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Getting to know Dr. Benjamin Blaisdell

I have lived in… 

Buffalo, NY; Ft. Lauderdale, FL;New York, NY; Bogota, Colombia; Segovia, Spain; Washington, DC; Carrboro, NC

My favorite teacher is…

Mrs. Tanzler, my 4th and 5th grade teacher. She once told me she wanted to string me up by my ears… but I knew she meant it in a loving way

My favorite place to eat or favorite food to eat / prepare is… 

My favorite food to eat out is probably tapas. I can't make up my mind a lot of the time and I like to eat just about everything –and I mean everything. In Spain I once ate sheep heads... and they were delicious. My favorite food to make recently has been homemade gnocchi with brown butter, hazelnuts and sage. I have mad skills in the kitchen.

What are some cultural experiences that make you who you are?  

Like everyone, I have had many cultural experiences that have shaped who I am. One early experience that stands out is that I went to a primarily African American high school. This helped me see the segregation my friends of color faced in and out of school. For instance, in school, the art classes were a mix of black, Latino, and black kids, but the honors and AP classes where almost exclusively white. An out-of-school example is when my friends and I would play football at a local park. Everything was fine when it was only white kids. When we had black friends play, the police often drove by, sometimes questioning us and at times even searching us.

Another experience was when I taught ESL to community college students in New York. I had no idea what caring for your education meant until then. I thought it just meant doing your homework and listening to your teacher (my parents were teachers after all). But in New York, I had students with two or even three jobs that still made it to class every day (5 hours a day in an immersion program). Some of them had jobs and families. Since then, I have had public school students who lived through war, who have lost parents in those wars, and have even been involved in gangs to protect their families. Those have been some of the most caring students I have had. They didn't fit the mainstream mold of "good student" but they were also some of the most knowledgeable and honorable students I have worked with. 

There are of course all the aspects of my own culture. I grew up officially Jewish but a lot of my family is Catholic and I practice Buddhist meditation. I am a Northerner but have lived a long time in the South. I have two sets of parents but through a lot of my schooling was taken care of by a single mother. I also have a disability. While that is often a burden, it has also taught me to be sensitive to pain and discomfort and has helped me learn empathy in my work. And my early experiences in school taught me about the privilege of my whiteness. I keep trying to be better and better about checking that privilege and to extend that reflective practice to cis-gendered, male, heterosexual, and class privilege as well.

Dr. Benjamin Blaisdell's Biography and Background

Benjamin Blaisdell completed his Ph.D. in Culture, Curriculum, and Change at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his M.A. in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Language (TESOL) at Hunter College. Before coming to ECU, Dr. Blaisdell was the Coordinator of the TESOL Program at Salem College, and was previously an English as a Second Language Teacher in New York City;Segovia, Spain;Washington, DC;and Chapel Hill, NC.  Dr. Blaisdell is currently a Teaching Associate Professor in the Foundations program area at ECU.  He serves on the editorial board for Educational Foundations and is involved with the Critical Race Studies in Education Association and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP.  Dr. Blaisdell also serves as an Equity Coach to schools in Chapel Hill and Pittsboro, NC.  Dr. Blaisdell's scholarship examines race and racism in education from a critical race theory perspective. He draws on critical and performance ethnography methodologies to highlight the interplay between structural racism and teacher practices and to promote teacher agency.

 Professional Work in Issues of Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice

How do your beliefs about diversity, social justice, and equity manifest themselves in your research, teaching, advocacy and/or service?  

In my research, I work in critical race theory (CRT). CRT is tradition—a movement—in which issues of race and racism are foregrounded. In CRT, research is activism. It is about disrupting status quo and oppressive notions of race and whiteness and actually trying to positively affect the lives of the people we work with, especially people of color.

I have used that principle to guide my research with educators of a variety of racial backgrounds. I work with teachers and administrators in a collaborative way, to understand their goals for racial equity and drawing on their experiences and expertise to achieve those goals.

My specific focus has been to examine how white supremacy impedes their goals. We are trying to develop school cultures that resist white supremacy and to put actual structures in place to sustain and maintain that culture.

In this work, one of the recent concepts I have developed is schools as racial spaces. Our understandings of race in this country are linked to our conceptualizations of space. The US has a history of and an ongoing practice of residential segregation. This causes us to associate neighborhoods with the race of the people who live in them. As whiteness is dominant, white neighborhoods are considered the norm, as upholding American ideals. The neighborhoods of Blacks, Latinos, and other racialized minorities, on the other hand, are looked at as deficient – as either dangerous or needy. This causes us to associate people of those racial backgrounds in the same way. This has justified redlining these neighborhoods – officially divesting resources from these communities. In schools, we tend to do the same thing. We divest more valuable educational resources away from students of color. We label students of color as dangerous or needy (e.g., “fragile”) and then redline them – holding back their access to more rigorous and meaningful curriculum

In my teaching, the critical race perspective guides how I teach diversity. I focus on how societal/structural racism guides our day-to-day decisions. The structural focus helps me discuss with students not only how we can all be complicit in racial inequity but also how we all have the ability to resist that complicity.

The structural focus also helps me focus teaching about diversity in terms of equity. Therefore, I don’t necessarily teach about different cultures (though learning about other cultures can certainly be helpful). Rather, I focus on how culture is linked to power. Some cultures have more access than others, and that disparity has material effects on people’s lives. A goal of my teaching is to call out those systems of power, so ultimately we can learn to share power in more equitable ways.

Furthermore, while my research has centered on issues of race and racism, the CRT approach influences how I teach about all forms of cultural inequity. The focus on systems of oppression allows me to uncover with students how racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. are all linked to systems of power, and how we can either sustain or challenge those systems in our work as educators.

