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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 8

Perspectives on Gender and Race

To meet the needs of diverse groups of students, schools need to address gender equity and race equity simultaneously, not as opposing issues.

A few years ago, I worked with a task force established by a large urban public school district to address the high levels of school failure among African-American males. One of our recommendations to the school board was the establishment of schools for African-American males.
This recommendation received widespread national attention in the mass media. Several months later, at a professional meeting, I was cornered by a group of women who argued that schools for African-American males were sexist. How could I, a self-professed supporter of gender equity, support schools for African-American males?
The establishment of these schools was also vigorously attacked in the national media—both by women who argued that these schools perpetuated sex discrimination, and by some African Americans and whites who argued that they violated notions of race equity. Even today, more than five years after the proposal and the establishment of two coeducational African-American immersion schools in this district, people across the country still ask about "those all-male African-American schools." This controversy raises questions about relationships between sex equity and race equity that educators must squarely face.
We cannot be rigid about using same- or cross-sex groups. Both are beneficial to students depending on the specific situation. The same is true in looking at race as an issue. Race equity and gender equity are complex, interrelated issues that do not have to be in opposition to each other. First, let's look at several factors that lead to this misconception and, then, at some suggestions for incorporating both race and gender in policies and practices that can promote equity in a diverse society.

Conflicts Between Gender and Race Equity

Three interrelated ways of thinking can lead to potential conflicts between race and gender in the pursuit of equity.
1. Either/or thinking. Many educators consciously or unconsciously perpetuate what Collins (1991) calls either/or thinking. For many years, we taught children that there were right or wrong answers to our questions. And, as educators, we often assume that we must choose one curriculum or another; one text or another. It is not surprising, therefore, that we expect others to choose race or gender as their primary source of identity. This kind of thinking lies behind the characterization of groups as women or minorities.
2. Hierarchical thinking. In this society, race, gender, and social class tend to be viewed hierarchically (Young and Dickerson 1994). Children learn, both formally and informally, that one group is privileged over another and that privilege is a mark of that group's rank in society. For example, by excluding information about white women and people of color from the curriculum, or by presenting information about these groups as peripheral, we are teaching children that knowledge by and about white males is better or, at least, higher on some type of hierarchy.
3. Universal thinking. The tendency to view race and gender categories as universal, disregarding within-group diversity, also limits our perspectives. Further, as several writers have noted, even though these categories may be called universal, they are not (Young and Dickerson 1994). A somewhat cynical expression of universal thinking occurs when administrators identify an African-American female to fill a position because they are able to get "two for one" in fulfilling diversity needs. In this scenario, both white women and women and men of color are subsumed into one category.
Either/or, hierarchical, and universal thinking are evident in some of the policies and practices schools use to cope with issues of race and gender. Most often this is apparent when schools separate race and gender into mutually exclusive categories with either formal or informal hierarchical rankings of knowledge or experience.
For example, many schools celebrate February as African-American or Black History month and March as Women's History month, a practice that brings up several equity questions. Where are African-American females? In one of those months? In both? More important, whom do our students study the remaining seven or so months of the school year? Note that these rather longstanding celebrations ignore the existence of other groups of color in this society.
Schools may also perpetuate divisive views of race and gender by not giving credence to the importance of cultural contexts and the complexities of multiple statuses. For example, a colleague at a predominately white high school expressed dismay over the following incident. In forming cheering squads for the school teams, two racially divided groups emerged. One consisted primarily of white girls and the other of African-American girls. The two routines differed markedly. School administrators, at first, insisted that only one squad could be the legitimate cheering group and that the African-American girls would have to disband. A possible alternative solution would have been to help the two groups figure out a way to work together that would accommodate both of their routines.
Finally, schools may increase the potential for conflict over race and gender equity by not recognizing that they must attend to the needs of multiple groups simultaneously. In such schools, one group's valid needs are often presented in a way that pits that group against another. The national concern over African-American males' school performance is a good example. This issue should be addressed in a manner that does not ignore the needs of African-American females, Latino males and females, and so on.

