“True justice must be color blind,” President Ronald Reagan announced in 1983 when he signed the bill making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.
The idea of color blindness, Dr. Tricia Rose says, was a huge mistake.
On Feb. 6, Rose, professor of Africana studies at Brown University, delivered a talk in LCC’s Longhouse to an audience of about 50 students, teachers and staff. In her presentation, titled “Education Equality in an Unequal World,” she spoke about educational inequality, race and the problem with the idea of color blindness.
“We need warrior teachers, we need warrior students, we need warrior administrators,” Rose said, urging people to fight for a more inclusive, dynamic education for American youth. “If we don’t do this, we become managers at a fact factory.”
Education, she said, is an important part of American identity. “We use education … as a linchpin for making that case that we’re an egalitarian society,” she said. “That’s a heavy burden for education. It’s also a little bit unrealistic.”
Rose challenged the idea that education creates equal opportunity for all. “Is the education system creating a starting line that is relatively similar for all of us?” she asked. The answer, she argued, is no. “The system is heavily stacked against all poor people, all working people and all people of color,” she said.
Rose argued that the notion of color blindness makes it difficult to have honest conversations about education. “Whites think acknowledging race is a racist activity,” she said. “Blackness becomes a secret stigma.” And that makes it hard for people of color to talk about their experiences.
She left the audience with some strategies for moving forward. “I just want you to remember three little words,” she said. “Tell the truth.” She emphasized again the need to acknowledge race as a real part of people’s lives. Different people have different experiences, she said, and students, teachers and administrators need to talk about that.
She also argued that it is important to embrace the diverse skills that students bring to the classroom. “Build spaces for learning from what students already know and what they know well,” Rose said.
Christina Howard, physical therapist assistant program coordinator, said Rose’s talk was relevant to her work. “I’m thinking about it more intentionally,” she said, adding that she wonders if the program’s current application process might rule out some well-qualified applicants. “Right now we use grades,” she said.
“I know our job is to teach certain skills,” she said, explaining that she does not want applicants to be ruled out before they have to opportunity to demonstrate their ability to learn those skills. Applicants who have bachelor’s degrees, Howard added, tend to have an advantage in the application process.
A points-based application process might be more balanced. Howard said that if applicants earn points based on a variety of qualifications, it would be possible to evaluate applicants according to a broader range of abilities. For example, multilingualism, a skill left out in the current process, is potentially useful in the field of physical therapy.
Mark Harris, counselor and substance abuse prevention coordinator at LCC, said Rose’s talk was important because many people are not aware of the structures that frame individuals’ beliefs and perspectives. “She was talking about structural illiteracy,” he said.
The numbers of black faculty have always been low at the college Harris pointed out. “There’s never been more than seven,” he said, adding that he has been at Lane since 1992. “The folks who come here haven’t stayed. There’s something keeping them out.”
Harris added that Rose’s talk was not only about the issue of race. He explained that in his work as a counselor, he finds that people have a diverse set of experiences, regardless of their race. For example, different kinds of addictions, whether it be painkillers or alcohol or cocaine, must be treated in different ways.
Rose is internationally recognized for her research, with appearances on NPR, MSNBC and Al Jazeera, and has spoken at hundreds of educational institutions around the world. She is the author of several books, including “The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop–and Why It Matters.” She earned a Ph.D. in American studies from Brown University.
On her website, Rose writes, “I have chosen to teach, write, think and engage in dialogue because the world in which we live requires — more than ever — that we contribute, however we are best suited, to the interminable struggle for social justice, creativity and growth. We must face the world we have created and dream the worlds we want into existence.”