A White Researcher Thinks About Race

Have you ever been the “only one?” The only female, the only African American, the only extrovert, the only one overweight, the only redhead? What does it feel like to be “only one?” What did it feel like as an adolescent to be the “only one?”  [pp 3, 91] Any different than as an adult?  According to psychologists, adolescents love to be normal [p 66]. If this is the case, then being “the only” one negates normal. When we look through the lens of intersectionality (race, gender, class, etc.),  perhaps we see this phenomenon epitomized by the stereotype and reality of white middle class males as engineers. It is not “normal” for women or blacks or hispanics to be engineers, and if a woman or a black or hispanic student tries to be an engineer, they may likely be the “only one.”

Julie Landsman wrote about her experience as a white teacher of racially diverse  and underserved students, most often from the lower class, in A White Teacher Talks About Race. The book tells the stories of a handful of students through the snapshot of one day in an alternative inner city school. I read this book as a “White Researcher Thinking about Race” for my dissertation research in engineering education using intersectional feminist theory.  This book focuses on race, but addresses both gender and class issues as well. As someone who attended grade school in a homogeneous community, this book offered me a perspective my upbringing did not allow. This book, to me, was not about race alone, but about the intersection of race, gender, and class in our schools. This blog takes a deeper look at each intersection as addressed by Julie Landsman in  A White Teacher Talks About Race.

Gender presents a deep and abiding oppression, across all cultures

“Watching the girls on the corner below me flirting with the young men, I am convinced that gender presents a deep and abiding oppression, across all cultures. I feel the complexity of such intersections when I teach young women; the way their sex determines whether they dream certain dreams for themselves, whether they plan to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, geologists, or pilots. [p 54 emphasis added]” When young women fail to see examples of themselves in the pages of history books, authors of literature, or makers of science, this invisibility of women [p 29] becomes the deep and abiding oppression that alters the dreams of young women of all cultures, races, and classes. “The power of the visual can transport students into the realm of possibilities for themselves. If prevously students never saw their own future embodied in a writer, an engineer, a pilot, or a doctor of their own race, once they have talked with and seen such people in the classroom, they can conceive of such a future for themselves. They must experience visual and visceral connections to believe in them. And this is cumulative. [p 26]“ When so few women become engineers, and also stay in the profession (nearly stagnant over the last two decades), we are seemingly not creating enough role models to change the pattern. Young black women need to see/hear/meet a black female engineer… not once, but likely multiple times, to completely picture themselves as an engineer for their future. The same with young hispanic women, young white women, etc. Women engineers of all races need to be seeking out opportunities to engage with students and be active role models for the profession. As educators, we need to seek role models that embody the diversity of our students,  make regular connections to careers and actively encourage and build the confidence of students. We must weaken the sting of being the “only one.”

What class we are born in influences the rest of our lives

“There is a large group of students who simply do not know how to get help in order to go where they want to go, be accepted where they want to be accepted [p 98].” ”What class we are born in influences the rest of our lives [p 89].” Access. Opportunity. Confidence. Each of these can be the results of our class. If students don’t know how to access opportunities that they likely don’t even know about and likely don’t believe are right for them, this can and will alter the entire trajectory of their lives. How can we anticipate these gaps and meet the needs of students?

Students will have the obstacles of entrenched labels, categorizations

“The students who sit in front of me now will have the obstacles of entrenched labels, categorizations, and institutional racism challenging them all the way, defining what is ‘realistic’ for them [p112].” When I consider some of the entrenched labels for women in engineering, young women must challenge the stereotypes that engineering is not for them (and it is!), and that they aren’t good at math and science (when they really are!). Then there are young women of a class that may define what is realistic for them, telling them what colleges they can’t afford, and what programs/careers are too tough to succeed in as a woman (yes, it happens!). Young Hispanic women often face the challenge of their cultural norm (what is “realistic” and expected) to stay close to home and marry early, likely limiting education and career options. Race, class, and gender should never be limitations. It is not our responsibility to “be honest with students about their limitations” for the sake of realism. We should offer them hope! Hope that they can achieve anything they want to achieve. The world is already negative enough. I believe it is our role as educators to be a constantly positive and supportive influence in the lives of our students.

A privilege of hope

The author writes about a young boy in her neighborhood: “I know his parents have great hopes for him, for his happiness. I do, too. His privilege is shining here, and this privelige is hope [p152].” I think I often take for granted first of all, my two loving parents, but secondly, the hope that they  have for my happiness. Not everyone has this same experience, and thus this is a privilege, a privilege of hope. I can hope wistfully for all young people to allow them this privilege, but that is not enough. What can I do as a researcher and educator to enable all young people, of all races, classes, and genders, to be privileged with hope? Hope to not only succeed, but to excel in life?  I can work to change my own way of thinking, and work diligently to challenge the status quo. I can develop  or alter curriculum that makes student voices the center of the classroom, providing a richly multicultural and inclusive education [pp 49,51]. I can conduct research that helps us better understand the intersections of race, gender, and class, and I can be an educator that is more sensitive to the individual needs of students – no matter their intersection that may be limiting their personal hope for a brilliant future.

Readers Chime in: 

What about you? What can you do?

Reference: Landsman, J. (2009). A white teacher talks about race, R&L Education.




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