I recently got into a heated debate about the importance of having “people of color” as teachers. My opponent, a relative of mine and a school teacher, claimed that it’s a well-known fact that black students do better with black teachers, and Hispanic students with Hispanic teachers. He became exasperated when I challenged this – but he did look up a study or two that seemed to support this claim.
He mentioned how one of his Hispanic students, upon being assigned a Hispanic teacher, expressed his joy at having a member of his own ethnic group as a teacher. My relative’s take on this was that having teachers who “look like themselves” helps students of color overcome their default attitude that they’re destined for failure. Seeing black/Hispanic teachers is a living reminder that they, too, can succeed.
I challenged his assertion because it just so happens that the teacher who most inspired me in high school was black. He taught geography so well that I gained the ability to draw a map of the world by memory, and I even gave him a gift to show my gratitude. It was a crude medal made of coins from around the world; I had collected coins as a child. If he’s still alive, I’m certain he still has it.
I also brought up Yo Yo Ma, the famous musician, born in France and of Chinese parentage. I’m fairly certain that he had no Asian school teachers as a child, his main role model being his father. Though he’s Asian, he seems to have had no issues with “culturally appropriating” classical European music, and making it his own.
My relative countered that children of “privileged upbringing” don’t count. Only the children of downtrodden minorities need role models who “look like themselves.” I suppose the lack of fathers is one factor that makes so many American blacks “downtrodden.”
Since our discussion, I’ve given the matter much thought, and I’m willing to concede the likelihood that children learn better, all else being equal, from teachers who “look like themselves.”
However, I do not accept his assertion that the reason for this is that black/Hispanic students suffer from low self-esteem. It’s well-established that blacks have higher self-esteem than do whites.
One of my objections to his point of view is that this may well be a self-fulfilling prophesy so to speak. Schools, government and the media put a lot of effort into building ethnic consciousness, and pride, among non-whites. From Dora the Explorer to Black History Month, students are bombarded with the message that their particular ethnic group is an essential part of their identity. If kids were not constantly reminded that they are “Hispanic students” or “African American students” or “Asian students,” perhaps they would simply view themselves as “students” – and then there would be little need for race-specific role models. They would then be free, like Yo Yo Ma, to have role models from any background, and learn the best from anybody.
Instead of interpreting the “teachers who look like themselves” phenomenon as evidence that “students of color” are disadvantaged, we could just as easily interpret it as evidence that ethnicity and race are overemphasized in our schools, and by the media.
When I attended ghetto schools, back in the 70s, we were inventoried by race. I remember our gym teacher going through each of his pupils, clipboard in hand, and marking us off: Black, black, black, black, Mexican, Mexican, white, black, black… And then he got to me, and asked me “what are YOU?” I told him I was just a regular American. He looked confused, and asked if I wasn’t Mexican. When I gave no more information, he just shrugged his shoulders and marked something on the clipboard. Yes, we were inventoried, as if we were products on the shelf. I’m fairly certain that this state of affairs has gotten even worse over time, especially with the “No Child Left Behind” act. Schools are required to racially inventory their students. What kind of message does this send to the kids? That they wear their ethnicity like some sort of barcode on their foreheads. Is it any wonder, then, that they learn better from teachers of their own group?
What if we were all the same, except for eye-color. If some of us have brown eyes, while others had blue eyes – and the entire educational system, and media, identified us as either “brown-eyed” or “blue-eyed.” Studies would then show that blue-eyed kids learn better from blue-eyed teachers, and brown-eyed kids learn better from brown-eyed teachers. This would be the criterion for in-group and out-group.
Of course, race has far more significance that eye-color. Recognition of racial differences appears to be built into our psyche. Most likely, this is for our own safety; recognizing your own people could mean the difference between life and death. People care for their own families more than they care for strangers, and one’s race is one’s super-extended family. By giving preference to your own race, you’re actually protecting your own genes.
While the jury is still out when it comes to the benefits of having “teachers who look like themselves,” most of the concern focuses on “students of color.” Nobody seems to care about white students, and I took my relative to task for this. For all the concern about black/Hispanic students in school, I’d like to see some concern for white students. Does their academic performance suffer when they’re forcefully integrated with blacks and Hispanics? What about their safety? The silence of academia speaks to their neglect, neigh, their hatred toward whites as a group.
If black and Hispanic students benefit more from having teachers who “look like themselves,” perhaps it has nothing to do with their own so-called “marginalization,” but with the fact that the default condition of humanity is to learn better from those who “look like themselves” – but since white students are taught, almost from birth, that they’re not allowed to have a white group identity (this would be “hate” and “racism”), their natural inclinations are suppressed. At the same time, the preference for teachers who “look like themselves” is exaggerated among “students of color.”
To assume that the reason “students of color” benefit more from same-race role models is that they’re “marginalized,” while white/Asian students are “privileged” is a clear sign of prejudice and dogma not of any scientific analysis.
What if we eliminate the dogma, or at least most of it. What if we examine whether boys learn better from male teachers, and girls from female teachers? Unlike white students, the Establishment actually does care, somewhat, about boys as a group, and it’s not hard to find studies, in mainstream publications, that show how boys do better when their teachers are male. This is not considered controversial. If it were, then USA Today, for example, would not have published it.
We might also examine the situation in parts of the world where race and ethnicity are not national obsessions. I’m not aware of such studies, but I did ask a couple of my coworkers, one from Kenya, and another from Iraqi Kurdistan, whether the skin-color of their teachers would have made a difference for them when they were growing up. The Kenyan told me of a Zimbabwean teacher who was black as coal, but his speech, and mannerisms were very British. He said the students couldn’t relate to him. His appearance made no difference to them, but his speech and mannerisms did. The Iraqi Kurd told me that some of his teachers were Arabs, and their Arabic-accented Kurdish was a distraction. There was some animosity due to the fact that they represented an oppressive regime, but their sometimes darker skin made no difference to the students. Of course all this is highly anecdotal, but it does have the virtue of complying with common sense: If adults don’t make a big fuss over the racial/ethnic affiliations of students and their teachers, then neither will the kids.
The Left Establishment DOES make a big over it, so it would be surprising if students didn’t do so as well.