What Does Race Have to do With Math?
by Alice Aspinall
Like many, I have done a lot of learning (and unlearning) over the past several weeks. The world was already in a state of panic and vulnerability due to the Covid-19 pandemic when the murder of George Floyd, broadcast across social media, brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of our minds more than ever before.
I felt a need and an obligation to my children and my students to learn about allyships and anti-racism in a more serious way than I had in the past. I read many articles online, I watched documentaries, I ordered books and read (and am still reading) them, and I joined a book talk with other math educators.
I always thought I wasn’t racist, but now I understand that we all have learned racist tendencies that we must continually challenge and work toward changing. I believed I didn’t hold privilege because my first language wasn’t English and I was raised in a frugal, immigrant home, with parents who do not hold any formal education but taught me the value of hard work and perseverance. But now I know that white privilege has played a part in my life and my accomplishments. Just the act of writing this blog post makes me uncomfortable, but that is my fragility showing through, and I’m trying to push past the discomfort.
Now, you may be asking yourself: what does race have to do with math? And the simple answer is: how can I insist that everyone can learn math – enjoy math, get better at math – if I don’t recognize that marginalized groups have historically been kept from believing they can pursue mathematics?
I frequently address the need to give girls confidence in math because boys’ attitudes toward math exceed those of girls starting in elementary school and continuing all the way into their choice for post-secondary (Ganley, Lubienski, 2016). This has been a focus of mine as a female math teacher myself, but female students are not the only group who exhibit higher levels of math anxiety in school.
Some racialized students shy away from mathematics because of internalized stereotypes from educators, which the students eventually begin to attribute to themselves (Anderson, 2017). Asian and White students have historically been at the top of mathematics achievement, whereas Black, Indigenous, and students of colour have not. These factors have built mathematics classrooms structured around whiteness, creating a disadvantaged system that BIPOC students fall victim to, whether intentionally done by educators or not.
Advanced mathematics classes have lacked Black and Latinx students for years (Walker, 2007) and the issue still persists where students who are “poor, nonnative speakers of English, disabled, or [are] members of racial or ethnic minority groups” continue to be streamed into lower-level math classes (NCTM, 2012).
As educators, we are obligated to change this pattern by encouraging Black students, Indigenous students, and students of colour to learn mathematics and work toward boosting their confidence in STEM subjects. As a White educator, I know it is important to approach this with the knowledge that I am neither an expert nor a member of the marginalized group. As a result, it is necessary for me to engage in ongoing learning to best support my students.
In a recent article written by Pirette McKamey entitled “What Anti-racist Teachers Do Differently,” I found the concept I had been searching for regarding what works in the classroom for building relationships with students. McKamey writes, “[Black] students want to work, … they see their teachers as partners in the learning process, and … they know the teacher-student relationship is one in which they both have power. In other words, Black students know that they bring intellect to the classroom, and they know when they are seen—and not seen” (McKamey, 2020). When we let our students know that we are working as a team, the dynamic shifts from educator vs. student to partners working together in the learning journey. There is a mutual respect in the classroom that empowers Black students and when students feel empowered to learn, they feel confident. Confidence is the key to learning mathematics.
We know that our unspoken beliefs about student abilities matter just as much as our spoken beliefs. Keeping academic expectations high for all of our students ensures they are exposed to quality math education. NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) President, Robert Q. Berry III, wrote in February, “Black learners are less likely to receive mathematics teaching consistent with high-quality mathematics teaching practices, and they are less likely to be exposed to rigorous mathematics content. The lack of exposure to high-quality teaching and exposure to content impacts their mathematics achievement” (Berry, 2020). This inequitable teaching practice relates to what I mentioned earlier regarding the tracking of Black and Latinx students into lower-level math classes.
It has been easier for me to advocate for girls in mathematics education because I am a girl – am working from a place of confidence and comfort. There is important work to be done, however, in increasing math confidence in students who are BIPOC. As we move forward in the work of anti-racism, our responsibility as White educator allies is to engage in the ongoing work of learning, reflecting on our own practice, and continually applying those learnings to classrooms that build equity, including the mathematics classroom.
Keep spreading the math love <3
Thank you to my very appreciated educator friends who helped edit and added value to this post: Neily Boyd
Dr. Sarah Thomas
Twitter: @aliceaspinall, @everyonecanmath
Alice Aspinall, B.Math(Hon), B.Ed, is a Portuguese-Canadian secondary mathematics educator in Ontario, Canada. She is a strong advocate of the growth mindset and is continually looking for ways to build young people’s confidence in math and to make math fun, challenging, and satisfying. Alice is also a champion for females in STEM by encouraging girls to pursue science and mathematics both in high school and in post-secondary education. Alice believes everyone can learn math and she is on a mission to prove it.
Everyone Can Learn Math is an inspiring children’s story about applying a growth mindset to learning mathematics. Follow Amy’s journey as she realizes that learning math requires hard work and perseverance, just like most things in life. Available at most online bookstore including Amazon: amzn.to/2G1N5sO
Anderson, M. D. (2017, April 25). How Does Race Affect a Student's Math Education? The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/04/racist-math-education/524199/
Berry III, R. Q. (2020, February). “How do we help teachers teach math to Black kids?” My Response. NCTM. https://www.nctm.org/News-and-Calendar/Messages-from-the-President/Archive/Robert-Q_-Berry-III/%E2%80%9CHow-do-we-help-teachers-teach-math-to-Black-kids_%E2%80%9D-My-Response/
Ganley, C., & Lubienski, S. (2016, May 9). Current Research on Gender Differences in Math. NCTM. https://www.nctm.org/Publications/Teaching-Children-Mathematics/Blog/Current-Research-on-Gender-Differences-in-Math/