In our first department meeting in fall 2016, three of my colleagues—Jennifer Samson, Xuchilt Perez, and Kristen Hodnett—shared two handouts, Banks’ (1993) model for multicultural education and McIntosh’s (1988) work on white privilege. They believed departmental colleagues would find them useful in considering why we should explicitly teach cultural cognizance and competency to our graduate students learning to become certified teachers. However, I could see the handouts were being shuffled into folders with a high likelihood of not being looked at again.
It was then that I decided as department chairperson, with Jennifer Samson, to make race and disability the topic this year for all department meetings. This focus is to benefit graduate students who often struggle in negotiating the cultural contexts of the schools in which they work. In post-graduation surveys, alumni believe they are well prepared for teaching in general, yet cite teaching English language learners and working with culturally diverse students and families as areas where they feel less competent. These are important skills, as the teaching force is not as diverse as the population it serves, with approximately 80 percent being white female teachers in New York City public schools where the majority of students are children and youth of color.
Race is an organizing principle of life in the U.S., but is experienced by individuals in very different ways. Caucasians often don’t think about race in ways that people of color do, hence McIntosh’s “unpacking” of white privilege can serve as an eye-opener.
This lack of attention paid to issues of race and disability has been problematic for me throughout my career in special education. Special Education as a cultural phenomenon has been complicit in maintaining oppressive structures through its practices. Some of these consequences for citizens with disabilities include: tracking/segregation; high drop-out and low graduation rates; underemployment/unemployment; the school-to-prison-pipeline; overrepresentation of children of color in “subjective” special education categories; underrepresentation of children of color in gifted classes; and greater likelihood of more restrictive settings for children of color with disabilities.
Placing these issues on our collective departmental table and asking colleagues to engage has been an intense, uneasy, yet worthwhile experience. Through fall semester meetings, we struggled to focus upon the simultaneous issues of race and disability, discussing personal experiences that shape our perspectives. In both small and large groups, we have pushed ourselves to share thoughts, sometimes analyzing relevant presentations from Ted Talks and selections from the powerful documentary The 13th (DuVernay, 2016), which analyzes the thirteenth amendment and the historical criminalization of Black citizens. Grappling with concepts such as cultural cognizance, cultural competence, and cultural humility, we sought to be better informed ourselves before more explicitly engaging our students across the many programs in our department.
What have been some of my observations so far? It is unsurprising that race is a difficult topic to talk about honestly and openly. For Caucasians in particular, there is sometimes a resistance to acknowledging the privileging of white skin in our society, a fear of misspeaking and being considered racist, and of not wishing to confront the different reality faced by people of color. That said, staying with the twin topics of race and disability has brought us together in new ways: some colleagues have opened up, some have taken risks, and others have reached out one-on-one to various faculty members, wanting to do more. Along with my colleagues who initiated this year’s focus, I am cautiously optimistic about our efforts. While knowing not everyone will move with the same enthusiasm, rate, or intensity, everyone has at least thought about complex historical issues that permeate our contemporary practices in real ways, including how we do or do not prepare teachers to feel equipped to negotiate diversity within classrooms.
What has also come to the fore—and understandably does not sit well with all colleagues—is how the academic discipline of special education side steps race within its own research tradition. While other fields have grown more diverse in epistemological, ontological, and methodological considerations, special education has largely adhered to its positivist foundations, interventionist-centered approaches, and knowledge claims being value-free. As a career-long critical special educator, I have long found a more compatible framework with my own disposition in Disability Studies, an interdisciplinary field that recognizes the value of intersectional work, because single issues such as “disability” alone obfuscate and negate the multiple realities that exist in our culture. As I have written with colleagues (Connor, Ferri, & Annamma, 2016), ability has always been racialized, and conversely, race has always been “dis/abled.” For the first time in my twelve years in the special education department, these topics are now part of the larger conversation among colleagues.
Yet we know it has to be more than conversation. By December, some colleagues, perhaps rightly so, began exhibiting signs of frustration as we grappled with these issues. We knew we needed to shift from the why to the how of this work. Subsequently, spring semester’s meetings are dedicated to changes that can be made in our courses. These will include relevant readings, questions to explore with students, film resources, classroom activities, and culturally focused assignments. In sum, we seek to center race into our programs.
