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How White Teachers Perceive the Problem of Racism in Their Schools: A Case Study in "Liberal" Lakeview

by Julie Kailin - 1999

This study examined white teachers' perceptions of racism in their schools. An open ended questionnaire was administered to 222 teachers in a medium sized highly rated middle-class Midwestern school district. Teachers were asked to provide examples of racism in their schools. Teachers' responses were analyzed and coded according to major themes which were collapsed into three major categories: attribution of racial problems to Whites; attribution of racial problems to Blacks; attribution of racial problems to institutional/cultural factors. Research findings indicate that most white teachers operated from an impaired consciousness about racism; that a majority "blamed the victim," assigning causality for racism to Blacks. Findings further indicate that of those who witnessed racist behavior by their white colleagues, the majority remained silent and did not challenge such behavior. Because teachers play a pivotal role in the sum total of race relations in education, it is critical to consider how they perceive the problem of racism in their schools. Their perceptions may influence decisions about how to interpret and respond to racial inequality. Part One of this article describes the context and setting of the research study. Part Two describes the results of the study and implications for teacher education.

This study examined White teachers' perceptions of racism in their schools. An open-ended questionnaire was administered to 222 teachers in a medium-sized highly rated middle-class Midwestern school district. Teachers were asked to provide examples of racism in their schools. Teachers' responses were analyzed and coded according to major themes that were collapsed into three major categories: attribution of racial problems to Whites; attribution of racial problems to Blacks; attribution of racial problems to institutional/cultural factors. Research findings indicate that most White teachers operated from an impaired consciousness about racism; that a majority "blamed the victim," assigning causality for racism to Blacks. Findings further indicate that of those who witnessed racist behavior by their White colleagues, the majority remained silent and did not challenge such behavior. Because teachers play a pivotal role in the sum total of race relations in education, it is critical to consider how they perceive the problem of racism in their schools. Their perceptions may influence decisions about how to interpret and respond to racial inequality.


What do teachers think is meant by racism in education? Where do they think it exists, if at all, in their schools, and how do they see it being expressed? Do they attribute it to the students, to other staff, to themselves, to Whites or people of color in particular? Do they recognize the hidden ways in which White supremacy operates in the absence or the tokenizing and distortion of people of color in the curriculum and in other aspects of the general climate or culture of the school? Do they recognize the relational aspects of racism to power and to class and gender relations? The purpose of this article is to examine such perceptionsbecause how teachers perceive the problem of racism in their schools will influence their decisions about how to interpret and respond to racial inequality.

Although racism has been a central problem in American life, and race has been a critical factor in the organization of schools, there has been relatively little focus in the literature about how teachers understand this complex problem. Most of the literature that has emerged periodically since the 1930s has examined the racial attitudes and perceptions of children. Less attention has been given to the attitudes and perceptions of teachers, who are charged with enlightening the racial attitudes of children. Indeed, as Banks observes, "few [studies] examine the teacher in any detail or treat the teacher as the variable."1 And, as Sleeter notes, most of the literature on multicultural education focuses on preservice teachers with little attention to inservice teachers.2 This study3 therefore focuses on the teacher as the variable and examines the contradictory ways in which White teachers perceive the issue of racism as it affects their work in schools. Part 1 of this article describes the context and setting of a research study that examined teachers' perceptions of racism. Part 2 describes and interprets the results of the study and the implications for teacher education.


White teachers' perceptions of racism are a particularly critical issue since we have an entrenched de facto system of racial apartheid in teaching at all levels of education.4 Given that nearly 90 percent of the teaching force in the United States is White at a time when children of color will soon comprise the majority of students in public education, it is imperative that we examine teachers' views about how racism is manifested in their schools. Because of the way in which school desegregation has been implemented, there has not been real integration in education. Hence, one might question whether White teachers' experiences teaching in "integrated" schools, where White and Black children are effectively segregated, may not actually lead to a sharpening or reinforcement of racial stereotypes rather than to their diminishment. For example, for the White teacher (as well as the White student) the phenomenon whereby the detention room or the special education classes "just happen" to be filled with an inordinate number of students of color may be interpreted as a mark of an inherent inferiority of these students, rather than as a sign of different or inferior treatment. Merely having "contact" with another group does not lead to better race relations if the quality of contact does not counteract underlying social divisions.5 Before we can introduce teachers to antiracist multicultural teaching, we must first locate their perceptions and assumptions about racism, especially considering the processes through which most White people have been taught certain racist constructions in the first place.6

In race relations work I have done with teachers for many years, I have learned much about their racial attitudes and their often-confused perceptions about racism. Asking people about their attitudes or feelings about another race, or how they feel about prejudice and discrimination, will not necessarily capture the deep "hard-wired" attitudes about race/ism. When I've given teachers questionnaires designed to elicit responses about how they feel about racism or about their tolerance towards diverse "others," they rarely state that they do not like another group, or that they believe that all members of a particular group have a certain deficiency. This is not surprising, for as Banks7 and Jones8 remind us, scores on racial attitudes measures are often influenced by the participants' prior knowledge of socially acceptable responses, making it difficult to assess real attitudes and beliefs accurately. Many Whites would not say they identify with the dictionary definition of a racist: "The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others; discrimination or prejudice based on race."9 This definition absolves most White people from any responsibility or recognition of racism, since most Whites, except overtly White supremacists, would not say they believe there is an inborn superiority of one group over another. Because most Whites cannot recognize themselves in such a definition of racism it appears to be something that exists somewhere else outside of themselves, to be someone else's problem. Nor are they conscious of institutionalized racism, i.e., the ways in which historical patterns of racism still adhere to structures and behaviors even as laws are changed to eradicate them. Institutional racism and White privilege become embedded without conscious intent, for people may avoid the possibility of institutional change or reorganization if it affects their sense of well-being or opportunity.

