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When It Comes to the Mathematics Experiences of Black Pre-Service Teachers . . . Race Matters

by Ebony O. McGee - 2014

Background/Context: There is a growing body of research that conceptualizes mathematics learning and participation as racialized experiences; that is, learning experiences structured in part by the negative and unjust race relations that are present in U.S. society. However, the role racialized experiences play in the lives of Black elementary education pre-service students from urban contexts, as both students and future teachers of mathematics, is under theorized.

Theoretical Framework: Using critical race theory’s racial micro-aggressions and the development of a mathematics identity, the author explores the mathematics experiences of 13 Black advanced undergraduate students who are elementary education majors. The participants’ narratives reflect their experiences as both students of mathematics and future teachers.

Research Design: A qualitative phenomenological research design was used to explore the prior and current mathematical experiences of the study participants and their future trajectories as teachers of mathematics. Reponses were coded to reveal themes of racialization and the development of the participants’ mathematics identities.

Results: The participants’ narratives cited Black male fathers and close male relatives as their first mathematics teachers, the presence of culturally affirming at-home mathematics activities, and detailed aspirations to teach mathematics fearlessly to their own children and future students. Their more recent experiences included academic struggles in mathematics, often stemming from racial stereotyping and non-affirming college mathematics teachers. Their voices suggest that, within the context of learning mathematics, they have generated self-constructions that include racism as part of their shared African American experience in mathematics schooling that have implications for their teaching of mathematics.

Conclusion/Recommendations: Recommendations include the provision of professional development that targets gaps in mathematics that are the result of inadequate and discriminatory learning opportunities, and culturally sensitive professional development for mathematics college faculty, with differentiated training for mathematics faculty not born in the U.S. In light of the high proportion of Black teachers working in urban schools who face a host of difficulties, this research also supports the continued development of combatting racial micro-aggressions in mathematics education as a decisive tactic to improve the retention of Black elementary education teachers.

Black people don’t multiply or divide. They barely know how to add or subtract. Whites—and especially Asians—now they multiply and divide. They can even do fractions! [mathematics methods class breaks out in roaring laughter]

Arthur, 21-year-old Black male elementary education major (class discussion)1

I always hated math and agonized over the thought of having to take a math class. My fear of math has kept me—and still keeps me—from achieving to my fullest potential and eventually knowing how to teach what I have learned to others . . . My teachers seem more intimidated about my height and weight than [in] teaching me about measurements . . . In elementary school they just passed me along, which helped me to [fall] further behind and sealed my fear of not knowing how to do math.

Randy, 20-year-old African American male elementary education major (private interview)2

These quotes are from two students enrolled in a college mathematics methods class, which the author taught to students majoring in elementary education. The statements illustrate the men’s racialized perspectives and their experiences with mathematics education. Both men hailed from neighborhoods and school systems that teach predominantly Black students, and they will most likely teach in Black schools and carry their mathematics ideologies into their future teaching positions.

Arthur, who ironically is a high achiever in most of his college mathematics courses, explained that his early aspiration of becoming a patent attorney was shattered by his seventh-grade mathematics teacher. When Arthur expressed an interest in the legal process of patenting inventions, his White male teacher exclaimed, “Stop dreaming and be reasonable! You won’t make it as an attorney, but you will make a great [auto] mechanic.” Arthur described the “sort of honorary Whiteness” he had enjoyed as a top achiever in mathematics before this demeaning experience in seventh grade (Fordham, 1988, 1996). His mathematics life before then included being the mathematics teacher’s favorite male student and receiving excessive praise for his manners, neatness, and “pleasant” appearance (i.e., light complexion, clean cut, slender, etc.).

Randy, a junior in elementary education, had a different perspective on his underachievement in school mathematics. Affectionately called “Black” by his peers due to his dark-brown skin tone, Randy joked that he was “born three feet tall” and now stands almost six foot five. He believed teachers often found him intimidating due to his height, stocky build, and skin color. When it came to mathematics, Randy felt he was never really given a chance to succeed because, as he stated, “It’s hard to teach someone that you are scared of.” Researchers and educators rarely unpack statements from students like Randy and Arthur, who are embarking on careers that involve teaching mathematics and who frame their mathematics experiences within the context of racial stereotypes and race-based perceptions. Rather, researchers and educators often position the Randys and Arthurs in this society as stereotype entities, which obfuscates the type of research agenda that would interrogate the experiences and identities of Black (male) students. Glossing over complexities within the Black experience, rearticulating essentialized themes of Blackness suppresses difference and limits the analytic scope of exploratory research. Brown (2011) provided a powerful analysis, spanning the last several decades, in which social scientists have recycled the widespread narrative of an “at risk” Black male population, which has functioned, effectively, to essentialize this otherwise diverse population (Brown, 2011). Such essentializing is further exacerbated since “at risk” phrasing operates as a “conceptual narrative” (Pride, 2002; Somers & Gibson, 1994) that transcends “empirical refutation and become[s] part of the cultural memory or common sense logic for understanding and addressing various social problems [concerning Black youth]” (Brown, 2011, p. 2050). This more or less “fixed” discourse has constrained the types of questions researchers have asked about Black folk in general and their academic achievement in particular. Therefore, in order to better account for and address the nuances within the educational and social conditions of African Americans, we must, as Brown suggested, challenge and move beyond “the same old stories that pervade educational discourse” (p. 2052).

Accordingly, this study breaks in many ways from traditional approaches to the study of African Americans and offers an alternative, complex “story” of individual perceptions. Specifically, this study seeks to answer the following question: How do these future Black elementary education teachers give meaning to and negotiate understanding of their mathematics experiences and how do these experiences and understanding influence their futures as teachers of mathematics? The narratives in this study reveal several important considerations, including social messages about African Americans vis-à-vis mathematics (Martin, 2009a, 2009b; Nasir & Cobb, 2007), race-conscious self-perceptions in the journey toward completing mathematics classes (Gutierrez, 2000; Moody, 2001, 2003; Spencer, 2008a, 2008b; Walker, 2006), definitions of group membership, and social and self-constructions of what it means to be Black (and male) in the context of participation in mathematics (Berry, 2008; McGee & Martin, 2011a, 2011b; Stinson, 2008; Terry, 2010; Thompson & Lewis, 2005).

This qualitative study puts Black preservice teachers at the center of the discussion and deconstructs their mathematics experiences, which include the role of out-of-school mathematics learning, the lowered and discriminatory expectations and actions these students face in their mathematics classrooms, and a lack of culturally affirming teachers. Putting the spotlight on these student teachers’ mathematical experiences (not simply on their mathematical outcomes) provides an opportunity to educate academic communities about the impact racialization can have on African American students’ learning and, eventually, on their teaching.


Many historical narratives portray Black students as inferior to White and Asian American students in terms of mathematics ability, as lacking agency in the face of larger societal and structural forces, and as experiencing differential treatment in schools (Gutierrez, 2000; Martin, 2009a; Moody, 2003; Spencer, 2008b; Terry, 2011). Martin (2000, 2009b) has examined African American mathematics students’ beliefs about the constraints and opportunities associated with their learning and participation in mathematics. He proposed that the meanings of race that exist in the larger society structure students’ experiences, identities, and outcomes in mathematics. These meanings shape how learning is framed and constructed, how mathematics competence and ability are conceptualized, and how the aims and goals of mathematics education are determined. Thus, outcomes in mathematics education that are analyzed through and attributed to race are also used to reinforce meanings and relations in the larger society. Martin (2006a) proposed that, for many, being Black and a doer of mathematics is often framed in terms of their differential treatment, struggle, and resistance.

The concept of stereotype threat can further understanding of how the experience of being racialized can negatively impact a person’s academic achievement (Steele, 1997, 1999). Research in psychology has documented that students’ performance is hindered when they feel that a sociocultural group to which they belong is negatively stereotyped, and that stereotype threat can induce responses that impair both academic performance and psychological engagement with academics. As a result, academically capable African American students often fail to perform as well as their White or Asian counterparts. Chavous, Harris, Rivas, Helaire, and Green (2004) further explained that “African-Americans’ lower academic performance and persistence, then, is viewed, at least in part, as a function of the deleterious effects of negative cultural views of African-Americans, or group stereotypes, on academic self-concept” (p. 3).

Examinations of African Americans’ experiences and achievement in mathematics contrast with the culture-free and situated perspectives of mathematics learning often found in the literature. (Challenges to this neutral perspective include Fish & Persaud, 2012; Greer & Mukhopadhyay, 2012; Hand & Taylor, 2008). While some scholars are quick to indict disciplines such as literacy and history as places where racist discourse, politics, and policies abound, the mathematics classroom, in fact, can serve as a primer for promoting colorblind language and ideologies (Martin, 2000, 2009a, 2010). Although mathematics is often viewed as an objective and neutral field of study, racial stereotypes and a host of prejudices about the mathematics abilities of Black students are rampant (McGee, 2009; McGee & Martin, 2011b; Nadler & Clark, 2011; Nasir & Shah, 2011).


In the United States, students of color represented 43% of the student population in the public schools in 2009, and 2010 numbers showed that 16% of students attending public schools are Black, 23% are Hispanic, 5% are Asian, and 1% are Native American/Alaska Native (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011; U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). However, nationally, 6.9% of public high school teachers are Black, 6.8% are Hispanic, 1.3% are Asian, 0.9% are of multiple races, 0.5% are American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.2% are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). Most teacher education programs are geared to the 83% majority of the preservice teacher population, who are White and female (Sleeter & Milner, 2011; Villegas & Davis, 2008; Villegas & Irvine, 2010). The National Education Association (2012) described the disproportion between urban Black and Brown students and their majority White teachers as “the minority teacher dilemma.” The fact that White teachers have had little or no previous contact and some have formed stereotypical characterizations racially different student populations is often at the forefront of this dilemma (Delpit, 2012; Ladson-Billings, 2000; Milner, 2008a, 2010; Villegas & Irvine, 2010).

Recent national studies show that turnover rates for teachers of color are substantially higher than those for White teachers (Frankenberg, Taylor, & Merseth, 2010). Other researchers further argued that these high turnover rates may be attributed to the fact that teachers of color are working in “hard-to-staff” urban schools with a high proportion of students from low-income, mostly Black and Latino communities; these school also often lack multicultural capital (Achinstein, Ogawa, Sexton, & Freitas, 2010). Researchers postulate that teachers of color may experience greater job dissatisfaction and higher turnover than White teachers because of these and other problematic working conditions.

