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Race, Ideology, and Academic Ability: A Relational Analysis of Racial Narratives in Mathematics


by Niral Shah — 2017

Background/Context: There is evidence that race affects students’ learning experiences in mathematics, a subject typically thought of as “race-neutral” and “culture-free.” Research in psychology and sociology has shown that racial narratives (e.g., “Asians are good at math”) are pervasive in U.S. culture and play a critical role in shaping people’s lived experiences. However, racial narratives have received little explicit attention in the mathematics education literature.

Purpose: The purpose of this study was to examine the racial ideological context of mathematics education, specifically in terms of how students made sense of racial narratives about academic ability.

Participants: Thirty-five students identifying as Asian, Black or African American, Latinx, Polynesian, White, and mixed race were interviewed. These students were recruited from four mathematics classrooms observed by the author at a racially diverse high school in Northern California.

Research Design: This qualitative study employed an ethnographic research design to gather data on the meanings students constructed around issues of race in the context of mathematics.

Data Collection and Analysis: A semistructured interview protocol was used to conduct individual interviews with each student participant. Field notes were taken during 130 hours of participant observation over the course of a school year. Interview transcripts and field notes were analyzed for instances in which participants invoked racial narratives. Each of these narratives was first coded by topic and by the racial group to which the narrative referred. Narrative clusters were then identified and analyzed in order to understand how the narratives were related to each other.

Findings: Students invoked a variety of racial narratives about both mathematical and nonmathematical topics (e.g., athletic ability, general intelligence, parenting practices). Importantly, students did not invoke these narratives in isolation. Instead, nearly all of these narratives were invoked in conjunction with at least one other narrative. This relationality among racial narratives shows how the academic abilities of learners from diverse racial backgrounds are constructed in relation to each other, often in ways that position non-Asian students of color as inferior in mathematics.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This article suggests the need for study designs and analytical approaches that theorize race as a relational construct that transcends the Black-White paradigm. Further, this article challenges researchers and practitioners to reconsider boundaries between what is deemed “mathematical” and “nonmathematical” in classroom discourse, specifically with respect to sociopolitical phenomena like race.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 7, 2017, p. 1-42
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21899, Date Accessed: 10/22/2017 8:00:40 AM

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About the Author
  • Niral Shah
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    NIRAL SHAH is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. His research focuses on equity and implicit bias in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). His recent publications include: Shah, N., & Leonardo, Z. (2016). Learning discourses of race and mathematics in classroom interaction: A poststructural perspective. In I. Esmonde & A. Booker (Eds.), Power and privilege in the learning sciences: Critical and sociocultural theories of learning (pp. 50-69). New York, NY: Routledge Press. Martin, D. B., Rousseau-Anderson, C., & Shah, N. (in press). Race and mathematics education. In J. Cai (Ed.), Compendium for Research in Mathematics Education. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
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