Counseling, Leadership, Literacy & Special Education

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Tamisha Bouknight

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world. —James Baldwin

Tamisha Bouknight, assistant professor of counselor education, believes that relationships between teachers and students make a world of difference. She also believes in promoting social justice to ensure that schools are democratic and equitable places. While she pursued her doctoral degree, she conducted an exploratory study of racial awareness between teachers and African-American students in an urban high school. Not only did her interest in racial and cultural divides between teachers and students involve asking hard questions, her findings revealed disconcerting responses.

In general, teachers who were “color-blind” insisted that relationships with students of color were fine. Students who were “color-blind” also made the same claims. Students of color reported ambivalence about student/teacher relationships. At the school level, teachers and students with low racial awareness reported high levels of satisfaction with the school community. Students with greater sensitivity to racial differences were ambivalent about their connections to the school.

These disparate findings prompted Bouknight to ask, “if people do not encounter difference—or see color—how do they know if their assumptions about another person’s educational experiences and opportunities are realistic? Why would it be important to engage in this kind of inquiry?” Her response, “No two people have the same experiences. What do people actually see and think when they see race or color, and how do their perceptions shape their understanding of and interactions with different people?”

Most classroom teachers in the United States are white. The majority of students in public schools in this country are from racial, cultural, and class backgrounds that are different from their teachers. This is especially true in urban areas where students of color make up about 70% of total enrollments. Hard questions, unsettling responses, and compelling data highlight the need to examine how racial awareness is conceptualized, and how views about race influence relationships, classroom practices, and students’ educational opportunities.

Talking about racism is not easy. In her course on Multicultural Counseling, Bouknight focuses on school settings and their impact on racial-identity development. To raise students’ awareness, she urges them to examine some of the dynamics that people from different racial and cultural backgrounds face when they are in predominantly white environments. A recent assignment prompted students to use multimedia formats. She assigned students to one of four groups, asked them to “go into the world,” and explore how different racial groups represent their beliefs, values, traditions, and prejudices. Two groups produced four video documentaries on Mexican- and African-American communities in the Bronx and Queens.

Researchers have noted that minority students’ sense of connection to school is highly correlated with student/teacher and student/counselor relationships. The ability to talk openly and honestly about academic and personal issues—in racially-affirming, respectful contexts—makes a world of difference. The student-produced video documentaries were so compelling that Bouknight and her students submitted a proposal to conduct a workshop at the American Counseling Association’s annual conference, where 3,500 professionals will share expertise, innovations, and ideas. She and seven students will travel to Pittsburgh in March 2010 to contribute to ongoing conversations about raising racial awareness and developing counseling competencies through use of technology.

Last modified: Oct 13, 2011

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