Related Entries: Critical Race Theory; Microaggressions; Political Correctness; Stereotype Threat; White Teacher Identity Studies

1 Introduction

Years of research in the area of racial inequality demonstrates that inequality is often perpetuated by those adopting a colorblind racial ideology, in which race-conscious decision-making is seen as antithetical to the goal of an ideal, politically correct “colorblind” world. Colorblindness has been defined as the “new racism,” whose covert methods are “subtle, institutional, and apparently non-racial” (Bonilla-Silva, 2018, p. 3). With or without deliberate malice or forethought on the part of those in power, treating others all the same, because we should be all the same, is often the attitude adopted by those who believe strongly that by simply ignoring differences in racial group membership or skin color, all resulting decisions and practices will be fair and impartial. Yet according to the latest research on the brain and the active and powerful role that our unconscious biases have on our decision-making, this colorblind belief is very far from the reality that people of color live with every day.

Educators may all agree, in an ideal world individuals should be treated fairly regardless of race, ethnicity, and social position. Unfortunately, the education system in the United States is far from achieving this ideal; it continues to support espoused ideologies, structures, and policies which contribute to individual and systemic racial inequality. In 2015, African-American children were twice as likely as Latinx children to be born in poverty, and nearly three times as likely as “non-Hispanic White” children (Child Trends Databank, 2016). In recent years, high school dropout rates for African American students in the U.S. have been twice as high as the rate for white students and almost three times higher than whites for Latinx students (Child Trends Databank, 2016).

As can be inferred from the example above, the school climate is not just formed by individual educators but is often shaped by the decisions and ideological practices of school administrators. Teachers employed in schools where administrative efforts are made to move beyond colorblindness to create a color-conscious, spoken affirmation of racial disparities have been found to be more likely to engage students in racial discourse and to move toward more color-conscious practices (Marx & Larson, 2012).

The goal of this entry on colorblindness and its impact in education is thus two-fold: first, to review current research that explores the notions of colorblindness and implicit bias and their impact in the world of education. Research documenting colorblindness in educational systems is presented, highlighting studies illuminating their detrimental effect on both student outcomes (performance on test scores, student achievement, quality of educator-student relationships) and educator effectiveness.

Second, this article aims to discuss strategies to address these important concerns. Having documented the deleterious effects of colorblindness and implicit bias within educational settings, what educational policies, practices, and curriculum changes must be created to counteract their documented negative effects? The entry concludes by identifying strategies to mitigate colorblindness and implicit bias that educators are encouraged to adopt in order to ensure a fairer and more inclusive future for all.

2 Defining Colorblindness

Over 20 years ago, Williams (1997) defined the notion of colorblindness, stating that it:

Constitutes an ideological confusion at best, and denial at its very worst… Much is overlooked in the move to undo that which clearly and unfortunately matters just by labeling it that which ‘makes no difference.’ This dismissiveness, however unintentional, leaves [people of color] pulled between the clarity of their own experience and the often alienating terms in which they must seek social acceptance. (p. 7)

Neville et al. (2013) define colorblindness as being characterized by the interrelated domains of color-evasion (i.e., denial of racial differences by emphasizing sameness) and power-evasion (i.e., denial of racism by emphasizing equal opportunities). Employing colorblindness can include both domains, and can be seen when individuals engage in a denial of: (1) race (e.g. “we are all the same”); (2) blatant racial issues (i.e. racial discrimination based on skin color), (3) institutional racism (e.g. cumulative polices, practices, and norms that disadvantage students of color), and/or (d) White privilege (e.g. superior access and opportunities based on unearned skin color advantage). Thus, individuals who adopt a colorblindness perspective do not acknowledge the structures, policies, and racial beliefs that unfairly discriminate against marginalized people of color, justifying this lack of acknowledgment under the premise that race should not – and therefore does not – matter.