Simply looking for overt prejudice does not reveal the deeper, subtle layers of racism. As Wellman10 argues, we must examine the class basis for racism:

Instead of assuming that racism manifests itself as prejudice [there is] another possibility: that racist beliefs are culturally sanctioned, rational responses to struggles over scarce resources; that they are sentiments which, regardless of intentions defend the advantages that whites gain from the presence of blacks in America. Such beliefs are a pervasive phenomenon which can be found throughout the class structure." (p. 4)

When trying to understand the persistence of racism, it is not enough to examine the realm of the individual psychology of prejudice and racism. One must look at the structural contexts that breed racism in the individual.11


I conducted this research in what is considered one of the most "liberal" and enlightened school districts in the United States. For purposes of anonymity I refer to this city and school district as "Lakeview." The choice of such a "liberal" environment was intentional for I had become increasingly concerned about the comfort among many Whites that "it couldn't happen here." Having worked in civil rights and race relations for many years in Lakeview, I saw a contradiction where people, on the one hand, often idolized the dead heroes of the civil rights movement and, on the other, showed a relative detachment or alienation from their living survivors and their continuing strivings for equality. Lakeview is a city surrounded by myths of a liberal past. It had been one of the centers of resistance against the Vietnam War. It is a relatively affluent middle-class city and school district, located a few hours from several major metropolitan Midwestern cities. The economy is mainly tied to a large research university as well as to the state government. Many professionals have been attracted to move to Lakeview because of the school system, which has been judged in national polls to be among the best in the nation, and the city itself has also been publicized in several national surveys as one of the most attractive places to live in America. While Lakeview has been considered an attractive place to live, and the state in which it is located has touted an "economic boom," boasting one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, in actuality throughout the state as a whole, as well as in Lakeview, people of color have not shared in this "boom." For example, official Black12 state unemployment statistics are actually nearly 17%. Over 50% of the African American children in the state overall lives in poverty. In Lakeview, one out of three African American children live in poverty, as do increasing numbers of Hmong children who have settled there in the last twenty years in significant numbers.

The school district is a medium-sized district of approximately fifty schools. The demographics of Lakeview schools have been changing over the last decade, due in part to White flight as well as to increases in the numbers of people of color who have been moving there from larger economically depressed urban areas in search of better opportunity. In half of the elementary schools children of color comprise from 33 to 50 percent of the student population. At least one fourth of the students are children of color in most of the remaining schools. The typical Lakeview middle school has at least 25 percent students of color, with almost half of the middle schools having at least 33 percent children of color. Twenty to twenty-five percent of the students in Lakeview's high schools are students of color.

African American children make up the largest racial minority group comprising nearly 20 percent of the district's total student population. It is on this group that I will focus in framing the picture of racismnot because the dire statistics of school failure affect only African Americans, because increasingly, other groups of children of color are also similarly adversely affected. However, from the perspectives of a large percentage of the teachers in Lakeview (as well as the society at large), African Americans are perceived to be the ultimate "other." As I shall elaborate later, White teachers have almost universally framed the issue of racism as a Black/White issue, and frequently as a Black problem.

Like most school districts in America, 94 percent of Lakeview's teachers are White and 6 percent are people of color. There are six African American classroom teachers in the high schools, with one high school employing none. Nearly half of the middle schools and elementary schools have no African American teachers. While every White student in the Lakeview School District attended a school that employed mainly White teachers, 1,000 of the African American students attended schools that employed no African American teachers. Hence the reality is that they are taught by people who are generally not familiar with their cultures, their neighborhoods, or their lived experiences.

Measures of performance or possibilities for success for the Black student in the Lakeview school district are not encouraging. Recent school district data13 revealed, for example, that the African American student had a slightly greater chance of dropping out or being pushed out than she or he had of graduating. In a recent year, 96 African American students "dropped out" while 94 graduated. That same year, African American students received five times the number of suspensions given to White students. By middle school more than half of the African American children had already experienced being outside of the "law," so to speak, with over half of them being suspended from school.14 African American students in the district are twice as likely as their White counterparts to be placed in "special education" classes and are four times more likely to be labeled "cognitively disabled."15 While these special students comprised 8 percent of the district's enrollment, this same population received 46 percent of all suspensions. On the other hand, of some 400 special education teachers, only 5 were African Americans. Of the 35 staff psychologists instrumental in assigning students to "special" programs, only 1 was African American.

Compared to their White counterparts, for whom the average freshman grade point average is 2.55, the African American students' average grade point average by the ninth grade is 1.19. Not only African Americans, but racial minorities in the district in general, are unrepresented in all of the advanced classes. In three of the high schools throughout the 1990s, the physics and chemistry classes were 100 percent White. In addition, 100 percent of the students in the computer/robotics classes at the high schools were White.

In spite of these dire outcomes, "liberal" Lakeview has somehow managed to reframe the discussion of inequality, such that there has been little discussion from the school district about the racism that impacts on the problematic outcomes for Black children. Indeed the words "racism" or "race" are rarely uttered in the public discourse. The language of reform in Lakeview is the language of liberal denial. Black children who for years have been referred to as "children at risk" are often referred to as "children of promise." Indeed, while not the story of savage inequalities that Kozol16 describes where toilets leak through the classroom ceiling, nevertheless it is the story of a kind of savage liberalisma liberal denial or ignorance or ignoring of the significance of racism and its structural roots and material basis.17



