Beyond My White Discomfort—Let’s Talk About Race and Teacher Expectations

In a new study, Gershenson, Hold, & Papageorge (2015) reveal that non-Black teachers have lower expectations than Black teachers for the same Black students in the same schools. The idea that race impacts teacher expectations is not new news, unfortunately; but this new study adds to the growing body of research on the tragic correlation between race and how teachers expect students to achieve.

Humble Reflection

What troubles me most about this new study is how I reacted to it at first, as a white educator. Beneath my outrage at the findings, I had a personal reaction. I saw the problem as something distant from myself. I thought, those teachers surveyed are different than me. I do honestly want to believe this is true, and yet I’m terrified by the possibility that all white teachers, roughly 80 percent of the U.S. teaching population, could respond in the same way.

What if we all just pointed to the white teachers in the study as racist without stopping to reflect on the possibility that some hidden form of racial bias might exist in ourselves?

I don’t want to be a white educator who reacts in that way. I don’t want to be a person who thinks that just because I believe deeply in racial equity and anti-racism, I’m exempt from being part of the problem. I’d rather be in humble inquiry about what I might be able to better understand in myself, and change.

Beyond My Discomfort

To be honest, I’m uncomfortable right now as I write this blog. Race is an emotional topic and I fear I’ll misstep and unintentionally offend. I don’t know where to start, and yet I do, imperfectly, because I believe educator silence about race is a great barrier to equity in schools.

The silence that is most dangerous, and most personal for me, is white silence. It’s easier to defer the conversation of racial inequity to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and other people of color than it is to reflect deeply on the role of race, privilege and systemic racism have on my perceptions, discourse, and actions in the world.

From Color Blind to Color Brave

Like many white people my age (the median age of teachers in the United States), I grew up with a belief in treating all people equally, no matter their race. More specifically, I grew up with social conditioning to be colorblind. From a colorblind perspective, seeing or talking about race is a form of racism, and we should instead focus only peoples’ characters and potential.

Colorblindness, however, is a problem. It whitewashes identity, denies diverse perspectives, and keeps issues of racial inequity invisible.

Mellody Hobson’s TED talk is an excellent call to action for people to move from Color Blind to Color Brave. I recommend this video as a powerful catalyst for conversations about race, and I used it recently to open a deep dialogue among teachers about the role of race in their school.

We can’t continue with a colorblind mentality, especially in K–12 education, where racial gaps in student achievement, graduation rates, and college participation persist. In a field where roughly 80 percent of teachers are white and more than 40 percent of students are students of color, white educators like me especially need to be reflective participants in the discourse on race and racism in education.

So please, join me in humble and personal inquiry about what we each can do to acknowledge and change racial bias in our schools and ourselves to ensure that K–12 education is truly a pathway to equal opportunity for all.

* * * *

In this four-part blog series, I’ll explore race specifically as it relates to the educator perceptions and expectations of students in K–12 schools. Stay tuned for the next blogs in this series:

II.  Get Explicit about Implicit Bias

III. Four Sentences Educators Must Stop Saying about Students

IV.  Seven Ways to Raise Expectations for All Students


Gershenson, Hold, & Papageorge (2015). Who Believes in Me? The Impact of Student-Teacher Demographic Match on Teacher Expectations

Hobson, M. (2014). Color Blind or Color Brave

National Center for Education Statistics (2013). First Look Report

Singleton, G. E. (2015). Courageous Conversations About Race, 2nd Edition


Related Links:

Color Blindness: The New Racism? by Teaching Tolerance

Colorblind Education Is the “Wrong Response” via Edweek

Uncomfortable Conversations: Talk about Race in the Classroom

When Societal Norms and Racial Identity Collide: The Race Talk Dilemma for Racial Minority Children

What is Systemic Racism? — Video Series by Race Forward

White Anti-Racism: Living the Legacy – a Q & A via Teaching Tolerance

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.


  • Kristina Robertson

    September 11, 2015, 6:32 pm

    Excellent post! Thank you for sharing – the video was a nice addition and I’ll share your blog with others! This message is critical.

    • Tonya Singer

      September 11, 2015, 7:16 pm

      Thank you, Kristina. I appreciate your comment, and leadership to share this message with others.

  • Deborah

    September 15, 2015, 3:51 pm

    Discussion about this topic is long overdue. Thank you for addressing it head on. I am white and live in a community with 60% people of color. I have thought a lot lately about whether white privilege automatically creates a blind spot with regard to this topic. As you describe, I am horrified to even consider that I might carry racial bias, but I also believe that that only way to change that would be to be able to identify and accept that about myself.
    Just some thoughts; thank you for the post.

    • Tonya Singer

      September 15, 2015, 4:14 pm

      Thank you, Deborah, for your honest reflection. It’s not easy to publicly discuss racial bias- especially that which we might carry without wanting it.

  • Kulbir Sandhu

    September 15, 2015, 5:50 pm

    I hope somewhere in this series, you will address the mindset of teachers who are neither white nor black. I continually self check my own biases , and they are predominantly related to economic class. There are just so many overlays of bias ! Your blog is a step in the right direction and will prompt educators to self reflect. .

    • Tonya Singer

      September 15, 2015, 6:07 pm

      Excellent point, Kulbir. I stared this series with my third post (coming soon) inspired by the biases I see/hear regularly about ELLs, and specifically latino ELLs. Some of the research, and the IAT narrowed my focus to black/white dichotomy- and I’m glad you illuminated this in your comment. Any conversation about racial an ethnic groups also fails to address the beautiful fact that so many of us are multiethnic, multicultural, and/or multiracial.

      You are so right that biases go well beyond race. Implicit biases about social class, gender, sexual identity, language use, and cultural background are among the many to better understand to improve equity and access in schools.

  • Royvia

    September 13, 2019, 8:00 am

    Great post.

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