HGSE Associate Professor Mica Pollock
HGSE associate professor Mica Pollock brings the discipline of anthropology, as well as practical experience working as a teacher and in the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, to the study of difference, discrimination, and fairness in school and community settings. Her previous book, Colormute, won the 2005 Outstanding Book Award from the American Educational Research Association. In an interview for Usable Knowledge, Pollock previews her forthcoming work.
It's not news that half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, race is still a fraught issue in American public schools. Justice and equality are goals to which just about everyone subscribes. But concrete actions to reach those goals can be controversial: At what point does a "race-conscious" approach to an educational issue backfire? Will a race-neutral approach really address the problem?
For teachers and administrators across the country, that means each day at school can be laden with tricky decisions, as Mica Pollock explains in an interview: "'How do I teach this book? How do I talk about this paragraph?'"
Pollock intends to provide some help for educators struggling with these challenges. She is the author of the forthcoming Everyday Justice: Disputing Educational Discrimination in the New Civil Rights Era.
"The punch line of Everyday Justice is that 'Everyday moves really matter,'" she explains. Now she is at work, along with 75 co-authors she recruited, on a book to be called Everyday Antiracism: Concrete Ways to Successfully Navigate the Relevance of Race in School.
The new book, a collection of brief essays based on the individual authors' research and experience in the field, is intended to provide some practical strategies for approaching questions of race in schools on a moment to moment basis. The volume's subtitle is only one indication of how complex the whole issue is.
Pollock has argued that the standard attitude on race is often not so much the "colorblindness" that so many claim, but rather what she calls "colormuteness," a tendency to see and to be very much aware of racial difference – while avoiding, or being unable, to discuss it. The concept provided the title for her 2004 book, Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School.
Instead of colorblindness, Pollock says, "I'm calling for an unusually deep awareness of race." The "everyday anti-racism" that she advocates includes four elements – apparently self-contradictory, but in fact, she maintains, mutually reinforcing:
- Rejecting false notions of human difference
- Acknowledging lived experiences shaped along racial lines
- Enjoying positive versions of such difference
- Challenging systems of racial inequality built upon these notions of difference.
During an informal chat in a local bookstore, she gives some examples she assembled for the book:
Giving feedback on student work: The message that "we have high expectations, and everyone can succeed" is all well and good, Pollock says. But as a practical matter, white teachers about to give constructive criticism should think about administering a dollop of positive reinforcement at the same time. "Kids of color are more at risk of thinking you think they're stupid."
"Think twice about that poster": This maxim comes from the title of one of the chapters-in-progress. Many teachers want to put up classroom posters that "celebrate diversity" or reflect the ethnic makeup of their students, Pollock observes. But what does that mean? One face to represent each of the groups in the class? And "represent" in what way? An image of a Native American in traditional dress worshipping the sun may be more respectful than, say, a representation of an Indian as a college team mascot. But it may not be relevant to how the Native Americans in the class live their lives.
"Spotlighting": Teachers need to be wary of inviting a single student to speak for his or her ethnic group in class when a particular public issue comes up, e.g., "How do your people think about x?"
As Pollock wrote in an essay published earlier this year in Anthropology News, "[A]ntiracist educators must constantly negotiate between two antiracist impulses in deciding their everyday behaviors toward students. Moment to moment, they must choose between the antiracist impulse to treat all people as human beings rather than 'race' group members, and the antiracist impulse to recognize people's real experiences as race group members in order to assist them and treat them equitably."