I met recently with a parent who expressed concern about a program offered at one of our schools which involved children reading and learning about skin color.
The purpose of the program was to explore and address questions children often have about the differences, including skin color, they observe in others. Consistent with the district’s strategic priorities and goals to promote equity, understanding, and an anti-racist culture, the Needham Public Schools encourages and supports developmentally appropriate educational opportunities for students and staff to discuss and learn about issues of race, culture, and bias. We believe these lessons are integral to our work with children, and we also understand these conversations can be uncomfortable—probably more so for the adults than the children who are instinctively curious about the people around them!
The concerned parent, who is white, told me that he was upset with the school talking about skin color and race. He told me he was “color blind” to the differences in people and treats all people the same, which I am sure is true for him. He worried that talking about skin color or race could exacerbate racial tensions and divisions. He wants his children to be color blind as well. I explained that not addressing questions of race leaves children feeling confused and as if they have said or done something wrong; they learn quickly that there is something taboo or bad about skin color when a caring adult shuts them down without explanation or conversation.
The parent asked me directly: “Aren’t you color blind?” After a pause, I answered, “No.” I shared with him that I was not color blind and that, in fact, I do see the differences in people, including their skin color and their race. I explained to him that for me to act as if our students of color all have the same experiences, opportunities, and privileges that I have as a white man would be disingenuous and dismiss the realities of their lives. I explained that I want and expect all children under our care in the schools, not some but all children, to be treated fairly, respectfully, and equitably. I also accept that if we ignore their unique gifts, including their cultural heritage or race, we lose a chance to learn, to build understanding and create meaning between and among different people.
Being color blind disregards the circumstances of that person and prevents one from being inquisitive about another’s life, culture, and story. In short, color blindness whitewashes the world in an attempt to comfort ourselves and make believe that black and brown people, for example, all have the same experiences and opportunities in a predominantly white school and community when, deep down inside, we know that is not their reality. The equity audit we conducted in the Needham Public Schools confirms that many students and families feel invisible or marginalized in our classrooms and community. The Needham Public Schools strive to be inclusive, accessible and free of discrimination and bias, but we are a reflection of a broader society and culture in which inequality, unfairness, and bias exist, and this is particularly true for students of color.
In a 2016 article from the American Psychological Association entitled, The Myth of Racial Color Blindness, the 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.” In the Needham Public Schools our intent is not to inflame racial tensions but to acknowledge and respect the human differences that exist among us and accept that our 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, strengthen relationships, and share unique perspectives.
For adults—for me! —conversations about race can be uncomfortable and unnerving. But for children, conversations about skin color and race are natural and propelled by their curiosity, innocence, and developmental level. We should not stifle or hush these genuine questions, we should accept them as learning opportunities. Harvard behavioral psychologist Michael Norton observes that: “It’s so appealing on the surface to think that the best way to approach race is to pretend that it doesn’t exist, but research shows that it simply doesn’t work. We do notice race, and there’s no way of getting around this fact.”
No, I am not color blind, and I’d like to think that I am on a journey in my understanding of other folks, including those who look, speak, pray, and love differently than I do. I still have a long way to go on my personal journey and understanding of others. I appreciate the father for seeking me out and for his willingness to dialogue about what we are trying to do in the NPS. Our efforts in the schools are imperfect but our intent is clear: We want our young people to become socially and culturally responsive contributors to a world that hungers for understanding, respect, and equity—a world that is prosperous, peaceful, joyful, and, yes, colorful.
(To learn more about our efforts in the Needham Public Schools to promote equity and inclusion, check out our website: http://www.needham.k12.ma.us/equity )
 Neville, H., Gallardo, M., Wing Sue, D. 2016 Has the United States Really Moved Beyond Race?
 Nobel, C. 2012 The Case Against Racial Colorblindness. Harvard Business School