Culturally Responsive Teaching for 21st-Century Art Education: Examining Race in a Studio Art Experience
Art Education / September 201248
N a J ua n a L e e
n the art classroom—where art, identity, and culture are inextricably
linked—racially and culturally responsive teaching play a critical role in
how teachers interact with students and ultimately how students them-
selves come to understand cultural diversity, social inclusion, and antira-
cist behaviors. It is important that teachers understand that students learn in
different ways and effective teaching requires recognizing and responding to
those differences. It is equally as important that teachers understand that
racial experiences are real and impact how each of us views and understands
the world. Teacher educators can guide preservice teachers’ investigations
and dialogue about race and racism in ways that lead to such understanding.
This process can facilitate them in gaining a foundational understanding of
race, which will likely play a role in determining their success or failure in
working with today’s diverse students.
Exploring the role of culture and
race in students’lives and
introducing racial dialogue into art
education courses helps teachers
perform better within increasingly
diverse school populations, and
prepares them to connect more
meaningfully with students and
While race is a social construct, it plays
a decisive role in the sociopolitical arena
of our society. This results in many people
being treated differently based on their
race. Examining the role of culture and
race in students’ lived experiences helps
teachers begin to understand how and
why students’ worldviews may be different
from their own.
This article shares an approach for
introducing racial dialogue into an art
education course, an epistemological
stance that encourages students to connect
meaningfully to an unfamiliar topic and
visual thinking strategies for expressing
understandings of complex issues, such as
race, through artmaking. This university-
level studio art experience aimed to
September 2012 / Art Education 49
examine racial issues in education and
express preservice teachers’ understandings
of the topic through artmaking (see Figures 1
Why Engage in Conversations
Understanding of the Meaning of Race. Race
is often defined as a controversial concept
grounded in the idea that a group within the
human population is considered distinct
based on physical characteristics. Although
historically race was thought to be a
biological difference, today it is generally
agreed that race is socially constructed—
a phenomenon invented by our society
(Omi & Winant, 2007). Sadker, Sadker, and
Zittleman (2008) distinguish between race,
ethnicity, and culture. They define race as a
“group of individuals sharing common
genetic attributes, physical appearance, and
ancestry” (p. 68). Race is considered a
physical attribute that cannot be altered, such
as the color of one’s skin. They distinguish
race from ethnicity, defining ethnicity as
“shared common cultural traits, such as
language, religion, and dress” (p. 68).
Ethnicity does not describe one’s skin color,
but rather a particular group’s common belief
systems and customs. This is closely linked to
culture, which is defined as “a set of learned
beliefs, values, and behaviors, a way of life
shaped by members of a society” (p. 68).
Race, ethnicity, and culture are all related to
Propriospect or one’s personal culture
(Wolcott, 1991), which shapes the lens
through which we subjectively view the
world. Although these terms are often used
interchangeably, and have commonalities,
their meanings differ subtly. A comprehen-
sive resource for exploring this discussion
further can be found at the PBS-sponsored
website, RACE-The Power of an Illusion
In an effort to understand issues of race, it
is important that race be distinguished from
ethnicity and culture because understanding
race as a concept is a key component of
understanding how racism is “a system of
advantages based on race” (Tatum, 1997, p.
7). Using terms that only emphasize ethnicity
or culture conceals the issue of racism in our
society and how the meaning of race and
racism changes over time (Nieto & Bode,
2008; Omi & Winant, 2007).
Class discussions about racial issues can be
difficult. Many people, regardless of their
race, would rather not talk about race or
racial issues. This is partly due to the fact that
discussions about race can be uncomfortable,
create anxiety, and sometimes result in
conflict. Additionally, many individuals have
been taught that in polite society, it is not
okay to acknowledge difference (Marx,
2006). This color-blind socialization process
wrongly positions race-consciousness as
equivalent to racism and further complicates
teachers’ understanding of the important role
that race plays in the lives of their diverse
students. Critical discussion about race,
racism, and color-blindness can help teachers
bridge the cultural divide between them-
selves and their diverse students, help them
understand why the past three decades have
been immersed in a more comfortable
color-blind discourse, and facilitate exam-
ining the racial achievement gap among
students as an educational consequence of
pretending race does not exist.
