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Race, Emotions, and Woke in Teaching

by Carl A. Grant - 2019

This chapter queries the meaning and arc of social justice for teachers engaging in mindfulness pedagogy and pursuing the role of emotion in classroom instruction. In particular, this chapter problematizes the relationship between being “woke” and having emotional granularity in relation to one’s practice as a teacher. Among other questions, it investigates: How may teacher educators support prospective and new teachers in thinking through what their emotions mean for teaching students who differ from them racially, ethnically, in social class, and in other dimensions of identity? How can prospective and new teachers enact curriculum and practices that embrace students as intellectually able, promising scholars?

One cannot fully understand the world in which we live without trying to integrate and understand its emotions. (Dominique Moisi, 2009, p. x)

Writing this chapter about emotion and teachers has required me to be “woke” (heightened consciousness, and continually awareness) about how attention to social justice is adverted because a hot new idea came along. Specifically, writing the chapter has caused me to ponder how beneficial the results of the research on emotions and teacher education will be for students of color. Emotions, feelings that are “stirred up,” or short, intense feelings resulting from some stimuli (Pekrun, Goetz, Titz, & Perry, 2002), are getting heavy attention in teaching and teacher education. However, this heavy attention on emotion in teacher education does not place race and racism at or near the center of study (see DeCuir-Gunby & Williams, 2007; Pekrun & Linnenbrink-Garcia, 2014). Thus, I wonder: Is this new excitement—research on emotions and teaching—a flight from the study and discussion of race and teaching? Does the study of emotion and teaching have significance without placing race and racism at the center and/or as fundamental to the study as the Black and Brown student population rises, and White women make up most of the teacher corps? Is this line of inquiry another form of White privilege? Or, is studying emotions and teaching without centering race a continuation in American myth making that keeps Black life experiences and identity invisible/negative, and White life experience and identity visible/positive?

I am aware, as my colleague Sylvia Thorson-Smith notes, that

there is something very gendered about cultural attitudes relating to emotions and feelings. Rational thinking is privileged over emotional parts of life and experience, and men are associated with thinking, not feelings; women are seen to be not as rational but feeling creatures—often to the point of excessive feeling, emotion, and hysteria (womb pain/feeling). (Personal conversation)

While these attitudes and values are currently changing—slowly—the polarities remain deep in White male, Western-dominated culture. The teaching profession is illustrative of this polarity. Mostly women—White—teach younger children, where the display of emotions is okay and understood, whereas men teach the grades and classes where teachers engage in higher levels of thinking and rationality. This chapter recognizes and repudiates the gendered rendering of emotions that is perpetuated in life and teaching. The centering of race is not intended to dilute the importance of studying emotions and teaching, but to argue that race should not be marginalized. The gendering of emotions and race can intersect, as they often do. In The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin (1976) describes his teacher’s Whiteness and her emotions as they intersected with his race. Baldwin argues that his teacher didn’t pity or shun him, or create in him negative feelings about school the way some teachers shun their Black and Brown students and create in them a dislike of school. Baldwin’s teacher emotions toward him are ones of respect, pride, and optimism—and race, White, is a skin color.

Her name was Orilla, we called her Bill—was not white for me in the way, for example, that Joan Crawford was white, in the way that the landlords and the storekeepers and the cops and most of my teachers were white. She didn’t baffle me that way and never frighten me and she never lied to me. I never felt her pity, either. (p. 8)

Burke (2004), discussing bell hooks’s schooling with Black and White women teachers, highlights the intersection of race, gender, and emotion, pointing-up the significance of race. Burke (2004) contends that most of bell hooks’s teachers were Black women who she felt were on a mission—to nurture the intellect of their students to become scholars, thinkers, or cultural workers. hooks’s Black teachers stirred within their students joy and love of learning and life. However, when school integration was introduced in the 1960s, and hooks was transferred to an integrated school and had all White teachers, the joy from learning slowed down. The White teachers were not interested in stirring the minds of their Black pupils, simply transferring irrelevant bodies of knowledge. hooks argues that the knowledge the Black students were required to learn bore no relation to how they lived or behaved.

The point of this chapter is not to deny the significance of emotions or ignore that emotions and teaching are gendered, but to argue that race should be centered when conducting research on the emotions of White teachers when they are teaching Brown and Black students. In this chapter, I discuss race and emotion (e.g., happiness, joy, sadness, hope, suffering) in schools and classrooms for Black and Brown students and White teachers. Woke, race, and emotions intersect. The writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin are used throughout the chapter because their thoughts about emotion and race in school and society have historic and current relevance, and they were woke at the intersection of race, emotions, and education.


Initially, when I considered this chapter, as my colleagues and editors were telling me about the project, my mind raced to two of my favorite iconic images from decades ago. The images tell of the lie of White superiority that denies equality and respect to students of color, as well as showing the determined, dignified resistance of people of color. The first image shows the emotions of courage, boldness, pride, and brilliance of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, escorted by four U.S. marshals to integrate all-White William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans on November 14, 1960, as a mob of White protesters shouted profanities and threw objects. Ruby later describes the night before her historic accomplishment, dealing with emotions of anxiety and unhappiness because her friends were not attending the school (Bridges, 1999). However, the day she integrated William Frantz Elementary School, she describes her emotions as a calmness, satisfaction filled with curiosity as she observed the behavior of the White parents: “All day long, white parents rushed into the office. They were upset. They were arguing and pointing at us. . . they ran into the classroom and dragged their children out of school . . . all I saw was confusion” (p. 18). The emotions that stirred in Ruby Bridges as a Black kindergartner integrating the Southern school were in response to racism and the emotions it vented of anger by White parents who screamed at her. “I don’t remember everything about that school year, but there are events and feelings I will never forget” (Bridges, 1999, p. 5). All of this—Ruby’s emotions, White students’ and their parents’ emotions, and the U.S. Marshalls’ emotions—was manufactured and held in place by systemic racism. The cursing, epithets, and protesting that Ruby heard reflect emotions inspired by the loss of White domination and oppression of Blacks. The White power structure tried to control Black children and make them pay “psychological wages” (Du Bois, 1935) to Whiteness.

