Avoiding race: White teachers’ talk about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath ☆

| October 5, 2010

We are still learning from Hurricane Katrina and the resulting displacement of huge populations from the American Gulf Coast. One of the many topics still discussed is the role of inequality in the event and its aftermath. Many such discussions have focused on income disparities, or how certain populations were disproportionately impacted by the hurricane and flooding. Visiting Professor Avner Segall of Michigan State approached the problem by assessing how classroom teachers treat those issues.

On October 5th, Professor Segall gave a talk on his upcoming paper: “Avoiding race: White teachers’ talk about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.” Co-sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Diversity and Community Affairs, Kappa Delta Pi, and the Department of Arts and Humanities, the lecture focused on how five high school social studies teachers experienced the documentary When the Levees Broke.

During a series of interviews, the teachers were asked to watch clips of the documentary and comment on their feelings towards the film. Segall called his work a “reluctant paper” in that he was disheartened at the results. Teacher responses revealed a surprising lack of attention to the realities of racial inequalities. Despite explicit training in diversity and multiculturalism, these white educators were unwilling or unable to openly investigate the matter of race.

Following his presentation, Professor Segall joined a lively discussion of the implications for teacher education. A recurring point was that teacher educators must work to help pre-service teachers investigate their underlying beliefs regarding their relation to others in society. Failure to do this relegates teacher education to a basic “layering on” of temporary attitudes. Educators need to question their understandings of such commonly-held ideas as meritocracy, democracy, and the existence of a “post-racial” America. These are things that readily apply to the social studies, but are too easily ignored when teachers fail to assess their own beliefs.