Understanding Diverse Learners. The student
population is rapidly becoming more diverse.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau News
(2008), “Minorities, [are] now roughly
one-third of the U.S. population, [and] are
expected to become the majority in 2042….
By 2023, minorities will comprise more than
half of all children” (para. 2). Additionally,
the Multiracial population is projected to be
the fastest growing population in the US and
their numbers are expected to more than
triple by 2050. However, even as the US
rapidly becomes more diverse, only 6.7% of
the 3.8 million teachers in public schools are
Black (NCES, 2009). Latino/Hispanic
teachers make up 6.9% and 1.3% are Asian.
Only 0.5% of teachers are American Indian
and Native Alaskans and 0.9% identified as
This shortage of diverse teacher role
models is compounded by a myriad of
research which supports the notion that
many White preservice teachers are not
adequately prepared, culturally competent or
Figure 1. Alex’s collage explores how media defines American identity. Figure 2. Kyle and Laura’s clay piece examines
difference and sameness.
Art Education / September 201250
comfortable teaching diverse populations
(Burriss & Burriss, 2004; Cho & DeCastro-
Ambrosetti, 2006; Hinojosa & Moras,
2009; Hollins & Guzman, 2005; Sleeter,
2001; Sleeter & Thao, 2007; Van Hook,
2002). This is cause for alarm when one
considers that 83.5% of all public school
teachers are White (NCES, 2009) and 40%
of schools do not have a single Teacher of
Color on their staff (NEA, 2004). The fact
that many prospective teachers entering
the field feel inadequately prepared and
uncomfortable working with diverse
student populations (Van Hook, 2002) and
a lack of Teachers of Color in our schools
begs the question, are those entering the
field equipped to teach children who have
racial and cultural backgrounds different
from their own (Sleeter & Thao, 2007)?
Examining racial issues positions future
teachers to begin developing the skills
necessary for cultural proficiency. This
means that as teachers move out of
color-blind discourse, become race-
conscious, culturally proficient, and race
literate, they can begin to gain insight into
how their race, ethnicity, culture, and life
experiences have come together to form
Examining Teacher Expectations and the
Racial Achievement Gap. Are we as teachers
failing at fairness? Some would say yes. As
the number of Students of Color continues
to grow, so does the academic achievement
gap between them and their White
counterparts. Academic achievement
reflects various aspects of educational
success including tracking, grades,
standardized test scores, suspension rates,
and dropout rates. Many more Students of
Color find themselves suspended (Adams,
2008; Sadker, Sadker, & Zittleman, 2008;
Villegas & Davis, 2008); being tracked into
the lowest academic track (Staiger, 2006;
Sadker, Sadker, & Zittleman, 2008; Villegas
& Davis, 2008); overpopulating special
education, repeating a grade, dropping out
of school, and being unable to be accepted
into a university system (Villegas & Davis,
2008). While socioeconomics does play a
part in this achievement dynamic, the fact
that students who are of different racial
backgrounds but within the same
economic level continue to show a
difference in academic achievement calls
into question what other factors are
contributing to this difference (Singleton &
Some scholars suggest that many
teachers’ cultural expectations are not
aligned with students’ cultural needs. This
plays a key role in the racial achievement
gap (Nieto & Bode, 2008; Sadker, Sadker,
& Zittleman, 2008; Singleton & Linton,
2006). They suggest that a teacher’s overt
and covert cultural biases send messages to
students about their academic capabilities.