Will the research on teacher education, teaching, and emotions examine such emotional moments in U.S. history and current times?  

The second image that came to me comes from books and stories I heard and studied when I was in school of a cruel incident that happened to Native people. The incident depicts emotions of pride, poise, and honor that came with resistance, activism, and preservation, as Native American children and their families withstood assaults on their cultural identity (e.g., cutting off hair braids, wearing of uniforms, elimination of tribal names and traditional foods) and their personal identity when they arrived at Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The motto of the school, established by founder and headmaster, Col. Richard Henry Pratt, was “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Blatant racism defined these emotions and held the myth of White superiority in place, which needed White perpetrators of the myth to state, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

These two iconic images of a little Black girl surrounded by federal marshals walking courageously into a White segregated school, and American Indian children bravely dealing with being stripped of their cultural identity don’t stand alone in America’s almanac of race, emotions, and education. Instead, they are symbolic of how the emotions of people of color are affected in the American educational system.

Will such symbols of education and emotions be analyzed and discussed in upcoming research?

Historical and contemporary images and narratives continue to depict racialized, emotion-loaded experiences that students of color faced. The narratives of Du Bois (1903) and Baldwin (1963a) are prime because they are illustrative of both yesterday and today and give meaning to social progress.  

During his youth, Du Bois, like Black students today, faced what it means to be Black in America’s education system. Black and Brown children come to schools wanting fairness and opportunity in the classroom, as well as the emotional joys that are promised to the young. Black and Brown children come to school wanting no more, no less than White children. White children want to be themselves, and Black children want to be themselves. Black and Brown children, like White children, have heard that “learning can be fun.” School is where they will meet friends, take trips to the zoo and museum, learn about stars in the sky, and expect to have a safe and supportive relationship with their teachers. Black and Brown children do not enter school expecting to be a “problem” (Du Bois, 1903) and to have to contend with the emotional upheaval that comes with being perceived and judged as a problem. For example, it is not Black students who introduce a negative psychological state in White teachers when they see a room of Black and Brown students; arguably, it is “willful ignorance” (Baldwin, 1963a) inspired by systemic racism that caused one’s life experiences and one’s teacher preparation to not prepare them to teach racially and culturally different students in a country that declares diversity among its core beliefs. This causes Black and Brown students to develop anxiety and unhappiness over attending school because the curriculum omits Black and Brown people’s cultural contributions and the immense role that African Americans and Latinx have played in the growth and development of the United States. Thus, the teachers of Black and Brown students have difficulty authentically connecting to them. The experience of being a “problem,” and all the emotional unrest it brings, is socially constructed by Whiteness and grounded in the belief that Black life is worth less than White life, that opportunities for Black and Brown students are not as important as opportunities for White students, and that Black and Brown students are not striving hard enough to be like White students.

Will the racist issue of seeing the emotions of Black and Brown students as a “problem” be studied in the research on teaching and emotions, and will the research teams that conduct the research be multiracial?

Du Bois’s motivation to study the causes of racism and the social construction of race throughout his life was born out of an emotional event at his school. Like college students who started the Black studies movement in the 1960s, and more recent students who organized “I Too Am Harvard,” Du Bois took actions against racism because majority students stigmatized him, alienated him, and made him feel less than human. Emotions, race, and education clashed as Du Bois encountered White superiority and exclusion when a new student, a White girl, joined his class and refused to accept his card as part of a game the students were playing. With his emotions—feelings of unhappiness and contempt—held in check, Du Bois (1925) discovered that social consciousness about his Black skin and the spurning of his race had reached a new height. Du Bois (1925) was angry and saddened: “Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others. Or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil” (p. 2). And, he was adversarial:

I had, thereafter, no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through. I held all beyond it in common contempt and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination time or beat them at a foot race or even beat their stringy heads. (Du Bois, 1925, p. 2)

Du Bois’s feelings are indicative of the feelings of Black and Brown students today who have been excluded (e.g., suspended from school, denied a part in a school play), their humanity disrespected because of a (implicit) bias against their skin color and their humanity. Do White students know or care that their emotions toward Blacks—feelings that stir the dehumanization of the Black body—were created out of collections of myths and lies constructed by their ancestors?

Will the emotions of Black and Brown students that develop from racial rejection in school activities be studied in the research on teaching and emotions?

Similarly, emotions and race are in play across college campuses where White students and White professors make students of color invisible by not selecting them to work on projects or coauthor articles, or not including them in photos of campus life. Being invisible is an emotionally debilitating downer. Adrienne Rich (1986/1994) noted, “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in, it’s as if there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium as if you looked into the mirror and saw nothing” (p. 122). Black and Brown students are made to feel invisible by school administrators and teachers when they are kept out of AP classes, and their group’s cultural contribution to the United States and the world is not included in textbook or teachers’ assignments. The invisibility Rich describes is also described by Ralph Ellison (1952) in Invisible Man. Rich and Ellison argue that “invisibility” refers not to being unseen with the naked eye, but being seen and ignored. Ellison (1952) explains,

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe:
Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms.
I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids
- and I might even be said to possess a mind.
I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me. (p. 3)

Ellison was woke about who he was: a Black person who was treated as less than human: “invisible.” Today, Black and Brown students push back against the feelings of invisibility that Ellison suffered by demanding their own proms, recruitment, retention of faculty of color, ethnic studies classes, their own spaces, and culturally relevant activities. Today, Black and Brown middle school and high school students are aware that Whiteness is an “invisible norm,” or the hidden curriculum in the school culture that includes books, posters (Gershon, 2015), and White office staff, and they stir against it. Instead of giving in to feelings of joylessness and dehumanization, Black and Brown students are challenging the norm of Whiteness with counter-stories told in books, media, music (e.g., hip hop), films (e.g., I Am Not Your Negro), the actions of athletes, and the examples of everyday people who are becoming more the ordinary. Emotions, teaching, and race intersect and operate in schools once the bell rings, and on college campuses upon arrival. Being woke on the part of students of color has heightened. Baldwin (1963b) addressed Blacks’ heightened consciousness and continuing awareness when he stated,

The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. (pp. 101–102)

Baldwin challenged the myth of American exceptionalism, with his unflinching directness, woke multicultural America to a vision of the world that was not only inaccurate but also dangerous, in that it supports a blindness about the country’s racist history and a lack of clarity about today’s social problems and issues.   