Data for this study were gathered from workshops and classes I conducted with Lakeview teachers. In order to comprehend teachers' interpretative frameworks regarding racism in their schools, I began by asking participants to address the issue of racism as they perceived it in their own schools. I asked them to answer anonymously on a questionnaire the following question: "Write down any examples or incidents that you think indicate racism or racial insensitivity (whether or not you believe such incidents were intentional or unintentional) that you have witnessed, heard about, or experienced in your work in school(s). Don't feel pressured to write anything if you don't feel that you have such examples." A follow-up question asked if they could recall how they felt about the particular incident or if they said or did anything about it. At a strategic point in the workshop I read and discussed their examples aloud to the entire group. My goal in this process of putting discussions of racism "on the table" was to enable teachers to see where they are as a group, as many are so isolated that they may question their own sensitivityperhaps they think they are being ultra-sensitive if they sense that something is wrong, or, possibly, they totally deny that there are any race-related problems in their school. Hearing many other perceptions coming from one's own peers is a valuable method of beginning to unfold and define the problem as being systemic. These questionnaires did not ask for any demographic data, such as gender or race, since there were only one or two teachers of color in each school and sometimes only a handful of men, and I did not want to compromise their anonymity. Such open-ended questions can be particularly useful tools for revealing participants' points of view without predetermining those points of view through prior selection of questionnaire categories as may be done in a Likert-type scale.

It is pertinent to mention here that I am a White woman who grew up in an activist family in the civil rights movement. I am aware that the researcher's identity may influence people's responses. Indeed after working in the field of race relations for many years, it has been my experience that Whites seem to be more forthcoming and less self-censoring in their statements and views when around other Whites than they are when people of color are present. I asked teachers to fill out the questionnaire before I told them anything about my personal background or perspective so as to minimize my influence on their responses. I wanted to get at their more "spontaneous" reactions, perceptions, or feelings and avoid attempts of any to be "teacher pleaser," where they may try to accommodate their responses to me.


Data for this study were collected from teachers who attended mandatory all-school inservices as well as from teachers who attended more extensive voluntary six- to twelve-week staff development classes that I taught as a consultant for the Lakeview school district. The mandatory workshops included the entire staffs of an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school.18 Because these were mandatory workshops, I will focus on this data, for it provided me with a special insight as it represented the thinking of teachers in general and not just those who voluntarily signed up for my longer classes. To aid in interpretation of this data, I also examined selections from taped interviews and field notes from my longer staff development courses in which I had the opportunity to engage participants in further dialogue and debate. This juxtaposition helped me to better understand the reasoning behind some of the responses given to the questionnaire. A total of 222 teachers attended these mandatory inservices.19 One hundred and eighty- nine teachers responded to the questionnaire mentioned above (88.3 percent). Thirty-three people did not respond (11.7 percent). Respondents provided a total of 281 examples of perceived racism in their schools. The teachers' responses were analyzed and coded according to major themes, which were then collapsed into three major categories: atribution of racial problems to Blacks; atribution of racial problems to Whites; atribution of racial problems to institutional/cultural factors.


An analysis of this data reveals that when referring to examples or incidents of racism, nearly all of the respondents answered the question or posed the problem in Black and White terms. Only one or two people from each school cited racism against or by Native Americans, Asians or Latinos as a problem in their school. In all other cases, racism, regardless of how they interpreted its causes or manifestations, was seen essentially as a Black/White phenomenon. Table 1 illustrates the major categories of causality that the teachers cited.


As the table indicates, in their examples of racial problems in their school, nearly half of the respondents assigned causality to Blacks. Below, I will examine in more detail some examples of the typical responses they gave.


"Black Students Come from Bad Home Environments and Do Not Value Education "

When you are dealing with Black students and you bring the parents in, as a professional you must interpret that the parent may not know how to reinforce positive behavior at home. We need to describe what is expected of the student at school and what should be consistent at home. Teachers sometimes get tired of hearing "It's a cultural thing" or "They just don't know." (HS teacher)

It's hard to teach children who come from a culture where they don't value education and their home life is so chaotic. Then we get blamed as teachers when they don't reinforce learning at home. (EL teacher)

On conference days we rarely have any Black parents who show up. We send notices home, we have refreshments and we are there for them, but they are not interested. Our staff is very hard working and dedicated but some of these parents obviously are not. This makes it very hard for the kids to get an education if it is not reinforced at home. (EL teacher)

The time-worn myth that it really doesn't matter what you do because "these people do not value education" is deeply ingrained in the thinking of many White Americans regarding African Americans. Most White Americans are ignorant of the reality of education as a tool of struggle historically in the African American community.20 While there is some truth to the noninvolvement of many African American parents, Irvine21 cites Siddle Walker, to remind us that we ought to ask, When did African Americans stop becoming involved in their children's education? rather than, Why aren't they involved? For one of the unintended effects of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was that, due to entrenched White racism, many African American teachers were fired in the South in the newly desegregated schools and were unwelcome in the North. As Irvine argues, if indeed African American parents did stop becoming involved, it was only after African American children were treated like other people's children.22

If in fact many African American parents do not participate in school events, or parent-teacher conferences, the teacher may assume "that is how those people are," or "education is not important to them," rather than asking why the conferences or social activities, the latter often organized by the White-middle-class-dominated PTA, are not drawing all parents into the school. They may conclude it is because "they do not care" rather than that it may be due to the alienating climate or superficial nature of these (usually fifteen-minute) conferences. Additionally, because only one school in Lakeview was located in a non-White neighborhood, there may also have been problems of transportation. On the other hand, I was also aware of many cases where parents had tried to become involved but were shunned or ignored by teachers.

In lengthy discussions in my staff development classes, I found that teachers rarely examined the ways in which school events were organized, who organized them, or who was included or centered in these activities. On several occasions when I visited some of these events I saw how African American students were marginalized at the same time that African American culture was being appropriated. For example, at one cultural event the school jazz band was the featured performance. The band did not have a single African American student. I saw only one African American family attending this event. At another school event in which the African American children comprised 50 percent of the student population, the annual parent/teacher cultural event was organized around the theme of country- western music and line-dancing, a favorite of many of the teachers, but not a cultural form that was embraced by or inclusive of many of the African American families in the school.

