Voices in Education

Unlearning: Kindness, Color Blindness and Racism

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“Jack is the furthest thing from racist… Shame on you… I’ll defend him and his lovely family to the end of time,” the comment read in response to a video I posted about cultural appropriation in a popular YouTuber’s “hip hop” videos for kids. 

Since starting an antiracist review series, which analyzes kids’ content for racial bias, I have grown accustomed to getting push back from fans of popular kids’ content, such as Soul, To Kill A Mockingbird, Miles Morales, and Jack Hartmann. A common argument is that the creators of these works are “good people” and well-intended and that I am a bitter, angry person who “causes more racism” and “looks for it” where it does not exist. 

Under this logic, racist behavior must be malicious and intentional for it to be objectionable or to matter, and those who speak up about racism issues are the problem. This way of thinking demonstrates two fundamental misunderstandings about what it means to be racist or to engage in racist behavior. 

Regarding the first misunderstanding, in White Fragility, Dr. Robin Di Angelo uses the term the “good/bad binary” to describe how racism adapted in the post-Civil Rights Movement era as no longer socially acceptable to be openly racist. She argues:

“After the civil rights movement, to be a good, moral person and to be complicit with racism became mutually exclusive. You could not be a good person and participate in racism; only bad people were racist.”

However, this required racism to become narrowly defined to only include the most clear-cut, “isolated, acts of extreme prejudice.” Being racist became synonymous with being a mean, uneducated White person from the South. By contrast, “nice people, well-intended people, open-minded middle-class people, people raised in the “enlightened North,” could not be racist.

For example, To Kill A Mockingbird teaches us to only view people, like Bob Ewell, a poor, White Southerner, as racist, while failing to acknowledge the racism of people like Atticus Finch, an educated, middle-class White attorney, who feebly defends Tom Robinson, a falsely accused Black man.

Regarding the second misunderstanding, many White people respond to being called out for racist behavior (or hearing about someone else being called out) by attacking the messenger. According to their logic, even mentioning race, much less calling out racism is racist. Therefore, those that call out racism are “mean,” bad people.   

These misunderstandings pervade our classrooms and homes when we teach our kids that it is impolite to acknowledge or talk about race, and to prioritize being well-mannered or “kind” over standing up for fairness. As children internalize these messages, they learn that race is a bad thing and that we should deny reminders of its existence—especially examples of racism. While White children learn to deny race and racism, children of color learn to change themselves to aid in this denial.    

The Nice Black Girl
As a Black woman, I know all too well the societal pressures to “play the game” and “wear the mask” of ever-present approachability, friendly measured tones, and never coming across as “angry.” In the context of gender, I learned early on that girls and women are expected to appear “nice” and happy. In calling out the misogyny of expecting girls and women to smile, York University Professor Natalie Coulter notes:

“This constant expectation of girls to be always smiling depoliticizes girls and positions them as compliant in their own subjugation. ‘Fun’ acts as a distraction from deeper political issues, discouraging girls from considering the exploitation and violence that girls worldwide face.” 

In the context of race, sociologist and civil rights activist, WEB Du Bois described this mask as “a veil” that forces Black people to view ourselves and the rest of the world through the lens of Whiteness and White peoples’ perceptions of us. Du Boiswrites:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” 

This double-consciousness leads Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) to be hyper-aware of how we look, sound, and behave—especially in front of White people. For example, despite African American Vernacular English (AAVE) being the dialect spoken in my home, I internalized the need to code-switch, or speak in Standard English (usually in a friendly sounding, upbeat tone) from the time I was in kindergarten. I noticed that it endeared my White teachers to me, because I was “an exception,” a “good Black kid” who could be “saved.”  “You’re so articulate!” they’d say. 

Over time, I realized that this was not a compliment, and I developed survivor’s remorse for all my classmates who were just as bright as me, if not brighter, who the teachers did not want to save because they didn’t “talk like a White girl” or make the teachers feel comfortable. 

The pressure to be an “exception,” subvert White peoples’ racist expectations, or make them comfortable in our presence is exhausting at best and dangerous at worst. For example, Asian Americans are held to be the “model minority,” in part because they are perceived as less likely to call out racism. In reality, Asian Americans are less likely than other groups to report instances of racialized violence, while simultaneously experiencing high rates of such violence.  