An Alternative: Both/And Thinking

An alternative to either/or, hierarchical, or universal thinking about race and gender is both/and thinking (Collins 1991). We all are members of multiple groups: racial, ethnic, gender, and social class. Further, as Young and Dickerson (1994) have pointed out, how individuals think about themselves in their race and gender positions is affected by the historical and situational contexts in which they find themselves. To meet the needs of diverse groups of students adequately, schools need to address gender equity and race equity simultaneously. This, in turn, requires a recognition that students, as well as teachers, occupy multiple statuses at the same time and that these must be taken into account in the school setting. Following are some suggestions.
First, issues about race and gender need to be integral to the curriculum—not left to selected weeks or months. Teachers need to learn about the history and culture of their students. They can also use students' everyday experiences as part of routine learning. For example, a primary-level teacher asked her culturally diverse students to bring in favorite family recipes and games. These were written down and used, first, for reading activities and, later, for group math exercises. Another example is the family tree activity in which students interview parents, grandparents, and other relatives in order to make charts and write stories. In addition to writing, this idea lends itself to social studies and other subjects.
Second, we must provide students with large numbers of same-sex and same-race adult models (Ascher 1992). If students have opportunities to get to know these adult models over time, they may learn to see both gender and racial roles as flexible. Long-term mentoring or classroom participation programs are, of course, more helpful than the one-time appearance of an adult on a program.
The recognition that students occupy multiple statuses makes it difficult to engage in either/or thinking. With both/and thinking (Collins 1991), rather than asking children which is more important—their race or gender—one might ask how both race and gender are important to them or how they think about their race and gender.
Both/and thinking also means that educators can group students flexibly. For example, same-sex and same-race grouping in school are often seen as divisive practices. Under some conditions, however, grouping by sex or race may benefit students. A couple of years ago, a colleague directed an after-school program to familiarize preadolescent children with computers. His initial plan was for boys and girls to work together. The boys tended to become quite involved with the computers, however, while the girls hung back and complained that the class was boring. When the teacher split the group by sex for part of the class, he found that the girls were much more willing to learn how to use the computer and found the class more interesting. Later, after the girls were more confident in their computer skills, they wanted to return to the coeducational groups. In this example, the teacher fostered gender equity by providing same-sex educational experiences in a specific context with a particular group of students.
In the case of African-American immersion schools mentioned earlier, two coeducational schools were established: one at the elementary and the other at the middle school level. At the elementary level, the focus on gender has been sparse. At the middle school level, however, an interesting picture has emerged. Same-sex groups for both boys and girls have been formally established for both classrooms and extracurricular activities. These groups are voluntary and time bound. All students have opportunities to interact in cross- as well as same-sex groupings.
Same-sex groups appear to serve at least two purposes. First, they provide a "safe haven" (Ascher 1992) for early adolescents to talk about issues they may be uncomfortable discussing in cross-sex groups. Second, they provide an opportunity to make links between gender and race equity. According to Asante (1993), the relationships between race and gender equity are unique for African Americans because of the oppression of African Americans in this country and because of African-American males' oppression of African-American women. Therefore, he argues, Afrocentric educational models must consider both race and gender equity.
While gender and race should not be used to exclude students, they should always be considered as characteristics that students have. We need to ask ourselves how we can take these characteristics and use them in beneficial ways depending on the situation at hand.
Finally, teachers and administrators need to move away from deficit-oriented, hierarchical thinking about race and gender. Inservice and preservice training must make both issues integral to all aspects of schooling. Equity must become a proactive goal of schooling rather than a reactive response to wrongs committed. This means helping teachers and administrators embrace both/and rather than either/or thinking. In addition, educators must be encouraged to reflect about how they view their own and others' racial and gendered statuses and challenged to think in broader ways.
For a time, progress toward race equity and gender equity followed a steady and complementary path. With the increasing realization that race and gender are complex, interrelated issues, however, it has become evident that simplistic solutions will not work. If we are to move toward greater equity for all, we must first be willing to consider the multiple, specific contexts of various racial, gendered, and classed groups and devise ways to incorporate these realities into our classrooms.

Asante, M. K. (1993). Malcolm X as Cultural Hero and Other Afrocentric Essays. Trenton, N. J.: African World Press.

Ascher, C. (June 1992). "School Programs for African-American Males and Females." Phi Delta Kappan 73, 10: 777-782.

Collins, P. H. (1991). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Young, G., and B. J. Dickerson. (1994). "Introduction." In Color, Class, and Country: Experiences of Gender, edited by G. Young and B. J. Dickerson. Atlantic Highlands, N. J.: Zed.

Diane S. Pollard has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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