This is often referred to as the Pygmalion
effect. The Pygmalion effect is a phenom-
enon in which a teacher’s high expectation
of his or her student will result in
enhanced student performance. When
teachers believe that a child is capable of
educational success, he or she will pass on
these expectations by showing more
support, giving more encouragement and
positive feedback, providing more
challenging material, and giving more time
to answer questions. The student receiving
all of this positive attention will learn more
and as a result do better in school (Nieto &
Bode, 2008). Understanding how one’s
racial and cultural background and lived
experiences impact cultural expectations
of others, helps preservice teachers
understand the development of their
internalized set of cultural rules for
appropriate behavior. In turn, this allows
them to also critically examine how these
cultural rules influence their views and
expectations of students.
Significance of Addressing Racial Issues
in Art Education. Visual thinking in art
education facilitates the exploration of
emotional associations, provokes
emotional responses, and influences the
way individuals feel and think about an
issue. Participation in art education
focused on the social justice issues of race
and racism can aid preservice teachers in
making an emotional connection to their
learning, leading to a personally mean-
ingful experience. This meaning making,
which refers to the process of developing a
personally meaningful learning experi-
ence, is critical to unlearning cultural bias
because racism is considered to be deeply
rooted in the emotional processes of the
brain (Amodio & Lieberman, 2009).
Furthermore, exploring complex issues,
such as race, in and through art, allows
future teachers the possibility of “capturing
the ineffable, the hard-to-put-into-words”
(Weber, 2008, p. 225) and engages both
their affective and cognitive processes.
Because visual expression allows one to
expand their understandings beyond the
limitation of words, artmaking provides an
often overlooked avenue of understanding
and an underused avenue for exploring a
Examining Race in a Studio
Investigating Race in the Art Classroom.
In an education foundation course taught
through the art education department,
preservice art teachers learned about state
and national education issues. As one
component of this course, several class
sessions were spent critically examining
and discussing racial issues in education.
Specific pedagogical attention was given to
this topic because, while race is just one
axis of a much broader debate on social
justice, too often it is an underemphasized
aspect of understanding educational equity
and an under-examined dimension of the
dynamics of student achievement.
Students began this 3-week examination
by reading recent writings on racial issues
and exploring their role in education and
culturally responsive teaching (Berger,
2004; Marx, 2006; Sadker, Sadker, &
Zittleman, 2008; Sleeter, 2001; Winant,
2004). These readings helped to guide the
dialogue about racial hierarchies, passive
racism, Whiteness, racial identity,
stereotypes, privilege, and the racial gap in
student achievement. Students reflected on
these readings both in writing and group
As teachers move out of color-blind discourse, become
race-conscious, culturally proficient, and race literate, they
can begin to gain insightinto how their race,
ethnicity, culture, and life experiences have come together
to form their worldview.
September 2012 / Art Education 51
An Approach for Racial Dialogue. Students
and instructors often bring preconceived
ideas, attitudes, and beliefs related to race
with them into the classroom. This indirectly
and directly affects teaching and learning by
closing off the opportunity for open inquiry
and dialogue. In order to reduce such
tensions and create a classroom climate that
was conducive to productive discussions
about race, the students were asked to
approach the topic of race as if they were an
investigator examining a crime scene. A
thorough investigation of a crime scene
involves careful and detailed inquiry into
unfamiliar territory. This analogy as the
springboard for the class discussions, placed
the students in a position of inquiry,
redirecting them from starting with strongly
held and often misguided opinions. This
re-orientation allowed the evidence they
collected through readings and discussions
to shape their understanding of racial issues
Rather than utilizing a lecture format,
students were engaged in both small group
and whole class dialogue. All questions of a
racial nature raised in the class conversa-
tions, even difficult ones, were acknowledged
as valid. This was done in an effort to
demonstrate the process of examining a
question about race without passing
judgment on the person(s) who inquired.
