My View

No, I Am Not Color Blind
By DANIEL E. GUTEKANST/School Administrator, August 2020

A PARENT in our school district recently expressed concern about a school program that involved children learning about race and skin color. The program explored questions children often have about differences they observe in others, including skin color.

Our district in the suburbs of Boston encourages developmentally appropriate educational opportunities for students and staff to discuss and learn about issues of race, culture and bias. We understand these conversations can be uncomfortable — probably more so for adults than children, who are instinctively curious.

The concerned parent, who is white, said he was upset with the school talking about skin color and race. He said he is “color blind” to differences and treats all people the same. He worried talking about race could exacerbate racial tensions and wants his own children to be color blind. I explained that failure to address questions of race leaves children feeling confused and as if they have done something wrong. They learn quickly to associate something negative about skin color when a caring adult shuts down a conversation.

Frustrated, the parent asked, “Aren’t you color blind?” I paused and answered, “No.” I said I was not color blind. In fact, I see differences in people, including skin color and race. For me to act as if our students of color all have similar experiences, opportunities and the privileges I enjoy as a white man dismisses the realities of their lives. If we ignore every person’s unique gifts, including their heritage or race, we lose a chance to learn, build understanding and create meaning among different people.

Acknowledging Race

Being color blind whitewashes the circumstances of students of color and prevents me from being inquisitive about their lives, culture and story. Color blindness makes white people assume students of color share similar experiences and opportunities in a predominantly white school district and community.

Color blindness is a tool of privilege. It reassures white people that all have access and are treated equally and fairly. Deep inside I know that’s not the case.

In Needham, we acknowledge that many students and families feel invisible or marginalized in our classrooms and community. We strive to be inclusive and free of bias, but we are a reflection of a broader society in which inequality and bias exist, and that is particularly true for students of color. Our students and staff of color experience the sting and pain of racism routinely, and educators must acknowledge this. We must “see” them.

In their 2016 book The Myth of Racial Color Blindness, Helen Neville and two co-authors write: “By noticing race and naming racism, one calls into question racial privilege and unequal treatment of people of color. For some, this causes anxiety and discomfort. On a larger scale, claims that discussions about race and racism cause racial problems provide people and institutions with a convenient rationale not to explore policies and practices that create inequalities, either intentionally or unintentionally.”

Respecting Differences

In Needham, our intent is not to inflame racial tensions but to acknowledge and respect the human differences among us and accept that students and staff of color often experience the world in a way unlike their white peers. Our intent is to embrace rather than dodge the awkward and difficult discussion about race in an effort to break down barriers, celebrate diversity and share unique perspectives.

For adults — including me — conversations about race can be uncomfortable and unnerving. For children, conversations about race are natural and propelled by their curiosity and innocence. Let’s not stifle genuine questions. Instead, let’s accept them as learning opportunities.

No, I am not color blind, and I’d like to think I’m on a journey in my understanding of others, including those who look, speak, pray and love differently than I do. In Needham’s schools, we strive to be anti-racist. We want our young people to become socially and culturally responsive contributors to a world that hungers for understanding — a world that is equitable, peaceful and, yes, colorful.

DANIEL GUTEKANST is superintendent of Needham Public Schools in Needham, Mass. Twitter: @NPS_Supt