 “If I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either.” — James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers” (1963c)

Emotions, teaching, and race come into play when White teachers and White teacher candidates encounter the emotions of students of color. The play is not neutral or benign; different emotional responses with different implications result. The emotions of students of color are stirred frequently throughout the school day when they are called out for behavior and White students are given a pass; when their achievement, the result of their work effort, is questioned; and when their opinions are not heard. Throughout my teaching career, I have drawn on James Baldwin’s work to help White teacher candidates better understand race/racism in American education and society, and thereby reduce stirring up negative emotions of Black and Brown students. Next, I use three of Baldwin’s works—“A Talk to Teachers,” “A Letter to My Nephew,” and “I Am Not Your Negro”—and statements from other of Baldwin’s writings to discuss White teachers, students of color, and emotions.


Baldwin’s (1963c) “A Talk to Teachers”—an often-assigned essay in teacher education programs—provokes a range of different emotional responses from White teacher candidates. Baldwin’s essay can stir up positive emotions in White teachers about students of color, causing them to be angry about the “mis education” they received and to understand why schooling promotes negative emotions in Black students. Baldwin begins “A Talk to Teachers” inducing positive feelings between speaker and audience, by thanking teachers for their valuable work. Baldwin acknowledges the resistance that teachers face in society as he argues for social justice for students who live in a dangerous time and are constantly dealing with systemic inequality. Baldwin (1963c) stated, “He [or she, the Black student] is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes. . . . He pledges allegiance to that flag. . . . But on the other hand he is also assured by his country . . . that he has never contributed anything to civilization” (p. 2). The message in “A Talk to Teachers” is not one of appeasement or compliance. Baldwin does not grovel; his emotional tone is friendly, but with a sense of urgency. Baldwin describes the political and social micro- and macro-aggressions that Black students face, and how America has perpetuated racial segregation and White supremacy to keep the “Negro in his place” (p. 3). The essay continues pointing out to teachers the tremendous potential and energy of Black students and argues that if America is going to become a nation, she and Black students must find a way to use the tremendous potential and tremendous energy of Black children, or it will be destroyed by that energy.

The takeaway from “A Talk to Teachers” leaves most teacher candidates I have taught feeling good, emotionally pleased. Baldwin has nudged them, encouraged them to open their eyes and wake up. He speaks to them as professionals, arguing that they can create social change by way of their power and influence in the classroom, and he recommends that they be truthful about American history. I always hope reading Baldwin will produce the enlightenment and emotional response in White teacher candidates that is told in the following story:

Walking with Baldwin along Fifth Avenue, “we [Robert Penn Warren] encountered a young woman, white and well dressed, who stopped, stood still, right in the middle of the crowd, blocking us, and stared into his face and burst out: ‘Oh—you’re James Baldwin—oh, thank you, thank you!’” (Anderson, 1998)

However, “A Talk to Teachers” has ruffled the emotions of some teacher candidates I’ve taught. It’s tough for them to come to terms with the fact that their knowledge of American history is flawed, and they’ve been miseducated. It angers them that White society, historically and currently, victimizes Black and Brown people, especially when you have been taught differently. However, some teacher candidates prefer “business as usual”; they display emotions unreceptive to “A Talk to Teachers.” Baldwin describes the reactions displayed by teacher candidates, who find it difficult to accept the racist history of America as one of “innocence”; they are blind and want to remain blind about racist historic and current realities. Laura Maguire (2018) recently explained Baldwin’s use of the term innocence. Maguire (2018) contends that Baldwin thinks of innocence as a kind of prison. Baldwin argues that Whites are “trapped in history,” and “they’ve created this illusion of white supremacy” (p. 1) and the emotions it conveys. About creating this illusion, Baldwin (1984) states, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (pp. 6–7).

Baldwin, more than most African American writers who write about social and political reality, had little patience with people who fool themselves—people who accept lies and myths, particularly to benefit themselves and to keep others down. Living as such distorts people, corrupting their moral compass and disfiguring their inner selves. However, the threat of becoming “a monster” brings little reaction from my students, whose emotions show a disregard for Baldwin’s analysis of America. Across the classroom, I observe a range of emotions that reflect socially constructed patterns conditioned by an ideology of White superiority (Ben Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008; Illouz, 2012), as teacher candidates willfully maintain their self-delusion (Ben Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008; Illouz, 2012).

“A Talk to Teachers” reveals a range of behaviors and emotions (e.g., anger, unhappiness, misery) that Black students experience in schools, and a range of emotions and behaviors (e.g., empathy, unawareness, unpreparedness, anger) that White teachers experience when teaching Black and Brown students. These behaviors and emotions develop because of the ongoing presence and persistence of racism. In his 1964 play “Blue for Mister Charlie,” motivated by the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi, Baldwin wrote a preface that I find instructive when my White teacher candidates push back or are mute after reading Baldwin and other scholars of color.   

What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we

have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge

would lead, literally, to madness. The human being, then, in order to protect himself, closes his eyes, compulsively repeats his crimes, and enters a spiritual darkness which no one can

describe. (Baldwin, 1964, p. iv)

Teachers, their reasons for teaching (e.g., love kids, want to help students), become fraudulent and their personhood diminished when they ignore the policies and practices that have been and are held in place against their Black and Brown students. Silence and compliance become dark alleys where low expectations and a negative show of emotions by teachers toward Black and Brown students reside.                             

