Thoughts on Equity in MathEd 2018

Diversity used to be the buzzword. Now the buzzword is equity. Both are good words and have great intentions, but there is a danger that they will start to lose some luster as they crop up in less sincere places. Some say we live in a post-racial society, but any reasonable study of the news over the last ten years makes it clear that racism (and many other –isms) are in full force in modern American society. In my bubble of educators in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am surrounded by people who are absolutely not racist, but we all have biases that influence how we teach, and how we interact with our peers and the learners in our classrooms. Yet, despite all of our best intentions, on average, our black and brown students do not succeed in the same way that our white and Asian background students do. In the past, many of us have fallen back on the same excuses that are clearly beyond our control – they did not get the fundamental skills in previous grades, they have parents who do not value education or do not know how to help or are not around to support their kids, they have much more stress at home due to poverty and violence, they don’t have the materials to do work or the tutoring that other kids get. We can even start to scratch at a real issue – we do not have enough teachers or administrators of color in our school who can act as mentors and role models for our black and brown students. It is time for us, as teachers of students of color, to start to recognize that we are complicit in the separate and non-equal education that exists in this country.

I often talk about the question I asked to prospective candidates when we were interviewing for a new head of school. I believe in my school, Mid-Peninsula High School. It is a private school, which raises some concerns for me; whom it is available for could add to the separate but non-equal system, and we may detract from the funding and resources of a public school. That said, we do make some good efforts to be a diverse school, with intentions of a mix of types of people among the student body, faculty, staff, and administration. Efforts and intentions are not enough, though. We have a very white faculty and staff, a largely white administration, and a fairly white student body. We appear to be doing everything right to be welcoming, but the diversity does not happen. So when our previous head was retiring and we were seeking a new head, my question to the three finalists was the same: “We have a very strong faculty and staff, but it is very white. We also have very low turnover. What can be done to increase the diversity of our faculty and staff without simply getting rid of some of our highly qualified teachers?” To be honest, I don’t know, two years later, if there is a good solution for this. I’m not sure there is one, though the notion of “getting rid of some of our highly qualified teachers” does scream to me now of privilege. What I do know is that, of our three candidates, two basically brushed off the question as not really a problem, because we would push for diversity as we hire in the future. That seemed as much of a non-answer as one could possibly give. Only one of them did take the time to emphasize that this is an important question, and one without easy answers, but one which needs to be addressed in the school as we go forward. He was the only non-white candidate, and I am glad to say that he was the candidate that we ended up hiring.

This ties closely to something that I have seen multiple times at diversity workshops or sessions in larger conferences. In every anti-racism session or presentation that I have attended or heard about, it may not be surprising, but there are often people of color either presenting or attending. What has started to strike me recently has been the inherent inequity in this situation. People of color often feel a desire or need to attend sessions regarding equity specifically because racism affects them so directly. A smaller proportion of white people feel the need to prioritize these sessions over other more content-specific or pedagogy-specific sessions. The big injustices that I used to focus on were how unfair it is for people of color to feel a need to always be the ones speaking about racism, and how much the white people who never attended sessions on racism are exactly the ones who need to be better educated about how it affects their own interactions with peers and students and their teaching practices. However, I recently realized something else (which I’m sure has been noted and written about long ago by others who have been involved far longer than I). Every time a person of color prioritizes a session on racism or equity so that they can contribute to the greater good, they are also missing out on a session about pedagogy or content that can improve their own teaching practice. They end up sacrificing for the greater good, and as a result, they are giving up some potentially game-changing professional development. Why are they put in this situation? What can we be doing to improve their experiences?

I recently returned from Twitter Math Camp, a grassroots organization which prides itself (rightly so, I think) on intending to be a welcoming community of math educators. “Intending to be” is the key, though. Despite a large proportion of the population who wants a diverse group of attendees, the vast majority of the people to attended were white. There are a number of reasons why this may happen, but from talking and reading to others, one thing keeps coming up. It is really, really hard to voluntarily be different, even in a welcoming community. It takes a great amount of strength to decide that even though the majority of the people who are attending a conference of white, and the majority of the board is white, it is worth being one of the only non-white people attending, and maybe even the only one you know. I spoke with a few white teachers who have attended TMC in the past who decided not to attend this past year, and in one case it was explicitly in order to hopefully open up the pool of attendees to more non-white people. (A couple of others implied that that was part of the reason). This is noble, and I know that there have been limits on the number of attendees (although that adds to some exclusivity). Again, do we start denying people who are valuable contributors to the math education community, simply because they are white and are taking up space that could be taken by non-white educators? Then again, how much privilege is being invoked in that question right there? Why not deny some white people, maybe especially people who already have a lot of influence and power in the community, and pass some of that power and influence on to others who have not had the same privileged opportunities?

These are difficult questions, I know, and I don’t pretend to have the answers (yet?). I do want to partner with others, though, and find solutions that will better our whole community, from the experiences of the learners in our classrooms to the experiences of teachers and administrators in our schools. Chipping away at racism is a long and difficult task, but is no less important now than it was 50 years ago, 75 years ago, 100 years ago, 150 years ago, 200 years ago, or 500 years ago. It wears different masks through each generation, but its hold on our society is deep and will take an incredible amount of hard work and a lot of time to extinguish. There is a lot of work still to be done in the field of math education, in education in general, and in our greater society before I want to hear anyone utter the phrase “post-racial” ever again.

There are many leaders in the area of equity in math education that I’d like to acknowledge, as following them through their Twitter accounts and blogs and other writings has been so influential to my thinking. I also look forward to them being able to be leaders in other areas of math education as well, as I know they have so much to offer that we don’t often see. Thanks to José Luis Vilson, Marian Dingle, Rochelle GuitierrezRobert Berry (who has, in theory at least, reached the pinnacle of influence in math education), Nicole M. Joseph, and so many more. I have learned so much from each of you about equity, but know that I need to grow and see you as more than that. I hope to see you in the same way I see my friend Lybrya Kebreab, as one who loves and plays with math just as much as one who embraces the importance of social justice and progress in our field.