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Waking up to difference: teachers, color-blindness, and the effects on students of color.

Color-blindness, the ideology that "race should not matter" in how individuals are treated, is often confused with "race does not matter" (Neville, 2000). The historical, social, and political origins of color-blind racial attitudes are outlined here. Developmental and constructivist theories are used to illustrate how teachers' use of the color-blind ideology may hinder students' critical thinking skills and inadvertently affect their cognitive growth. Research documenting color-blind practices in schools is presented, and variables that may affect teachers' ability to adopt color-conscious practices are reviewed. Teaching about the consequences of color-blindness to pre-service teachers can make them aware of how this ideology may affect their practice.

Color-blindness: A Historical Context
 The white race deems itself to be
 the dominant race in this country ...
 But in view of the constitution, in the
 eyes of the law, there is in this country
 no superior, dominant, ruling class of
 citizens. Our constitution is color-blind,
 and neither knows nor tolerates classes
 among citizens ...

 Justice John Marshall Harlan (dissenting
 in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896)

The notion of color-blindness in the U.S. can trace its beginnings to these words of Justice Harlan's in his 1896 dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson. Used extensively over the last several decades in the law field to argue for equal treatment of individuals regardless of color, race, or creed, the color-blind notion was considered a progressive response to racial bigotry. The premise was that justice--in the form of equal rights and equal opportunities--should be blind to skin color and racial differences (Cose, 1997).

Times have changed since Harlan's words, both in the racial landscape of America and in the opportunities and rights of people of color; yet the underlying problem of racism persists. Despite the current legal and ethical agreement that race and skin color should not matter, they very clearly do: African-Americans and Hispanics were three times as likely to be poor as non-Hispanic Whites in 2001; and in 2002, 24% of African-Americans and 20% of Hispanics experienced hardship over housing compared with only 10% percent of Whites (Finnegold and Wherry, 2004). In recent years, high school drop out rates for African American students in the U.S. have been twice as high as the rate for White students and four times higher than Whites for Hispanic students (Child Trends Databank, 2003).

In today's society, this distinction between a "race should not matter" philosophy and a "race does not matter" philosophy has become blurred. Neville refers to the modem-day notion of color-blindness as the idea that "race should not and does not matter" (Neville, 2000, p. 60). While the "should not matter" philosophy implies a goal of achieving true color-blindness--in education, this means not showing favoritism or discrimination to certain students based on skin color--the "does not matter" philosophy requires that teachers turn a "blind eye" to racial differences, despite the fact that skin color does indeed impact how individuals are treated. According to Williams (1997), modern color-blindness "... constitutes an ideological confusion at best, and denial at it very worst ... Much is overlooked in the move to undo that which clearly ... matters just by labeling it that which 'makes no difference.'" (p. 7).

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of color-blind ideals in the legal landscape of various U.S. states. In 1996, Ward Connerly, University of California Regent, chaired a campaign for California's Proposition 209, a ballot measure that effectively banned racial preferences--and made color-blindness the norm--in admissions policies for the University of California system. Similar initiatives have also surfaced on ballots in other states.

Why the crusade for color-blindness? Within the American democratic ideal, the notion that skin color "should not and does not" matter fits in nicely with the "American" value of the importance of the individual over and above group membership. Indeed, if America had indeed met this vision of a democratic ideal, there would be no discrimination based on skin color and thus no need to recognize it--in employment, government, and in education.

Since the advent of Civil Rights legislation, there is a popular and idealistic belief that this has occurred--that the U.S. has triumphed over racial discrimination. However, this interpretation can often create a "pretend world" which allows for, and sometimes encourages, discrimination against people of color (Schofield, 1986; Williams, 1997). According to Cose (1997), despite the current celebration of equality, "racial distinctions continue to matter--not only as physical descriptors ... but as presumed indications of individual worth" (Cose, 1997, p. xxv).

A number of recent research studies substantiate this claim (Richeson and Nussbaum, 2004; Lewis, 2001; Marx, 2002) and suggest that color-blindness is detrimental to racial harmony--prompting the American Psychological Association to assert that "psychological research conducted for more than two decades strongly supports the view that we cannot be, nor should we be, color-blind" (APA Online, 1997).

The Effect of Skin Color on Teacher's Expectations

Bias in Teacher Expectations. Research shows that teachers often hold cultural biases that can spark racialized, or cultural "pygmalion effects" in the classroom. Masten and colleagues (1999) asked elementary school teachers to rate 86 White and 63 Hispanic 5th grade students on elements of learning, motivation, creativity, and leadership. Findings showed that ratings varied considerably based on the students' ethnic status and acculturation level: Anglo-American (White) students were rated higher on these positive attributes than their Hispanic peers, and highly acculturated Hispanic students received higher ratings than their low-acculturated Hispanic peers. Wynne (1999) found similar results in teachers working with African-American, low-income children. In a study focusing on an effort to create better learning environments for African-American children, researchers who attempted to implement the reform effort observed that teachers in the study (mostly White) often unconsciously operated from a framework of low expectations for African-American student success.