Ullucci and Battey (2011) further contend that the first foundation of colorblindness lies in the interconnected U.S. historical ideas of merit (hard work will objectively earn one’s rewards, regardless of historical constructs) and individualism (personal characteristics, rather than group membership, are the sole determinant in one’s life outcomes), both of which fail to accept that life rewards (such as upward socioeconomic mobility) are historically connected to race and social class. They state that the third foundational idea on which colorblindness is based is “Whiteness”: the idea of equating “White” with “normal” that encourages a monolithic racial worldview in which other racial worldviews are judged against as “less than” or “different” (Ullucci & Battey, 2011).

Colorblindness must first be recognized as being problematic before it can be addressed and actively reversed. Some have argued that researchers and academics should focus less on the deleterious effects of colorblindness and more on the dismantling of blatant, overt acts of racism, such as the “macro-aggressions” and hate crimes that have increased in frequency and intensity since the rise of the 2016 U.S. political administration. Yet researchers argue that the main reasons these overt racist acts occur repeatedly is largely due to the popularity of employing colorblind ideology, which denies that U.S. racial inequality and racism is a problem – and thus can categorize such overt racist acts as anomalies that can be largely ignored.

In today’s racially stratified U.S. educational system, for example, colorblindness ignores and masks important aspects of the identity, history, and daily struggles of students of color. Choosing to remain ignorant about the realities of racism and the impact of colorblindness allows individuals to employ this problematic ideology without addressing the negative outcomes (in student achievement, motivation, bullying and cognitive thinking skills, to name a few) that result. Thus, while historically marketed as a politically correct philosophy – skin color should not matter, therefore ignoring it will eradicate racial problems – colorblindness leads to a misrepresentation of reality in ways that allow and even encourage discrimination against students of color in education.

3 Defining Implicit Bias

The fundamental difficulty of equating colorblindness with “non-racial” equality is that the human brain relies consistently and heavily on the use of race-based “implicit biases” (IB) – the attitudes and stereotypes of groups learned and absorbed from an early age and held in our individual and collective unconscious. A recent report on implicit bias from the Kirwan Institute (2014) found that human brains rely upon implicit biases daily, to understand, mitigate, and make quick decisions about the world around us. As Staats (2016) states, “… because implicit biases are unconscious and involuntarily activated… we are not even aware that they exist, yet they can have a tremendous impact on decision-making” (p. 30).

Both white and non-white individuals are affected by implicit bias: in fact, when it comes to unconscious bias no one is immune. The difference is, of course, that white individuals typically hold more power in institutions in the United States, whether in corporations, government organizations, or educational institutions – and thus, tend to make more powerful decisions every day about who should be hired, fired, educationally promoted, or arrested, as well as who should be provided or denied funding, housing, or financial/educational/institutional support, to name a few.

The unconscious use of racial implicit biases combined with a conscious, “race does not matter” philosophy hinders individual success and continues to give power to those in education to avoid important race discussions. Thus, combined with implicit bias, colorblindness as an adopted ideology among educators, contributes to a shared communal ignorance that allows those in power in the U.S. educational system to continue to ignore and deny the realities of racism in schools.

Recognizing that implicit biases affect our understanding, actions, and decision-making –and are activated without our conscious awareness or intentional control is thus the single, most important information we need to disseminate if we are to unpack the effects of colorblindness as an individual and societal philosophy. Consciously wanting to ignore the harsh realities of racism does not protect oneself from the biases operating underneath our conscious minds.

4 The Effect of Colorblindness on Teachers’ Expectations and Student Achievement

In education, we know that the role that educators play in the lives of their students and their potential to impact their students’ performance, values, attitudes, and goals cannot be taken lightly. Even without conscious intent to discriminate or to advocate the use of colorblind ideology, many educators operate on implicit assumptions about students of color that places them at a very real disadvantage (Larson & Ovando, 2001). Students of color can often sense these biases, and the stereotype “threat in the air” can hinder student performance and achievement (Steele, 1997).