Within the context of education, racism and stereotyping among the predominantly White teaching population is one of the reasons for African American students’ high rate of failure (Kailin, 1999; Milner, 2013). Tyler, Boykin, and Walton (2006) studied 62 White elementary teachers at two predominantly Black low-income schools and discovered grading rubrics that were lowered for students who exhibited more communal and collaborative behaviors and raised for students who demonstrated competitive and individualistic behaviors. In Ferguson’s (2000) ethnographic study of one elementary school, negative teacher–student interactions were observed to be driven by White teachers’ overreacting and relying on stereotypes and deficit ideologies to interpret their Black students’ language and forms of self-expression. Lack of preparation to teach students whose racial/ethnic backgrounds are different from their own may also affect increasing rates of teacher turnover for White teachers (Ladson-Billings, 2011; Spencer et al., 2012).

Some scholars suggest that teachers of color can achieve more favorable results than White teachers among students of color on traditional measures (e.g., standardized test scores, attendance, retention, advanced-level course enrollment, and college-going rates) and nontraditional attributes (e.g., being role models, mentors, counselors, advocates, and community organizers, and increased cultural sensitivity and racial socialization; Clewell, Puma, & McKay, 2005; Dee, 2004; Foster, 1993; Hanushek, Kain, O’Brien, & Rivkin, 2005; King, 1993; Villegas & Davis, 2008; Villegas & Irvine, 2010). For example, teacher education researchers have conducted studies that conclude that teachers of color potentially have a greater understanding of their learners’ cultural experiences, have an easier learning curve in becoming culturally responsive teachers, and have better relationships with parents and community members (Villegas & Irvine, 2010; Villegas & Lucas, 2004).

Most elementary education preservice teacher research has explored issues of teacher efficacy (Sorrells, Schaller, & Yang, 2004) and cultural diversity (Bey, Blunck, Lewis, & Hicks, 2011; Castro, 2010; Causey, Thomas, & Armento, 2000; Ford & Quinn, 2010; Milner, 2010; Sleeter, 2001). Some research exists about African American preservice teachers’ mathematics education, but much less than that of college students attending predominantly Black and urban teacher education programs, who will likely teach in urban contexts (exceptions include Follo, Hoerr, & Vorheis-Sargent, 2002; McIntosh & Norwood, 2004; Proctor, Rentz, & Jackson, 2001). Berry (2005) showed that African American preservice teachers will face a chilly climate as a result of their cultural and educational experiences, as they encounter devaluation and conflict in the classroom (Delpit, 1995). This often results in African American preservice teachers questioning and challenging the validity of the formal curriculum as further alienating them from the teaching profession (Berry, 2005).

Historically Black colleges and universities and similar institutions that do not have historical status but still serve majority African American student populations, carry with them a tradition and culture of teaching students who have endured under-resourced and inadequate K–12 education (Baskerville, Berger, & Smith, 2007). HBCUs and similar institutions were pioneers in teacher education programs for African American teachers (Allen, 1992; Kynard & Eddy, 2009). As the number of African American teachers continues to rapidly decline, attracting and retaining African American teachers in teacher education programs remains a pressing issue (Achinstein et al., 2010; Roberts & Irvine, 2009; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008).

Research on the mathematical experiences of elementary education preservice African American teachers is grossly undertheorized. While some research has focused on preservice teachers’ limited life experiences with racial and cultural diversity, thus potentially masking their stereotypes about Black and Brown youth, much less work has been done on African American preservice teachers and their views on race, culture, and mathematics education (some exceptions include Castro, 2010; Martin, 2009a; Tate, 1997). The mathematics education-based research for elementary education preservice teachers principally investigates content knowledge (Aydogdu Iskenderoglu & Baki, 2011; Hill & Ball, 2009); mathematics anxiety (Beilock, Gunderson, Ramirez, & Levine, 2010); and teacher belief systems (Haser & Doğan, 2012; Swars, Hart, Smith, Smith, & Tolar, 2007). Several mathematics education researchers have advocated for a stronger commitment to meaningful and liberatory education for African American children and for a reconsideration of the types of candidates admitted into preservice college programs to encompass a more urban and social justice mission addressing the realities of African American children (Martin, 2007; Martin & McGee, 2009). This can be done in part by intentionally increasing the number of African American preservice candidates who enter undergraduate elementary education programs, as it has been documented that some White teacher candidates express racial bias and resistance in teaching African American students (Milner, 2010). Thus, investigations into African American elementary education preservice teachers’ mathematical experiences, as both students and future teachers of young urban students, illuminate multiple forms of acceptance or resistance of how they have been situated in this socially competitive field.


There is a metanarrative about African Americans and math literacy. This society breeds a master narrative that positions African American students as less capable in mathematics than their White and Asian peers (Diversity in Mathematics Education Center for Learning and Teaching, 2007). Statistics on the achievement gap, fueled by standardized test scores, further operationalizes African American learners as being deficit and positioning White and Asian students as the standard of high status for achievement in mathematics (Berry, Thunder, & McClain, 2011). Race used as a categorical variable, as opposed to a social construct, has aided in driving deficient descriptions of African American mathematics learners as deviant and incapable of learning robust mathematics. A causal relationship is assumed and failure is projected as normal and expected (Martin, 2007, 2009b; Terry & McGee, 2012). Also, mathematics as a discipline tends to reflect a worldview that favors high-stakes testing, rugged individualism, static formalism, and other ideologies that reflect the status quo (Gutiérrez, 2010).

In response to and in contestation of the master narrative, emergent mathematics education researchers provide narratives of academically successful African American mathematics learners and explore their experiences in overcoming structural and racial barriers to their achievement (Martin, 2000; McGee & Spencer, 2012; Nasir & Shah, 2011; Stinson, 2008). Some mathematics education researchers argue that students should be encouraged to explore issues of power and domination, to better understand their own subjugation through critical or social-justice-based mathematical teaching that empowers them to challenge the structures, perspectives, and processes that marginalize them (Gutiérrez, 2010).

It is important to note that while some Black students ardently challenge some forms of the dominant narrative defining their participation in mathematics, they also can accommodate, accept, and even argue for the use of racist practices and ideologies (McGee, 2012). This juxtaposition shows the troubling nature of an endemically racially biased system in which the effects of racism account for some self-defeating behaviors (Solorzano & Bernal, 2001). For example, Johnson’s (2012) qualitative study of African American college students revealed that internalized racism coupled with self-defeating behaviors—that is, behaviors that inhibit self-concept, academic progress, and achievement—accounted for low achievement outcomes. Although some Black students engaged in school mathematics represent ideologies influential in the dominant master narrative, other stories counter those master narratives, providing rich histories and traditions of the African American experience (Berry, 2005, 2008; Leonard & Martin, 2013; McGee & Martin, 2011a, 2011b; Moody, 2003; Terry, 2011).


A growing number of scholars in mathematics education are investigating the inequities in how the American education system distributes opportunities to learn mathematics. These injustices impact how and why certain groups of students and teachers are being taught and how they make sense of their mathematical experiences. These emergent studies in mathematics education are incorporating the use of more complex multidisciplinary theories (e.g., critical postmodern theory and identity development) and other qualitative methodologies to understand the experiences of the African American students engaged in mathematics (McGee & Martin, 2011a; Moody, 2003; Spencer, 2008a, 2008b; Stinson, 2006; Terry, 2011; Thompson & Lewis, 2005).

One of these interpretative frameworks, critical race theory (CRT), considers the legacy of historic discrimination and intentionally identifies racism as an endemic factor of life in the United States (Lynn & Dixson, 2013; Stovall, 2013). Critical race theory, which rejects the notion that racism is a problem initiated by and inflicted on only a few people (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001; Lynn & Bridges, 2009; Omi & Winant, 1994), posits that U.S. society is systematically structured and legitimized by the dominant group (White, male, middle class) for its own self-benefit and self-interest, which results in unequal participation in power and privilege that is sanctioned by law (Omi & Winant, 1994).

In the field of education, CRT is a discourse that explores how race operates in schools and society. Schools are part of a complex network of discriminatory and biased cultural and social practices that actively subordinate the culture and language along with the social, economic, and political positions of African American and other students of color. For example, the rhetoric about teachers being colorblind or claiming total ignorance about White privilege as an effective teaching strategy has developed into a tactic to endorse deficit models to “handle” the cultural, socioeconomic, and political realities that marginalized students of color experience (Martin, 2007; Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003). CRT has been used along with other race-centered frameworks in mathematics education to expose the practices of some White mathematics teachers who profess racial indifference and colorblindness, while dismissing discussions of White privilege and antiracist pedagogy (Leonard, 2008; Martin 2009a).

Among the five themes in CRT, two are particularly salient in this study. First is a description of racism in the educational experiences of marginalized students with other forms of subordination through the lens of microaggressions (Howard, 2008; Smith, Allen, & Danley, 2007; Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000). Amidst an extensive research project that spanned nearly three decades, Pierce (1970, 1974, 1995) proposed the term racial microaggressions to explain a subtly present but persistent form of racism that greatly impacts the lives and experiences of African American people and other persons of color. Pierce and his research team have defined racial microaggressions as "subtle, stunning, often automatic, and non-verbal exchanges which are 'put downs' of blacks by offenders" (Pierce, Carew, Pierce-Gonzalez, & Wills, 1978, p. 66). As Pierce argued, racism has transformed over the various generations from overt and blatant forms of discrimination and prejudice to more covert, indirect, restrained, and ambiguous demonstrations called racial microaggressions. Pierce reminded us not to look for the gross and obvious but the subtle snubs, dismissive looks, ignorant gestures, and insulting tones. Critical race theory has embraced the examination of these everyday exchanges that convey denigrating messages while appearing unintentional and unconscious.

Critical race theory interrogates racism, understood as both an ideology and the practice of oppressing and excluding racial groups, armed with a myriad of everyday, institutional, structural, and policy-based methods. Numerous CRT-based studies have documented how racism operates in a variety of educational settings, including subtle microaggressions that systematically marginalize students of color, by deficit and negative labeling in a variety of educational situations (Solorzano, 1998; Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, & Torino, 2009).