While engaged in uncomfortable work, I am reminded of the concept “The Pedagogy of Discomfort,” (Kumashiro, 2004) in which educators utilize discomfort as a teaching tool to help individuals engage with difficult topics with view to developing greater individual understanding and personal growth. After all, if difficult issues about historical inequalities are not confronted with care and respect, there can be no hope for change. I am heartened by efforts at many levels, including: a national symposium on the overrepresentation of children of color in special education hosted at Roosevelt House in spring 2016, coordinated by Jennifer Samson and Wendy Cavendish; a subsequent semester-long series on inequalities in education, also hosted at Roosevelt House and coordinated by Dr. Samson and Dr. Cavendish; our School of Education, led by Dean Middleton, refocusing on issues of social justice; a Hunter-wide winter faculty seminar on teaching race and racism coordinated by Jesse Daniels, Kirsten Grant, and Stephanie Margolin, and; a CUNY-wide focus on increasing and supporting faculty diversity led by Arlene Torres.
These efforts take place when our country, in the wake of a deeply divisive election, is openly struggling with issues of race, ethnicity, social class, gender, LGBTQ and other diversity-related issues. In these times it is easy to feel overwhelmed, experience a sense of impotence, and become immobilized. At the same time, it is useful to focus upon our locus of control. As part of that professional focus we are seeking ways to engage with one another about our values, how they inform our teaching, and how they can help guide new teachers to negotiate diversity in classrooms that are a microcosm of our society.
Bearing special education departments in mind, while acknowledging the relevance to other departments, I offer some suggestions below.
- Explicitly integrate issues of race, disability, gender, ethnicity, LGBTQ issues, and social class in a conceptual framework undergirded by social justice. View these issues as core values of programs, centralizing principles rather than “add-ons.”
- Utilize departmental meetings to foster conversations around intersectional issues of race with view to action across the curriculum.
- Be understanding of differences among faculty members when engaging with these issues, creating different “spaces” for participation (e.g. whole group, small group, pairs, departmental discussion boards).
- Provide opportunities for faculty who feel undereducated in these issues to grow via readings and conversations in “safe spaces.”
- Be vigilant that intersectional issues of race are relevant to all courses.
- Utilize faculty with specialized knowledge and interests in intersectional race issues to share their work and perspectives.
- Collaborate with colleagues in other departments with specialty knowledge of race, disability, gender, ethnicity, LGBTQ, and social class.
- Maintain a sub-committee of faculty interested in development of the issues of race, disability, gender, ethnicity, LGBTQ, and social class.
- Recognize that single issues such as disability alone oversimplify, mislead, and deflect from lived realities. Simultaneously, be mindful of the particular nexus of race and disability that tends to marginalize individuals in extreme ways.
- Be open to critiquing institutional knowledge within academic disciplines, and question what has been taught us in our own histories in ways that minimize experiences of people of color.
- Be willing to contemplate Whiteness as an unspoken phenomenon that is key to understanding and countering inequalities; failure to engage with whiteness sidesteps the purpose of engaging in diversity.
- Be proactive in diversifying departmental faculty. Currently, 1 out of 3 CUNY professors are of color.
In closing, I realize that the ideas above are easier said than done. However, given the pervasive inequalities within our society that are currently being exacerbated, it is incumbent upon us to strive toward ideals of equality.
Banks, J. (1993). Approaches to multicultural curriculum reform. In J. Banks and C. Banks (Eds.), Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Connor, D. J., Ferri, B. A., & Annamma, S. (Eds.) (2016). DisCrit: Disability studies and critical race theory in education. New York: Teachers College Press.
DuVernay, A. (Producer & Director) (2016). The 13th [Documentary film]. Netflix.
Kumashiro, K. (2004). Against common sense: Teaching and learning toward social justice. New York: Routledge.
MicIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible backpack. Retrieved from:
This article is part of a series of faculty commentary around issues of equity and justice in education policy. Click here to read the full series.
David Connor has worked in the field of education for thirty years as a classroom teacher, tutor, teacher coach, regional professional development specialist, adjunct instructor, and full time professor. Professor Connor received a B.A. with Honors in Literature and Film from the University of East Anglia in England; a M.S. in Special Education (Learning Disabilities) at Hunter College; a M.A. in Creative Writing and Literature from City College, New York; and an Ed.D. in Curriculum and Teaching (Learning Disabilities) from Teachers College, Columbia University. His research interests include learning disabilities, inclusive education, disability studies, and qualitative research methodologies. He is the co-author/editor of numerous articles and seven books, including DisCrit: Disability Studies & Critical Race Theory in Education.