Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Missing the point.

For the last three months at my paying job I've been quantitatively coding qualitative data received within a survey sent out to thousands of former teaching consultants across America. As with most surveys that involve education or personal information, one of the qestions asks for the repondent's ethnicity. I've coded about 500 surveys at this point, and nearly one in fifty responds to this question with some degree of indignation. "I refuse to answer these stupid ethnicity questions," one person said. "Offensive" is a popular comment. More than a few people have checked "Other" and gone on to list three or four European nationalities. (No person yet has checked "Other" and then listed Asian or African or Latin American nationalities.) One person even thought she was being cute and filled in "Earthling" in this field, cloyingly poo-pooing the idea that a person's ethnicity influences her work.

These people have clearly missed the point of ethnicity data, especially in education.

This disgust at ethnicity data would be justified if in fact non-white students were performing at the same level as white students. This adorable attempt at color blindness would be useful if teachers, administrators, and parents actually were incapable of distinguishing white students from black students. This isn't-it-great-how-we're-all-the-same ideology would be laudable if we were in fact all the same when it came to academic acheivement. Unfortunatley, though, in spite of this insensate ideal, there is not equity in education, and pretending that race doesn't exist isn't going to fix anything.

For example, in these surveys, about 95% of the teachers who have indicated their ethnicity have indicated that they are white. If this is a fair representation of the ethnic proportions among teachers who take on leadership roles, then clearly there is some disparity of resources, access, or motivation between white and non-white teachers. Rather than ignore these disparities, the education industry should use ethinicy data as a springboard for institutional change.

As a sidenote, it should be noted that multiculturalism as it is commonly implemented is not the cure for inequity. Though seemingly contradictory ideologies, "color blindness" and multiculturalism have been the tools of people and institutions that want to minimize the visibility of inequity. Almost any student who grew up in a culturally diverse school district (Long Beach Unified being in the most diverse of the nation's largest cities) can remember a Multicultural Fair in which students were asked to display the foods and dances and ceremonies of their native culture to the rest of the school. These events are of course put on with the best intentions, and I believe the net effect of these multiculturalist celebrations is positive; I got to see in their own words and images what Cambodian American culture looks like, an experience that I would have not otherwise had. The unfortunate side effect, however, of multiculturalism is essentialism; cultures can be reduced to their food and clothing and architecture, or even assumed behavioral characteristics. (If I had a nickel for every time during this Olympic coverage that a Chinese athlete was revered for her "honor" and "tradition" I could buy and sell Bob Costas' ass.) Futher, multicultualism tends to disguise inequity and draw attention away from real problems. In short, it's a thin line between recognizing that cultural/ethnic difference results in different life experiences and attempting to reduce those differences into easily digestible and marketable characteristics.

To return to the impetus for this discussion, pretending that ethnicity does not exist or deeming the topic of ethnicity is offensive does nothing to ameliorate inequity, especially in the field of education. I respect people's right to omit their ethnic data from our survey, but please think beyond simpleminded we're-all-the-same doctrine before you assault the people who are gathering this data in pursuit of equity.


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