Microaggressions (based on race, class, and other forms of oppression) can inform analysis of a variety of contexts related to mathematics, such as a mathematics teacher assuming that a Black boy in her classroom was not a high achiever and as a result placing him in the lowest ability group or being picked last in a lab group because a student is Black and female (McGee & Martin, 2011b). Microaggressions can also be delivered as subtle yet frequently reiterated messaging, like when a mathematically talented African American high school student is told that in order to succeed in engineering (and life), she would have to give up parts of her Black racial identity and attend historically White academic institutions (McGee, 2013). Microaggressions, both within and beyond the classroom, can leave students feeling disheartened and discouraged as their experiences are omitted, distorted, and stereotyped. Microaggressions in educational settings create assumptions about admissions (being referred to as an affirmative action student), assumptions about the academic abilities of certain groups of students, segregation of in-class groups, and feeling personally diminished by White teachers and peers (Solorzano et al., 2000; Yosso, Smith, Ceja, & Solórzano, 2009).

Critical race theorists theorize that racial microaggressions have the potential to be more insidious than more overt forms of racial domination because of the victim’s inability to “prove” the extent of the attack and demonstrate the innocuous, covert, racist behaviors that mitigate the life opportunities of people of color, particularly prevalent in majority-White contexts (e.g., Berry et al., 2011; Kohli & Solorzano, 2012; Martin & McGee, 2009; Solórzano et al., 2000). Thus, the cumulative effects of microaggressions contribute to self-doubt, frustration, and isolation (Yosso et al., 2009). Although always present in American society, racial microaggressions have been only recently addressed, in part due to the everyday manner in which these aggressions are reproduced in ways that have been constructed as routine and commonplace. The impact of microaggressions has been considered minor, and some encourage those affected not to waste time or effort on addressing them.

The second pertinent CRT theme for this study places race at the center of the stories of the participants, who occupy marginalized spaces, particularly in mathematics. The analytical approach used for this study is the CRT tenet that allows the students’ voices to breathe, which is known as counter-storytelling or counter-narrative. The concept of counter-storytelling validates a tradition of storytelling within Black culture (Howard, 2008). It is performed here through interviews, class discussions, and narrative writings as a way to give both group and individual voice to an otherwise underacknowledged student-teacher population (Lynn, Bacon, Totten, Bridges, & Jennings, 2010; Lynn & Parker, 2006; Mutua, 2006; Smith, Yosso, & Solórzano, 2007). Counter-storytelling further challenges the complacency of historically marginalized students by not accepting the simplistic yet dominating narratives about the fate of their race, and gives them an opportunity to confront their own assumptions and notions about these narratives (Ladson-Billings, 1998; Solorzano & Yosso, 2002).

A related consideration in understanding the mathematical experiences of Black students is a question posed by Martin (2006b) on the co-construction of identity: what does it mean to be African American in the context of mathematics learning? This question acknowledges that Black students do not shed their Black racial identity when doing mathematics in school. Martin’s definition of mathematics identity encompasses the dispositions and deeply held beliefs students develop about their ability to participate and perform effectively in mathematical contexts. Mathematics identity also includes employing mathematics to change the conditions of one’s life. Having a mathematics identity involves how a student sees himself or herself in the context of doing mathematics (i.e., usually on a continuum between high proficiency and dismal performance). Mathematics identities are continually under construction and incorporate a complex mix of knowledge, abilities, skills, beliefs, dispositions, attitudes and emotions, social forces, and the students’—and frequently the mathematics teachers’—perceptions. Mathematics identity, as revealed in this study, provides a greater understanding of how these participating future teachers view, experience, and reflect on mathematics learning while Black or from a Black perspective.

This study analyzes the responses of 13 Black preservice mathematics teachers who attend a predominantly Black university located in a predominantly Black lower class neighborhood of a Midwestern city. Employing CRT and mathematics identity as tools for interpreting and analyzing the respondents’ educational histories as mathematics students and their future selves as elementary education teachers can contribute to a knowledge base in mathematics education from the perspective of African American student teachers.

Three questions helped to focus this research study:


How do these Black preservice elementary teachers give meaning to and negotiate their mathematics identities and experiences in the context of “being Black,” learning, and eventually teaching in mostly urban educational spaces?


To what extent (if any) do these participants conceptualize some of their mathematics experiences as racialized? How do these students define and make sense of racialized experiences retrospectively, and currently as college students?


How do/will these participants respond to racial experiences in their mathematics classrooms, currently as students, and what impact will these experiences have on their future teaching perspectives?

These future teachers who are engaged in mathematics education shared commonalities that highlight experiences that could be applicable to other populations of Black preservice teachers at predominantly Black universities who will teach mathematics in urban spaces.

African American teachers have been situated at the margins of the education system, yet their sustained commitment to teaching is crucial to future generations of Black students. The experiences of the participants in this study reveal how Black college students make use of the racialized ideologies embedded in the educational (mathematics) discourse in their own future classrooms. Critically examining their narratives should be part of the discussion about equitable mathematics education, which will further understanding of how being Black operates in the mathematics classroom—and for future teachers of Black mathematics students.


This study on Black preservice teachers’ mathematical and racial experiences was conducted within a mathematics methods classroom designed for preservice teachers at Asante State University. Throughout the study, I met monthly with three colleagues—two scholarly experts in critical race studies in education, and one colleague grounded in the mathematics identity of Black students and their parents—to review the implementation and evolution of the methodology and data analysis. This level of triangulation led to intense discussions, reflection, rethinking, and rechecking of the data.

This study used phenomenology, a qualitative research methodology in which knowledge is obtained through descriptions that make empirically grounded interpretations of participants’ meaning-making (Patton, 2002; Smith & Osborn, 2008). It provided an appropriate means of gaining an understanding of these students’ mathematics and life experiences (Marshall & Rossman, 2011), and of what the participants said and did as a product of how they interpreted and made sense of their worlds. The phenomenological view of human behavior acknowledges that human perceptions are complex, multiple, and changing. With a phenomenological approach, the narratives the participants constructed both as students and as future teachers helped to establish the development of their mathematics identities. How one understands becoming a teacher of urban students relative to one’s other social characteristics (e.g., being Black, an older student, and female) offers an exploration of identity in the context of one’s mathematics experiences (Chazan, Brantlinger, Clark, & Edwards, 2013). This study recognizes that researchers play a role in interpreting the experiences of others and that they must be mindful of their own prior experience and assumptions when considering the approach and influence of their research (Milner, 2007, Riessman, 2008). This study is concerned with understanding social and psychological phenomena from the perspectives of preservice Black students who hail from urban contexts. While some of the participants’ narratives follow the logic of dominant stories, even those narratives can be used to expose the multiple layers of stereotypes and bias that undermine critical interpretations on racism, classism, and sexism. However, most of the narratives in this study stand in opposition to majoritarian stories (namely, White heterosexual middle- and upper-class males) by giving life to stories of resistance, resilience, and defiance in the face of being viewed and educated as “less than.”


Asante State University is a fully accredited, four-year public institution that primarily enrolls African American (over 75%) and Latino students who seek a relatively affordable postsecondary education—tuition is $9,000 to $11,000 per semester. Asante State plays an important role in the public education of Black college students, and it is a significant producer of the city’s public school teachers. The school is located in a predominantly Black, low to lower middle-class residential neighborhood in Carson, a Midwestern city. All of the students in this study attended Carson public schools, thus a brief snapshot of Carson’s educational landscape is warranted.


Carson Public School District (CPSD) includes a little over 600 regular schools and approximately 70 charter schools, which are funded by charters but are under the authority of the Carson district. CPSD serves a predominantly low-income Black and Latino student population of around 410,000 in its K–12 public and charter schools. Eighty-seven percent of the students at Carson public schools qualify for free and reduced-price lunch (Murnane, 2009). The disappearance and involuntary departure of Black teachers at Carson City has garnered increased attention. In 2000, 41% of CPSD teachers were Black, whereas in 2012, Black teachers represented only 19% of CPSD teachers, and that number continues to fall fast (Johnson, 2012).

Carson’s public schools are the most segregated of the large city school systems in the country (Glaeser & Vigdor, 2012), and its racially isolated Latino and Black schools continue to overlap with schools that have concentrations of poverty (Orfield, Kucsera, & Siegel-Hawley, 2012). Six of every 100 CPSD freshmen earn a bachelor’s degree by age 25; three in 100 Black or Latino men do so (Roderick, Nagaoka, & Allensworth, 2006). Roughly, only one-quarter of Carson’s high school freshmen are considered college-ready four years later. Due to the city’s woeful public school system, Asante State University has felt significant weaknesses in their student retention and performance. Over 50% of the students who attend Asante State University qualify for remedial courses, mostly attributed to the effects of Carson public school students’ consistently extreme undereducation. Asante State University and Carson’s surrounding community colleges are the only pathways some of these low-income students have to postsecondary education because of their relatively affordable costs.


Thirteen students (nine females and four males) were recruited from a class of 19 enrolled in a mathematics methods class for K–8 preservice teachers. Elementary teachers are key in providing the foundations of mathematics education, which includes preparing students, some of whom will be future teachers, for the primary and secondary grades, for college, and for careers that require increasingly demanding levels of mathematical reasoning and skills (Heaton & Lewis, 2011; Llinares & Krainer, 2006). This class sought to introduce basic principles for teaching K–8 mathematics in the following areas: numbers and operations, functions and algebra, geometry and measurement, and statistics and probability. Before the class began, the college’s mathematics department communicated the notion that these future elementary teachers had not had sufficient mathematics content-knowledge preparation, which echoed research on mathematics teacher preparation programs across the country (Ball, Hill, & Bass, 2005; Ball, Sleep, Boerst, & Bass, 2009; Heaton & Lewis, 2011; Ma, 1999; Thames, 2006). The study was introduced on the first day of class. Four conversations in the first two weeks assured students that participating in the study was completely voluntary and that they would not be penalized in any way if they did not participate. Students were polled twice anonymously in the first two weeks about their feelings about participation in this study, and all 19 expressed having a high level of comfort with the study itself; however, six students opted not to participate. The six nonparticipants decided to remain anonymous throughout the duration of this course, thereby eliminating feelings of isolation from classmates who did participate. Table 1 provides information about the participating students, including their sex, age, and final course grade.