Listening calmly, attentively, and non-judg-
mentally to the students’ questions and
thoughtfully responding to them also had the
effect of immediately reducing tension in the
room. Actions, reactions, and the nature of
the dialogue can set a tone that welcomes or
hinders inquiry. In discussions about race it
is import to model behavior that facilitates
open inquiry rather than shutting down
Utilizing a Constructivist Epistemological
Stance. Constructivist learning theory was
the foundational basis for the teaching
strategies and dispositions utilized in the
course. This theory supports the notion that
learning increases and is more meaningful
when the course instructor serves as a guide
for students as they explore and build their
knowledge through engaging in a variety of
experiences (Brooks & Brooks, 1993).
Retention of the information that partici-
pants gained in this course was a key
objective in facilitating a long-term
transformational learning experience.
Brooks and Brooks (1993) point out that
courses solely based on lecture and/or
reading formats tend to result in students’
long-term retention of only 5-10% of the
information they have learned. In contrast,
courses that utilize discussions, hands-on
learning (learning by doing), teaching
through demonstration, and immediate
application of knowledge result in students
retaining between 50-90% of the informa-
tion they have learned over the long term.
Students were immersed in experiences
designed to challenge their current concep-
tions of race. Additionally, a safe and
accepting environment was created to
encourage in-depth examinations and
discussions of racial issues. Students were
also encouraged to take the initiative to
further develop their awareness with
optional readings and process their thoughts,
feelings, and understandings through their
visual art. Each activity was designed to
provide opportunities for students to
construct their own meanings in terms of
race and further their understanding of its
potential impact on classroom dynamics. The
constructivist learning methods utilized in
this course included: encouraging self-
directed learning; written and visual
reflection of learning; ongoing assessment of
students’ needs and prior knowledge of the
topics; fostering non-judgmental communi-
cation and open inquiry among students;
and engaging students in artmaking as a
cognitive and affective process of meaning
making (the process of developing a
personally meaningful learning experience).
Expressing Understanding Through Art. After
reading, reflecting, and discussing, the
students were asked to visually express their
understanding of a racial issue through
artmaking (see Figure 3). Students were
given the option to choose the media in
which they would work. Using art as a means
of assessing understanding facilitated these
preservice art teachers visually and emotion-
ally engaging with the complex issues of race
and developing a sense of social agency.
Clover and Stalker (2007) point out that
artmaking focused on social justice issues
allows individuals to make a personal
connection to problems of justice and equity
and then use their imagination “to make
sense of their world, create meaning in their
lives and re-create a better world” (p. I).
Stevie decided to visually express her
understanding of what it means to be White
in a collage (see Figure 4). She explained that
her work aimed to problematize how many
Whites struggle to see themselves as racial
and cultural beings. In her artist statement,
she wrote that when asked about their
culture, Whites tend to reply that they don’t
have a culture or that their culture is simply
being “American.” Her artwork reflects that
by equating being White with being
American, many Whites position Whiteness
and themselves as the norm, setting the bar
to which all Others must achieve in order to
be seen as American. Stevie revealed that the
“map of White America” she created was
placed on top of a blank sheet of black paper,
symbolizing the continued racial hierarchy
and tension in the United States and the
Figure 3. Kyle, Brittany, and Stevie begin creating artworks.
Art Education / September 20125252
ability of some ethnic groups, like those from
Italy and Ireland, to transition into
Whiteness, while others are denied such
access. She covered the entire image with
drips of white paint symbolizing how
saturated our society is with Whiteness.
In Brittany’s piece she explored racial
stereotypes by creating a book (see Figure 5).
