H. Richard Milner IV is the Helen Faison Endowed Chair of Urban Education, Professor of Education, Professor of Social Work (by courtesy), and Professor of Africana Studies (by courtesy) as well as Director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a policy fellow of the National Education Policy Center. His research, teaching and policy interests concern urban education, teacher education, African American literature, and the sociology of education. In particular, Professor Milner’s research examines practices that support teachers for success in urban schools. Professor Milner’s work has appeared in numerous journals, and he has published five books. His book, published in 2010 by Harvard Education Press, is: Start where you are but don’t stay there: Understanding diversity, opportunity gaps, and teaching in today’s classrooms http://hepg.org/hep/book/129/StartWhereYouAreButDonTStayThere, which represents years of research and development effort. Currently, he is Editor-in-chief of Urban Education and co-editor of the Handbook of Urban Education http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415634779/with Kofi Lomotey, published with Routledge Press in 2014. He can be reached at rmilner@pitt.edu.

Years ago, I provided a workshop with educators in an elementary school – educators, principals, and a small number of counselors.  I was invited to focus – in particular – on the role of poverty in education and to provide instructional strategies for educators that would assist them in better meeting the needs of students whose needs are grossly under-met in schools.  These students tend to be students of color (namely Black and Brown), those living in poverty, those whose first language is not English, and those whose first language is not English.  Although analyses of achievement gap patterns, graduate rates, enrollment in gifted and advanced courses, office and special education referral, and participation in school-wide clubs and activities demonstrate how Black and Brown children’s needs, in particular, in too many instances are not being met, my attempt to shepherd the educators in the workshop into real conversations about race, the salience and persistence of racism, and inequity was resisted.  Moreover, educators in the session wanted me to tell them exactly what to do with “those” children, who are very different than the children the educators taught in the past and “certainly” different from the times when the educators themselves were students.  I quickly learned my job was to focus on poverty exclusively and to tell those in attendance exactly what to do to raise their students’ test scores.

At one point an educator raised her hand and shared the following:

I’m going to share with you what I suspect most of my colleagues really want to say but are too nice to.  We work with young children, and we love all our children just the same.  Our principal invited you here to talk to us about SPECIFIC STRATEGIES to teach our poor children.  I was devouring what you had to say – you were right on target — until you got to this race stuff.  Race has nothing to do with how to teach my kids living in poverty. What does it matter? Really!

Frustrated and frankly a bit agitated, the teacher began to doodle for the remainder of the professional development session because the focus of our professional development workshop had evolved to a deliberate focus on the intersections of race, poverty and also social class.  Moreover, the teacher was upset, it seemed, because I was not providing a step-by-step guide for her and her colleagues to teach “those” kids.

The comments I share of the elementary teacher above are not inimitable.  I consistently “hear” this type of concern from people training to become educators in different types of teacher education programs mostly in higher education, those who have been teaching for years in elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as some colleagues who teach and study aspects of education as professors.  Educators tend to feel much more comfortable focusing on poverty and to a lesser degree social class than to focus on race or the traversing nature of them.  But why? Why is it still so difficult for people to engage race inside and outside of education? Examine Table 1 below and notice the percentage of low-income Black and Brown families in the U.S.  The table provides a snapshot for Black and Brown student in particular.  Proportionately, although Black people make up only 12.2% of the U.S. population, they represent 22% of low-income families.

Table 1 Here: Low-Income Families by Race Adapted from Munin (2012), Simms, Fortuny, and Henderson (2009)


Percentage of Low-Income Families

Percentage of U.S. Population

White 42% 65.6%
Black 22% 12.2%
Hispanic/Brown 30% 15.4%

In my simplest explanation, it is difficult to focus on poverty without focusing on race.

Educators who do not view themselves as racist individuals can have trouble recognizing how racism works and how it can manifest through the curriculum, instructional practices, as well as in broader, systemic and institutionalized structures that prevent particular groups of students from succeeding in the classroom and beyond.  It is still common for educators, without vision impairment, to claim that they do not “see color.” I have heard this proclamation from educators – that they do not “see color” – from a range of ethnic backgrounds (Asian American, African American, and European American).  It is essential for educators to think about and talk about race in order to confront their own biases and misconceptions that can implicitly emerge in their curriculum development and teaching. Indeed, embracing and operating from a color-blind perspective makes it difficult or perhaps impossible for educators to understand and recognize the following troubling circumstances and realities:

  • An over-referral of Black and Brown students to the office for disciplinary infractions;
  • An under-referral of Black and Brown students for gifted education;
  • An over-referral of Black and Brown students to special education;
  • An under-representation of Black and Brown students in school-wide clubs and organizations.

Still, people may believe we live in a post-racial U.S. – that as a country we have transcended and overcome racism and other forms of ism and discrimination.  However, for educators, this way of thinking and approaching their work can be especially harmful to the students with whom they work because their students may indeed continue experiencing racism (inside and outside of the classroom).  In short, although educators may believe they are somehow building connections and bridges with students when they claim not to see, think about, or acknowledge race or the intersecting nature of race and poverty in their work, they are avoiding very important aspects of the teaching and learning exchange.

Finally, although I recognize talking about race, poverty and their connection will not automatically result in transformed and transformative practices with students, acknowledging and talking about these factors can be the foundation for how educators conceptualize their work and build their practices.  In this way, discourse is action (Freire, 1998) and has the potential to help educators make sense of why things are as they are and how to improve situations for students.  Moreover, through conversation, educators can build community, and bridge issues of race, poverty with what they teach and how they teach subject matter.

Indeed, it is critical for educators to recognize their own and their students’ racial backgrounds in order to plan for, work with, and teach their complete students, rather than fragmented, disconnected students (see, Milner, 2010, for more).  I am challenging educators away from colorblindness in their practices.  Educators are challenged to rethink persistent notions that they should avoid recognizing race—their students’ and their own.  Although educators may believe their consciousness-raising related to race and poverty should focus on students, their families, and others in general, this work begins with educators themselves; that is, educators must develop their own consciousness and emancipate themselves before they can work in communion with others in their pursuit of freedom (West, 1993).

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Milner, H.R. (2010). Start where you are, but don’t stay there: Understanding diversity, opportunity gaps, and teaching in today’s classrooms. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Munin, A. (2012). Color by number: Understanding racism through facts and stats on children. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Simms, M.C., Fortuny, K. & Henderson, E. (2009). Racial and ethnic disparities among low-income families. The Urban Institute.

West, C. (1993).  Race matters.  Boston: Beacon Press.

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2 Responses to “Why is it Still So Difficult for Educators to Talk about Race? by Richard Milner”

  1. Joycelyn Pegues Jackson on 8/5/14 12:58 AM US/Eastern

    I think Richards understanding of how educators and others still continue to either avoid or deny the existence or correlationship between poverty, social class, language, culture and race. It is impossible to understand ALL students and the lens that effective education and and learning can take place sucessfully, if educators and others do not understand the role that RACE and it’s negative effects have on student progress and learning in education.

  2. Diana Potter on 1/12/15 11:52 PM US/Eastern

    Gday Richard, I am an Aboriginal Australian and your comments on instructional strategies for teachers was very interesting. I will research more of your materials to increase my understanding of teaching in todays classrooms. Thanks heaps.

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