Table 1. Elementary Education Students




Final Grade





















































As shown in Table 1, five of the 13 students earned an A or B grade for the semester. Chris, who earned an A, attended only one-fourth of all scheduled classes yet still scored in the 90th percentile on all quizzes and tests. Six students had C- grade averages, and they seemed content or even grateful for earning midrange grades (“Holla-luya [Ebonics translation of hallelujah], I got me a C!”). Two students demonstrated limited mathematical competence but sought no formal assistance and received a D and an F.

Six of the participants could be considered nontraditional students, that is, they were over the age of 24 at the time of the study. The nontraditional student often has multiple responsibilities and roles, such as parent and employee (at least part-time), is from a low-SES background, and waited at least one year after high school before enrolling in college (Dill & Henley, 1998; Horn, 1996; Lakin, Mullane, & Robinson, 2007). Contrary to prior research suggesting that nontraditional students tend to have limited study skills and lack confidence (Kimborough & Weaver, 1999), the nontraditional students in this class were vocal and demonstrated adequate study skills, although they were usually the first to express frustration when trying to understand mathematics concepts.

Four of the six nontraditional students in this study indicated that they had previously attended but never graduated from community college; another nontraditional student had enrolled in a four-year university after high school but dropped out. The majority of the nontraditional students had careers that did not require a college degree (e.g., bus driver, garbage collector, manufacturing worker, and clerical worker) and had chosen teaching as a second career. Consistent with previous research (Lakin et al., 2007), many of the participants in this study reported that their decision to return to school was triggered by a critical life event (e.g., increased financial difficulty due to being underemployed and the death of a loved one). The nontraditional participants were also more likely than the traditional students to cite impassioned reasons for becoming elementary education teachers (e.g., “These kids need someone who cares” or “I want to be that Black teacher they will never forget”).


The data collected for this study include one audiotaped semistructured interview with each student, three in-class discussions, and one autobiographical paper from each participant. The purpose of the mathematics autobiography was to engage these students about their own elementary education mathematics experiences (e.g., perceptions of their teachers and early turning points in their mathematics abilities), high school mathematics experiences, current reflections on learning and participating in mathematics in college, and future narratives regarding teaching school mathematics. The narratives included important negative and positive turning points in their relationship to mathematics and allowed us to gain a sense of how these students perceive themselves as future teachers of mathematics. The three in-class discussions began with such topics as the following: Who were/are the great Black and Latino mathematicians? What type of mathematics teacher do you want to be? What are tangible applications for mathematics and what are mathematics-based career fields? Students selected these three topics in response to being surveyed about the gaps in their mathematics learning that were outside traditional mathematics content knowledge. These topics were lead by student groups of three or four who researched the topic and presented their findings briefly before whole-classroom discussion ensued.

After conducting pilot interviews with three preservice teachers from a different elementary education mathematics methods class, I revised and validated the initial interview questions with the assistance of my faculty colleagues. With the revised interview guide, I conducted semistructured interviews with each student to explore in greater depth their beliefs about and conceptions of learning and teaching mathematics. Each interview was conducted privately outside the classroom, each averaged about 55 minutes, and each was audiotaped and transcribed verbatim. The complete interview question guide is provided in Appendix A. The interviews captured additional elements outlined in the participants’ mathematics autobiographies, so certain individualized questions were added to each interview, depending on what experiences the students wrote about and reflected on of their mathematics schooling experiences.

Although only 13 of the 19 students in this class volunteered to participate in the study, all 19 performed the tasks associated with the study as part of the course requirements. All of the students’ written assignments were included as part of the class grade, but the interviews were used only for research purposes and, thus, were omitted from the grading process.3 I acknowledge, as the mathematics methods instructor for this class, that my background, experiences, thoughts, and reflections were active during this study and simultaneously intersected with my role as a mathematics teacher.


In formulating my own perspectives in this study, I juxtaposed my academic and research background with my experience as a teacher that, for the most part, includes serving Black and Latino students. Studying those learners requires an acknowledgement and discussion of my own positionality and subjectivity. As Peshkin (1988) proclaimed, “One’s subjectivity is a garment that cannot be removed” (p. 17). With Peshkin’s quote in mind, I confess that my research has been influenced by critical race theory, which has helped me recognize that power, privilege, race, class, and sexual oppression are at the root of many of the academic barriers these students face, and of the devaluation of essential human attributes based on race and its intersection with class and gender. Thus, I made a self-conscious commitment to perform this research from a CRT perspective, to examine how being racialized operates in the mathematics classroom, and to challenge the status quo by giving voice to the participants through their narratives.

I self-identify as a Black woman. Having endured the challenges associated with being Black, female, and a “doer of mathematics” (Martin, 2006b), I have discovered that my experiences are similar to those of the students I research and teach. Thus, I am sensitive to the struggles that are common to the African American experience in U.S. society and to experiences in the mathematics field in particular. However, my achievement in mathematics differs from the participants’ experiences as I was educated in an undergraduate mathematics-intensive program more than 20 years ago. I, therefore, remained mindful of the participants’ more current perspectives and of the ever-changing ways that race is constructed in the mathematics classroom. Although this mathematics methods course was not set up specifically to conduct this research, intersections did emerge, including the students’ interest in sharing their experiences and the reservations they expressed about their preparation for teaching mathematics in mostly urban elementary classrooms.


I used a phenomenological approach to analyze and triangulate data for context analysis of whole-class discussions, narrative mathematics papers, and semistructured interviews. Phenomenology, which is rooted in philosophy, enabled me to develop an understanding of these participants’ “reality,” whatever they perceive it to be (Leedy, 1997, p. 161). In essence, this approach involved investigating an individual’s or a group’s perception of reality as he or she or they construct it. I analyzed transcriptions with an eye to participants’ responses as they related to the themes and codes, which emanated from the research questions, as presented in Table 2. The code category entitled Mathematics as Racialized Experiences directly relates to the research question investigating students’ interpretations of their mathematics experiences in ways that were either racially affirming or racially oppressive. The category and codes under Mathematics Identity also intersect with the research question that addresses the participants’ negotiation of their mathematics experiences as students and future teachers. The category and codes associated with the students’ responses to Being Racialized in Mathematics address the research question that unpacks their reactions and subsequent outcomes to racial bias inside and beyond the mathematics classroom. The category and codes under Future Teaching Perspectives emphasizes the participants’ future selves as elementary education mathematics teachers in urban schools.

The initial set of codes reported the participants’ perceptions and understanding of being racialized in the context of mathematics participation and captured nonracialized mathematics experiences. As we reached a consensus in coding and categorizing the themes, one colleague also coded two transcripts using the final codes, which resulted in an intercoder reliability rate of 90%. The trustworthiness of the data analysis was improved through this cross-checking and auditing process (Cohen, 2000). Synchronic reliability demonstrated similar observations and conclusions within the duration of this course, which was important in establishing and checking the reliability of this study.

Table 2. Categorization of Black Preservice College Students’ Racialized Mathematics Experiences





Code Descriptions

Mathematics Racialized Experiences (MRE)

Positive Mathematics

Racialized Experiences

Parents (80)a

Male Fathers (29)

Male Relative Caregivers (21)

—Positive family support for pursuing mathematics; at-home math activities (card playing, playing bills, dice)

—Fathers serving as first math teachers

—Male relatives serving as first math teachers; solid support systems for the participants mathematics learning

—Parents desire to learn mathematics fearlessly to be able to teach their children


Parents as Teachers (26)


Negative Racialized Mathematics Experiences

Perceived Teacher Racialized Bias (32)

Peer and Textbook Prejudice (26)

—Teacher-initiated racial stereotyping practices and racial microaggression in their mathematics classrooms

—Peers who racially discriminated against them; lack of cultural relevance of mathematics textbooks are also included in this category.


Perceived Racial Bias at Non-U.S.- born Store/Business Establishments (35)

—Frequent encounters with being/feeling cheated or berated by store owner and employees

Responses to Mathematics

Racialized Experiences (RMRE)

Responses to Positive MRE

Responses to Negative MRE

Mathematics Engagement (55)

Mathematics Disengagement (62)

—Increased motivation to succeed in mathematics, higher levels of mathematics achievement, affinity toward mathematics, desire to defy stereotypes about Blacks achieving in mathematics

—Decreased motivation to succeed in mathematics, lower levels of mathematics achievement, increased anxiety and fear of mathematics, desire to both reify and defy stereotypes about Blacks achieving in mathematics, career/college choices based on fear of mathematics

Mathematics Identity Development

(Dynamic and Overlapping)

Weaker Mathematics Identity Periods

Intersectionality with Weaker Mathematics Identity and Racial Identity (45)

—Sought out more culturally affirming classes (nonmathematics classes)

—Premeditated avoidance of mathematics classes


Stronger Mathematics Identity Periods

Intersectionality with Stronger Mathematics Identity and Racial Identity (33)

—For participants who were first taught by their fathers, positive racial identity overlapped with positive mathematics identity

—Sought to protect both mathematics and racial identities by believing in themselves as Black scholars pursuing mathematics achievement

Future Mathematics Teaching Perspectives/Identity

Mathematics-based Teaching Challenges and Opportunities

Challenges/Risk Factors (86)


—Fear of teaching mathematics, anxiety about teaching mathematics

—Lack of some mathematics fundamentals

—Lowered expectations for the necessity of vigorous mathematics instruction on the K–5 level

—Lack of relevance for teaching mathematics (limited usage in the “real world”)



Strengths (84)

—Strong desire to teach mathematics for social justice and so as not to be cheated

—Recognizes the potential of early mathematics learning as necessary and fundamental to academic growth

—Teaching to serve as a role model, teaching without stereotyping students


—Belief in the brilliance of their future Black and Brown students


Note. This table is based on coding architecture derived from student responses (n=13) from one semistructured interview, three in-class discussions, and one mathematics-situated autobiographical essay.

a Values provided in this column represent the number of student response segments assigned this code across all the qualitative methods listed above.


The findings for these Black elementary education preservice teachers represent a portion of their perceptions about their mathematics experiences as students and as future teachers. The presentation of the data includes the following: mathematics as racialized forms of experience, delineating between affirming and protective experiences, and those experiences that were adverse and damaging; and future mathematics teaching perspectives, where students discuss both the challenges and the opportunities associated with teaching mathematics in mostly urban schools. The findings introduce the participants’ rationales for their racialized beliefs and conceptions of being Black in many of their mathematics classrooms. Direct quotes obtained from the interviews, class discussions, and written assignments are presented in the findings.


