Thinking about Erasure, Equity, and Math Education

I just finished watching the short film Muted on HBO. I highly recommend that you check it out.

Spoiler alert… (well, not really)

The film is about a Black girl who goes missing and her family’s efforts to find her including their interactions with police and the media who ignore their pleas for more attention to their case. A few days later, a white girl goes missing and the entire force of the media and law enforcement bears down on her case…

You see, I said that the last paragraph was a spoiler alert, but it really isn’t. Just before the final credits role, the following message is displayed:

This film is for the countless missing minorities whose families continue to search tirelessly for them, even when no one else will.

We see this all too often; missing Black and Brown children are afterthoughts while missing white children are front-page news. I am by no means the most qualified person to speak to this issue. Organizations like The Black and Missing Foundation do incredible work on behalf of our missing children. There is also a great HuffPost Live report addressing the issue.

But what struck me about the film was not the issue of the disproportionate lack of media attention related to missing Black and Brown children. The presentation of the issue is compelling, but there was something else that jumped out for me…perhaps because I was already familiar.

In the last spoken line of the film, a reporter says that the outcome of the Black girl’s case makes it all the more important to find the missing white girl quickly. (Sorry, but I don’t remember the quote verbatim.) That statement took all of the air out of my body.

Once again, we see an image of the dismissal of Black pain and trauma and that dismissal immediately took my mind to mathematics education.

What??? How???  <– Yeah, I heard you

You see, I’ve been thinking about this issue of “equity” in math education for a long time and I’ve been perpetually discomforted because I feel like the field has nodded to equity but never actually demonstrated the will to do whatever needs to be done in order to achieve the equity goals that match its stated ideals. (I realize that I’m painting the field with a super broad brush here. At the moment, I am thinking that I am being rather intentional about that.)

Since Danny Martin’s comments at the NCTM Research Precession last year in response to Principles to Actions (subsequently published in the Journal of Urban Mathematics Education and followed by a response from NCTM), I have been involved in more than a few “conversations” about how the field or particular constituencies within the field should respond. Sometimes it’s about response to the comments and sometimes it’s about response to the truths that the comments brought to light. It’s no secret that I am 100% in agreement with Dr. Martin’s position.

Some of the chatter in response has been encouraging. But much of it has been more disturbing than I can express. You see, when the reporter used the exact moment of a Black family’s tragedy to bolster support for a missing white girl, she erased that family’s experience of the deepest pain and sorrow in their ultimate moment of grief. More relevant to my discussion here, the reporter also failed to recognize how she was complicit in the perpetuation of trauma on this family because, when she was asked to bring the missing Black girl’s story to the public, she chose not to respond.

Here’s the issue… When I wrote last week about real research questions, I was thinking about the issue of “equity and access” and the questions that we should really be asking. I planned to write about it but was stalled until this very moment. On the issue of equity, my real question for the mathematics education community is:

How is is possible for us to talk about an issue (i.e., equity) for 30+ years and large and small ways and never make progress toward its resolution?

Black and Brown children are still suffering violence in mathematics classrooms (yes, I said violence). Their identities are under assault and we could never lift up enough success stories to prove otherwise.

“Violence is Black children going to school for 12 years and receiving 6 years’ worth of education.” ~ Julian Bond

In Dr. Martin’s talk I heard a cry that sounded something like: “You’ve claimed to have our children’s best interest in mind and have failed to meet that standard. What are you going to do about it?” (My words, not his.) To me, this sounded eerily similar to the cry of a grieving Black mother confronting the media with the question “If you are so concerned with sharing stories and claim that as your mission, where were you when I needed help finding my child?”

Despite the encouraging talk I’ve heard in the year since this talk, I find the larger conversation to be an exercise in erasure. Like the reporter who turned her attention to the missing white child, I wonder if the mathematics education community writ large is willing to interrogate its positions as Dr. Martin suggested and consider how, in spite of all of this talk about equity, those positions are still perpetuating violence on Black and Brown children in mathematics. Is it possible to take a step away from business-as-usual to look in the mirror and interrogate ourselves? How are we complicit? What are we willing to do not to make ourselves look or feel better, but to make it right?