In her new book, Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real about Race in School, Associate Professor Mica Pollock compiles essays written by scholars who have studied teachers struggling with race issues and about the various racial dilemmas facing the American teacher. The book explores these issues and offers educators strategies for combating the forces of quotidian racism that confuse and harm today's students. "To a student, one action can change everything," explains Pollock. "Everyday acts explored in this book include how we talk with our students and discipline them; the activities we set up for them to do; the ways we frame and discuss communities in our curriculum; and the ways we assign students to groups, grade their papers, interact with their parents, and envision their futures."
Q. What is "antiracism"? A. By "everyday antiracism," we mean acts educators can take daily in schools and classrooms to counteract racial inequality of opportunity and outcome, and to counteract racist ideas about "types of people." I should note that by "racism," we don't mean the willful harming of people of color by white people -- this is how the law has often framed it. Rather, the authors collectively define racism as any act or situation that, even unwittingly, tolerates, accepts, or reinforces racially unequal opportunities for children to learn and thrive; allows racial inequalities in opportunity as if they are normal and acceptable; or treats people of color as less worthy or less complex than "white" people.
Q. Why do some authors in your book deny the validity of racial categories, while others claim that to deny the existence of racial inequality is foolish? A. Racial categories are social realities built on biological fictions. As [anthropologist and Hampshire College professor] Alan Goodman discusses in his essay in Everyday Antiracism, 20th and 21st century genetics show that there are no biologically meaningful "racial" subdivisions to the human race. How could race categories like "white," "black," "Asian," or "Latino" be genetically valid if someone labeled "white" in Brazil can be labeled "black" or "Latino" here?
Race categories are things people made up. Over six centuries of life in the Americas, people used law, "science," and everyday activity to distribute opportunities along the lines of physical traits that were simply too small a portion of our genetic makeup to be valid ways of categorizing human beings like skin color, nose shape, and hair texture, for example. Still, we have made these categories socially real in the past nearly six centuries of American life. So, racial categories are false biologically, but real socially.
This is why the "antiracist" educator must negotiate between two antiracist impulses in deciding her everyday behaviors toward students. She must choose between the antiracist impulse to treat all people as human beings rather than racial group members, and the antiracist impulse to recognize people's real experiences as racial group members in order to counteract racial inequality.
Q. Do you think the promotion of antiracism in schools will lead to the continuation of antiracism post-graduation and in the workplace? A. If our children are educated in settings where children of all "groups" are treated as equally smart and valuable, they will learn to see one another more that way, too. What children learn in school is typically the opposite. One author in the book, [University of North Carolina Associate Professor] Karolyn Tyson, has studied almost-all-black schools in North Carolina where the "gifted" class is completely white. The very existence of that "gifted" classroom teaches students a lie: it teaches them that some "race groups" are more "gifted" than others. Another author in the book, [Rutgers Graduate School of Education Assistant Professor] Beth Rubin, discusses how racially patterned tracking "teaches" students the same false lesson: that some "race groups" are smarter than others. How could these false ideas not continue after graduation? Conversely, if students are schooled in environments where educators actively treat students from all "groups" as smart and "gifted," how could they not learn to see one another more that way, too? And how could that not continue after graduation?
Q. As more children consider themselves "multiracial," do you think racism and racial stereotypes might naturally fade? A. I don't think that racial stereotypes fade "naturally." I think they have to be actively refused. The work of Mahzarin Banaji and her colleagues demonstrates how stereotypes stick in our brains, even unconsciously. Still, I do think that people who grow up in diverse settings come to see more diverse collections of people as valuable, intelligent, and complex. How could you not think more complexly about a "group" when your cousin or your father belongs to it? So I think that while racial stereotypes don't naturally fade away entirely, they do lessen when young people have relatives and friends from various "groups." Yet those relatives and friends need to denounce stereotypes for children to learn to do so, too.
Q. How do you think the presidential race, including America's first black major-party presidential nominee, will affect issues of racism in schools? A. Barack Obama's presidential campaign could have a huge impact on how young people of color perceive their own possibilities, and also on how educators perceive the potential of young people of color. The danger will be if people frame Obama as an exception of some kind. One Everyday Antiracism essay by [HGSE Assistant Professor] Meira Levinson, "Finding Role Models in the Community," suggests that teachers can bring in role models of color from students' own local communities. This way, discussions of "heroes" of color aren't limited to "superheroes" like Martin Luther King. Levinson notes that the "superheroes" model sometimes implies dangerously (and falsely) that only some people of color are destined to be "great." I certainly hope that Americans frame Barack Obama as someone whom any child could "be."
To continue this conversation, visit Mica Pollock's new blog, at schoolracetalk.org.