By Dr. Ranita Ray
One morning as I was sitting toward the back of a 5th grade classroom, Carmen, a Black girl—extremely devoted to academics—was completing her math assignment. She raised her hand to ask the teacher a question. Ms. Josephine, her white teacher, asked Carmen to wait. Carmen kept her hand raised—she did not want the teacher to forget about her. Ms. Josephine raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes at Carmen. Carmen, embarrassed by this visible impoliteness in front of the entire class, resisted by rolling her own eyes. Ms. Josephine saw this and said loudly, “Barbie right here, she needs more cheese with her wine…” Everyone laughed. Later that day when Carmen wanted to use the bathroom, Ms. Josephine said, “You just come pretty every day and you want to go to the bathroom to chat.” Everyone laughed at Carmen again. Her eyes filled with tears; Carmen put her head down on her desk before the tears could roll down her cheeks.
As a wave of bills and legislations to suppress conversations around racial oppression and privilege sweeps the US, and white parents debate the right time to teach their kids about race, I bemoan the futility of these conversations. The reality is that regular racial harassment, cruelty, and indifference is a common experience for Black and brown students inside schools. And this should be the urgent conversation on race and public schools.
The hostility that racially marginalized students, particularly Black and immigrant girls of color, experience inside their classrooms and schools every day is not unleashed by police and School Resource Officers alone.
From 2017 to 2020 I followed a cohort of economically marginalized Black, Latinx, Asian, and recent immigrant students, in a large metropolitan public-school district in western US, documenting their journey from 4th to 6th grade. Inside the classrooms and corridors, over and over again, I witnessed teachers harass Black girls and immigrant girls of color.
Just as Black girls like Carmen were harassed and reduced to their sexuality, robbed of their innocence and girlhood, immigrant girls of color were harassed drawing on caricatures of the immigrant. Like Ms. Luft, a white 4th grade teacher, who mocked a supposed “Asian Accent,” laughing and joking with her colleagues at lunch, as some 4th graders who had returned early from lunch pointed and laughed at their classmate Kevin—whose parents were Chinese immigrants.
Even Black and immigrant girls, like Carmen and Kevin, who excelled in the classroom, as per white middle-class standards, were not immune to racist harassment.
Moreover, I watched how teachers repeatedly refused to acknowledge Black and immigrant girls’ intellect even when they excelled as per white middle-class standards. Like when Eliza’s white 5th grade teacher discounted the fact that she had remained at the top of her class (in math and English) through 4th and 5th grade by arguing that Eliza just “works a lot” unlike a white girl who simply “has this knack for reading.” Her teacher argued that “she [Eliza] is at top is kind of like fake.” And, when Gloria, who had recently immigrated from Michoacán, wanted to participate in class discussion her teacher either plainly told her that she was not legible by her classmates (most of whom, I noted, understood her very well and were themselves bilingual), or when Gloria spoke in class her teacher simply narrowed her eyes and shook her head side to side to indicate confusion at what Gloria said and then ignored her answer.
Sometimes immigrant girls of color were used as the vehicle to harass Black girls. Like when a teacher working with a group of “lower-ability” English learners told a Black girl in the group, “Maria [a recent immigrant] has an excuse. Her family, they don’t speak English. What makes you sit here,” implying that the Black girl must lack intelligence or is lazy.
Sometimes teachers used the example of Black girls at the top of the class to deride Black girls who did not meet academic standards urging that if “those just like them” can succeed then others must just be “dumb.” They did the same thing to immigrant girls of color. For example, when Mariana continued to perform well academically despite her father’s deportation, she was used as an example of grit. Mariana was not allowed to mourn her father’s deportation and the resultant trauma in her family. Teachers told other immigrant girls of color that they simply weren’t good because Mariana’s situation was “proof” that anyone “just like them” can do well.
Of course, teachers of color can also engage in racial harassment. I found that Black girls were harassed even by teachers who seemingly had the most radical race politics. I want to note, however, that the teachers and administrators in the schools I studied, as well as the larger district, were overwhelmingly white just like much of the education profession. And harassment most often came from white teachers.
Teacher pay is also decidedly exploitative and they often work in hazardous conditions with minimal resources. But this truth coexists with widespread teacher racism. What I found is not surprising either; it is reflective of the regular coverage of teachers racially harassing students across the nation.
My research warns us that academic achievement is a fundamentally incomplete, and even dangerous, way to understand how marginalized students experience school. Schooling, different from education, has in fact historically served as a way to stifle Black freedom and assimilate colonized people and Third-World immigrants into the state.
The focus of attention on the achievement gap reflects an incomplete understanding of schooling. Simply having marginalized peoples at the top of the classroom (or positions of power) is insufficient. While integration and diversity projects in education center, and benefit, whiteness and white people, we also need more than anti-racist trainings for educators.
It is time to follow the lead of generations of Black and Third World scholars and activists, and transform how we conceptualize schools—from an idealized site of potential liberation to its reality as a site where violence may be experienced. Because what we need is a future where marginalized communities have the right to self-determine their educational freedom.
Ranita Ray (@ranitaray1) is Associate Professor of Sociology and Maxine Baca-Zinn Endowed Chair at the University of New Mexico. She is the author of The Making of a Teenage Service Class: Poverty and Mobility in an American City—the 2018 C. Wright Mills Award Winner. Supported by NAEd/Spencer Foundation, she is currently writing a book on the everyday gendered-racial violence of schooling and the proliferation of race discourse in contemporary United States.