Teachers’ Lived Experiences, Resistance, and Accommodation to Racial Ideologies

by Dinorah Hudson, Dr. Irena Nayfeld, and Dr. Yana Kuchirko

Woman in White Shirt Holding Girl in Brown and White Stripe Shirt
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

A Black teacher teaching a class of Black and Brown students affirms his students’ experiences by gesturing to his own history. A white teacher leading a class largely composed of students of color lets her racial difference become a (sometimes comic) point of pedagogy. An Asian teacher who emigrated to the US in the 1970s is able to address the concerns of a newly immigrated Chinese student around a low grade in ways that are attuned to the student’s cultural context. A Cuban teacher raised in the U.S. engages his Latinx students in ways that elicit their own experiences and cultural knowledge.

We encountered the aforementioned examples in a study that illuminated the relationship between teachers’ life experiences and anti-racist pedagogies. We discovered that traditional teacher preparation programs simply cannot convey the complexity needed for teachers to meet their students halfway. Beyond giving teachers a basic set of instructions on how to be culturally responsive in their pedagogy, traditional teacher training programs have not succeeded in building the kind of self-awareness that is needed to produce a true anti-racist education.

We interviewed over 30 PreK-12 New York City teachers from different ethnic-racial backgrounds about how their ethnic-racial socialization shaped their identities and pedagogy. The interviewee and interviewer were matched by racial background (a white researcher interviewed white teachers and a Black researcher interviewed BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) teachers. Our study is grounded in the following principles: 1) Teachers enter the profession with good intentions and are dedicated to serving all children and communities; and 2) Majoritarian narratives (implicit assumptions that allow the dominant power structure to prevail in our society) undergird teachers’ pedagogies, although how teachers accommodate and resist those ideologies vary as a function of their intersecting identities. In our study, we deliberately sought to create a space for teachers to explore, reflect upon, and problematize their experiences with race and racism.

The results have been instructive. While many white participants have mentioned the murder of George Floyd as a reason to examine their white racial identities and the systemic racism embedded within the education system, almost all BIPOC teachers drew upon their lived experiences of marginalization to provide their students with alternative narratives that disrupt white-centered discourses. As prior research on white communities has shown, we also found that most white teachers report that their families do not, as a rule, talk about race while adopting color-blind discourses. For instance, a white female teacher who grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1980s remembers receiving messages from her parents that race did not matter, while her encounters with Black peers told her otherwise. In contrast, BIPOC teachers convey that race has been integral in their formative experiences, while conversations about race are a salient feature of their daily interactions with others. For example, in response to the question “how often do you talk about race with your friends,” a Black male teacher said: “everyday…I’m a Black man in America, it’s our whole essence. As a father, you know, raising kids, that means a lot…because it’s a different pressure on us.”

This is not to say that the differences are always so stark. The classroom can be a nuanced space full of different and even contradictory discourses. For white teachers, resistance to dominant narratives about racism in society, and in schools particularly, often manifests in exploring their privileges (e.g., lack of encounters with law enforcement), examining their contributions to racialized structures (e.g., easier access to elite education), and reconciling their identification with a racial category that also includes members such as white supremacists and neo-Nazis. For BIPOC teachers, acts of resistance in the classroom are exemplified by challenging culturally-determined notions of meritocracy (e.g., “grit”), acknowledging racial and cultural differences while having the fluency to respond to them sympathetically, and working toward expanding the curriculum. White teachers also reported working on this goal).

Perhaps surprisingly, many teachers, both white and BIPOC, at times also endorsed majoritarian narratives that implicitly cast minoritized communities in a negative light. (We hypothesize that one reason for this is that teacher training programs often fail to address the subtleties of systemic racism adequately.) Some white teachers placed the onus of educational success on impoverished, minoritized communities rather than examining how racialized institutions “push out” BIPOC children, especially Black boys and girls. Both white and BIPOC teachers expressed ideas about meritocracy and individualism when speaking of good students. Several BIPOC teachers also exhibited a desire to be seen as individuals, exemplifying internalized majoritarian narratives of individualism being valued over group affiliation.

Asking teachers to consider their role in a racialized system has not always been easy. Many white teachers spoke during interviews about how painful it was to reflect on those times that they were complicit or unaware of upholding injustice. These moments often led to emotions of shame and sadness. BIPOC teachers often recalled times in the formative years of their careers when they were subjected to racism. They likewise reported feelings of frustration and anger.