For teacher candidates—who are like the White woman in New York who yelled, “Oh, thank you, thank you!”—I suggest letting their middle and high school students know that they believe as Baldwin (1963) argues: Society’s only hope for change is through those individuals who question power, privilege, and oppression. To that end, I encourage them to give Baldwin’s (1962) “A Letter to My Nephew” to their students. I suggest that they tell their students to carefully read Baldwin’s reason for writing the “Letter,” starting and restarting the “Letter” five times until he finished. I explain that the “Letter” argues that race is a social construction—a myth and lie created and sustained by White people who want power and privilege for themselves alone—and that Baldwin’s words of wisdom to his nephew and other Black and Brown children are to know where you come from. Know your history, for that knowledge will be the foundation stone of your success. Not the words of White people. I ask them to ask their Black and Brown students how they feel when they hear these ideas and how they feel hearing them from you, a White person.

I point-out that the “Letter” can serve as a short history lesson and can let students know that the classroom is not a sanctuary or a space only for testing and teacher–student accountability. I ask them to discuss among themselves how each person feels about the relevance of the “Letter” to society today and how they felt when they read the following words Baldwin wrote to his nephew, “The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. . . . You were not expected to aspire to excellence. . . . But please try to remember that what they believe as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority, but their inhumanity and fear” (p. 3).

Additionally, I suggest that, as people entering a profession because of “love of children” and the desire to “help children,” they may wish to compare Baldwin’s “love” of his nephew to their “love” of the children they plan to teach. I underscore that Baldwin was fearful of Whites’ efforts to gain control of Black identity, for that was why he told Black children not to be defined by the false words of White people and the high value they place on their Whiteness.

Recently, I encouraged a class of 24 teacher candidates to see the film I Am Not Your Negro (Baldwin & Peck, 2017). My request came when the film was at the local theaters and the class was discussing making authentic connections with their predominantly Black and Brown students. After seeing the film, I hoped that the teacher candidates would come away with a greater awareness about race in American culture and develop deeper insights into the political and bureaucratic system of bigotry and oppression. I was hoping that James Baldwin would “wake” up this generation of White folks as he did years ago and give them the emotional courage to full- throatily discuss race and racism in America at our next class meeting. I hoped that emotions displayed by Baldwin and others in the film would cause the White teacher candidates in my class to strive to make a similar emotional connection that Baldwin’s teacher, Bill, made with him.

Parallels between the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil rights movements are instructive. They reveal not only how anti-Black and anti-Brown sentiment continues to constitute American social, political, and educational life, but also how America’s cultural imagination and cultural emotions are exposed. I hoped that each time teacher candidates looked into the eyes of Black students, they would get the meaning of “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Black Lives Matter” more deeply. Also, I hoped teacher candidates would compare Baldwin’s view of American history to the one they learned in school and conclude that they needed to relearn U.S. history. Additionally, I hoped the teacher candidates would gain professional agency and consciousness from the way Baldwin (1976/1985) speaks of Miss Miller (Bill), his teacher:

She gave me books to read and talked to me about the books, and about the world: about Spain, for example, and Ethiopia, and Italy, and the German Third Reich; and took me to see plays and films, plays and films to which no one else would have dreamed of taking a ten-year-old boy. . . . It is certainly partly because of her . . . that I never really managed to hate white people—though, God knows, I have often wished to murder more than one or two. (p. 558)

Miss Miller, Baldwin’s teacher, refused to be complicit in his mis-education. She refused to allow him to develop negative emotions about school and herself: a White teacher. “Love kids and want to help students,” reasons for wanting to teach, will become false claims, and the joyous emotions born of such actions will not take place or will be flawed if White teachers view Black and Brown students as less than White students.

Being woke for teacher candidates who love and want to help children of all races and ethnicities will only happen when racism is no longer considered as something “over there,” not within our group; when racism is no longer discussed only as individual racial prejudice, but realized as systemic, multidimensional, and highly adaptive with a long rich history in American institutions, including schools; and when it is understood that people, including teachers, who commit racist acts are evil, and emotions that result from this evil are often directed toward Black and Brown people. Also, significant to being woke is for White teacher candidates to understand that while individual Whites may be against racism, they still benefit from the distribution of resources controlled by their group. Thus, systemic and institutional control allows Whites to live in a social and political environment that protects and insulates from race-based stress. When my often White-only class is asked about having several students of color in the class who would push them or call them out over issues of race, there is silence and an emotional action of not looking directly at me. In education, especially teaching in the United States, race is the emotional elephant in the room; teacher candidates should engage in discussion of race and racism with their teachers, but they should also engage in them with their peers of a different race. There is emotional intelligence (e.g., empathy, authenticity, self-control) and emotional wealth (e.g., confidence, resilience, maturity), I have learned from such discussion.


In the opening paragraph, I observe that the new research in teacher education on emotions does not place race and racism at or near the center of study (see DeCuir-Gunby & Williams, 2007; Pekrun & Linnenbrin-Garcia, 2014). People of color may be objects of study, along with members of other cultural groups, but studies of emotions, racism, and education (e.g., teaching) I don’t see. However, it is commonly known and discussed among people of color—but marginalized by Whites—that education/schooling in America, including the unfairness of it, has been (and is) an emotional rollercoaster that demands a heightened consciousness on the part of those who attend school, especially those who are not White and middle class. That said, I wonder if the study of emotions in teaching and teacher education—especially if racism is not centered—finds anything about race and racism being avoided or slighted. Does the feeling of White guilt that comes with talking about racism silence its appearance in research the classroom?