Educators often hold and act upon their unconscious implicit cultural biases, which can spark racialized or cultural “Pygmalion effects” in the classroom as well (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1966). It can be assumed that teaching, like most helping professions, tends to attract caring and egalitarian personalities; yet educational research continues to show that educators’ differences in student expectations – however inadvertent, unconscious or unintentional – are affected by a student’s skin color, race or ethnicity. Why is this so?

Marx (2002) explored this question by examining the altruistic incentives of nine white, female pre-service educators who tutored “Hispanic” English Language Learners (ELLs) during a semester course. Using observations, journal entries, and detailed interviews with the educators on their teaching aspirations, the children they tutored, and their own racial identity, the study revealed that all participants were influenced by their own sense of white identity, which influenced their beliefs about the children of color they tutored. Although the participants were devoted to children and education and were generous with their time and efforts, the educators shared a vision – often unconsciously – of the children’s “Hispanic” culture as a “deficit” to their success. This deficit thinking affected educators’ contact with and beliefs about their Latinx students in the form of antipathy, resentment, and low academic expectations. Rather than focusing more on the children’s academic needs, the educators in the study consistently focused on an effort to interfere with what they believed were student’s parental, emotional, and social disadvantages.

Interestingly, in the Marx study, educators clearly revealed implicit cultural biases; yet all of the teacher participants described themselves as non-racist and non-prejudiced. This paradox of “I’m not racist!” v. the actions and decision-making that clearly demonstrates bias is a common one: individuals can and do view themselves as consciously and intentionally “not racist” even though their unconscious minds work by operating on implicit racial and gender biases.

Educators are, of course, human and also operate with these same implicit biases that we all hold that often go unaddressed. It appears that, despite good intentions, educators often inadvertently bring to the classroom unconscious biases that certain cultural practices are “deficits” to individual growth, both of which result in low student expectations of success. Immersed in deficit theories, educators may inadvertently view their own students of color as burdens rather than assets in the classroom; these negative thoughts then infect the teaching and learning that subsequently occurs (Ulluci & Battey, 2011). In what specific ways does such thinking impact students?

A classic study by Steele and Aronson (1995) showed that educators’ biased expectations – often based on unconscious, or unintentional racial assumptions – can have a very real impact on student achievement. Steele & Aronson examined the performance of 250 African-American college students on standardized tests. Stereotype threat –the experience of being in a situation where one recognizes that a negative stereotype about one’s group is applicable to oneself – was upsetting, distracting, and ultimately detrimental to students’ performance. They concluded that this distraction and subsequent lowered academic performance occurs when students of color can sense when they could be judged or treated in terms of biases or stereotypes commonly held by others.

When colorblindness is a consciously promoted philosophy of schools, it hides the unconscious biases of school staff, educators, and administrators. The deliberate avoidance of recognizing racial differences – and any bias – thus leads to discrimination, favoritism, or classroom conflict all while going unaddressed. For example, many educators may believe that by ignoring student’s racial questions or comments or differences, they are treating their students “all the same,” and that addressing such inequities would only create uncomfortable moments that “aren’t really there.” In reality, avoiding racial questions and comments can directly impact students’ conceptual development on the topic.

5 How Colorblindness Affects Developing Minds

Teachers’ avoidance of racial questions because they are “uncomfortable” or “sensitive” can affect the racial ideas and attitudes of children in negative ways. These effects may be profoundly different for white children and children of color; for white children, this avoidance may only emphasize that racial differences are negative and are not “fit” for discussion; for children of color, it may also dismiss or trivialize the discrimination that they regularly encounter.

Constructivist theory reminds us that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current or previous knowledge (Bruner, 1966; Vygotsky, 1978). To assist in the forming of these new concepts, instructors and learners should engage in an active exchange of ideas. The task of the teacher is to help the learner come to a better way of understanding concepts by explaining information that fits within the learner’s current developmental capacity. Thus, from a socio-constructivist theoretical perspective, ignoring or side-stepping discussions about race can leave both white children and children of color without assistance in their reasoning on the issues and may in fact encourage faulty conclusions about racial differences.