"Black Students Are 'Intimidating'"

Three or four black fellows were in the hallway talking loudly. I went up to them and asked them to move onin so asking I put a finger on the one young man's arm. His response was "Don't you touch me whitey." I was really taken aback because I was just "hearing" and "seeing" students in an area in which they weren't to be and they were disturbing us. (HS teacher)

When in the halls and confronting the students in the halls without a pass or authorization, most students respond positively. However, I am either verbally abused, completely ignored, or put on the defensive most frequently by Black students, especially the Black females. Usually there is complete lack of cooperation and refusal to do what is asked of them. Why?I don't get this kind of intimidating treatment from any of the other minority students. (HS teacher)

I feel there is a growing perception that some black students' misbehavior is being ignored because of fear of making waves, and that nothing will be done. I've talked about this with other teachersmost agree. (HS teacher)

This theme of Black students being threatening and "getting away with stuff' was one that came up frequently in my longer staff development classes, especially from middle and high school teachers who often complained about hall behavior. The hallways were often the only place where some White teachers had contact with Black students since, particularly in the "gifted" programs or math or science classes, they may have been tracked out of such classes long ago. Hence it was the hallway encounter that seemed to reinforce the stereotypes. In our discussions about this problem it was sometimes revealed that many White high school teachers feared the Black students and avoided speaking to them, even avoiding eye contact. Often teachers would admit that they did not even bother to try to get to know the Black students' names unless they were going to "write them up." In a discussion in one of my classes, for example, one teacher who had been very resentful of the Black students ignoring him in the hallway was urged by another teacher to try to know them as individuals. "Have you ever thought of going up to the kid and just talking to him by name? Not for any other reason but to know who he is as a human being, not to write him up?" In the process of unraveling the racial stereotypes that led to his fear of the Black students, this teacher eventually came to recognize his own prejudices. After several weeks, he reported to the class that he began to take the time to find out the Black students' names and make small talk and "I began to see them as kids like my own. These guys are starting to be friendly with me now." When he realized that his taking the role of hall cop in which he projected a cold, defensive demeanor was itself the obstacle to forming any positive relationships, he was able to try to build some rapport with the students who had previously given him a "hard time." This kind of incident illustrates a serious level of alienation and a fear of relating to the "other," whom this teacher had characterized and objectified as the dangerous Black male or the threatening Black female. The ultimate problem for this White teacher was not only to get to know the Black student, but to get to know himself and become conscious of the stereotypes and assumptions that he carried around in his head. It is important to note that this humble self-reflection did not come without a great deal of effort. It was only after this teacher had been in my class for five weeks and had been exposed to some historical and sociological background of the social construction of race and particularly of "Whiteness" that he was willing to step back and examine his assumptions.

While doing similar research with White high school students, it became clear that often they were more aware than the White teachers of this disparate treatment of Black students. When I asked them about perceived problems of racism in their schools, 25 percent wrote that they frequently witnessed their own White privilege as they would be walking down the halls with no pass while they witnessed the hall duty teacher immediately going to the Black students for hall pass checks. The following are two examples of White students' consciousness of their own preferential treatment:

As a female with fair skin I know I can walk through the halls of _____ High School and not be stopped so long as I act like I know where I am going. However I have often seen Black students stopped who are doing nothing more serious than I.

I walk, without a pass, to the foreign language office almost every day. I have never been stopped or questioned but I have seen many Black/ African American kids stopped and questioned (they did have passes).

"Black Students are Favored or Not Being Held Accountable for their Actions or Behavior" (What Some Refer to as "Reverse Discrimination")

I think it is racist (maybe reverse discrimination) to make excuses for minorities, consequently not helping them own up to their own responsibilities. It catches up to them at some pointusually, too late. I would like to see the schools put more emphasis on helping African American children adjust socially in the real world that they will enter as adults. (MS teacher)

We need to work to eliminate race as an issue in school. Eliminate or change the focus of groups and funds whose membership or allocation is determined by race. Mixed messages are sent when we say all races are important and should be treated equally but then create organizations to favor students based on race. (MS teacher)

The feeling that Black students were enjoying special privileges and that there was too much focus on multicultural issues often came up in class discussions. In such cases people were unaware of the relative "privileged" positioning that Whites already had in a Eurocentric, white Amerocentric school culture and curriculum.

"I Was Accused of Being Racist!"

Often when Black students reacted to racially insensitive behavior or accused the White teacher or hall monitor of being racist the white teacher turned the situation on its head and felt that s/he, and White teachers in general, were the real victims of racism:

A student called me "whitey" and said that he knew that I and all white people hated Black people and that's why I picked on him. He further stated that he hated white people too. I felt sad that he may believe this; wondering what he was hearing and from whom he was learning these ideas. (EL teacher)

I've heard children and/or some parents of color blaming individual children's poor behavior and lack of academic behavior on racism of White teachers. Isn't this racism? Assuming if someone is not a person of color, they are racist? I feel angry and intimidated. Things seem to be getting worse. Aren't we singling out differences too much? Singling out certain groups for special classes/opportunities, full scholarships based on color etc. Is this fair? (MS teacher)

During searches on minority students, they complain that they were searched just because they were black. Many times when I discipline students they say I'm being racist. Some black students really have a grudge against society as a whole and take it out on white teachers. We also had an employee who felt everyone was out to get her because she was black. She was very bitter and hard to supervise. I expressed acceptance at all times but she gets away with everything. (MS teacher)

In my 22 years at _____ High school, I cannot remember ever witnessing an incident of racism. On the other hand, I as a faculty member, have been accused of being racist several times. (HS teacher)