Ultimately, we believe our study contributes to the discussion about the efficacy of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. While DEI programs are now found throughout the nation, they may be limited. In fact, many teachers in our study, both white and BIPOC, expressed frustration with the DEI training provided by their schools. Black, Latinx, and Asian participants felt they were asked to “teach” white teachers about their experience or sit through “learning” what they’ve lived their whole lives. On the other hand, many white teachers felt uncomfortable contributing their perspectives for fear of committing microaggressions or being labeled “racist.”

The challenge is to create educational systems that affirm the humanity of all students and teachers. Institutional approaches to equity training should work to ensure that every teacher feels safe when discussing difficult and divisive issues, and fostering an open environment of listening can go a long way in paving this road. Yet, there are limits to what a general education in racism can provide. This may be particularly true for white teachers. Research has shown that white teachers, especially those in urban settings, understand the broad landscape of racism in education, but also often lack a nuanced understanding of how their own white identities have informed their pedagogy. Our study takes this finding a step further.

Our research shows that, when performed with sufficient sensitivity, the one-on-one interview format can itself enable a kind of self-critique and introspection for the teacher, white or BIPOC. What’s needed is a way of fostering a greater awareness among teachers of the unequal structures that exist in our current system and the teachers’ own roles therein. We believe we’re discovering that possibility. Perhaps the best starting place for developing an anti-racist pedagogy may not be in the group setting but in the one-on-one interview. These interviews were designed to be judgement-free spaces where teachers are meant to feel comfortable speaking about their experiences and expressing any grievances they may hold.

The most powerful moments in our interviews were when we learned about the myriad of ways that teachers challenged majoritarian narratives in their praxis. “Children come to school and they are often punished for being experts in the world that they know so well” said a white female early childhood teacher in conversation about how standards and curricula often fail to draw upon children’s funds of knowledge. “But” she continued, “when the home environment matches the school environment, they become successful” pointing to the inequity that begins to emerge in early childhood classrooms. Indeed, teachers used many creative strategies to incorporate students’ backgrounds into the curricula. One teacher turned a student’s question about racial differences in hair texture into a chemistry lesson about perms. A Black male teacher challenged Eurocentric curricula by teaching his mostly Black students about the rich history and culture of Black communities, underscoring their many strengths. “You can give us anything” he said, “and we will turn it into gold.”

Interviews about racial identities conducted without fear of judgement or consequence allow teachers to have the space needed to explore their own racial identity, and ultimately, their own humanity. Each of us possesses a unique and beautiful cultural heritage that should be shared and acknowledged. It is the complex existence of racial hierarchies that we are charged with dismantling. As such, culturally responsive pedagogy must regard teachers not only as facilitators but also as students whose exploration (or lack thereof) of their own racial identity can either help or hinder the work in challenging majoritarian narratives. This is but one example of the engaged and grounded approaches we need to dismantle systems of power that support the many inequities in our schools.

Dinorah Hudson is a veteran New York City public school science teacher at the High School for Math, Science, and Engineering. At her school, she is the Coordinator of Student Activities and the Black Student Union advisor. She has played a crucial role in starting her school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work. She is a former physical science adjunct professor for Westchester Community College of the State University of New York and Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. Her research interests are in the racial identities and socialization of classroom teachers and their role in teacher pedagogy. She is an award recipient of The Research Experience for Teachers through Brooklyn College’s Psychology department of the City University of New York

Irena Nayfeld is a researcher, teacher educator, and independent coach and consultant. With a PhD in developmental psychology and 14 years of experience in the field of early childhood education, Irena has led research projects and professional development programs that center on strength-based learning, critically conscious reflection, and culturally responsive, anti-racist practice. Irena is currently an adjunct professor and student-teacher supervisor at CUNY Brooklyn College where she supports early childhood educators in bringing these practices into their classrooms

Yana Kuchirko is an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and is the director of the Culture and Child Development Lab. After receiving her PhD in developmental psychology from New York University, she completed a postdoc at the Institute of Human Development and Social Change at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. In her research, Dr. Kuchirko examines sociocultural and ecological contexts of child development.

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National Center for Institutional Diversity

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