Moreover, many teachers continue to hold racial biases, expectations, and preferences of which they are often unaware (Marx, 2002; Wynne, 1999). Marx (2002) examined the altruistic incentives of nine White, female pre-service teachers who tutored Hispanic English Language Learners (ELLs) during a semester course. Using observations, journal entries, and detailed interviews, the study revealed that all teachers in the study were influenced by their own sense of White identity, which influenced their beliefs about the children they tutored. Although the teachers were devoted to children and education and were generous with their time, the teachers shared a vision of the children's Hispanic culture as a "deficit" to their success. The study revealed that this deficit thinking affected teachers' contact with and beliefs about their Hispanic students in the form of antipathy, resentment and low academic expectations.

It appears that teachers often inadvertently bring to the classroom unconscious biases or conscious beliefs that certain cultural practices are "deficits" to individual growth, which result in low student expectations of success. In what ways does such thinking impact students?

Student Achievement. A study by Steele & Aronson (1995) show that these expectations--often based on unconscious, or unintentional racial assumptions--can have a very real impact on student achievement. Steele & Aronson examined the performance of 250 African-American college students on standardized tests. Stereotype threat--the experience of being in a situation where one recognizes that a negative stereotype about one's group is applicable to oneself (i.e. African-Americans as "dumb")--was upsetting, distracting, and ultimately detrimental to students' performance. This distraction and subsequent lowered academic performance occurs when students of color can sense when they could be judged or treated in terms of biases or stereotypes commonly held by others.

Recent research with elementary school student subjects replicates these findings. McKown and Weinstein (2003) examined the development and consequences of children's awareness of others' stereotypes ("stereotype consciousness") among 202 ethnically diverse children ages 6 to 10. They found that children from academically stigmatized ethnic groups (e.g. African Americans and Latinos) are at all ages more cognizant of broadly held ethnic stereotypes than children from academically non-stigmatized ethnic groups (e.g. Whites and Asians). They then examined the effects of "stereotype threat" among children from the stigmatized ethnic groups by examining the results of their performance and self-reported effort on challenging cognitive measures. On one of two challenging cognitive tasks and on self-reported effort, testing conditions did indeed lead to stereotype threat effects (McKown and Weinstein, 2003).

In another recent study, McKown and Weinstein (2002) examined the relationship between elementary teacher expectations of students at the beginning of the year and subsequent year-end achievement among 561 children in 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades. After they controlled for prior achievement and class membership, researchers found that student ethnicity (e.g. African-American ancestry) moderated expectancy effects, particularly in reading achievement. Thus students from stigmatized ethnic groups (e.g. African-American students) were found to be more susceptible to teacher underestimates of ability than their non-stigmatized peers.

Thus, even without conscious intent to discriminate or to advocate the use of the color-blind ideology, many teachers operate on assumptions about students of color that places students at a very real disadvantage (Larson and Ovando, 2001). Students of color often sense these biases, and the stereotype threat can hinder student performance and achievement. Whether color-blindness is a consciously promoted school philosophy or whether it is "hidden" within the attitudes and practices of school staff, teachers' avoidance of racial differences can lead to discrimination, favoritism, or classroom conflict.

Color-Blindness in the Schools

A number of studies have been published in the educational and sociological literature that acknowledge the existence and effects of color-blind racial attitudes in schools (Schofield, 1986; Larson and Ovando, 2001; Lewis, 2001). One of the first, most comprehensive studies to examine the color-blind philosophy of "race does not matter" was Schofield's (1986) multi-year ethnographic study of a desegregated 1,200-student middle school in the Northeast U.S. The school opened as a desegregated institution with a roughly 50/50% Black/White student ratio; the majority of students had come from elementary schools that had been highly segregated. Data showed that the color-blind perspective was widely held by the school community. Teachers not only consistently denied that they noticed children's race, both to researchers and among themselves, they also believed that students did not notice the race of their peers (interviews with students revealed the opposite). Schofield also found that race was a taboo topic: Words such as Black and White were rarely used, and when used, were viewed as racial epithets. Although teachers interviewed believed that they treated all students equally, over time clear "color" stereotypes emerged: White was synonymous with" success", while Black was associated with academic weakness (Cose, 1997; Schofield, 1986).

Schofield concluded that the color-blind perspective was relied upon so heavily within the school because it reduced the potential for overt racial conflict; minimized discomfort or embarrassment among teachers and students; and increased teacher's freedom to make what appeared to be "non-race-based" decisions. Despite these alleged "advantages", the colorblind ideology caused several setbacks within the school environment, including increased discipline action toward Black students and a justification for keeping the "status quo" course materials that did not reflect the activities, interests, or accomplishments of Black people. Consequently, Black students were unable to see themselves as validated in the school climate or curriculum.