In the preceding sections, I argue that emotions are ever present when the education of students of color takes place, and especially so when White teachers are educating students of color. In this section, I add another layer to my argument. First, I discuss the connection between the reasons people teach and emotion, and second, I discuss the reasons to leave teaching, and emotion. In both analyses, race/racism are visible and significant, although not usually identified.  

Many teacher candidates identify (as I have noted earlier) the emotional character of teaching as their reason for wanting to teach. Teacher candidates exclaim, “The reason I want to teach is because I love children!” or “The reason I want to teach is because I want to ‘help’ students!” Teacher candidates who profess “love of children,” “wanting to help students,” and “the joy of giving back” are centering emotions as reasons for going into teaching as a profession. However, many do so without understanding the emotional requirements and the labor that love requires. bell hooks’s (1994) explanation of “education as a practice of freedom” considers “love” and “practice” as a demanding dynamic, often emotional act. hooks (1994) explained,

Education as the practice of freedom . . . is enabling and empowering and . . . allows us to grow. . . . The heart of education as a practice of freedom is to promote growth. It’s very much an act of love in that sense of love as something that promotes our spiritual and mental growth. It’s there in that [educational] space where I learned to be a reader and a critical thinker. (p. 7)

To practice is to labor. To practice pitching horseshoes, for a part in a play, giving a speech, and shooting a basket, is to labor. “Education as the practice of freedom” for Black and Brown students is intense labor, filled with emotion (e.g., joy, frustration) demanding being woke, a heightened consciousness about self, socializing forces, knowledge and understanding of America’s racist history and ways to do better. Education as a practice of freedom is to undo mental and physical shackles and demonstrate empathy, love, and perseverance as needed. It is emotional. To promote social growth demands emotional labor on the part of the teacher, and it is in that education space—of freedom and emotion—as hooks argues, that students learn to be readers and critical thinkers.  At times, the “love” that hooks references develops when teachers fight for social justice in education. However, at times emotions develop when social justice is denied, and White power is flaunted. Here, I am reminded of the teachers in Chicago, who stood with students and their families, in tears and in despair, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed more than 40 schools. I am also reminded of the Black and White teachers whom Jackie Jordan Irvine (2003) described in her book Educating Teachers for Diversity, and the work of Brian Schultz (2008) with his middle school students, described in Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way. Both Jordan Irvine and Schultz described teachers whose love of teaching and love for their students of color come together to demand social justice for them. Having “a love of students” and “wanting to help students” are located within the emotional struggles for social justice and power. These feelings can or may develop while watching a student’s face light up with emotion when she gets a mathematical postulate or theorem being taught.

In schools, emotions are like a hidden curriculum in the students-and-teacher relationship. Although emotions like love and wanting to help students have always been a part of teaching and teacher education, they have not been recognized as important components of study because of inattention to the affective side of research and the generation of knowledge. Nel Noddings (1996) explained, “In Western thought affect and emotion have been distrusted, denigrated or at least set aside in favor of reason. The tendency to distrust—even deplore—emotion has been aggravated by the rise of professions with their insistence on detachment, distance, cool appraisal and systematic procedures” (p. 435). The Western thought that Noddings (1996) described, while undergoing change, including change in how we should acknowledge emotion, nevertheless remains caught up in politics, social gamesmanship, and male desire for business as usual. As I write this chapter (9/21/2018), print and television news is filled with feminization of emotion. Professor Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her decades ago, is being referenced as “mixed up” and “emotional,” and Kavanaugh as “powerful,” “angry,” and, at times, “tearful.” Similarly, the media is filled with the racialization of emotion, as noted in the shooting of Black men because they pose a threat. “There is no credible evidence to disprove [Officer Darren] Wilson’s perception that [Michael] Brown posed a threat to Wilson as Brown advanced toward him” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2015).

In American society, which is reflected in schools, increased ethnic diversity is changing how the normative content of American identity is defined. With the change, emotions come into play. An increasingly multiracial and multicultural America is moving away from a society traditionally dominated by individualism, toughness, and silence. John Wayne and Gary Cooper are no longer the gold standard of American masculinity. As America becomes more diverse, a broad range of constitutive norms that are complex and contradictory develops (Schildkraut, 2007). America, an imagined story, is told with emotions from different racial and cultural points of view. In schools, White norms and the range of emotions they promote must give way to a range of emotions produced by a multicultural and multiethnic student body. Wanting to teach in order to help students must be imagined in a multicultural and multiracial context. Such imagination induces emotions (e.g., anxiety, inadequacy) when White teacher candidates think about their preparedness (e.g., knowledge, skills, and disposition) to teach Black and Brown students whom they know little about based on their own life experience and professional preparation.


Teachers leave teaching in droves. Statistics show that between 40% and 50% of teachers leave the classroom within their first five years. According to Carver-Thomas and Darling-Hammond (2017), the reasons given for exiting the teaching profession are dissatisfaction with testing and accountability pressure (25%), lack of administrative support (21%), dissatisfaction with the teaching career (21%), and dissatisfaction with working conditions (9%).   Elizabeth Mulvahill (2018), diving deeper into the Carver-Thomas and Darling-Hammond (2017) report, contended that nearly two thirds of teachers feel that their jobs are “always” or “often” stressful. Some teachers claim that they do not receive enough respect; others blame no support for classroom discipline problems or inadequate preservice and in-service preparation; and still others argue that there is too much high-stakes testing. Additional reasons—such as feeling overworked and being underpaid, and narrowness of the school curriculum—contribute to teacher stress and burnout. So, I ask: Are race and racism underlying or contributing factors within these reasons? For example, the data on teacher expectations, when teachers’ race is investigated, indicate that race is an influencing factor (e.g., Penney, 2013). Also, student expectations, academic achievement, and student behaviors are found to be influenced by a teacher’s race. Partelow, Spong, Brown, and Johnson (2017) reported,