Although we often think of young children as possessing an innate openness and innocence that will protect them from societal prejudice, in reality, studies have shown that children as young as 6 years old demonstrate implicit racial bias with remarkable ease (Staats, 2014). Educators who dismiss student’s questions or comments about race – fearing that they will introduce prejudice into the child’s life or assuming that differences “do not matter” – thwart the child’s ability to engage in constructive discourse and to develop critical thinking on the subject (Luke, Kale, Singh, Hill, & Daliri, 1994; Rodriguez & Kies, 1998). These “conversation stoppers” leave the child unable to develop racial conceptions and beliefs with the informative help that an older adult can provide, the help that Vygotsky posits is essential to developing sophisticated reasoning in the child.

6 Documenting Colorblindness in Schools

It is important to note that to actively employ a colorblind ideology does not require an overtly racist individual; the use of colorblindness as the “new racism,” whose covert methods are “subtle, institutional, and apparently non-racial,” is abundant (Bonilla-Silva, 2018, p. 3). Indeed, its use is promoted frequently in schools as a benign, politically correct ideology for educators to employ.

One of the first, most comprehensive studies to examine colorblindness was Schofield’s (1982) multi-year ethnographic study of a desegregated 1,200-student middle school in the Northeast U.S. The school opened as a desegregated institution with a roughly 50/50% black/white student ratio; the majority of students had come from elementary schools that had been highly segregated. Data showed that the colorblind perspective was widely held by the school community. Teachers not only consistently denied that they noticed children’s race, both to researchers and among themselves, they also believed that students did not notice the race of their peers (interviews with students revealed the opposite). Schofield also found that race was a taboo topic: Words such as black and white were rarely used, and when used, were viewed as racial epithets. Although the school went to great lengths to prepare the physical campus for desegregation, and educators believed that they treated all students equally, over time clear “color” stereotypes emerged among the school community: white was synonymous with “success,” while black was associated with academic weakness (Schofield, 1982, 1986). Schofield concluded that colorblindness was relied upon so heavily within the school because it served several functions, including: (1) reducing the potential for overt racial conflict; (2) minimizing discomfort or embarrassment among educators and students; and (3) increasing educators’ freedom to make what appeared to be “non-race-based” decisions.

Despite these alleged advantages, colorblindness caused several setbacks within the school environment. First, school personnel’s failure to acknowledge cultural differences influenced the different ways that white and black students functioned and succeeded in school and caused a number of misinterpretations and misunderstandings of student behavior – often resulting in increased discipline action toward Black students. Second, educators’ colorblindness enabled them to believe that implementing course materials that reflected this new diversity was irrelevant, since race “does not matter”; and consequently, black students were unable to see themselves as validated in the curriculum.

Similarly, in a year-long, ethnographic study of a predominantly white, middle-class suburban school, Lewis (2001) examined the racial discourse of educators, parents and administrators and found similar evidence of a colorblind ideology among the school community. Interestingly, unlike Schofield’s earlier study within the context of desegregation, Lewis purposely chose a predominantly white, middle-class school community in order to examine the impact of white people’s lack of contact with other-race members on their multicultural attitudes and school practices. Similar to Schofield’s findings, although school community members consistently denied the salience of race and advocated a colorblind paradigm, Lewis documented an underlying reality of “racialized practices and color-conscious understandings” that directly impacted the school’s few students of color and indirectly supported white students’ views of their non-white peers as inferior (p. 781).

Moreover, reliance on colorblindness has been shown to occur at all levels of education. Han, S (2010) explored the multicultural beliefs of 95 Kindergarten educators through surveys and randomly selected follow-up interviews and recorded rich narratives that revealed a reliance on colorblindness when teaching. Indeed, the educators interviewed often justified their use of colorblindness through the “young age” or simple curriculum of the Kindergarten child, whose worlds could not possibly be affected by race or skin color; in one participant’s words, “Everything is wonderful when you’re 5” (p. 90). Given what we know about when racial awareness and attitudes begin to take cognitive shape in the young child, one could argue that this is exactly the age at which educators should employ a clear, color-conscious paradigm when discussing racial and cultural differences with students.