Critical race theory posits that within the assertion that racism is an integral feature of our society, Black families have created counter-narratives of liberatory practices, including developing robust mathematics identities in their children (Martin, 2006a). Students reported receiving mathematics instruction from their parents, in particular from their fathers and male relatives. The section below sheds light on the agency fathers exhibited for their children, even in the face of their own marginalization.

Black Fathers/Male Relatives as First Mathematics Teachers

The instructions to the class for writing their autobiographical essay included reflecting on their very first mathematics teachers and recording in essay form their earliest experiences with mathematics. Ten of the 13 students wrote about having early mathematics learning experiences with their fathers or a close male relative (e.g., uncle or grandfather). The quotes and expressions below are characteristic of these 10 students. Kimberly related that her father taught her mathematics for as long as she could remember until about seventh grade and frequently communicated to her its importance. As Kimberly reflected, “from an early age the only grade my father really cared about [on her report card] was math.” Kimberly’s father stressed mathematics because of his fondness for the subject and his ability to use his mathematics skills in his work as an electrician. Although they did not live together, John’s father also was very much present in his son’s life. John wrote in his essay that he spent a significant amount of time with his dad and credits his father and older brother for keeping him grounded in mathematics:

My father used to teach me multiplication and division when I was in kindergarten. My father’s favorite subject is math, so he always tried to influence me to like math and master it. Also, my brother set a healthy example for me. He always set the mold as a computer engineer and not knowingly I always strived to be just like him. And in later years I[‘m] finally realizing [the importance] of learning mathematics.

John said that his father’s and brother’s mathematics knowledge helped them secure good jobs, which led to better financial and educational conditions for the family. John’s narrative suggested that a robust mathematics identity can be connected to a Black father’s improved academic and career aspirations. Yolanda explained the benefit of having her uncle present during grades K–4. Her mother worked long afternoon and evening hours, so Yolanda’s uncle came to their apartment almost daily to care for her. As Yolanda explained in an interview,

I don’t have a father but my uncle—he was our rock. He came over just about every day and helped me with my homework. We learned how to read together [chuckles]. But math, my unc[le] taught me some math.

The key finding in this section provides a counter-narrative to dominant discourse concerning the absent or uncaring Black male father who is not typically seen as a holder and giver of mathematical knowledge. These sorts of counter-narratives are critical to disrupt recycled narratives of Black inferiority, which facilitate and delimit contemporary approaches to address academic achievement of Black students in general (Brown, 2011). In other words, this counter-narrative, which offers additional understanding of students’ strengths and assets (e.g., the role of father figures in mathematics achievement), expands the knowledge base from which researchers, practitioners, and scholars might implement more concise, relevant, and impactful programs that leverage and build upon student resources heretofore unrecognized or unacknowledged.

Parental/Family Support

Four students stated that at least one of their parents did not know enough school mathematics to help them with their homework, particularly in middle school and high school. However, they acknowledged the presence of a culturally affirming familial system that promoted academic success for the children, despite parents’ educational shortcomings (Cousins & Mickelson, 2011). These parents emphasized the importance of learning mathematics to increase their children’s empowerment, future opportunities, and self-determination, as Chris recalled in a class discussion:

My parents have provided me strong encouragement for achieving in mathematics, and they always expected the best of us . . . Never did they reward us for good grades. They mostly instill[ed] in us the importance of mathematics and how it can be an effective tool in our arsenal to increase opportunities within our lifelong experiences, personally and professionally.

Chris’s parents saw achieving mathematical literacy as increasing the number of opportunities Chris would have for advancing the family’s well-being. His parents spoke about the lack of Black engineers and scientists and how excelling in mathematics would be Chris’s “ticket to success.” Mathematics is regarded as having gatekeeper status, as those lacking mathematical literacy are denied economic success and the opportunity to participate in society as full citizens (Moses & Cobb, 2001). While it may be necessary to modify existing school structures and programs to serve African American youth more effectively, the participants’ accounts validate the importance of African American parents and caregivers in increasing their children’s awareness of and efficacy in mathematics. It also demonstrates a powerful counter-narrative about the presence, academic dedication, and mathematical knowledge that fathers and close male relatives offer their children. Valuable mathematical learning occurred in the homes of these Black children, who subsequently chose to become elementary education teachers. As we seek interventions to facilitate robust mathematics learning, we certainly should not ignore the role of Black fathers and male relatives in providing racially affirming mathematics literacy and in delivering the first appearances of mathematical teaching for these future teachers. Additionally the masternarrative of Black parents not understanding the importance of mathematics learning in their children’s educational and career trajectories challenges the masternarrative as parents overwhelmingly championed their children’s abilities in mathematics.


Students articulated that their mathematical trials and tribulations were connected to the inequalities and inequities that exist in the larger society. Of the 13 students, 12 situated their struggle to learn mathematics and their attempts to develop healthy mathematics identities within the larger context of being Black and living in a discriminatory society. The quotes below are representative of the reflections and voices of those 12 students. Arthur explained in an interview that he used his grandmother’s struggle with racism and her being denied access to education and schooling as his motivation to achieve in mathematics:

I don’t buy into the myth that being good in math means “acting White.” My grandma told us of stories where our ancestors had their fingers cut off for reading. What they endured to learn and to be educated [is] part of the Black experience of being in America. Instead of “acting White” I would suggest it be called “fighting for academic success while Black.”

Perry, Steel, and Hilliard (2003) contended that African Americans have developed a belief in education through experiences of struggle. Arthur testifies to this belief, which has been passed on in both oral and written narratives from his grandmother. Randy resisted a simplistic explanation of Blackness and maleness as he believes stereotypes are embedded within an education system that negatively defines his mathematics status and identity. He explained in his autobiographical essay:

My struggle to learn mathematics is embedded in my struggle to survive as a Black man. Mathematics and Black men, as a combined school of thought, means flunking out. [This is] because success and Black males are polarized as opposites. Anything that breaks the mold is an anomaly.

During the class discussion, Stacey spoke to the salience of her Black identity against the backdrop of being poorly taught and undervalued within the context of school mathematics. Moreover, she challenged more normative explanations as to why some Blacks underachieve in mathematics:

We are not better in mathematics because the educational system has failed Black people. They have failed to properly educate us, and they don’t understand or accept our culture. Try placing a 13-year-old White male, who grew up in the White man’s US, and send him to a country like Haiti, where they don’t even like White people, and just see if he achieves academically in that culture.

Stacey’s counter-story of systemic failings (educational and social), as opposed to the failings of Black students themselves, shows her awareness of structural, everyday, and systematic racism that adversely impacts Black people’s life trajectories. Her counter-narrative also demonstrates the struggle that Black people endure in their attempts to navigate a country that has a long history of social, political, and educational inequities. These students described their experiences with an awareness of both past and continuing discrimination that affects many aspects of their lives, with mathematics learning being no exception. The participants seem to recognize that their mathematics experiences, and potentially their future mathematics teaching, has been hindered by unfair practices and ideologies that have negative and compounding consequences for students like them. However, the students appeared to find resiliency in the legacy of the African American struggle to be educated.


The students in this study identified and critiqued harmful practices and experiences that impeded their progress in mathematics, which included facing stereotypes about their racial group, a lack of racially affirming mathematics teachers, and the narrative of mathematics teachers who reinforced biased practices in the classroom. The critical centering of race, along with other areas of difference, illuminated the profound challenges these students have faced in some racially oppressive school mathematics classes. Racial microaggressions are presented in efforts to understand how racialization occurs with these Black students and Black preservice teachers (Martin, 2010; Snipes & Waters, 2005; Stinson, 2006, 2008).

Endorsing and Defending Against Negative Racial Stereotypes

The excerpts below are from a class discussion about the decreasing number of Blacks in mathematics and mathematics-related careers and are representative of four students in this study. Their statements appear to reveal certain stereotypes that the students have taken up about themselves and their racial group. These four students expressed strong negative stereotypes about their race, which reflected the dominant narrative. Gia was one of these students:

I believe some cultures may enjoy math more than others, which may result in the lack [of] diverse backgrounds in math classes or courses. Asians and White people are more capable of mastering mathematics. I don’t remember ever seeing a Black or Hispanic person that was super great in mathematics . . . Well, maybe some Africans.

Gia spoke of these negative stereotypes, not just in terms of her own race but of Latinos as well, another group that is underrepresented among high achievers in mathematics (Gándara, 2006). It appeared that Gia’s culturally biased notions about who can be successful in mathematics and who cannot negatively impacted her own mathematics achievement. Gia later in her interviews explained her low achievement in mathematics in part through favoring negative racial assumptions and biases. When I inquired further about the development of Gia’s biases, it is clear that she experienced microaggressions that stemmed from stereotypes that were imposed upon her when her teachers steered her toward being a hairdresser, clerical worker, or “beauty queen.” Her lack of exposure to mathematics-intensive expectations influenced her capacity to believe in her abilities (and her race).

The following comment mimics the dogma of genetic racism, through which scientists who measured brain size attempted to prove that Blacks are genetically inferior to Whites (Jensen, 1969). In her interview, Candace admitted to having “totally given up” on learning mathematics because, as she put it, “the brain of a person that excels in math and science possesses a more advanced and stimulated cerebral cortex.” When I inquired about what types of students had brains to achieve in mathematics, she answered, “Some Whites, Asians, and real Indians from India.” Candace continued this discussion in her autobiographical essay:

Mathematics is harder for people of certain diverse backgrounds; and therefore it is okay for mathematics faculty to encourage them to pursue something easier. It’s also rare to find Blacks that are interested in mathematics.