Teachers of color tend to have more positive perceptions of students of color—both academically and behaviorally—than other teachers do. . . . African American teachers are less likely than white teachers to perceive African American students’ behavior as disruptive. Likewise, when a black student has both a nonblack teacher and a black teacher, the black teacher tends to have a much higher estimation of the student’s academic abilities than the nonblack teacher. (p. 2)

My point here is not to debate the reasons that teachers are leaving the profession, but to argue that there needs to be a deep dive into the reasons that teachers exit the profession, when only a few years before, they were emotionally attached. Why do people with high GPAs, who could have gone to law school or schools of business, or studied the sciences, take flight? American society is organized to reproduce and reinforce White racial ideology, interests, and perspectives, and Whites are at the center of all matters considered normal, universal, neutral, and good (DiAngelo, 2016). Any change to that personal equation may be too much to bear. When the daily routine in a setting with a teaching faculty that is diverse and complex in attitude, knowledge, and skill set about race, and the students in the setting are predominately Black, Brown, low income, and homeless, do White teachers become stressed out because they’ve been socialized to feel superior and entitled, to not admit to themselves that they are reinforcing a racist system? Does the flight of White teachers from the classroom have something to do with their unwillingness to challenge their own racial reality and deal with their realized self? Emotions of stress and anxiety developed in such a setting, I contend, have a great deal to do with race: the race of the teachers and the race of the students and the racist system in which both teachers and students are operating.


If you are Black or Brown in America, your emotions are never at rest; they are not allowed to take a holiday. You must remain woke, although having a heightened consciousness and being on task does not liberate you, nor does it keep you from racialized harm and the emotions that follow. If you are Black or Brown, you understand that some emotions you and your friends of color experience are due to school culture, ideology, and power relations (Zembylas, 2003). Writing this chapter on emotions and race as a Black scholar is, for me, underscored by a heightened consciousness at the intersection of social consciousness and emotions that are deeply rooted in the history of enslavement, the continuation of racism, and the treatment of students of color and myself as a “problem” (Du Bois, 1903/1994). I don’t stand alone at the intersection of social consciousness and emotions. I am surrounded by, supported by, and standing on the shoulders of other Black scholars and scholars of color who put emotions (e.g., hope, optimism, embodied realities, criticism, and personal feelings) into their discourses on the education of Black and Brown children. I stand along with others to learn and pass on what has been learned, to create classrooms as learning communities where people come together to awaken and support one another in efforts to resist systemic racism. To me, a classroom should be a safe space of love and compassion, where pre-K to college students come with curiosity to question, discover, and learn about past and present living, to discover identity and self as they listen to and read about others. A classroom is a space where teachers inspire, guide, and enjoy the role of dreamkeeper, and where, as hooks (1994) argued, “the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence” (p. 8). A classroom is a space where students’ and teachers’ emotions, as well as the emotions of a changing society, can be debated. “There is ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, and that everyone contributes” (hooks, 1994, p. 8).

I have observed Black and Brown student emotions in classrooms when teachers use counterstories that point to gaps and inaccuracies in the telling of America’s racialized story (e.g., Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick, an American Slave; and Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X). Black and Brown students express gratitude when teachers show a way of seeing the world that is inclusive and supportive. Valuable instruction demonstrates that teachers understand that their students’ feelings about their selves are grounded in the thoughts of their community and their African American or Latinx lens of seeing the world. McLaughlin (2003) argued, “We know that the processes of perception are deeply rooted in emotions about the self, about the external world and cultural ways of seeing the world” (p. 67). I observe this statement in action when I’m in classrooms of teenagers and see Black and Brown students expressing their identities—their selves (e.g., agency, uniqueness, one’s own awareness)—because they know that their group identity is invisible in the overt and hidden curricula. They know that society, including their school, continues to see them as outcasts. Generations ago, W. E. B. Du Bois (1903/1994) was forced to take a good look at his self through moist eyes, wondering how the world saw him and how he saw the world as the only Black student in his class. On reflection, Du Bois passionately asked, “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in my own house?” (p. 1). Du Bois’s words express a passion about the tension he experienced as an outcast and a stranger in a school he had attended for years (Du Bois, 1925). His experience holds true for many Black and Brown students today.

In their teenage years, Black students I observe, like Du Bois, know of their “double consciousness,” or their split-selves—a dual self whose different parts are screaming at one another. The “standard” American self, the self that has been socially constructed by the media, society, and school, is based on a traditional White male image. It impedes those who are not identical to the deployment and updating of systematic racism and microaggressions. The other self is the Black self, the self that is developing agency and knowledge, the self that has been created by life in the Black community and stories told at the kitchen table, and, more recently, by rap and hip-hop music. This Black self, who hears about the declining significance of race and hears the first Black president called a liar during a speech to Congress, knows America is still very much separate and unequal. At times, the Black self finds it difficult to make sense out of a life that seems aimless and daunting. Students I observe are troubled by these split-selves, these two “unreconciled ideals” (Du Bois, 1903/1994). Black students understand that these split-selves prevent the development of a self-conscious personhood. They know they are caught up in a compromised identity, struggling in America to be themselves and wanting their culture to be accepted and appreciated.

Will the research on emotions consider double consciousness and being seen as an outcast, which are experienced by Black and Brown students?