Being Color Blind Isn’t Kind
Because we live in a White supremacist society, which rewards BIPOC who lean into their perceived exceptionalism and do not “rock the boat,” or make White people feel uncomfortable, many BIPOC have relied on this strategy of assimilation as a means of social mobility and survival. 

The pressure to assimilate and narrow the gaps in our proximity to Whiteness goes hand and hand with so-called “color blindness,” or claiming not to see race. At best, this ideology is misguided because it’s predicated on the false assumption that if we do not talk about or acknowledge race and racism, then these issues will go away. It should go without saying that this is asinine, yet so many well-meaning White people wear their alleged color blindness as a badge of honor. 

At worst, it is a White supremacist tool used to intentionally gaslight BIPOC and give White people a justification for turning away from the experiences and voices of BIPOC. Color blindness requires BIPOC to “grin and bear” everyday instances of racism. We are expected to do this all in the name of making White people more comfortable with benefitting from their ancestors’ ill-gotten gains, as well as current inequalities. This is the “polite” brand of racism that prioritizes White supremacist notions of decorum, comfort, and acceptable forms of social expression over dismantling racism and alleviating the suffering that it causes. 

When coupled with all-White children's books and media, taking a color blind approach to teaching your kids about race sets them up to be inept at best and harmful at worst, when it comes to understanding or responding appropriately in conversations about race and racism.    

Your Silence is Violence
The lie that it is racist to talk about race and racism is closely related to color blindness. It takes the idea that we should not talk about race or racism a step further by pointing the finger at people who do and calling them “racist” for refusing to pretend that these issues do not exist. 

Dr. Robin Di Angelo argues that this is a coping strategy for many White people, who do not have to deal with the daily stresses of racism. She explains that many White people become uncomfortable when the illusion of color blindness breaks down, and they are confronted with these issues. Because most White people are not used to this kind of discomfort, they become defensive and feel like their character and worldview is being challenged, in many cases for the first time. It is in these moments these individuals try to restore their comfort and rest in their ignorance about these issues by dismissing people who talk about racism as “racist.”   

On the contrary, it's racist not to speak up and educate ourselves about race and racism. 

Instead of teaching color blindness, we can start by teaching race as a neutral descriptor when children are very young. Teachers should also focus on behaviors, not people, at first. It’s perfectly appropriate to acknowledge that “our friends can be all different colors, and religions, and even from different countries! It’s like a rainbow or a box of crayons—people can be different, and they are all special and beautiful even if we don’t always understand how they talk, or dress, or think.

The key here is helping kids understand that differences between people do exist, but that all people are important and deserve to be treated fairly and with respect. However, we must do more than teach our kids to just “be kind.” Instead, encourage your students to see how people of other races are treated and to stand up for them when they are not treated fairly or kindly. 

After all, you cannot encourage your students to stand up for racial equality if you do not talk about it in the first place. They will get that the world values Whiteness without any effort on your part whatsoever—inherent in the delusion of White supremacy. The world will teach your kids only to see and look for what is negative in BIPOC. Given how anti-Black and racist our society is, teachers should overcorrect for this and point out how Black, Indigenous and other People of Color are beautiful. 

Being an antiracist educator means allowing your classroom to be one where your kids see Black, Indigenous and other people of color and their cultures as beautiful and worthy. Overcorrection is necessary if we are going to create a more balanced and equitable society. Being an antiracist educator also means modeling and teaching your kids that standing up for what is right is more important than being “nice” or making sure others feel comfortable.

Brandee Blocker Anderson

Brandee Blocker Anderson Educator

Brandee is a lawyer, educator, DEI consultant, and founder of The Antiracism Academy. She earned a bachelor's in Political Science from Yale University, a master's in Education from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Juris Doctor degree from Columbia Law School. During law school, she served on the editorial board of the Columbia Journal of Race and Law and as a consultant for the Center for Public Research and Leadership. Before law school, Brandee taught secondary English and Social Studies at Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School, where she was honored as Teacher of the Year and was a semifinalist for the Sue Lehmann Excellence in Teacher Leadership Award.

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