We Need to Talk (about race): Grace Chambers

This summer, seven of our undergraduate teacher education students and one intrepid faculty member are spending a month in Peru studying the educational system and discussing their own philosophies of education. They are writing and reflecting on their journey, and we are following along! Read on for excerpts and blurbs from Dr. Gibson and the students’ blogs. You can read more on Marquette Meets Peru and check back for updates here.  

Grace Chambers

The century-old pseudoscientific studies that claim that people of color are biologically less intelligent than white people have left a lingering impact, and that impact can be seen most clearly in schools.

“I like your eyes.”

“Your eyes are so blue!”

“I like your skin, it’s so white.”

I’ve heard these comments over and over again in my time in Peru. The students (and several adults) who have made them mean them to be compliments. They are compliments. I say thank you, and the conversation continues. To me though, they have been reminders that I look different. In Peru, my blue eyes and fair skin are uncommon characteristics for a person to have. In my field classrooms in Milwaukee, my blue eyes in fair skin are uncommon characteristics to have. Students look at me and they see that I do not look at them. While some students may not see more than the physical difference, many students will see right through to the fact that I am a person with a lot of privilege. I am a white, middle-class American, who was taught in well-funded public schools in the suburbs of Chicago. Nearly all of my students in Milwaukee have been people of color, coming from working-class or impoverished families, being taught in underfunded schools. When I first arrived a Marquette, I did not see that, but my students always have. The ways in which I am perceived by those around me and the ways in which I experience education diverge from those of most of my students. As a result, it would be impossible, for me, or any educator, to philosophize about education without thinking about race.

Educational philosophy is a theory. Even if the philosopher has countless classroom experiences, the theory will differ from what will happen in the field. Accounting for diversity among students -such as differences in race and SES- will help to bridge the gap between educational theory and educational practice. Philosophers who do not account for racial diversity among students will too frequently fail their students of color, especially because so many educators and educational philosophers are white. Thinking about experiences in school that are specific to students of color (such as race-based discrimination, prejudice, and microaggressions) will help educators understand how to educate students of color to achieve their fullest potential. White educators are infamous for underestimating the ability of students of color, whether their assumptions are intentional or unintentional. Because so many students of color are also living in working-class or impoverished families, educators think that their students simply don’t have the resources that they need to be as successful as their white and/or middle/upper-class peers. The century-old pseudoscientific studies that claim that people of color are biologically less intelligent than white people have left a lingering impact, and that impact can be seen most clearly in schools.

Racism is not a problem unique to the United States, or even to the “developed world.” We have observed racial disparities in schools in Peru since we arrived. It is not coincidental that the schools we observed in economically disadvantaged communities were populated by children with darker skin. In Peru, racial discrimination is not as strongly tied to skin color as it is in the United States, its roots lie in hundreds of years of violent, oppressive, and suppressive treatment of indigenous people. Schools like Immaculada or Roosevelt have many Peruvian students (students at Immaculada are almost entirely Peruvian), but the students there have lighter skin, perhaps dirty blonde hair as opposed to a nearly black shade of brown. Students at privileged schools have visibly European features that most students in working class or poor areas do not. Racial disparities in Peru were discussed at length in our pre-departure readings, which have helped us to frame the educational contexts we have observed.

Now that we are learning (yes Dr. Gibson we are actually learning *insert shocked emoji*) in the Cuzco region, we are focusing on the education of indigenous students. As a result of this change, we are thinking about bilingual education not in the context of Spanish and English, but in Spanish and Quechua. In the Cuzco public schools, the director said that all students are native Spanish speakers, and very few actually speak Quechua. This contrasts with our visit to Fé y Alegria 44 (another branch of the Fé y Alegria school system), where most students are native Quechua speakers, and education is in both Quechua and Spanish. Fé y Alegria 44 gives us a perfect example of the importance of discussing race in educational philosophy. When the school was built, classes were only taught in Spanish. However, teachers and staff noticed that many students were not learning as much as was expected, because many children begin school with minimal to no Spanish experience. The school modified its philosophy to account for differences between their students and students attending other Fé y Alegria schools (like those in Lima). Teachers considered their students’ context, and framed education around that, rather than trying to force students into molds that don’t quite fit. Many students at Fé y Alegria 44 walk several hours down the sides of mountains to get to school every morning, even in the rain or in freezing temperatures. They do this because Spanish colonizers forced indigenous people up mountains to evade their own murder, and systemic oppression has kept groups of indigenous people in those same difficult living situations until they became too poor to move back down. While this may seem insane to an American reader, its mirrors our history pretty closely. First, when European colonizers arrived in the United States to slaughter Native American people and force whoever was left into tiny pockets of land. Next, when white Americans shipped hundreds of thousands of African people like cargo across an ocean to work in fields for hundreds of years to come. Oppressive government systems have attempted to keep people of color in powerless positions, and they still do. What educators cannot forget, is that education is a government system. Therefore, it has and can be used to maintain the cycle of oppression. It is not only impossible for educators to philosophize without considering race, it is their duty to ensure that racial diversity is accounted for in their philosophy.

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