In a classroom, Abercrombie (1989) claimed, there are connections between perceiving, judging, and emotions. Teachers’ interpretation of student emotions and their positive or negative responses to students are sometimes based on the students’ race, class, or gender. Recently, many people in the country were in a heated debate over the violent arrest of a Black female teenager by a school resource officer. Harris (2015), a reporter covering the story, reported that at the heart of the debate “is an argument grounded by the insinuation that Black girls who show even just a hint of emotion—attitude—somehow, deserve what they get” (p. 1). What a teacher perceives depends not only on what is being seen (looked at), but also the state of the perceiver, including his or her thoughts of self. For example, are White teacher candidates ready within themselves to see students of color as truly equal to White students and expend the emotional labor to provide the equity that students of color need to be successful? Are White teacher candidates’ thoughts of self strong enough that they can both accept “transformative stories” and enthusiastically teach transformative stories? Manglitz, Guy, and Hunn (2006) argued that “Teachers confronted with knowledge that contradicts the norms are confronted with the challenge of understanding and explaining it” (p. 2). When teacher candidates say, “I love kids” and “I wanted to help students,” they must realize that classrooms today demand emotional strength. Here, I am including the emotional strength needed to push back against teacher colleagues and White school administrators who want teachers to adhere to racist business-as-usual policies and practices. Critiquing previous learning, especially when it was taught by a favorite teacher, can push emotional buttons. Manglitz et al. (2006) argued that counterstories can shatter White complacency, color blindness, neutrality, and taken-for-granted White positionality and challenge the dominant discourse on race. McLaughlin (2003) contended that “there is a crucial and complex relationship between our inner and outer worlds” (p. 195), as noted in the following illustration of Dalia:


“I can’t wait to go to school,” says Dalia, a six-year old Latina girl to her mother before the first day of school. Words full of passion and excitement, expressed verbal and nonverbally at the close of the first week of school, depend on Dalia’s inner world (e.g., family, personal joy and agency) and outer world (school, society), and her relationship (e.g., joy, sadness) with both worlds.

In addition, McLaughlin (2003) argued that how we see what we see is learned from personal and cultural experiences, many of which are deeply rooted and well organized in our classifications and thinking about the world and illustrated by the negative way Black students and people are seen. The White gaze on Black people has a long racialized emotional history described by Phillis Wheatley in 1773, who wrote, “Some view our sable race with scornful eye” (Wheatley, 1773/2010, p. 2). Arguably, viewing Black students with a “scornful eye” has not stopped. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (2018), “Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys and Students With Disabilities,” observed that among Black students, boys were disproportionately disciplined in K–12 public schools; the disparities in discipline were consistent regardless of the type of disciplinary action, regardless of the level of school poverty, and regardless of the type of public school attended. Black students’ behavior and emotions are registered as different, not traditional and therefore unacceptable; their humanity, their way of doing and acting are not readily acceptable, are not respectable. Emotions, race, and education are at play.

Du Bois (1903), in The Souls of Black Folk, speaks of self—myself, yourself—because of racism and the emotions that racism brings with it, each and every day, in every way, to every person whose skin color is Black. In the essay “Of Our Spiritual Striving” (in The Souls of Black Folk), Du Bois (1903) writes passionately about Whites’ emotional gaze of contempt and pity as they look upon a Black person, a Black student, a Black professor as a “problem.” Du Bois’s words—a problem—rings out in spaces of silence, in spaces of clamor, during class discussions, and during committee meetings in pre-K through graduate school. Often, the words are poorly framed, as Du Bois (1903) notes, by the inquisitors (teachers, principals, police, university colleagues, and store clerks). “How does it feel to be a problem?” (Du Bois, 1903) and viewed with “a scornful eye?” (Wheatley, 1773/2010)—“to have your very body and the bodies of your children to be assumed to be criminal, violent, malignant?” (Du Bois, 1903, p. 3). The “past is prologue,” and the “scornful eye” continues to gaze and set the context, conduct, and practice of the present day: Black and Brown students in schools across the nation faces multiple forms of violence, a “school to prison pipeline,” and a pattern of inferior treatment.

Emotion and education, without considering race—are we real!


The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.—James Baldwin, 1961

Teachers, education, and students of color (race/racism) come together at the intersection of emotion. In part, emotions arise because communities of color, including students of color, are woke about their schooling and their lives in America. Remaining woke is needed by students of color because racism and White superiority have roots that go deep into American history (e.g., Blacks being valued at three fifths of a person) and America’s present (e.g., the massacre of nine Black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina). Being and remaining woke illuminates and promotes resistance to the lies, myths, and misrepresentations of Whites as warriors and “real” Americans. It challenges the argument that people of color should be either subservient or invisible. Being woke brings attention to how school policies and practices influence the internal state of Black and White students’ emotions and how the self is often formed by the values and judgment of others (DeCuir-Gunby, 2009).

Woke enlightens so social justice can be pursued and racism eliminated. Woke is critical with the increased recognition of identity in the 21st century and further realization that America doesn’t have a single imagined story. Being woke is what enabled Ruby Bridges to remain resolute in her actions and believe in herself; being woke empowered the parents of Native American children to deny the myth of White superiority and hide their children from boarding school officials who desecrated Native culture; and being woke caused Du Bois, Baldwin, hooks, and Ellison to devote their lives to fighting against racism.

Rudine Sims Bishop (1994) uses the metaphors of “mirror,” “window” and “sliding glass door” to address emotions, self, and developing a heightened consciousness. Bishop (1994) argues that all children need books that serve as a “mirror,” a “window” and/or a “sliding door.” She explains that too often, children of color have books with windows into the White world but few books that present mirrors of their own world to them. She identifies mirror books and window books as ones where children want to step through the sliding door. Bishop (1994) states,

When children cannot find themselves in books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are part. Our classrooms need to be places where all the children from all the cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find themselves.

Books that are mirrors, where a student can imagine himself or herself—doctor, pilot, carpenter, first responder—allow dreams to flourish and potential to become kinetic. Good feelings about self are developed when books are mirrors, and students can see themselves.  

In Du Bois and Education (Grant, 2018), I tell the story of discovering some Brownie Books in my home when I was a child. Seeing Black boys and girls in regular books, with stories, poems, songs, and pictures, was the mirror book and sliding glass door that Bishop (1994) describes. Du Bois (1920–1922/1980) published the Brownie Books to provide a place for Black children to see themselves in the world. In 1919, before the first publication of the Brownie Books, Du Bois stated, “Heretofore the education of the Negro child had been too much in terms of white people and little or nothing about his [her] on race” (p. 2).