Finally, my critical race approach, along with my ongoing experience working with teachers, informs my work with community groups like the local NAACP. Like the teachers I work with, these community activists are already pretty astute on issues of equity. I am happy that my own critical perspective can be added to theirs and that my ongoing work with teachers and administrators can give some context to our community-based efforts.

Share with us an example of that kind of work that you are proud of or committed to.

I am lucky that I get to work with dedicated educators in North Carolina, teachers and administrators that are trying to overcome systemic racism. Their work serves as an example of how to practice antiracism within school structures that continue to sustain racial disparity. For instance, in one elementary school I am working with a team of teachers and administrators to examine how their whiteness and white supremacy control their curriculum, instruction, and discipline practices. We are using the metaphor of redlining to examine how those practices can, in essence, be a form of redlining that divests more valuable educational resources away from students of color.

This collaborative work has gotten teachers to begin questioning their discipline practices. For example, one teacher realized she has been reacting differently to student complaints based on the race of her students. She was reacting more negatively to complaints from black students and realized that this was hurting her relationship with her those students. By building a greater understanding of how race was affecting her perceptions, she has been able to respond more positively to and build better relationships with her black students.

This work has also gotten teachers to re-think how they give their students access to higher-level curriculum. Like many schools in the state, teachers were over-relying on standardized test scores to group students and give access. Also like many schools in the state, this meant that students of color had less access to higher-level curriculum and was a form of racialized tracking. Our work together has led to some teachers questioning that type of in-class tracking and to develop more inclusive types of instruction that give all students access to higher level material.

In the community, one of the things I am proud of is that the community groups I work with have been able to work with the local school district to adopt more racially equitable discipline policies. For example, the district has stopped issuing suspensions to students for the offense of "disrespect," an offense that is used disproportionately against students of color. We have also influenced the district to install restorative practices in place of some of its traditional and more punitive discipline measures. Furthermore, to protect the rights of students, we have helped the district draft and adopt its first Memorandum of Understanding with the local police departments.

Whose work or research do you draw on to inform or support your work in areas of diversity, social justice, and equity?

The person that first comes time is Derrick Bell, considered the founder of CRT. In addition to providing some of the most astute analysis of race and white supremacy, he models what engaging academic writing can looking like. A similar influence is John Calmore, whose work on the racialization of space greatly influenced my work on schools as racial spaces.

More contemporary influences are my friends and mentors Theodorea Berry who writes on Critical Race Feminism and Subini Annamma, who writes in CRT, the intersection of CRT and ability, and critical race spatial analysis. They serve as models not only as academics but also as scholar activists.

There is also Zeus Leonardo and Ricky Lee Allen, who have helped me analyze whiteness more critically and who have helped me understand, in Dr. Allen’s words, what it mean to be a "white antiracist racist."

Of course there is my doctoral mentor, George Noblit, who always puts his students’ professional lives before his own and who is one of the most positive models of what it means to be a white scholar studying race.

Who are your collaborators in this work? Who – in the field, at ECU, and/or in the College of Education – also does diversity and equity work that you respect?

My collaborators first and foremost are the teachers and administrators I work with. Because they are in my research projects, I cannot name them, but they are critical antiracist educators who are combatting racism and white supremacy every day.

The Foundations program area and SEFR department have been great to work with. In the College of Education, there are just too many people to name who have supported me, so I will just highlight one person, Dr. Caitlin Ryan. Dr. Ryan "does" equity in all aspects of her work—e.g., teaching methods, engaging in committee work, speaking up for students' rights. Her critical, reflective practice serves as a model of what an antiracist/social justice academic can look like, and she has been a valuable guide in helping me reflect on my own efforts at equity-focused research and teaching.

How do you hope your field and society might change as a result of your work and that of others doing similar work around this issue.

As a racial realist, I am not under any illusion that there will be a drastic change in systemic racism in this country any time soon. To me, that only makes the work on race and racial equity that much more important. I guess I see myself as just one foot soldier in a greater effort to combat the racism that sustains itself in our society. In the face of this type of systemic oppression, it is important to have visible and vocal examples of what antiracism can look like. I hope to be at least one of those examples and, perhaps, to influence others to do the same.

At ECU, in the schools I work with, and in my community, I hope my work fosters more critical approaches to addressing racism and other forms inequity. There are multiple systems of power that affect students in disparate ways. To better achieve cultural equity, teachers, administrators, and all of us that work with schools need to understand those systems of power and oppression.

ARTICLES AND BOOK CHAPTERS

Blaisdell, B. (Forthcoming, anticipated April 2016). Resisting redlining in the classroom: A collaborative approach to racial spaces analysis. In The Spatial Search to Understand and Address Educational Inequity to Inform Praxis: Stylus Publishing.

Blaisdell, B. (2015). Schools as racial spaces: understanding and resisting structural racism. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. Advanced online publication. doi: 10.1080/09518398.2015.1023228

Blaisdell, B. (2012). An academic in the classroom: uncovering and resisting the barriers to racial equity in public school. In S. Hughes & T. Berry (Eds.), The Evolving Significance of Race: Living, Learning, and Teaching. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Blaisdell, B. (2010). Critical race practice in the era of standards-based reform: the story of one elementary school. Peace Studies Journal, 3(1): 91-118.

Blaisdell, B. (2005). Sitting with ourselves: how to work against white guilt in anti-racist teacher education. In S. Hughes (Ed.), What We Still Don’t Know About Race: How to Talk About it in the Classroom. Mellen Press: Lewiston, NY.

BOOKS

Blaisdell, B. (2009). Seeing with Poetic Eyes: Critical Race Theory and Moving From Liberal to Critical Forms of Race Research in Sociology of Education. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.