Similarly, ethnographic interviews with white secondary school educators have also revealed a reliance on colorblindness in either overt beliefs, in practice, or both, often in complex ways. For example, Blaisdell (2005) found that the use of colorblindness among four white high school educators he interviewed was rarely straightforward; even when denying their colorblindness, educators often relied upon it in practice (e.g. stating that students of color should be given extra attention to overcome stereotypes, but not following through in the classroom, etc.). Blaisdell notes that one difficulty in addressing colorblindness in the schools is that it is often entangled with – and operates alongside – ideas of color-conscious beliefs or practices. He notes, “[Teachers] are often colorblind and color conscious at the same time” (p. 35).

Taken collectively, studies on colorblindness within educational systems suggest several important issues. First, colorblindness is often relied upon by educators because of its seeming “advantages”: when there is fear of conflict, or a fear of appearing prejudiced, the “race does not matter” approach offers a paradigm of easy escapism to avoid dealing with the cultural reality. Second, colorblindness is often not as straightforward as it seems; educators may use colorblindness in practice but deny that it is part of their belief system as they remain unaware of their own implicit bias. This unconscious bias that operates to make their decisions makes the need for any interventions to alter colorblindness one that also educates about and addresses implicit bias. Finally, educators have been found to rely on colorblindness both in their dealings with students and in their classroom and curriculum decisions. This ideology appears to be influenced by a number of inter-related variables, including educators’ cultural worldview (monolithic/ethnocentric versus pluralistic/ethnorelative); the amount and type of prior exposure they have had to cultural pedagogy; their racial identity (or lack of one); and their perception of the school climate as open to racial awareness and color-conscious practices. The challenge and complexity inherent in adopting a color-conscious curriculum is the ability to adequately address each of these inter-related variables, and to address the resistance that pre-service educators may bring in creating this fundamental shift in ideology from colorblindness to color-consciousness.

7 Variables Influencing Color-Conscious Ideology

Given what we know about colorblindness, how, then, might educators come to adopt a color-conscious paradigm where racial differences are handled directly and honestly; and where unconscious, implicit biases are acknowledged as detrimentally impacting decision-making? Although a review of current research identifies a number of factors may affect one’s ability to engage in racial discourse and employ color-conscious practices, four distinct variables repeatedly emerge as particularly influential in educators’ willingness and practice of open racial discourse: (1) educators’ cultural “world view” (including adherence to an ethnocentric, colorblind world view versus an ethnorelative perspective); (2) racial/ethnic identity (e.g. identifying as “white” or a person of color); (3) the perceived level of administrative/community support for race discussions and color-conscious practices within the school climate; and (4) exposure to cultural pedagogy (e.g. critical race theory, anti-bias or color-conscious curriculum) in their own pre-service teacher education or in-service professional development programs. Rather than viewed as independent, these inter-related variables may often interact in a dynamic way to affect educators’ classroom practices.

8 Toward a Color-Conscious Approach in Teacher Education

During the early elementary school years when children are actively constructing concepts about race and forming racial attitudes and evaluations – and they are particularly influenced by the implicit messages they receive from parents, educators, and the larger society – educators have a critical role to play in promoting a positive development of children’s racial attitudes and in recognizing and influencing the development of implicit bias. Their understanding of how to do so actively (and with administrative support) is thus critical in order to end the cycle of ignorance that allows the continued use of the colorblind ideology to be promoted in schools, an ideology that denies the realities of racism and detrimentally impacts students.