"It's the Black Parents Who Are Racist"

Black parents were often cited as problematic or were faulted if they complained that the school or the teacher was racist, such as in the following examples:

Parents complain that teachers singled out the "black students classes" and "poor" classes for our "head check" when we were having our lice problem. I have found that the parents of color tend to be a little more paranoid that teachers are "picking on them." It's almost a reverse discrimination that they think we're "out to get them." I feel bad that they think this wayit's a matter of mass education. I have found that we can talk until we're blue in the face to explain why we do and it doesn't helpwe're still "out to get them" as they put it. (EL teacher)

As the above examples illustrate the teacher often feels defensive about the accusation, and perhaps may indeed feel that s/he was being "fair." Yet sometimes there is such a social distance between the Black parent and the White teacher, and such a historic mistrust, that the White teacher often does not have the knowledge to contextualize. Rather than trying to engage the Black parent or student, the teacher will more likely shut down and focus her anger at them for making her feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, often the Black parent or student has indeed experienced discriminatory treatment from a White staff member(s). Since many White people do not understand or recognize the covert aspects of racism or their own White privilege, they feel that unless one uses a racial epithet one cannot "prove" any racist behavior.

"Our Black Staff Are Uncooperative and Unsupportive of the White Teachers "

In this "blame the victim" school, it was often the one or two Black staff in the school who were held responsible for the lack of racial harmony. For example:

Last year we hired two black teachers (one was a parent liaison) but it didn't solve any problems. It was more trouble than it was worth. They tended to stick together, always ate lunch together and made no effort to include any white teachers. They actually made things worse by polarizing some of the black parents against the teachers (whites).

Such an example is emblematic of the kinds of problems that I had often heard expressed in conversations with Black teachers, namely, that they found themselves tokenized and felt "used" to do what all teachers should have been doing. For example, rather than dealing with a discipline problem themselves, often White teachers sent the child immediately to the Black teacher rather than try to relate to the child themselves. African American teachers were also very conscious of being "observed" and interpreted by their White colleagues. Attempts to eat lunch together or share common experiences were often perceived as "exclusionary" and resented by their White colleagues. The perception that the staff was "integrated" usually varied greatly between Blacks and Whites. Many White teachers believed that they were already integrated if they could visibly see a person of color.

"Naming Names"

Despite my request for anonymity in these questionnaires, several respondents at the high school and the middle school actually named the Black staff in their school who they believed were "the problem." Occasionally in my discussions with teachers I would hear such remarks as "We want Black teachers, but what kind of a Black teacher?" (I came to call this sentiment, "Get us the "right" kind, or get 'em outa' here!") such as in the following examples:

I'd find a minority leader who could and would do his job. Mr. _____ is truly an adversary. Now Mrs. _____ is doing a good job, but _____ is demonstrating that she herself has a problem. She is not the kind we need. I feel that the rest of the staff is really trying.

Mrs. _____ needs to stop encouraging children to view themselves as "victims."

This school should appoint a new minority coordinator who is willing to heal the wounds and work with everyone.

If our few black "teachers" would be positive models, we could start working in the right direction.

Black staff were sometimes perceived by White teachers as being "racist" if they ostensibly did not cooperate with or defend the White teachers when the latter were being charged with racism by Black students or parents. One teacher recalled an incident an which s/he was called a "racist" by a student, and wrote that "when Mr._____ [(a Black administrator)] got involved, he did not adequately defend me. I guess I should have just dictated to [the administrator] how to do his job."

While several people named names of Blacks in a questionnaire in which I had asked for anonymity and confidentiality, in no case did anyone ever mention the name of a White teacher. This is especially significant since 16% of the responses were in reference to hearing their White colleagues make racist or racially insensitive remarks.23 Yet their identity was never revealed and the problem was more often couched in terms of a generalized problem of insensitivity, but never as intolerable behavior for the job. In discussions with teachers about such issues as the racist behavior of a White colleague, I would often hear comments like "Oh, he's just like that," or "He's mean to everyone," when trying to understand the behavior of some racist White teachers or staff towards Blacks. Or, "Well, she must just be having a bad day." Since this was an open-ended gestalt-like question, the spontaneous responses of the teachers were very revealing of a "White racial ethic" among many of the teachersa double standard being applied for Blacks and whites. Whites were likely protected where Blacks were "public property" when it came to exposing perceived racism.


While nearly half (46 percent) of all teachers surveyed tended to perceive racism as being caused by Blacks in one way or another, it is very important to stress here that 40 percent did not. This major category of responses focused on the ways in which Whites were seen as contributing to racial tensions in the school. We shall now turn to the ways in which these teachers perceived and acknowledged racism coming from their White colleagues. This group perceived that in various ways, it was sometimes their White colleagues, parents or students who were contributing to the problem of racism in their schools.

Coded Language and Behavior of White Racism

In our efforts to probe more deeply into the problem of racism in education we often look for the less obvious or covert expressions (such as in the omissions or distortions of people of color in the curricula, in the teaching staff, or in the institutional arrangements that guarantee racist outcomes), under the assumption that the more blatant forms of racism are an aberration, especially with "professional" "educated" people. Overt expressions of racism are more frequently expected from the "redneck" or "Archie Bunker" stereotype.24 However, according to what many teachers said they saw and heard, we should not assume that the overt expressions of racism are somehow now submerged. In fact, over one fourth of the teachers25 reported hearing their fellow White teachers make racially insensitive or hostile remarks about Blacks. While there were no overt racial epithets reported, the language was clearly contemptuous, though couched in the coded language of racism used often reserved for Blacks or other people of color, as in the "other," or "those people," or "those people from Chicago," "and even "those people from the apartments." The following examples are typical of the kinds of coded language or behaviors that some teachers reported witnessing from some of their White colleagues:

