Feb 2 2017
Lakeridge Elementary School

Many people cling to the ideal of “the school” as the great equalizer, a place where Americans are made and equal opportunity is realized.

Yet “the school” has been and continues to be an agent in oppression argues Joy Williamson-Lott, a professor of the history of education at the University of Washington College of Education. Throughout history, each time communities of color have made progress toward equal educational opportunity, a major societal push-back has caused the loss of gains that appeared won.

Williamson-Lott will discuss what history can tell us about how to make real progress toward educational equity on Feb. 15 as part of the UW Graduate School’s public lecture series.

In advance of her lecture, Williamson-Lott answered questions about how societal push-back is happening today, how educators can support real progress toward educational equity and more. To reserve a seat at Williamson-Lott’s free public talk of Feb. 15, register online for "New Hurdles, Same Territory: How History Can Guide the Future of Education.”

What’s an example of how push-back toward equal educational opportunity is playing out right now in America?

One of the ways that push-back manifests itself today is through the use of "proxies." For instance, "immigrant" is often a proxy for Mexican-American (though, currently, it has also become a proxy for Muslims from across the globe). That's despite the fact that immigrants come from everywhere. 

Using a proxy is a way to target specific groups without naming those groups.  Instead, someone can say "we need to worry about the number of immigrants flocking to our shores" and claim they are not targeting particular groups. 

The same thing happens in education. I spoke at a local high school where the proxy for black and brown children was “kids on free and reduced lunch.” There were white children on free and reduced lunch, also, but teachers and staff used the phrase to mean black and brown kids.

Why is open dialogue about race and ethnicity essential to our conversations about education?

Proxies are related to the concept of colorblindness, which some consider a liberal virtue but is really white privilege in disguise. We can't pretend we don't see "color"—by which people mean race and ethnicity. 

Seeing color isn't the problem. Treating people differently is. Refusing to talk about race/ethnicity is. How are we supposed to make progress in eradicating racism or other -isms if we refuse to talk about them? As Mica Pollack says, we aren't colorblind. We're colormute. That constrains our opportunities for progress.

How might we start making real progress toward equal educational opportunity?

One important step is getting kids to be critical consumers and actors in the world. They need practice talking about inequality, talking about how and why it exists, what it means for their lives, what they think it means for society. 

Another is equipping teachers to facilitate that type of learning. Most of the teaching force is middle class white women. Research shows that many middle class white women are paralyzed when it comes to talking about race and/or they invoke colorblindness and a reason they refuse to think about it in their own practice. 

Teacher education programs are a great place to facilitate and unpack assumptions, biases, etc. Continued professional development around these issues is pivotal. It can't be accomplished in the short amount of time students have in a teacher education program. 

Schools aren't the panacea to all of our racial problems in America, though. There is plenty of work to go around.

What does history have to tell us about how we can make enduring progress toward equal educational opportunity?

In my talk, I'll first describe how schools have been oppressive spaces for students of color, but I will also highlight how these groups and their white allies created alternative spaces that were affirming, high quality, rigorous, etc.

Sometimes that happened in a formal school. Sometimes it didn't. But another scholar of education put it this way: "institutional caring" is key for student success.  Just because a school is monolithically black or brown doesn't mean it's inherently "bad." In fact, there were amazing things happening for black children in segregated schools in the South before Brown v. Board of Education. We can learn from those examples. We can use them to fortify the type of education our must vulnerable populations receive.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications
206-543-1035, dwunder@uw.edu