Candace and Gia spoke in terms that upheld the negative stereotypes about their racial/ethnic group, which are particularly relevant to how mathematics is positioned in society. We can see how negative these Black future teachers’ views are of who can be good at mathematics and how readily they accept various manifestations of discrimination as valid and applicable to marginalized groups. Two other students consistently doubted or questioned their abilities because of harmful stereotypes they seemed to accept as truth. These students not only expressed self-doubt, all four indicted their entire race for a multitude of outcomes that plague Black communities (e.g., poverty, lack of employment, and lack of persistence in school). Ironically, Pat, one of the students who used racial stereotypes to negatively judge her own racial group, was a B student in the class, which suggests that acceptance of negative self-, group, or social perceptions does not in itself necessarily lead to academic disengagement, as stereotype threat suggests (Steele, 1997). Persistent stereotyping is often positioned as being academically debilitating, yet recent research has illuminated the role of stereotyping as being emotionally turbulent and yet, sometimes motivates students to achieve at high levels in science, engineering, and mathematics (McGee & Martin, 2011b). Critical race theorists, along with scholars who critique the role of race in educational outcomes, often discuss the perpetual racialized bias that Black students endure that sometimes emerge as subtle put downs and behaviors that mimic lowered expectations that, over time, can be internalized by Black students (Hale, 2001; Sue, 2010). Furthermore, researchers in mathematics education posit that not many robust explanations exist to explain the success in mathematics of many Black students (e.g., innate ability, gifted, hard-working, freak of nature, and acting White). However, the current landscape of African American achievement does not reflect the reality that Black students are just as capable as any other students of developing mathematical competencies, given equitable school and life circumstances, and, many times, in spite of their circumstances. Thus, some students in the study appeared unwilling to attribute their success to the internally powered techniques that many of them consistently applied (e.g., doing extra homework, making use of online mathematics tools, listening diligently in class, asking informative questions, and not giving up on a difficult math problem). For example, three students (Pat, Ella, and Stacy) attributed their above-average mathematics success in both previous classes and in the present class to luck or divine intervention (“I was lucky enough to pass the test.” “Thank you, Jesus!” “The Spirit guided me.”), thereby ignoring their own mathematical perseverance and consistent study habits. The role of religion and spirituality in academic (mathematics) achievement for Black students is an under-researched research paradigm (Jett, 2010).

While the previous section demonstrates how the students used racial stereotypes and even divine intervention to explain their mathematics achievement outcomes, eight of the students, including one student who wavered between accommodating and contesting stereotypes throughout the semester, identified or challenged stereotypes, racism, and other forms of discrimination during class discussions. These students offered a highly critical and insightful perspective on stereotypes, academic and mathematics identities, and the presence of racism. Ella spoke frankly in a class discussion about the career limitations racial stereotypes can impose on marginalized students:

Stereotyping has greatly impacted the level of success that minorities can attain in mathematics. If messages have been internalized that “you just can’t do mathematics” and “it’s okay because there’s always basketball or [being a] manager at Wal-Mart or being a secretary,” then you are more likely to accept that as truth.

Ella’s statement implies that she was aware of a master narrative that situates her future self in certain racially prescribed employment spaces. After that particular class, Ella expressed how damaging these messages are and reflected on how elated her cousin was to secure employment as an assistant manager at a Target store. Her cousin was salutatorian of a Carson City high school and Ella believed he could have strived for more, if only someone had been there to guide him. In an interview, Sandy revealed the negative stereotyping practices of her K–12 mathematics teachers:

[Teachers] stereotyping students, such as Black[s], Hispanics, and [the] socio-economic[ally] disadvantaged . . . can lead to unsuccessful results. If the teacher is teaching based on stereotypical assumptions, the child could suffer . . . Now children [are] failing because the teacher is failing the child as a result of discrediting the child’s own abilities.

These students recognized that the differences between African American and Latino students’ mathematics performance and retention and that of Whites may be explained, at least in part, by the influence of racial stereotypes and prejudice. These students challenged traditional paradigms that act as a camouflage for the self-interest, power, and privilege of dominant groups in U.S. education. The students indicted educational and societal beliefs, and their subsequent policies based on prejudicial beliefs, that allowed underrepresented students to fail academically and, subsequently, present this failure as normal.

While these eight students showed an awareness of the damage stereotyping can have on academic achievement, their grades in this mathematics methods class ranged from A’s to D’s. One may hypothesize that keen awareness of racial stereotypes and other forms of discrimination may not have been enough to eradicate some of the participants’ inabilities to perform well in this class. However, the A and B students appeared to have developed the skills to cope with negative racial stereotypes and thus avoided significant damage to their academic outcomes, which suggests that being emotionally (and in sometimes cases physically) impacted by racial stereotypes does not necessarily undermine a high-achieving Black student’s mathematics outcomes (McGee & Martin, 2011b).

Mathematics College Faculty Employing Racially Biased Practices

A major concern for the students in this study was the lack of racially affirming teachers, particularly the lack of African American college-level mathematics teachers to promote their mathematics development while serving as role models. The students particularly indicted their foreign-born mathematics teachers for ascribing to negative racial stereotypes and biased ideologies against Blacks, which they believe negatively impacted their opportunities to learn and to like mathematics. As these students revealed subtle and not so subtle acts of discrimination by their college mathematics teachers and faulted the Asante State University mathematics faculty, they rightly also shouldered some of the blame.

In his initial advice about what type of students in what classrooms might be of interest for this study, the mathematics chair at Asante State University said that students taking remedial mathematics classes were not worth interviewing. As a person of power at this predominantly Black university, this man’s ideology reflects the fact that bias, thereby resulting in a steady and inoculating stream of racial microaggressions, can occur within spaces that are recurrently viewed as being neutral or even culturally competent. This is the analytical lens CRT uses to examine existing power structures and explain why institutional racism can and does occur at educational institutions designed to serve the needs of Black students (Kynard & Eddy, 2009).

Although the chair’s comment did not appear to be representative of the mathematics faculty as a whole, it does provide a glimpse into the ideologies and practices fueled by this type of longstanding leadership within the mathematics department at ASU. Of the eight full-time mathematics faculty members in 2006, none was African American and only one was of African descent (Nigerian). The seven other full-time faculty members included an older White male who was the chair, four male professors born in India, one White male professor who was born in Russia, and one White female who was born in Europe (exact location unknown).

All but two students in this study attributed part of their difficulties in college mathematics to a disconnect between themselves and their mostly foreign-born non-Black mathematics teachers. These students expressed the belief that racial bias may prompt these teachers to react negatively to and have lower expectations for Black students. In an interview, Sandy explained her frustration with her Indian-born mathematics teacher:

Some teachers have five degrees but don’t know how to teach. He had a terrible accent and when you told him that you couldn’t understand him, he got smart with you. He always referred to the class as “you [Black] people.” This same professor came to me one day and said, “I know you are going to work hard in this class, but I’m still not going to pass you.”

The participants longed for classroom experiences that would challenge them intellectually and that were based on their mathematics potential, without being hindered by stereotypes and racial microaggressions. Keeping in mind Sandy’s comment about her Indian professor, it is revealing that Blacks have faced intense linguistic discrimination, as African American Vernacular English has yet to be considered a valid and culturally affirming American dialect in spite of linguists determining its validity (Pearson, Conner, & Jackson, 2012). Clearly, it appeared that some participants also discriminated against their professors who speak a nonstandard dialect. The passages below and above focus primarily on what these mathematics professors said to seven students in this study and include difficulties students had in comprehending their dialects and accents.

Candace wrote in her autobiographical essay of a professor she described as of Indian descent, who she believed had perpetuated stereotypes about Blacks and mathematics. She recalled that this teacher appeared to cater to the three White students in the class while basically ignoring the rest of the students, who were African American and Latino. Teacher neglect by simply ignoring the learning needs of Black students in favor of White students is powerful racial microaggression. Candace noted that whenever she or her Black and Latino peers attempted to ask a question, the teacher looked at them with disgust and hurried through his answer.

Embedded in discussions around foreign-born teachers were students’ narratives about foreign-born storeowners who operate most of the local businesses in their Black neighborhoods. The students cited myriad instances where they felt discriminated against or cheated out of their money by these storeowners. These discussions became really emotional, as the students felt that these foreign-born storeowners were robbing them in three distinct ways: charging too much for products that were not well made; cheating Blacks out of opportunities to own their own businesses within their own communities (although there were no concrete explanations for this phenomenon); and cheating or attempting to cheat them out of their money by using dubious tactics, such as using the sales tax as a rationale for increasing the price of goods at checkout (whereas sales tax is customarily excluded). The ideology of African American students and their perception of being cheated has a long history and serves as a influential counter-narrative in the struggle for the liberation of Black people in the United States (Martin & McGee, 2009).

John recalled in an interview the humiliation and subsequent decline in class participation he experienced, which he attributes to a mathematics professor he described as Middle Eastern:

He did not seem interested in teaching and was very inconsiderate. People would ask questions, and he would embarrass them. When a Black or Hispanic [student in his class] got a [mathematics] question wrong he would say, “I can’t believe it. You still don’t have a clue.” But when a White student got it wrong he would [say], “You must have made a silly/stupid error.” It was so unfair. Why couldn’t I have the benefit of the doubt to make a silly error too?

The participants admitted that early non-school-related interactions and what can easily be defined as racial microaggressions (e.g., following the Black males and females around in the store, assuming the females wanted fake hair, and offering the males in their stores blunt rolls) with neighborhood storeowners of Asian descent might have added to their negative feelings about their mathematics professors of Asian descent. More nuanced understanding of the tension and racial conflicts between store proprietors of Asian descent (readily found in low-income Black neighborhoods) and their African American patrons, and how these racialized experiences impact Black students’ future relationships with this racial group, are needed.

Although researchers have concluded that teachers generally have more negative expectations of Black students than of White students, the study participants had too few opportunities to determine whether Black college-level mathematics teachers also held biased views of them. Before taking this mathematics methods class, only three of the students in the study had been taught at the college level by Black mathematics faculty. During class discussions, students like Chris shed light on the significance of the lack of Black mathematics professors:

Where the hell are all the Black mathematics teachers?! I feel like I have to major in psychology to see any Black [college-level] teachers. You [the author] are the first Black teacher I’ve had in mathematics, period [since elementary school].

Unfortunately, the outlook for mathematics education training continues to look bleak in terms of providing role models for Black mathematics students (Davis & Martin, 2008). Part of the challenge in offering support to greater numbers of Black students in mathematics throughout their school years will be to create a critical mass of teachers who can serve as both teachers and mentors. Despite attending a predominantly Black institution, the normalcy of students experiencing teacher bias speaks to an Asante State University mathematics department’s inequitable teaching practices. However, it also validates the students’ ability to speak out against these teachers for damaging their mathematical identities and experiences.