I was in a conversation with other teachers and an educational assistant and we were talking about a black student and one person said "Well, you know, those people always. . . ." (EL teacher)

I observed a teacher listing all the black students who had "bombed out" of a class to a student who was asking about joining that class. I also observed the teacher making personal comments to a student about their facial bone structure and joking about "Polynesian background" "on your mother's side"The student seemed confused by the tone of voice and teasing but was not as aware as I was that this was a racial negative at their expense. (HS teacher)

I hear teachers comment that an individual is probably guilty of wrongdoing, simply because of his racial orientation: "It's probably a black kid." (EL teacher)

When calling roll, this teacher says "White? How'd YOU get a name like WHITE?" (To a student of color). I heard another teacher comment: "This was a manageable class until they put those Black kids in here!" It would seem that these attitudes are so ingrained, that most of us aren't aware of them. How do we reach those who don't want to be reached? (HS teacher)

I've heard these remarks from teachers: "A big black kid came into my room"a "Tall skinny one" (one what?) ... when told a student was talented in dancinganswer "Aren't they all?"Saying the parents (of the Black students) are concernedas if it's rare. Hearing racial jokes. I felt sick about these comments from the teachers. I commented to my friendsgot up and left the lunch table. Told people I didn't like the joke. I could've taken a risk and said how the comments sounded to me and had a discussion about it, but it would've been a risk to say something to colleagues who don't know they are so ignorant. (HS teacher)

Lots of kids are identified as black kids, where white students are not identified as white kidsmostly its the teachers and secretaries who do this. I thoughtthis is the beginning of extreme generalization. I suppose I could've pointed out to them their "error" in logical thinking, but it seems so futile, I guess. (HS teacher)

At the middle school many of the examples given were also blatant:

A teaching partner of mine made some pretty negative remarks about "black names"the names some African American parents give their children, saying that she'd be embarrassed if she has such a name and maybe that affects their self esteem.

When issues are discussed, (e.g., perhaps an incoming student who is reported to be a discipline problem) the question is asked, "Is he black?" I've also heard teachers commenting on black students doing well on a particular skill assignment with an obvious tone of "surprise" in their voice. I felt uncomfortable but said nothing. Then I felt uncomfortable and phony for saying nothing. I probably could have made a simple statement, such as: "Why does it surprise you that Sam does well in math? What does the student's color have to do with anything? Will that determine how we will handle discipline issues with him?"

After I complimented a teacher on the weekly music program she put together, more specifically a dance routine that some boys had put together, she countered with, "That's about all they can do!" (The dance group was made up of African Americans.) I didn't know what to say.

Occasionally a teacher cited an incident in which a professional outside the school behaved in a racist or discriminatory manner such as these two examples from high school teachers:

When referring a Black student for immediate dental care, I was asked by the dentist we usually call for referrals (over the phone) if the student was Black. He then told me that poor Black adolescents should have their teeth pulled out rather than having expensive reconstructive work done like root canals or expensive crowns.

When I send my business students out on job training, sometimes I notice that they are watched more carefully and treated differently than my white students.

Witnessing the Unfair Treatment of Black Students

It is not only teacher talk that many reported hearingmany teachers reported observing White teachers treating Black students worse than White students. Nineteen percent of the middle school staff and 11 percent of the high school staff reported seeing such behavior. This included such behaviors as singling out Black students for discipline; asking Black students but not White students for hall passes; singling out Black students for detention for being late; searching Black students for weapons or drugs. And there were other examples:

Working with various classes in the LMC [library media center] we are constantly observing teachers' relationships with students. During a unit that lasted for two weeks, I became aware that the teacher was consistently ignoring Black students if they raised their hands. When a Black student actually asked a question, the answer was very abrupt. This went on the entire two weeks! As a result, I ended up helping the minority students in that class, but I felt uncomfortable about saying anything to the teacher.

I have noticed that some of the teachers in my school cannot seem to accept a strong, assertive independent-thinking African American young woman student, but can accept those African American students who they perceive "need" them. Those who are confident are seen as "threatening," whereas confident white girls are seen as "promising." Those who are "confident" are often treated like they are troublemakers and I have noticed that they are watched closely.

I've noticed that ESL students (mostly Asian) are not welcomed in the Phys Ed classes at _____ school. The Phys Ed teachers complain about them.

"It's Their Responsibility to Fight Against Racism "

While many teachers claimed to recognize racist attitudes or behaviors perpetrated by their White colleagues but did not take any responsibility for counteracting it, some expressed the view that not only was it not their responsibility to fight racism, but that it was the responsibility of the few Black staff members to improve race relations in the school.

Mrs. _____ gets angry with me whenever I send Black students who are in trouble to her room. This is something I and many of the other white teachers don't understand. How can she expect the white teachers to help them if she doesn't?

We had an African American male teacher last year who really had a chip on his shoulder. He expected us to cooperate with him but he wouldn't help out when we had our newspaper incident (when the African American students were upset over the article about their low grade point averages.) He told one of the counselors "That's your problem." 'You started it. You deal with it!" and expected us to just take care of it for him.

