No Student Should Have to Be "White Enough" to Succeed in School

09/23/2015 12:19 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2016

The fall semester is underway and some of my college students are breaking out of their shells. A girl who has been shy up until this point shared with the class that before the first day of school, she asked her mom if she "looked white enough" to succeed at NYU.

If looking "white enough" is what it takes to achieve academically, our schools might be practicing pedagogies that are opposite from what they should be. If more schools addressed issues of race, rather than avoided them, students might not feel this way. Schools could then celebrate individuality using differences to educate, and liberate students as well.

There is an inherent validity to the comment made by the young woman in my class. If some people looked white enough, they might not have the same problems that they do.

Social science research has shown that that when some people look white enough, they get paid more on the dollar for the same job; when some people look white enough they are not dealt subprime loans; when some people look white enough they are not stopped and frisked without the probable cause that they are just too dark skinned and must be doing something wrong.

If James Blake had looked white enough, he probably would not have gotten tackled on his way to the U.S Open for resembling a not-white enough suspect. If 14-year old Ahmed Mohamed had looked white enough, they wouldn't have arrested him from school from believing that his homemade clock was a bomb.

In this regard, if students are thought of in similarly generalized manners within schools, schools will fail in bolstering each student's ability to achieve. Rather, if schools acknowledge race and privilege in classes like history, more students could have a better understanding of the present and how best to make their mark in it.

By locating what makes their students unique, educators can identify strengths and inherent potential. Put another way, educators should work to foster the individual agency that their students have.

As educator-philosopher Paulo Freire contended, students must learn to see school as a place to critically think about their social positions to be emancipated from them. As Mark Twain put it, "I never let schooling get in the way of my education."

When my student denies her background, she denies the essence of what it will take for her to succeed.

As an education-sociologist, I study how students learn to harness their agency -- their specific capacity to navigate obstacles -- to create positive change in their lives. I learned from one of my interviewees that the absence of his drunkard father in his life motivated him to apply to an elite college, instead of follow his dad's footsteps. I learned from another that it was her college-aged son that brought her to attend a top-tier university, so that he would have an example worth following.

The common thread in these cases is the requirement of deep reflection on one's personal history to then specifically strategize about one's future.

If pedagogy in schools assists the process of self-discovery over self-denial, we could have a society better equipped to tackle the social challenges we face. Proliferating mass incarceration, rising college tuition, dwindling social security, and imminent climate change are all issues that need context-specific solutions. They cannot be solved by overlooking how these conditions came to exist in the first place.

The issue of racial separation has been historically rooted in this country and we still feel its ramifications today. Minority kids who go to less diverse schools have less chances for success in their lives. In 2010, the average black student in New York went to a school where only 18% of his or her fellow classmates were white.

Still there are ways to acknowledge and use race and heritage to promote learning.

The movie Stand and Deliver is a true story about high school teacher Jaimie Escalante, who decided to teach calculus in a failing school of in Eastern Los Angeles. He helped his students by first getting them to acknowledge their history to then realize their agency. In the movie, Escalante tells them, "It was your ancestors, the Mayans, who first contemplated the zero. The absence of value. True story. You burros [donkeys] have math in your blood."

Eventually this radical method helps Escalante succeed in getting unprecedented numbers of his students to take and pass the AP Calculus exam. Unfortunately for them, the greater society is often suspicious of success that does not fit the anticipated, and perhaps "white enough" profile. After multiple state-mandated retests, it was found that Escalante's students did not cheat and that they beat the odds by actually mastering calculus for themselves.

While math is far from my strong suit, I will do my best to embody a teaching style that encourages difference and seeks to promote agency. The task will not be easy, but I consider it to be worth the effort.

By the end of this semester if I can get that student to realize that she does not need to appear "white enough" to succeed, or that at least in my class she does not, I will consider that a victory.