These students have been raised in mathematical contexts where their abilities in the field were prohibited from fully developing and thriving. As products of this society’s multitiered education system, the status that Blacks occupy within this system added to their fear and anxiety about their future mathematics teaching roles (Berry, 2005). The American perception of mathematics as intimidating and competitively valued certainly exacerbated their anxieties, but they specifically framed their deficits within the context of Carson City’s racially inequitable achievement gaps, which did not adequately prepare them in K–12 mathematics, thus making college-level mathematics education and mathematics teaching courses and futures an uphill struggle.

Teaching Mathematics: Fear of Being the “Disappointing Black Teacher”

The students in this study expressed a fear of teaching mathematics that arose out of a lack of Black “math doers” in their lives and the perception that only a few “naturally gifted” Black students can succeed in teaching math. Three students, who previously had thought about majoring in secondary mathematics teaching, chose not to because they felt they could not handle more intense mathematics concepts. Another two of the 13 students began their college careers as mathematics and science majors, but when they saw many of their “smart” Black peers switching out of mathematics and engineering, they began to question their backgrounds, became discouraged, and changed their majors. This pernicious combination of fears prevented one student in the study from seeing herself ever becoming a highly skilled elementary education mathematics teachers. However, 12 of the 13 students expressed that, with more mathematics teaching and ongoing professional development, they could one day be competent, innovative, and culturally affirming of elementary education mathematics teachers. However, this goal seemed arduous, as students appeared to be troubled by a sense of despair regarding their own mathematics learning, which they admitted might impede their future teaching of mathematics. As Ella said in a class discussion:

Most of us [she looks around the classroom at her classmates] have problems with math and complex applications. I see mathematics as a roadblock on my path to achieving my goals. I am sure that unconsciously I will pass these fears and anxieties to the Black students I teach, creating a cycle of fear. For as long as I can remember, I struggled. I assumed that I was destined to never understand mathematics. So I already have in mind that my students won’t learn it either. I’m not proud of this but what can I do?

Ella and two other students went on to describe how they strategically and actively avoided mathematics courses. For example, they contemplated choosing their college majors based primarily on which required the fewest mathematics classes. Ella stated, “One of the reasons I initially majored in sociology was because I thought I wouldn’t have to take any math [classes] and everybody said that Dr. W [a Black sociology professor] was the best teacher here.” Ten of the 13 participants admitted to intentionally seeking out classes that were taught by Black teachers, who at Asante State University were heavily concentrated in sociology and psychology.

“Mathematics Isn’t Black Like Me”

The students equated mathematics embodying the culture and values of the White middle class and being void of most things valued in Black culture. During a class discussion, Arthur said that his teaching plans included emphasizing group effort over individual effort and processes/explanations over answers and algorithms. Then he expressed his sympathies for both himself and his future students:

Hopefully working in groups and actually understanding [and] not just doing math will be the key to some excitement. If I wasn’t discouraged [during math classes], I was bored to death. I used to feel sorry for mathematics teachers, now I will have to be one. If this doesn’t work [his teaching strategy], it’s going to be so boring to repeat the same dead-like material year after year.

Arthur, who characterized his style as “fulla flavor,” could not fathom any cool person teaching mathematics all day long and reasoned (jokingly) that I must be a “stone-cold nerd.” Some of the students had a difficult time imagining themselves teaching mathematics, which they characterized as being forced to teach artificial, dull applications that failed to reflect their cultural status of being both Black and relatively young (and cool).

All students wanted to make mathematics more exciting and wished that the subject was taught by more creative teachers, like their Black teachers in sociology and psychology, so they could adopt the techniques in those classes in their own teaching. They admitted that most of their mathematics teachers taught using unimaginative and mechanical teaching methods, and asserted that their creative teachers taught more “interesting” and “relevant” subjects where they learned more culturally affirming content (e.g., racial socialization, self-efficacy, resilience, and racial identity).

In an interview, Tina commented on the uselessness of mathematics during her early years and hoped she could change her thinking for the sake of her future students. She admitted that the mathematics curricula were inadequate and teachers made only feeble attempts to make the subject relevant to her life. Since they ultimately failed to make it relevant, she worried that unless she teaches mathematics using dominoes and bid whist (a card game particularly popular in African American communities), she will fail as a mathematics teacher:

I didn’t see much of the relevance of the math when I was a kid. It was just something I was forced to do. Textbooks would try, making feeble attempts to show a little “math in the real world” between chapters. Or they would talk about some famous mathematician, always a gray-haired White man that didn’t appeal to my life. Or the book would explain how, if you knew math, you could be a rocket scientist! Both approaches failed to make mathematics relevant to my life.

Tina further acknowledged that the education system would label her future students too quickly as having limited intellectual ability, being perpetual underachievers, and not fit for careers involving mathematics. Therefore, she also wanted to know how to instill mathematical confidence in her future Black students—once she got some herself!

Admittedly, some of these preservice teachers’ characterizations of teaching mathematics are universal concerns expressed by preservice teachers of all backgrounds. Their narratives about the lack of relevance and the dullness of the subject and their anxieties about teaching mathematics are commonplace. However, they do take seriously the role of being teachers of Black children, even while they question and interrogate their own mathematical abilities.


The excerpts below, representative of all students who were parents or close relatives of elementary-age children, were extracted from an assignment in which the students were asked about their motivation to teach mathematics. Nine students in this study were parents of children of elementary age or younger or had nieces, nephews, and cousins. They strongly desired to learn mathematics courageously to avoid passing their own fears and doubts about mathematics on to their children and relatives. Additionally, these nine participants felt responsible for providing Black and Latino youth a stereotype-free atmosphere, in which perceptions of their students’ abilities are predetermined as thriving, vibrant, and fully capable. Stacey wanted to teach mathematics fearlessly for the sake of her son, with the help of her father:

I had my son early, but my father convinced me to remain in school and helps to support my son. For my son, I will definitely encourage him in math, science, technology, and the core subjects all the same. The fears that I grew up with [about] mathematics will not be his fears; the types of math teachers I had in elementary school will not be acceptable teachers for his learning because I definitely want much better for him than what I’ve received.

Stacey believes that her fears were caused, in part, by a lack of caring teachers and a dearth of Black role models, which intensified her anxiety about teaching mathematics. Arthur realized that, as a Black male in elementary education, he defied many of the stereotypes associated with Blacks, males, and Black males. As a future teacher of young children, he is now seeing the world through the eyes and education-related stories of his two nephews. Arthur is disgusted by what they have experienced:

David and Domente [twins] deserve better! Their [third-grade] teacher had already written them off. She actually told my sister that she was reading some article that [reported] only 5 Black males out of 100 will graduate from high school in [Carson] and she could already tell that my nephews will be part of the 95. I mean she say [sic] it outright like that but my sister is smart and recorded the conversation. Our whole family came up to the school next day and raised hell. I had never seen a White woman get reprimanded before. But now, it’s actually kind of worse. All she does is fake teach them. But they learn math from me. So that’s why I have to figure out how to teach this [mathematics] stuff. For the Davids and Domentes in our city.

As Arthur told this story in a group discussion about their future mathematics teaching identities, five other students shared similar stories about how their children and their young relatives are already being stereotyped, discriminated against, and ignored in their mathematics classrooms. Although mostly authored by scholars exposing the tragic outcomes of negatively marginalized, demonized, and pathologized students, some teachers use the data contained within these publications to simply write off their Black male (and increasingly female) students. A seemingly unintended consequence of recent efforts to report the endangered plight of Black males leads some teachers and school personnel to further marginalize and essentialize this fragile population.

Black Culture as a Source of Mathematical Significance

By the end of semester, Tina, along with eight other students became more hopeful that cultural background would be the “common denominator” that would enable them to inspire their students. Tina declared she would strive to teach math in ways that affirmed rather than undermined her students’ Blackness. John said it is likely that, because of his own mathematical experiences, he will teach in a way that maintains his students’ cultural integrity even while stating that he will “do whatever it takes” to let his students know their smartness. Kimberly wanted to enlist the creativity and cultural affirmation she found in their Black teachers’ college classrooms and commits to working for a more equitable classroom in which the African American experience is validated and celebrated. Stacey mentioned,

Even though this teacher education program is at a Black University, it seems like they really don’t value the Black experience. If it wasn’t for my peers [mostly African American students] in the program I would probably have changed my major.

These students understood that even in Black majority environments, the leadership and teaching structure do not put a lot of value on the sociocultural capital of African American students. They were determined not to repeat this ideology for their students.


This race-based analysis describes the process by which these Black future elementary mathematics teachers strive to develop mathematics literacy, to teach largely Black and Latino youth in Carson City. The students’ early experiences included unsettling microaggressions inside their mathematics classrooms. Incidents with their K–12 teachers, peers, and curricula left them feeling, as Gia stated, “not so good about myself.” The participants adopted multiple strategies to make sense of those experiences, including both the rejection and accommodation of racialized stereotypes. Critical race theory’s tenet of racial microaggressions captured the plight of these Black students in mathematics classrooms by centering on their experiences, not their test scores, as the factor to be analyzed. As these participants detailed their own realities, they did not merely relate their experiences of racial oppression but also expressed positive associations with being Black and doing mathematics, including the students.

Counter-narratives revealed the presence of Black fathers and other male relatives who taught their children mathematics in a way that created an affinity with and excitement about the subject as fundamental elements in the early development of their mathematical identities. These men played a pivotal role as the students’ first mathematics teachers, an act that assists in challenging the perception that Black children are fatherless. All too often, Black families and their extended communities are seen as the cause of students’ underachievement; however, fathers not only were present and engaged in the lives of their children, they also were their children’s first math teachers. Black fathers’ impact on their children’s academic achievement is an underexplored topic, and gaining a better understanding of how Black male caregivers can aid in developing mathematics literacy could prove vital in the development of Black children’s mathematics identities. The students also cited both parents, who often had experienced their own struggles to achieve in mathematics, as avid supporters of their children gaining mathematics knowledge.

Understanding the concept of microaggressions helped to ground both the classroom dynamics and the students’ interrogation of their own learned biases and assumptions that created some psychologically self-defeating behaviors. The participants’ mathematics identities appeared to be in various stages of development and showed great variation. Those who demonstrated weaker mathematics identities appeared to have increased fears about their future colleagues’ or students’ discovery of their lack of strong mathematical competencies. It would be simplistic to blame these preservice teachers for their lack of knowledge in mathematics. A perspective based on critical race theory would be that the Carson public school district and Asante State University have added to the difficulties narrated by these future Black teachers, who will eventually teach Black and Brown elementary-age students. How do we stop this cycle of mathematics under-prepardedness?

