My Student Questioned My Disdain For Mathematics, and She Was Correct to Do So

At the start of this past school year, I shared with my students the story of my multiple failures in math classes. I told them that one of the reasons I dropped out of college was the result of having failed my statistics course after three different attempts. I expressed my deep disdain towards mathematics, as I have always struggled with memorization of equations and mathematical rules. I told my students that I empathize with them each time they are given a math test, and that math is something to get out of the way as soon as possible in order to achieve stronger creative thinking in areas other than mathematics.

Several months later, a student of mine who heard my rant against mathematics came to visit me during our lunch time. At the time, she was in the process of applying to UC Berkeley, and she was tackling AP Calculus at our school. She was interested in understanding more details in my story with math, and after I further explained, she questioned my perspective on math.

My student warned against my verbal tirades regarding math, explaining that math was already a mainly “white” academic subject. She insisted that if I, as an educator of color, continued speaking badly about mathematics, I would perpetuate the stereotypes that pre-maturely define students of color as “not good” at math, thus normalizing a “white” perspective for my students. According to a 2017 article published by The Atlantic, “‘whiteness’ in math education reproduces racial advantages for white students and disadvantages historically marginalized students of color. . .—[And] is shaping the expectations, interactions, and kinds of mathematics that students experience.”

My student was correct. I hadn’t realized that my negative experiences with mathematics as a student of color were the result of the disadvantages that whiteness within the education system placed on me. Each time I told my students to hate and ignore mathematics, I simultaneously asked them to accept the role that whiteness has created for them; namely, the role of a racial minority that is too weak-minded–too inferior–to face and conquer mathematics. I was perpetuating a racist mentality of mathematics without realizing it. The real danger in that lies in the internalized nature of the disdain I hold for math because that is a sign of my own internalized prejudice. What’s worse, I was taking my internalized prejudice and telling my students, who have also internalized the racist mentality of mathematics, that it is completely normal to not do well in and hate mathematics.  

So, I thank my student for questioning my perspective on mathematics because she opened my eyes to a blind-spot. I wish her the best as she continues to conquer mathematics at UC Berkeley for the next several years–because, yes, she was accepted to UC Berkeley!

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Robel Espino

Robel Espino

Robel Espino is an education specialist assistant, worked as an after school instructor, and serves as a youth leader in his local church. A first-generation college graduate, Robel attended California State University, East Bay in Hayward, CA, and received a degree in English Literature. Robel is an Oakland native who received k-12 education in the cities of Oakland, San Pablo, and Richmond, CA. He is a husband, and a father of a four-year old.

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