What Political Correctness Means to Educators

Recently, students in one of my courses and I were discussing the topic of communication in schools.  I began the class by showing the students the picture below.  I asked them, “What thoughts come to mind when you look at this picture?”

Samantha, a White woman in her 30s said, “I feel like the  spoken language is just people trying to be politically correct with their words.  Everyone is so concerned about saying the right thing and not hurting anyone’s feelings and no one can really tell the truth…what’s really on their mind.”

Politically correct…can you tell us more about what you mean by that?” I asked.

“Like, I don’t know what to say half the time because it will hurt someone’s feelings.”

“Can I say something about that?!” Asked Barbara, a Black woman in her 50s.

“I grew up in the south, and in the south, people say it how it is.  You know your place.  I’m a black woman.  I’m not going to have the same opportunities as White people and that message is shared with me every day by everyone.”

“That’s the truth.” Chimed Monique, a Black woman in her 40s.

Barbara continued, “Here (Colorado) people try to be politically correct.  They talk to me the same way they talk to everyone else, but eventually, they say something or do something that makes me remember where my place is…that I don’t belong.  But they’ll never fess up to it, and I’m not going to saying anything to them so it just creates more problems.”

Tonya, a Latinx student in her 30s leaned forward in her chair and said, “In the schools I work in, there’s a White lady.  We’re both different from a lot of the other employees, families, and children in the school so we talk about things.  I always trusted her.  She said things that made me feel like I belonged, at least with her.  Then, one day she said, ‘your people don’t really care about their education’ or something like that.  I was like, she didn’t just say that!  And that was it.  I can’t talk to her about it and I don’t look at her the same way.  She’s just like everyone else now.  THEY haven’t said those things, but I know they would if we talked.”

This wasn’t the first time we have had conversations like this in class.  Like past conversations related to (in)justice and (in)equity, many students nodded and gestured affirmation, while other students stared in one direction or another…some with an expression of surprise, others disgust or concern.  Unlike the past, no one seemed oblivious.

In these situations, I typically sit back for a minute or so and provide all of the students an opportunity to step in.

Seconds of silence and then a White woman in her 20s, Melissa spoke up. “So, if political correctness is not working, then what are we supposed to do?  I always think I’m treating everyone the same…but maybe I’m not?  I don’t think of it as political correctness, but I guess it probably is.  But, it’s not like I think people with different identities should be treated differently.  I want all my students and families and other teachers to feel like they belong.”

The students’ eyes turned to me.

“I think we need to define political correctness.  At its core, politics is a matter of how much power.  Political correctness suggests that language, behaviors or actions are motivated by the need to retain power or obtain more power.  Like Tonya said, when the rules are to treat everyone as an equal regardless of their identities people are misled to feel like they belong.   That leads to identity blindness.  What I mean by that is that people consciously and unconsciously go through the daily routine without recognizing race or skin color, sexuality, social class, gender and other group identities.”

We talked about identity blindness for a bit.

“Being colorblind, genderblind, sexualityblind or whatever the case is a matter of a person’s power and privilege.   Individuals who have the privilege of not being confronted by regular reminders of the opportunities they do not have access to, much like what Barbara was talking about cannot be, in her case, colorblind.”

The conversation continued with periodic cues by me to keep us focused on the graphic of the two icebergs.

“When it comes to communication with colleagues, families, and children we need to recognize the role of power and our blindnesses.  We must be aware of how policies and procedures advantage or disadvantage us versus the person we are communicating with.  Unfortunately, if policies and procedures do not provide a space for openly talking about differences, in all their forms we have situations like the one Tonya experienced.”

That then led us to the topic of the evening, Skilled Dialogue.

At the end of the class, we returned to the picture of the two icebergs.  I asked the students, “Now that we have talked about skilled dialogue, what are your thoughts when you see this graphic?”

Samantha, the student who initially brought up political correct, looked at me.

“I still see the tip of the iceberg as political correctness.  Like, we can only show and talk about what we feel is accepted by people.  But I also notice the space between the icebergs more.  I didn’t really pay attention to that before.  That space is the space for building a relationship instead of creating walls that tell people where they do or don’t belong.” Samantha said.

This conversation did not start, nor end that night.  It is continuous.