Students in the study who seemed to have stronger mathematics identities discussed teaching mathematics for community empowerment and social justice. As Arthur poignantly expressed, “We need to teach our kids, our babies, how to own their own storefronts and business within our neighborhoods. Math is a tool to better our communities.” Both traditional and nontraditional students discussed being a teacher to help advance the next generation. However, nontraditional and interestingly Black male students showcased a more convincing commitment to serving Black youth and wanted to impart their cultural wisdom along with critical mathematics skills to change the miscarriage of educational opportunities they witnessed in their neighborhoods. Previous research has shown that African American preservice teachers feel a certain responsibility to their community to serve as role models, serving as cultural translators and cultural brokers for culturally diverse students (Ladson-Billings, 2009; Martin, 2007; Villegas & Davis, 2008). However, Black colleges and universities bear heavier responsibilities for teaching Black students who hail from urban schools, which have historically undereducated their students (Gasman, Lundy-Wagner, Ransom, & Bowman, 2010), thus they require more resources to support their cohort of students’ mathematics learning needs.

The majority of these future teachers said they would like to strive for full and meaningful participation in mathematics, although they fear their own mathematics deficiencies may interfere with their best efforts. Those who were parents, big brothers or sisters, aunts, or uncles wanted to learn mathematics fearlessly so they could become math teachers for both their own children and other people’s children (Delpit, 2006), including the mostly Black and Brown children they would encounter in their future elementary classrooms. For these preservice teachers, additional professional development related to mathematics knowledge building and pedagogy is warranted in order to break the cycle of mathematics under-prepardness. A few of the future teachers in this study may bring their harmful racial beliefs into their classroom, which has the potential to perpetuate negative stereotypes about Black students’ ability to learn mathematics. Teachers of all colors who have not critically interrogated their own racial biases may hold deficit-based definitions of how being Black is defined, what meaning being Black carries, and what the problems associated with being Black are understood to be. For example, teachers’ beliefs influence their expectations about Blacks’ achievement and drive tracking decisions; this will play a critical role in the achievement outcomes and life opportunities of their students (Achinstein et al., 2010; Delpit, 2012, Milner, 2010).

When it comes to the achievement of African American mathematics students, critical race theory reminds us that inequitable achievement is bigger than one teacher or one school; it is a system of policies, laws, and ideologies that help to create inequitable learning environments. The results of this study suggest that there is still a need to question how living in a racially divisive world has socialized mathematics student teachers in their experiences and attitudes about race. In the field of mathematics, many teachers, particularly on the college level, do not mirror the ethnicities of the students they serve in urban educational settings, including Black universities. Understanding the nature and depth of entrenched attitudes about African American students is important in understanding the teacher’s role in promoting and creating microaggressive experiences. Moreover, college mathematics faculty who have solid content knowledge but racially discriminate against their Black students will undoubtedly lead their students to have disparate mathematics (and even psychological) outcomes. Research studies have rarely investigated the stereotypes and biases that non-US born college faculty who have backgrounds or ethnicities that are different from their students’ bring to the mathematics classroom. While considerable research has been done on racism and discrimination in schools, most of those studies do not focus on the attitudes and perceptions of foreign-born college mathematics teachers. Additional research in this area is warranted.

For these aspiring teachers, the pursuit of mathematics literacy is complicated by the complex manner in which race impacts the educational achievement process. By sharing their perspectives, these Black preservice teachers contribute to the narrative of mathematics education by deconstructing, reconstructing, complicating, and contradicting static explanations of their mathematics successes and failures.


Portions of the research described here were funded by the National Academy of Education (NAEd), the Spencer Foundation, and the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect those of the NAEd, Spencer Foundation, or ASHE. I also owe a debt of thanks to my three colleagues, Drs. David Stovall, Marvin Lynn, and Danny Martin.


1. For the purposes of this study I am using the terms Black and African American interchangeably. The terms are inclusive of all people of African descent in the United States. I have used the racial and ethnic labels of Black and African American according to how each student self-categorized his or her racial group identity.

2. All identifying information has been replaced with pseudonyms.

3. Class grades were based on 10% homework assignments, 30% quizzes and exams, 30% reading and writing assignments, and 30% attendance and participation. The mathematics education course is typically taught to junior-level elementary education students. The prerequisite for this mandatory course is an intermediate algebra class or passing a placement examination.


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Note. Individualized questions were added for all the study participants as a result of information presented in their mathematics autobiographies. Categories are somewhat fluid.

Introductory comments

This is an interview about the story of your life, in particular as it relates to your past and current mathematics experiences and your future mathematics teaching experiences. I am asking you to play the role of storyteller about your own life—to construct the story of your own past, present, and what you see as your future.

Icebreaker questions (if needed)

What was your favorite TV show as a child and why did you enjoy this show?

What is your favorite TV show now and why do you enjoy this show?

Has any book, magazine, or story had an impact on your life? If so, what was it and describe the message/takeaway.

Home (will know household family makeup as the result of the demographic questionnaire)

What does your parent(s) or guardian(s) tell you about math and expectations of you learning mathematics?

In what ways, if any, were you exposed to math in your household (relatives’ households)?

Describe how your parent(s) has or has not been supportive of your mathematics achievements?

What did your parent(s) tell you about math and expectations of you learning math?

Elementary/Middle school

In what ways have you been encouraged to excel academically in elementary school?

What types of experiences did you have in your elementary mathematics classrooms?

Describe your favorite elementary education teacher and include how the teacher made class enjoyable.

Did you develop any anxieties toward mathematics early in your school life (example: a negative experience from a bad teacher or a bad grade)? Please explain.

Important early mathematics-related scene

Describe a memory from your elementary/middle school education that stands out in your mind as especially important or significant in your mathematics development. It may be a positive or negative memory.

Experiences in high school

In what ways have you been encouraged or discouraged in mathematics in high school?

Describe some significant experiences you had in your high school mathematics classrooms. Do you feel like you were treated fairly?

Did anyone ever discourage you from rigorously pursuing mathematics in high school?

Turning point

In looking back on one's life, it is often possible to identify certain key turning points—episodes through which a person undergoes substantial change. Please identify a particular episode in your life story that you now see as a turning point (does not have to be school- or mathematics- centered).

Equity and race

Looking over the course of your academic career, do you think that you have been treated fairly? Why or why not?

Do you believe that your race a plays a role in achieving in mathematics? If so, how?

Have you been affected by African American stereotypes? Have those stereotypes had a particular impact on your mathematics achievements?

Do you feel more comfortable taking mathematics classes from a Black or White instructor?

In choosing your college, did the racial makeup of the faculty and/or students play a role in your choice?

Have you ever heard of the term “acting White”? What does that term mean to you? (Have you ever felt the need to “act White” in school or mathematics?)

If you were a man or woman, do you think your mathematics experiences would be different? If so, how?

College Experiences (Social and Academic)

Do you have role models or mentors who aided in your educational pursuits?

What are the nonacademic activities that you participate in while in college?

Have your experiences outside of the classroom been valuable in motivating your academic achievement in the classroom?

Do you feel that the mathematics teachers and college faculty you have encountered are interested in teaching and working with students?

What learning strategies or study habits to you apply to succeed in mathematics?

Do you feel comfortable asking or answering questions in your mathematics classes?

Are there particular individuals that encouraged or discouraged you in college mathematics courses?

How do you spend your free time between classes?

Is your circle of college friends racially or ethnically diverse?

How often do you talk with family and friends about your college experiences?

Teaching (Mathematics)/Mathematics

What are you currently learning in your math class? Do you understand that concept?

What do you attribute to the limited number of Black individuals in mathematics fields?

What do you attribute to the lack of Black teachers?

What types of math do you struggle with the most and what math comes easiest? (For example: I was good at geometry but had a hard time doing algebraic functions.)

At what age or experience did you realize that teaching was going to be an integral part of your life?

What is the one thing that you feel is missing from your preservice education experiences in school?

What do you think is the one most unique aspect of your educational experience?

Future teacher

Please briefly describe your employment history.

Do you feel academically prepared to succeed in teaching? If so, describe what success in teaching means to you. If not, what do you think you will need to be a successful teacher?

As an elementary education teacher, do you anticipate integrating math into other subjects? If yes, provide an example or two.

Did you feel academically prepared to succeed in teaching elementary students mathematics? Please explain why or why not.

Do you think that being Black will impact the way you teach?

Who was your favorite math teacher and how did the teacher make math enjoyable? Who was your least favorite math teacher? Why?

Is teaching your ideal career? If so, why? If not, what is your ideal career?

What is the most difficult aspect of pursuing an elementary education degree?

What will be your most difficult challenge as an elementary education teacher?

What will be your most difficult challenge as an elementary education teacher while teaching mathematics?

Why do you think teachers teach math? –OR– What is the purpose of learning mathematics?

What do you think would make learning mathematics more interesting for your future students?

If you could give your elementary education mathematics teacher three suggestions for how to be a better teacher of mathematics, what three suggestions would you give?

How long do you plan to be a teacher? Any additional career plans?

Most likely, you will be teaching young Black and Latino students. Do you believe their teaching needs are different than White elementary age students? If so, why and what will you do differently to serve the needs of your future students?

Is there anything you would like to tell me about your academic and social experience that I have not asked?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 6, 2014, p. 1-50
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17469, Date Accessed: 2/25/2021 10:50:27 AM

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About the Author
  • Ebony McGee
    Vanderbilt University
    E-mail Author
    EBONY MCGEE, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Diversity and Urban Schooling in the Department of Teaching & Learning at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. Her studies focus on the influence of identity/resiliency, mental wellness, and racialized experiences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) on high-achieving, historically marginalized students’ graduate and career trajectories. Recently published works include: McGee, E. O. (2013). Young, Black, Gifted, and Stereotyped. High School Journal, 96(3), 253-263, and McGee, E. O., & Martin, D. B. (2011). ‘‘You would not believe what I have to go through to prove my intellectual value!’’: Stereotype management among academically successful Black mathematics and engineering students. American Education Research Journal, 48(6), 1347-1389.
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