Silence = The Persistence of Racism

Although one of four teachers reported witnessing racism or racial insensitivity from their White colleagues, in response to the question asking if they did or said anything about it, they reported that they rarely challenged or refuted such remarks or behaviors. While many reported that they felt badly about racial slurs or insensitivity, they often expressed feeling powerless, embarrassed, afraid to rock the boat, or that they felt a sense of futilityso they behaved dangerouslythey did nothing. Hence we see another dimension of the persistence of racism: silence. If the students of color had sympathy from a White teacher, such teachers were often too silent to behave as alliesleaving these students with no one to defend them. And when Black students complained about being picked on it was difficult for many teachers to understand that there may have been objective reality in what the students were saying. If one out of four teachers reported having heard racially insensitive remarks from their colleagues, one must assume that those who were the target of such remarks heard or at least "felt" them as well. It would not be surprising to learn that many of the students of color had likely experienced discriminatory behavior or heard cruel remarks from some of the adults put in charge of them. This is one of the reasons it was valuable to read these responses aloud to teachers so that they could begin to see some of these behaviors as more systematic than they realized or may have cared to acknowledge . . . something the students of color and their parents' experiences may have already taught them. Sometimes when I read such responses aloud, I also juxtaposed them with the reported or perceived "paranoia" of the Black parents or students. This illuminates the issue of witnessing. Historically, Whites have always witnessed the degradation of people of color, from their first encounters with indigenous people, through slavery and colonization to the present. Rarely are people willing to face and counteract the contradictions between the so-called American creed of equality and the American reality of inequality and relative White privilege and power.


While "Lakeview" was a school district known for "excellence" and tolerance, the academic outcomes for students of color were as problematic as for their counterparts in more economically depressed urban areas. Still, this liberal district proudly touted the rhetoric of "success for all," and other slogans of the "rainbow," without asking for whom was there such success? This "liberal" racism, while distinct from more overt racism, is nevertheless very dangerous. Yet it is a form of racism that persists and we seem to have made little progress in recognizing its disguised form and racist self-interest. Writing nearly thirty years ago, Charles Wilson26 warned about the subtle manifestations of such racism:

The racism which pervades the public school system is at one and the same time subtle, unintentional, unthinking, as well as brutal and deliberatively offensive. And more important, this middle-class racism is disguised in a clever rhetoric. Sometimes the talk is liberal, affirming goodwill and genuine social concern and at other times speaking in a subtle racial code: "neighborhood schools," "jungle," "due process," "professional rights," "cultural deprivation," and oh yes"love for the children." But generally, behind the words exists an entire reality which protects the professional educators' self esteem at the expense of the children; protects the educators' status at the expense of the community's interests; protects whites at the expense of the Blacks; protects the middle class from competition with those who they feel aren't ready, or don't deserve the good things of this glutted society, (p. 307)

Invisible and unacknowledged White privilege clouded and distorted the lens such that most of the Lakeview teachers were "disabled" from seeing their own portraits. Most teachers seemed to show little awareness or understanding of the structural nature or roots of racism or its institutional manifestations in education. Very few (5.6 percent) cited bias in the curriculum and few cited other aspects of the school culture, such as bias in extracurricular activities, tracking, overrepresentation of children of color in special education classes, or the fact that their school had only one or two Black teachers, if any, as "evidence" of racism. And many took the immediately apprehended reality, of problems that they may actually have experienced, such as Black students not following their orders, or Black parents' anger, as being the essence of that reality, as in "that's how those people are."

This problem of a lack of empathy, and the tendency to "blame the victim," may actually escalate as teachers become increasingly alienated from their labor. They may be more prone to scapegoating their students as the teaching profession comes under pressure to compete in the education "market." In such a "market," characterized by the defunding of public education and increased privatization in a global capitalist corporate economy, successful teaching and learning is measured by standardized tests. Such tests have the effect of replacing or negating teacher creativity. Indeed, Michelle Fine27 found that as teachers became more focused on routinized testing, there was a high correlation with derogatory attitudes toward the students. When the student does not respond "properly," i.e., does not perform well on tests, this could reflect negatively on both student and teacher, who may be judged ineffective in her/his practice. This can contribute to resentment of those who are not "learning." Hence, when it comes to encountering people who have differences of any kind which do not "fit" within the very limited universe of discourse, the increasingly restrictive conditions of teaching and the pressures to "teach to the test" make it more difficult for the teacher to recognize the gifts and abilities that different people possess. It then becomes easier to blame the victim and reinforce all of the old stereotypes, like "those people don't value learning anyway."

One of the critical aspects of most White teachers' responses was how they framed their perceptions of racism, almost entirely positioning African Americans as the "other." In only 2 cases of nearly 200 were Latinos or Asians cited as targets of racism, and never as the cause. Blacks were the only group targeted as problematic. This does not mean that Blacks were perceived only as the cause, for a significant number of teachers did report witnessing or hearing Whites victimizing or discriminating against Blacks more than any other group. But in any case, other groups who were also having some similar problems in school, such as the Hmong or Latinos, whose educational success in Lakeview as elsewhere in the United States was also problematic, were rarely cited in the examples given by teachers.

This should be put in the particular context of the demographics of the Lakeview school district, in which African American students were the largest racial minority. Hence, they were perceived by many Whites as the critical mass other, problematic in large numbers. However, it is not mere numbers that account for this reaction against African Americans. The posing of Blacks as the "ultimate other" has been observed and documented historically by such scholars as Du Bois, Baldwin, Bowser and Hunt, and by more recent scholars as well.28 For example, in Frankenberg's research on the social construction of whiteness among White women, she similarly found that among the women in her study, "racist discourse frequently accords a hypervisibility to African Americans and a relative invisibility to Asian Americans and Native Americans; Latinos are also relatively less visible than African Americans in discursive terms."29

Given that nearly all (94 percent) the Lakeview teachers were White, and grew up in a racially segregated society, most of them came out of a milieu that was likely to be increasingly far removed from that of a large percentage of their students of color. Many of these teachers found their relevance and effectiveness challenged as a result of changing demographics as more students of color entered the Lakeview district. The situation was further compounded by an increasingly segregated job and housing market. Because teachers' perspectives are shaped by the same social forces that mold us in society at large it was not surprising to see that the cognitive categories that they employed to understand their world reflected the stereotypes held by the dominant group of which they were members.30

White teachers in Lakeview, as elsewhere in America, continue to live in a symbolic universe that is "White." In their own educations, like those of the general public, they have been "victimized" by the lack of a serious education in the history of our country. Hence, many of their notions of alleged characteristics of people of color were based on historic and culturally perpetuated stereotypes, which had become part of the stock of "knowledge" that they brought into the practice of teaching. Their perceptions of racism in their schools often reflected the dominant stereotypes and projections of Blacks, which depict them as threatening, as intruders. Such historical stereotypes continue to be reinforced in the corporate capitalist "popular" news media regarding affirmative action and welfare bashing, and the use of Willie Horton-type stereotypes to demonize Black males and thus justify their escalating rates of incarceration.

