Race and Intellect, or Except for You, You’re The Smart One [Unreleased]

Jose Vilson Jose, Race

Supreme Sonia Sotomayor on Sesame Street

Supreme Sonia Sotomayor on Sesame Street

This week, I’m releasing some of the pieces I’ve written that never saw the light of day for different reasons. Here’s the second.

Release Date: 12/03/2012

Dear New Teacher,

A few questions to ask now that you’ve gotten your feet wet at your job:

  1. How many friends of color do you have in your circle?
  2. How often have you interacted with one, and not in a I-follow-Diddy-on-Twitter sorta way?
  3. Are you frustrated because you feel like the one or two teachers of color in your cohort are having more success than you are in a classroom with certain types of kids?
  4. If so, do you then assume the other ones also don’t have any issues with teaching certain kids?

    OK, OK, one more.

  5. Do you work under the same assumptions the rest of society does about race and intellect?

Recently, I posted an article on race in the classroom that’s handy for people who don’t know how to handle this discussion on race, but before you read it, please know: the way you enter into the conversation depends heavily on how you perceive others’ intelligence, not just with children but also adults.

For instance, if a doo-rag and baggy pants indicates to you that a student has no idea what they’re talking about, then that’s an issue. If your goal for a student’s grade has to do with what she wears and how she speaks, then that’s an issue. If you find yourself trying to speak their language without any conceptual development and without context, then that’s an issue.

In other words, Erin Grunwell ain’t walking through that door.

Based on what some of my colleagues have said about the school in question, the kids themselves didn’t feel they were that bad, but, because of these movies and the societal images we’ve thrown into the zeitgeist, White teachers walking into a classroom with kids of color already feel they’re going to war rather than trying to build a team. We have entire networks of schools that demand certain rituals and routines be in place for the sake of codifying and assuaging the fears of Whites hoping the kids of color won’t act out.

But it doesn’t stop at students. New teachers are often told to look at teachers of color as less capable or intellectually inferior because of their approach or their unwillingness to use the mumbled jargon of the current-day administration. Some administrators (regardless of color) put forth and favor teachers who only want to talk about their middle-class White existences and ingrain children of color to act like them, leaving teachers of color, veteran or otherwise, to the side. This becomes rather obvious in teacher meetings where, in front of the administrators, only one voice gets highlighted as “correct,” “thoughtful,” or, more directly, “perfect for what the school needs going forward.”

In the education world as a whole, this plays itself out very frequently, from the people who participate in education conferences to the educators who somehow find their way towards the top of some edu-Twitter-blogger-examplar-endorsed-by-so-and-so-well-resourced-out-the-wazoo list.

That’s a little much for you right now, though. All I’m asking you to do is consider the way you approach your students and colleagues as you walk in. Consider that, just because the student can’t quite articulate what they’re saying doesn’t mean that they don’t have the concept. Also consider the numerous opportunities thrown your way even when, upon some reflection, you may not have earned it. Take note when your colleagues don’t feel like saying anything after you’ve said it, or feel like when they do voice something, they get a reproach that you don’t necessarily get.

Start grappling with your privilege. It’s the smartest thing you can do right now.


Jose, who wishes he did release this at the time …