More recently, in a year-long, ethnographic study of a predominantly White, middle-class suburban school, Lewis (2001) examined the racial discourse of teachers, parents and administrators and found similar evidence of a color-blind ideology among the school community. Unlike Schofield's earlier study within the context of desegregation, Lewis purposely chose a predominantly White, middle-class school community in order to examine the impact of Whites' lack of contact with other-race members on their multicultural attitudes and school practices. Similar to Schofield's findings, although school community members consistently denied the salience of race and advocated a color-blind paradigm, there was an underlying reality of "racialized practices and color-conscious understandings" (Lewis, 2001, p.781) that directly impacted the school's few racial minority students and indirectly supported White students' inferior views of their non-White peers. With the exception of parents of biracial students--who discussed race as being very relevant to their lives--race was perceived as a non-issue. Yet rather than truly believing that "everyone is the same," data revealed that many White adults in the community had very distinct ideas and biases regarding people of color.

Interestingly, Lewis noted sufficient evidence of what Pappas (1996) and others have referred to as the "invisible" culture of Whiteness; the belief among White Americans that they have no unique, identifiable culture. An emerging research field known as "Whiteness studies" seeks to educate White Americans that they "are so accustomed to being part of a privileged majority that they do not see themselves as part of a race" (Fears, 2003, p. A12). In this research focus, the "invisible" cultural assumptions of Whiteness and the dynamics of White privilege are seen as ultimate barriers toward social justice (see Rodriguez & Villaverde, 2000, for a detailed review).

Taken collectively, these studies suggest several important issues. First, teachers have been found to rely on the color-blind perspective both in their dealings with students and in their classroom and curriculum decisions. This philosophy appears to be influenced by how individuals view--or do not view--their racial identity, the culture and values reflected in the school climate, and a discomfort dealing with the topic of race. Second, the colorblind perspective is relied upon because of its seeming "advantages": when there is fear of conflict, or a fear of appearing prejudiced, the "race does not matter" approach offers a paradigm of easy "escapism" to avoid dealing with the cultural reality.

Variables Affecting "Color-Conscious" Practices

How might teachers' come to adopt and practice a color-conscious paradigm where racial differences are handled directly and honestly, rather than avoided? A review of research identifies a number of factors may affect teachers' ability to engage in racial discourse and employ color-conscious classroom practices. Specifically, five variables discussed below may be related to teachers' willingness and practice of open racial discourse: 1) diversity training experiences; 2) cultural "world view" (including adherence to a minimization or color-blind world view); 3) racial/ethnic identity; 4) family/community experience; and 5) perceived level of support of diversity within the school culture. Rather than viewed as independent, these variables may often interact in a dynamic way to affect teachers' classroom practices.

Diversity Training. School districts and state teaching programs across the nation increasingly mandate "diversity training" for its educators and staff. The term "diversity training" has become an umbrella term, encompassing everything from one-day workshops on culture to time-intensive, yearlong training requiring teachers to rethink assumptions about their own racial attitudes. Zeichner (1993) conducted a comprehensive review of diversity training programs within pre-service teacher education and identified ten "key" elements of diversity training curriculum that can exist within such programs (see Zeichner, 1993, p. 24). From Zeichner's research and others (Banks, 1994; Cochran-Smith, 1995; Cooney & Akintunde, 1999; Lawrence and Tatum, 1997), two main paradigms of diversity training emerge: 1) "Cultural Knowledge" that focuses on learning about differences in culture and cultural learning styles, and 2) "Color-Conscious" (also described as "anti-bias" or "sensitivity" training) that encourages teachers to examine their own racial attitudes and identity, and the effects of skin color and institutional discrimination on the opportunities of nonwhite students.

Research on the effectiveness of diversity training that incorporates a Color-Conscious paradigm (as defined above) suggests that it can effectively impact teachers' attitudes, decrease adherence to the color-blind ideology, and help teachers understand and confront social inequality and White privilege (Cooney & Akintunde, 1999; Derman-Sparks and Phillips, 1997). Teachers undergoing such color-conscious training may thus be more prepared--and thus more likely--to engage students in racial and cultural discourse in the classroom.

Teachers' Cultural "World View". Based on observations and interactions with individuals as they learned to become more competent intercultural communicators, Bennett and Hammer (1998) published a developmental framework that is useful in understanding how teachers may confront and respond to cultural differences. Bennet's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) is composed of six stages that describe the increasingly sophisticated cognitive skills individuals acquire as they are confronted with individual differences. The first three stages come from an "ethnocentric" perspective: individuals interpret events, actions and behaviors from their own cultural viewpoint. The "monocultural" perspective of ethnocentrism functions as a method of avoiding cultural differences by denying their existence, using defenses against them, or minimizing their importance (Van Hook, 2002, p. 69). Notably, the ethnocentric perspective parallels--and, in many ways, relies upon--the color-blind ideology of ignoring or avoiding differences in the belief that race does not matter.

