Ideas of Math Equity Must Come From White People
I felt racism far more as a kid.
As an adult, not so much. I mean, it still could have been happening to me. I just never felt it. For the last few years, equity in math education has been a hot topic. Although, to be honest, I think the domain of that equity is rather narrow — it mostly applies to students having equal opportunities to be successful in K to 12 mathematics, and as teachers, being cognizant of any race, gender, class, etc. biases in the classroom.
It’s a good start, but if it ends there, it is not addressing the larger problem that math education has. The larger problem is that there are no readily recognizable names of non-white math leaders who are fluent in content and/or pedagogy.
Be honest. If you think of a non-white math leader, you probably see them through the lens of social justice, championing for inclusiveness in math education. That’s just it. It’s this ghettoization of expertise.
White = Content. Non-White = Equity.
This is where I could paste the promotional websites of various math conferences underscoring this problem, but I won’t. We all know that the working model of math leadership in content knowledge is predominantly white. Now what all these great leaders are saying and doing is vitally important.
It’s just that very few people of colour are doing it.
The reasons are both subtle and overt. But, a problem which goes largely unchecked is that the K to 12 curriculum has just enough history to acknowledge the work of white, male mathematicians.
Pythagoras. Euclid. Descartes. Gauss. Newton.
It’s people like these that get most mentioned for discovering mathematics. Kids know about Pythagoras, but most scholars know that discovery of the side relationships of a right-angled triangle are completely up for grabs.
But why is that kind of information isolated in high academia and not transmitted down to the students, who are supposedly having this **equitable** learning experience.
Oh, they all have equal access to the white narrative. Gotcha. Yes, that was snarky. Could have easily edited it out with something less combative. But, that would have denied my gut response. From there perhaps is where the discussions can be soothed. But, first we need to have those discussions.
Every student of mathematics will come across the zero and the negative sign. Yet, there is very rarely a mention of Brahmagupta in classes. You don’t think that students seeing key historical referencing early on in their math education will support the true trajectory of the equity arc?
It’s more than supporting. It’s about telling the bloody truth about mathematics, and not cherry picking when to celebrate accomplishments.
Calculus was a monumental achievement and deserves to have authorship recognized with Newton. But more students encounter the work of Brahmagupta than Newton. But, what if it wasn’t Newton that discovered calculus? What if it was Japanese scholar Seki Takakazu? We will never know. But the bigger idea is why couldn’t this be a possibility? Do we not want to be dislodged from the entrenched Western narrative?
Why does this idea scare people and cause them to lose their mind when someone like Rochelle Gutierrez speaks out. Why? Because those people have never addressed their own bias/racism and are too bloody scared to do so. It’s easier to just carry on…
So, nobody should be surprised that the landscape of leadership in math education is rather barren and parched in the middle. This has been pointed out by current NCTM President, Robert Berry.
But, the pointing out of inequity and marginalization MUST be done by the whole community — not just people of color. The call to action must be more than powerful points. It must be a sweeping plane of change.
And, power, generally speaking in the Western world, is in the hands of white people. I know this is not an easy thing to discuss, but we have to. So, that is why the people who are in positions of power must act. Act out of justice, not flimsy political correctness.
While I enjoy writing immensely, I almost despised writing this piece. Sure, it was important and relevant. But, look at me. Brown and with a funny sounding name. Sure it gives me gives me a valuable lens. Yes, it arms me with credibility and invites empathy, but its actionable power is lacking. The currency of what I would have written would have been greater if I was white. We all know that. We just don’t want to talk about it.
Well, I just did.
One of the most brilliant math educators that I know, is one of our co-editors at Q.E.D. His name is Junaid Mubeen. He has a Ph.D in mathematics from Oxford and a Masters in Education from Harvard. He speaks with a beautiful Oxford accent. Good luck finding someone more qualified to speak about math education.
But, most people in North America don’t know who he is. Credentials like that shouldn’t go unnoticed. But they do. Everyday in mathematics, there is slight shadowing of voices — voices that need amplification — into the margins.
And from margins into obscurity.
While more work still has to be done with regards to gender, there is far more success in female math leadership, and those voices are strong in math education.
Color. That is something that must be reflected on hard, heavy, and deeply.
If white math leaders do not think that math voices are influenced by a general a curriculum that was, essentially, never neutral, then there will be no advances in math education that I am interested in measuring.
We need more people to speak out — not just a brown dude like me.