There is little doubt that teachers have limited power when it comes to determining the social conditions of the larger society that also contribute to the problems they experience in schools. However, it is important to realize that within the schools, they are members of a group that does have some power and ability to impose their own assumptions and categories on a subordinate group. In a society in which we have racial domination, racial assumptions and categories left unchallenged and unlearned will be reproduced in institutional practices. Stuart Hall calls this everyday or "common sense" racism. Furthermore, these relations of racial domination come to be normalized and institutionalized, acquiring a social inertia that seemingly does not require conscious reflection or intent. King31 terms this "dysconscious racism," which she defines as:

an uncritical habit of mind (including perceptions, attitudes, assumptions and beliefs) that justifies inequality and exploitation by accepting the existing order of things as given. . . . Dysconscious racism is a form of racism that tacitly accepts dominant white norms and privileges. It is not the absence of consciousness (that is, not unconsciousness) but an impaired consciousness or distorted way of thinking about race as compared to, for example, critical consciousness. Uncritical ways of thinking about racial inequity accept certain culturally sanctioned assumptions, myths and beliefs that justify the social and economic advantages white people have as a result of subordinating diverse others, (p. 135)

This uncritical habit of mind allowed many teachers in Lakeview to accept the status quo, not necessarily because they were passive, or by nature uncritical, but because this is the dominant discourse in American education and culture. Alternative ways and means are not often seen as being within one's reach.

It is important to reiterate that this focus on teachers must be viewed in the structural context of which schools are but one part. Approaching the problem of racism in education is a much broader issue than that of addressing the roles of teachers alone, who are situated within a larger socioeconomic context. Yet because teachers play a pivotal role in the sum total of race relations in education, being the professional group that has the most ongoing contact with our children, it is imperative to consider how they perceive the problem of racism in their classrooms and schools so that we may develop effective strategies to counteract their impaired consciousness. This is critical not only for those teaching children of color, but for teachers of White children as well, for even in the all-White district, racial attitudes are taught and learned or unlearned in school. Because of the subtleties of White privilege and relative entitlement of members of the dominant group, many White teachers reveal a confused or contradictory consciousness about racism and its manifestations. Racism must be understood and measured, not only by its intent, but by its effects.


Given the distorted and relatively superficial level of analysis expressed by most teachers in their perceptions of racism in schools, one of the challenges for teacher educators is to demystify the chain of causality of the racial tensions that teachers may actually be experiencing in their work. We cannot simply blame the teachers without considering the social context in which they/we all have been educated to not see. Lakeview teachers' perceptions reflect the dominant discourse in American education and culture.

In order to begin to address the problem of racism in bur schools, teachers must be given a meaningful education that will provide for significant time and breadth of knowledge so that they can begin the long process of unlearning racism. Unfortunately, the dominant approach in most school districts continues to be the one time "hit and run" workshop,32 hardly sufficient for engaging people in the emotional and ideological struggles that they often experience in the process of learning about racism. Such workshops are frequently received as an obligation and a chore, not as an informative or inspiring opportunity, and cannot meaningfully provide teachers with the tools needed to address the problem. Elsewhere, I have discussed a perspective for antiracist staff development that examines the links between race, class, gender, and power relations in education.33 This view takes into account the real stresses of teachers' work in a profession that has become increasingly proletarianized and undervalued.

While this study focused on inservice teachers, it should be obvious that there must be an intervention in the education of preservice teachers long before they ever enter a classroom. Yet the situation in teacher education is not very encouraging. If we look to the curriculum in most schools of education, we find that despite some (often optional) offerings on multicultural education, by and large classes on race relations education are rarely offered and almost never required of preservice teachers.34 While a critical multicultural perspective should be incorporated into all curricula, because of the special complexity of the problem, future teachers also need courses that specifically examine the centrality of the problem of racism in American society and education. They must learn to recognize its manifestations at the individual and institutional levels. Such study must not obscure class relations, but should critically examine the structural, sociopolitical and historical context of racism in the United States.

We must incorporate into the teaching practice a pedagogy that sensitizes preservice and inservice teachers to the racial constructions of reality in their own socializations and behavior. Before people can be in a position to overthrow the racist paradigm, they must first be able to see how their own reality is socially constructed and how racism and White privilege have affected that construction. But we must go beyond personal reflection alone to an examination of the social and historical context for these racial constructions. These dimensions of individual and institutional racism must also be related to an examination of power relations and placed within the context of American capitalism which is, at this moment, the most powerful imperialist force in the world.35 In sum, we need a holistic and dialectical understanding of the intersections of race, class, and gender relations in American education. Finally, to counteract racial apartheid in the teaching profession, teacher education programs and the credentialing process must be reshaped and reconfigured such that the students going into and graduating out of such programs are proportionally representative of the demographic makeup of the population, so that everybody is teaching everybody's children.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 4, 1999, p. 724-750
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10340, Date Accessed: 12/24/2021 11:38:15 AM

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About the Author
  • Julie Kailin
    University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
    E-mail Author
    Julie Kailin is assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has recently published articles in High School Journal and Nature, Society, and Thought and is the author of a forthcoming book, Anti-Racist Education (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, in press).
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