Why Teaching Racial Thinking is Problematic

A History of Education by Painter (1886) is a textbook that was once part of the formal curriculum for teacher education and was used by teachers in training in the early 1900s in Saskatchewan. 

In this textbook, the word “race” is used to describe the whole human race, which includes all peoples, “barbarous as well as civilized” (p. 5).  Painter again talks about the human race as a whole when he describes it passing through successive periods of childhood, growth, and maturity as it inherits the accumulated wisdom of preceding periods of time.  In this textbook, “uncivilized peoples” are a part of the human race but their education is too primitive to be involved in the classification of the course of human progress. 

The word “race” is also used to describe specific races, such as the Mongolian race, “whose genius is shown by the early invention of paper, printing, gunpowder, and the mariner’s compass” (p. 9).  The Mongolian race is praised for being polite, kind, respectful of those in authority, and possessed of great patience, but criticized for being hypocritical, dishonest, incapable of spiritual delights, and gross in their pleasures. 

Both ways race is used in this text, to describe the whole human race and to describe specific races, are problematic.  When Painter describes the human race, he creates divisions, or a hierarchy, where “civilized” nations are above “uncivilized” nations and education among some nations is varied or imperfect.  His description of the Mongolian race is problematic because it essentializes that race to very specific characteristics and shows that he ranks certain races as genius based on a biased perspective of accomplishments. 

Teachers being taught to think in racial terms meant that the idea of race became part of their common sense.  This made race real as a social construction, even though it has no biological basis. 

Teachers thinking in racial terms can have many negative effects.  They may learn to homogenize each racial group and become ignorant to group diversity.  They may essentialize races to certain characteristics or traits (stereotypes) and attribute certain abilities and behaviours to race.  Teachers thinking in racial terms may label students based on their race or expect certain things of certain students based on their race, which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.  Teachers may engage in deficit discourses, blaming students (and their races) for certain shortcomings rather than finding the problem in their own teaching methods.  Finally, teachers thinking in racial terms create privileges for some students and educational disadvantages for others. 

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