Du Bois would be saddened that the education of Black children remains dominated by a Eurocentric thesis that controls both the overt and hidden curriculum. Du Bois, I believe, would ask, “Why does the white man continue to make the color line a problem?”    

Woke, emotions, education, and race, ironically, should be more about, or as much about, helping White people, White teacher candidates, and educators to become. This past summer, I received a phone call from a tenure-track African American assistant professor (let’s call her Joyce) who was in despair because her White department chair had concerns about her teaching. The chair’s concerns were due to her student evaluations. Ten percent of her student evaluations were low (1 = low, 5 = high) in a required ethnic studies course for all students. Joyce, who has a PhD from a prominent West Coast university with a double major in history and curriculum studies, noted that her poor evaluations by 10% of the students in the class consisted entirely of 1s across all questions on the evaluation form. Joyce recognized (and I agree) that the 10% who downgraded her were expressing angry emotions based on several factors: the content of the curriculum, the university’s requirement that they take the course, and herself, a Black professor as instructor. Arguably, the department chair’s White socialization has rendered him racially analphabetic. He does not see himself and the White students as racialized, nor do the chair and the White students appear to understand that they have lived in the United States without understanding the influence of racism and the privilege that comes with it. They feel emotionally free to weaponize the students’ evaluation (e.g., students downgrading their professor; the department chair’s expression of dissatisfaction toward junior faculty). Therefore, becoming woke—developing a critical consciousness about race and racism—becomes an important challenge to White educators and students.

Whether Whites really want to become woke about racism remains a question—a big question. Many Whites contend that they are woke enough. The Pew Research Center (2016) reported that 4 in 10 Whites believe that the country will eventually make the changes needed for Blacks to have equal rights, and about the same share (38%) say that enough changes have already been made. Du Bois, who once believed that it was only White ignorance about Black people that kept them racist, soon discovered that this was not the case. White people, Du Bois discovered, want privilege, power, and superiority and will fight to maintain it. To view Black people as equal necessitates treating them equally, and equal treatment of Black people across society would destabilize the emotional psyche of many Whites.

Finally, let me return to Moisi’s statement: “One cannot fully understand the world in which we live without trying to integrate and understand its emotions.” This statement has been my muse as I write this chapter. I didn’t want to run down a rabbit hole, studying emotions and looking away from the study racism. I thought of how I framed my recent book, Du Bois and Education (Grant, 2018). Race, teaching, and teacher education were centered, but not emotions. As I thought about The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil (1920), two of Du Bois’s books, along with other Du Bois writings, emotion is visibly present, provocatively and wisely used. I can feel both the quietness and disquietness of emotions in two of Du Bois’s statements, which have emotional meaning today in addressing the cold, calculating, and excessive qualities of anti-Black and anti-Brown racism.

Du Bois (1935) argues in Black Reconstruction that Whiteness serves as a “public and psychological wage,” delivering to poor Whites in the 19th and early 20th centuries a valuable social status derived from their classification as “not-black” (Myers, 2017). Today, at U.S. borders and in our nation’s schools, Whiteness and not-black continues to operate as a “public and psychological wage.” At the southern border, the Brown skin of parents and children is egregiously devalued. Brown mothers and babies cry out, and (so far) two have died. Brown families are torn apart. Anti-Brown racism and race hatred are providing some White Americans with an insistent public and psychological wage. “Make America Great Again” is powerful emotional compensation for the United States becoming increasingly Brown. Similarly, in schools, honor classes (with no or very few Black and Brown students, along with mostly White teachers and a Westernized curriculum) provide huge emotional compensation—public and psychological wages to a socially constructed White school system and those in power who wish to keep it that way. At a dissertation oral defense a week ago, the candidate contrasted school halls where diversity prevails, and the classrooms where segregation resides. These are educational settings in which America is imagined differently. In one school, the entire organization elevates Whiteness, and Blackness and Brownness are devalued. Schools claim that their honor classes are like badges of courage, and the very phrase honor classes has become a dog whistle for no or few students of color and a Eurocentric curriculum. They signal “not Black, not Brown.” It is emotional loading when the value of Whiteness is promoted and supported by the devaluation of Blackness and Brownness.

Emotion in education cannot be ignored. Emotions are power. In many U.S. classrooms, emotions are filled with power that race and racism inspire. The stirred-up feelings of Black and Brown students develop because as places of hope, schools more often are places of suffering and disappointment. Generation after generation, Black and Brown students have come to school bright-eyed with enthusiasm and confidence, only to have their motivation undercut by the negative emotion they encounter with the absence of their history and contribution to society, and being perceived and treated as a problem. To study emotions in the classroom and the emotions of White teachers who teach Black and Brown students without centering race is flawed.  

Will teachers, who wish to study emotions without considering race, be engaging or not engaging in rational intent, but adhering to “long followed habits, customs and folkways?” (Du Bois, 2017, p. 87)


The author offers many, many thanks to Elizabeth (Beth) Graue, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Thandeka Chapman, University of California San Diego; Joyce E. King, Georgia State University; Brian D. Schultz, Racheal Rothrock, and Ganiva Reyes, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio; and Sylvia Thorson-Smith for their careful critical reading of chapter. The comments were very helpful and inspiring.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 13, 2019, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22985, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 11:11:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Carl Grant
    University of Wisconsin–Madison
    CARL A. GRANT is Hoefs-Bascom Professor in the Department of Curriculum and former Chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at the University Wisconsin–Madison. He has authored or edited more than 50 books and has written more than 100 journal publications. Professor Grant’s recent books include Du Bois and Education (2018), Black Intellectual Thought in Education (with Keffrelyn and Anthony Brown, 2015), Intersectionality & Urban Education: Identities, Policies, Spaces and Power (with E. Zwier, Eds., 2014), The Selected Works of Carl A. Grant (2014), and The Moment: Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright and the Firestorm at Trinity United Church of Christ (with Shelby Grant, 2013).
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