the ghetto could out-think the supposedly superior minds of white children, whose Euro-American ancestry undoubtedly endowed them with intellectually superior genes. Is it not, they seemed to wonder silently, a fact of history, if not nature, that the children of the uncivilized slaves who were shipped from primitive Africa were to play second fiddle to the children of their white masters in all spheres of life? This and many other forms of subtle prejudicing reflect the reality of racism in the American education system.
One of the most serious hindrances to ending racism is the conscious attempts by whites to assume that the problem does not exist (Burkholder, 2011, p. 94). If the teachers made any judgments regarding the intellectual competence of children of color, they kept it to themselves. What is more worrying, however, is the fact that the white teachers, being so nice not to bring the issue of racism into play and possibly offend children of color-but more probably to avoid looking racist, assumed that everything was okay. Thus, the issue of race was never discussed even as teachers enforced it unconsciously through the sitting arrangement that put white kids at the front of the class, near the source of the knowledge that they deserved more than the rest by right of birth. Those of African and Latin descent, supposedly less intelligent and equally less deserving, sat on the back rows, where the teacher could not bother keeping a close eye whether they were attentive or not.
This subconscious form of denial, trying “not to see” the obvious, is often what people use to avoid feeling responsible, and by extension guilty, of a social injustice perpetrated by a system that they are part of. However, the raised eyebrows, long awkward silence, and tendency to seek a second opinion from a white kid every time a black kid blurted out the correct answer when no one else can, suggested that something unexpected, something outside the norm, had just happened. It is because of such reluctances to confront racism openly that the education system continues to “reproduce structures of inequality, discrimination, stereotyping and oppression” (Sleeter, 1993, p. 157). This assumption that a student of color could not be better than white students seems to have been communicated silently to the former, who became hesitant and always unsure whenever they attempted to answer a question. Perhaps they came to understand that they are not supposed to be smarter than their white counterparts, and like the teachers, kept their opinions, and their answers for that matter, to themselves. As I ponder about these incidences now, I realize that nothing can hinder learning in a multicultural context more than when a section of the learners think that they are not supposed to show their ability. Not when teachers display pictures of white kids running to school and ask black kids to write sentences describing the action.