A number of teacher educators have documented programs, practices, and interventions designed to move pre-service educators toward color-conscious ideology and to disassemble their previously held beliefs and reliance on colorblindness, including the use of anti-bias training, critical race theory, and color-conscious practices. Schniedewind (2005) examined the impact of color-conscious training on the practices of five educators who participated in a long-term professional development program in diversity education and documented their reflection on the development of their consciousness of race, racism, and whiteness and subsequent implications for their work. She found that educators often provided revealing narratives, reflecting common themes that later emerged as color-conscious practices (e.g. supporting students of color, educating about stereotyping, addressing white privilege, and challenging institutional racism).

Ullucci and Battey (2011) provide a thoughtful, comprehensive review of color-conscious interventions that they have found to be successful in their own teacher education practice. The authors first list desirable student outcomes of color-conscious teacher education and then list specific interventions that address each outcome that they have used with success in their own “race in education” courses (including specific articles and course readings, videos, course exercises, critical race autobiographies and biographies, and field placement activities). Similarly, Choi (2008) in her article, “Unlearning Colorblind Ideology in Education Class” describes her own remarkable transformation from a teacher educator ill-prepared to confront the surprising and frequent espousal of colorblindness among her pre-service students to one who adopts a successful critical race theory narrative to combat the classroom discourse that espouses colorblindness as an acceptable response to racial issues.

Recently, the infusion of experiences and discussions of color-conscious training throughout the curriculum of teacher preparation programs (rather than as a separate “stand alone” topic often tacked-on to a prepared curriculum) has been highlighted as a necessary element in order to allow ample time and opportunity to shift educators racial ideology and help them to recognize their own “invisible” whiteness; understand, acknowledge and confront their own implicit biases; and grasp the effect of systemic and institutional racism.

Research on the effectiveness of ‘color-conscious paradigm’ teacher training thus suggests that it can effectively impact educators’ attitudes, decrease adherence to the colorblind ideology, and help educators understand and confront the implicit bias and white privilege that affects their students. Teachers undergoing such color-conscious training have been found to be more prepared – and thus more likely – to engage students in racial and cultural discourse in the classroom and to examine systemic racism in their school communities.

9 Conclusion and Areas for Further Research

The studies to date on colorblindness have helped to delineate the issues of unconscious, implicit biases, the “invisible” white culture, the dynamics of white privilege, and the way that colorblindness serves the needs of educators to the detriment of themselves and their students. Despite a recent growth of interest in the educational and psychological realms on colorblindness and its consequences for educators and students, several questions remain. Gaps in the data on the empirical measurement of educators’ colorblind attitudes, especially in a progressive, diverse school climate where educators work daily with diverse students, are apparent. Personal or situational variables – such as educators’ racial/cultural identity and experiences with diversity, dominant cultural “world view,” teacher education models (in pre-service or in-service training), and whether educators perceive that they work in a school climate that values diversity – can all affect how and when educators discuss race in the classroom and if they feel empowered or encouraged to become active adopters of color-conscious practices. Teacher educators should be cognizant of these variables – as well as the powerful role of implicit bias and the consequences of adopting colorblindness – in order to help educators create an environment for children to learn about racial differences and to feel comfortable and compelled to actively combat racism and racist decision-making in schools.

Thus, any campaign to support educators’ conscious rejection of colorblindness in education must be two-fold: first, educators must have acknowledged agreement that racial inequalities, discrimination, and implicit biases and stereotypes are in fact real, continual problems that exist to support the undesirable “status quo”; once this agreement is made, educators can make conscious efforts to learn and understand the myriad ways that the use of colorblindness ignores and perpetuates negative student outcomes. In other words, the goal of eradicating the negative outcomes of the adoption of colorblindness in schools must be tied to first acknowledging the existence of racial inequalities, and then educating those – particularly educators, educational administrators, and others “at the top” of the educational hierarchy – about colorblindness’s consequences. Only once educators are armed with a shared acknowledgement of the inevitable outcomes of colorblindness and an informed understanding of how colorblindness contributes to these outcomes can they begin to embrace the adoption of viable alternative ideologies (e.g. a color-conscious approach).


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