Studying While Black: Trust, Opportunity and Disrespect

Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 11 (1):109-136 (2014)
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How should we explore the relationship between race and educational opportunity? One approach to the Black-White achievement gap explores how race and class cause disparities in access and opportunity. In this paper, I consider how education contributes to the creation of race. Considering examples of classroom micropolitics, I argue that breakdowns of trust and trustworthiness between teachers and students can cause substantial disadvantages and, in the contemporary United States, this happens along racial lines. Some of the disadvantages are academic: high achievement is more difficult when one faces mistrust, ego depletion, effort pessimism, and insult. And within a knowledge economy, exclusion from knowledge work makes one vulnerable to injustice. But the problem goes deeper than achievement, for schools are contexts in which we develop self-understandings and identities that situate us as members of society. If students of color are systematically denied full participation in trusting conversations that create shared knowledge—especially, knowledge that holds power within the dominant culture—they are unjustly deprived resources to form flourishing selves that are suited to the positions of power and authority. The argument suggests that knowledge is not best understood simply as a commodity to be distributed, and opportunity is not just a matter of access. Moreover, even if access is granted, those who are motivated and talented can fail: they drain their willpower by coping with insults, or reasonably lose optimism about their efficacy. Over time, motivation may shift away from achievement, and under the circumstances this can be a rational response. The barriers to achievement are many, but true opportunity is impossible without trust and trustworthiness.

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Sally Haslanger
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


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