As intercultural sensitivity increases, an individual's world view becomes more "ethnorelative": one's own culture is experienced within the context of other cultures. Shifting conceptual thinking to ethnorelativism involves an acceptance of the existence and importance of cultural differences; an adaptation of one's perspective to consider other cultural perspectives, and integration of the importance of racial and cultural differences into one's own identity (Van Hook, 2002; Bennett and Hammer, 1998).

Thus, in order to avoid reliance on a color-blind, "ethnocentric" world view, teachers must reach the ethnorelative stages in which differences are accepted and integrated into their own conception of reality. The DMIS can serve as a useful tool for analysis in understanding and classifying teachers' main cultural perspectives.

Racial Identity. Teacher's racial/ethnic identity can be a fundamental force in creating a "cultural lens" of how to view and interact with the world. One's racial/ethnic group membership provides a set of prescribed values, norms, and social behaviors--a framework through which a person views themselves, other-race members, society, and their future (Gibbs and Huang, 1998). Educational research informs us that the invisible "White" culture can profoundly affect both beliefs and behavior of white and non-white individuals with respect to diversity, racism, and racial/cultural exploration (Pappas, 1996; Rodriguez & Villaverde, 2000). Thus, teachers who identify themselves within the majority "White" culture may hold different beliefs about how to discuss race, and whether it is important or effective to do so in their classrooms. Conversely, non-White teachers may be more sensitive about the use of a philosophy that reportedly denies the experience and heritage of children of color due to their own unique experiences as past "children of color." As the DMIS's "Integration" stage reveals, teachers of the non-dominant culture may be more apt to experience their cultural identity in relation to other cultures and therefore less likely to espouse a color-blind philosophy.

Family/Community Experience. Some teachers in practice today were raised at a time prior to the 1960's Civil Rights movement, when school segregation was still widely practiced and accepted. These teachers, raised under segregated circumstances, may hold different beliefs, concepts, or comfort levels with respect to discussing and noticing racial differences. In addition, they may also have been trained at a time (1960s) when the color-blind philosophy was popularized as a popular, egalitarian method of responding to differences (Lewis, 2001). The impact of teachers' family and community experiences are important variables to explore in light of what we know about the history--and the "comeback" of the color-blind ideology.

School Climate. Lastly, the school climate in which teachers are employed may have an impact on their philosophy of how to approach and discuss racial matters. According to the U.S. Department of Education (1999),establishing a school environment that respects individual differences and promotes appreciation of cultural diversity can impact teachers' and students' efforts to eliminate racial and sexual harassment. Effective school programs therefore "endeavor to provide students with a curriculum, teaching methods, and school activities that discourage stereotypes and respond to the concerns of students of different races and cultural backgrounds" (U.S. Department of Education, 1999, p.8). Teachers employed in schools where efforts are made to create a positive stance toward diversity may be more likely to engage students in racial discourse. Moreover, diverse school settings with such a supportive climate may encourage color-conscious understandings and provide a feeling of "freedom" in talking about differences.


The color-blind ideology as it applies to racial relations in the U.S. can trace its roots to legal reasoning from well over a century ago. However, educational and psychological research has shown that from the perspective of teachers in schools, the color-blind notion of "race does not matter" is both unreasonable and innacurrate. Teachers often unconsciously hold racial or cultural biases that affect their expectations of students and ultimately affect student performance. Moreover, teachers can operate from a cultural "deficit" framework in which the perceived emotional, social, or psychological needs of students of color can overrun their academic competencies. Clearly, race does matter in American schools today.

The studies to date on color-blindness have helped delineate the issues of unconscious biases, the "invisible" White culture, the dynamics of White privilege, and the way that color-blindness serves the needs of teachers to the detriment of themselves and their students. Yet several questions remain. Gaps in the data on the empirical measurement of teachers' color-blind attitudes, especially in a progressive, diverse school climate where teachers work daily with diverse students, are apparent. Personal or situational variables--such as teachers' racial identity, past experiences with diversity, dominant cultural "world view", upbringing, and school climate--may all affect how and when teachers discuss race in the classroom. Teacher educators should be cognizant of these variables--as well as the competing paradigms of diversity training and the consequences of adopting a "color-blind" perspective--in order to help teachers create an ideal environment for children to learn about racial and cultural differences.


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Sheri A. Castro Atwater, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, School Psychology, California State University, Los Angeles.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Sheri A. Atwater at
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Author:Atwater, Sheri A. Castro
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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