Sociocultural Diversity – Discrimination in PK-12 Education

Although numerous laws have been passed to ensure the rights of all students, discrimination remains prevalent within our education system. Here, I provide examples of the types of discrimination that occur in schools and the ways that discriminatory practices impact students’ well-being and outcomes.  

Discriminatory Practices

Eurocentric Curricula. Despite beliefs about the widespread multicultural content in PK-12 education, the official school curriculum, textbooks, and instructional materials still prioritize the contributions and perspectives of white men from Europe and North America. For example, my own research on the Louisiana English language arts curriculum for grades 6-12 revealed that 94% of anchor texts were written by white authors, the majority of whom were men from Europe and North America. The failure to incorporate an equal share of texts by women and people of color may lead students to believe that only white men’s voices are worth hearing or that women and people of color lack the talent necessary to be authors, and it robs them of opportunities to see themselves authentically represented in literary works. Similar trends have been noted in other subject areas, including social studies, mathematics, and the arts, and more recent research has explored the absence of LGBTQIA perspectives in history and literature.

Underlying Assumptions. We have all been influenced by stereotypes, hearsay, and media sources that spread false, damaging beliefs about people from historically marginalized groups. When such beliefs remain unacknowledged, unexamined, and unchallenged, they tend to affect our assumptions about and our interactions and work with members of those groups. This is an especially serious problem in PK-12 schools and classrooms. For example, a teacher may believe—consciously or subconsciously—that students of color and students living in poverty are less capable than white, middle-class students. Because of this assumption, the teacher is likely to set lower expectations and provide less direct support for those students, thus setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, after becoming aware of the assumption, the teacher could deliberate raise the standards for those students and provide the resources and support necessary for success.  

Microaggressions. Microaggressions are “brief everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people” (Sue & Constantine, 2007, p. 137) because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc. Microaggressions, whether intentional or unintentional, may be communicated by people or by elements in the environment (e.g., billboards, news media). Examples of microaggressions include, but are not limited to:

  • asking an Asian-American where they are really from
  • clutching your purse or locking your doors when a person of color passes by
  • saying “that’s so gay” as a response to something that seems bad or ridiculous
  • asking for a “few strong boys” to help you lift or carry something
  • portraying South Asian and Middle-Eastern people as terrorists
  • praising men for “helping out” around the house or “babysitting” their own children

Though comments such as these are often dismissed as “just a joke” or “not a big deal,” they make recipients feel singled out, othered, or discredited. They also contribute to emotional and physical difficulties such as depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure (Yoshihama et al, 2010). Additionally, microaggressions help to perpetuate ideas and beliefs which have been motivators of hate crimes. For example, after pushing an Indian man in front of an oncoming train, the perpetrator stated that she did it because she had “hated them ever since 2001 when they put down the Twin Towers” (SAALT, 2014).

Furthermore, research has shown that microaggressions are common in schools and that teachers and other school personnel are sometimes responsible for perpetrating them (Allen, 2013; Kumar, 2016). To change this, teachers must learn about various types of microaggressions and pay close attention to their own words to gain an awareness of how they are perpetrating microaggressions so they can communicate differently. Teachers should also learn how to identify and respond appropriately to microaggressions whenever they occur, and the following two resources are especially helpful for this purpose.  

Responding to Microaggressions in the Classroom

Tool: Interrupting Microaggressions

Effects of Discrimination

Discriminatory conditions in in society and in schools, such as those described above, promote unequal outcomes for students from historically marginalized populations; unequal outcomes are NOT caused by intellectual inferiority, poor motivation, or deviance. The following are outcomes illustrate the detrimental effects of discriminatory conditions in PK-12 schools.

Compared to white, middle-class students, students of color and students from lower SES groups:  

  • score lower on standardized tests
  • are placed in less challenging courses
  • take fewer advanced or AP courses
  • have lower rates of high school completion
  • have lower rates of college attendance

Compared with white students, students of color:

  • are disciplined or reprimanded more often
  • receive harsher punishments for the same infractions
  • are watched more closely by school personnel
  • are more likely to referred for special education services

Compared with boys, girls:

  • have lower confidence
  • are less likely to study math and science
  • are more likely to be sexually harassed/assaulted
  • are more likely to attempt suicide
  • are less likely to participate in athletics

Compared with other groups, LGBTQIA students:

  • become the victim of a hate crime
  • contend with hateful language (epithets)
  • be physically mistreated by peers
  • attempt suicide

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