She examined how society first assigns
individuals to different racial categories
based on physical appearances and then uses
that grouping to create stereotypes about the
individuals within a particular group. She
explained that when we initially meet
someone, one of the first things we notice is
skin color and too often this one physical
attribute is used to define someone. She
symbolized this idea by using phrases cut
and pasted throughout the book. For
example, one set of pages is titled, “you are
BLACK if you look like this,” while another
set reads, “you are HISPANIC if you look like
this.” The images of different racial groups
that cover one side of the pages in the book
aim to highlight how society tends to
stereotypically group people based on their
race. Opposite these images, Brittany covered
a list of common stereotypes associated with
that particular racial group under a thin veil
of tissue paper (see Figure 6). She marked
each stereotype with an asterisk, symbolizing
the importance our society places on
properly categorizing, labeling, and stereo-
typing individuals. She explained that listing
these stereotypes under a thin layer of tissue
paper symbolized our society’s acknowledge-
ment of their existence and its simultaneous
need to pretend as if we don’t see and believe
John chose to express his understanding of
invisible race privilege in the form of a clay
sculpture (see Figure 7). He hand built clay
heads, stacking one on top of another as a
way of symbolizing the different racial
groupings in America and the hierarchy that
each racial group holds in our society. He
described the meaning behind the different
expressions on each head’s face. The top head
has no mouth, symbolizing a desire by those
at the top of the racial hierarchy not to talk
about race and race privilege. This mouth-
less head symbolizes a lack of protest and
contentment with its higher positioning in
society, resting comfortably on the heads of
the other races below it. In contrast, the head
at the bottom of the sculpture has its mouth
open in protest as it bears the weight of the
other two heads on top of it. John also
pointed out that the clay head located in the
middle has a mouth, giving it the ability to
protest, but it chooses to keep it closed,
reflecting a complacency with being neither
on top nor on the bottom of the racial
hierarchy. He explained that each of the clay
heads is affected by and connected to the
other. All of the clay heads have eyes allowing
them to see the injustice of the situation,
although only the race on the bottom uses its
voice in protest.
This artmaking experience facilitated
students exploring the topic of race in a way
that was both personal and meaningful. Art
as another way of knowing allowed these
preservice teachers to move outside their
comfort zones, take risks, and learn to view
the world through multiple frames of
reference. Through artmaking these future art
teachers visually engaged with the complex
issues of race and demonstrated that creative
expression linked to emotions, fosters
transformative learning. Brittany’s book
illustrates an astute understanding of the
impact stereotypes have on our perceptions of
others, while Stevie’s artwork visually
expresses a developing, yet studied under-
standing of White privilege and the role it
plays in the dynamic between self and other.
Figure 7. John’s clay sculpture represents his
understanding of invisible race privilege.
Figure 5. Brittany’s collaged book explores stereotypes.
Figure 6. Detail of Brittany’s book.
Figure 4. Stevie’s collage visually problematizes
September 2012 / Art Education 5353
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John’s sculpture captures a keen awareness of
invisible race privilege, highlighting how
color-blindness perpetuates racial hierarchies.
These students’ artworks suggest that art can
play a critical role in furthering under-
standing of complex issues such as race.
Teachers play an important role in how
students come to understand what it means
to respect, understand, and value diverse
cultures. How future art teachers define
concepts like race, racism, and culture are
ultimately reflected in their teaching choices.
Their understandings of these concepts
impact what they choose to include and
exclude from an art curriculum. Their racial
attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors toward
diverse populations impact whether they
support deficit thinking or high expectations
for all of their students. These constructs are
all paramount in determining the success or
failure of teachers to bridge the cultural gap
between themselves and their students.
Exploring race through artmaking facilitated
these preservice art teachers’ learning to
perceive and understand the world through
multiple frames of reference, better posi-
tioning them to work with an increasingly
diverse school population and better
preparing them to connect meaningfully to
student’s lives and lived experiences.
NaJuana Lee is Visiting Assistant Professor
of Art at the University of Georgia. E-mail:
The terms used throughout this paper aim to respect
individuals’ preferred racial designations. Hence,
terms that are widely accepted and commonly used
when referring to racial groups are employed herein.
Terminology was chosen based on the guidelines
provided in the sixth edition of the Publication
Manual of the American Psychological Association
(2010) and a study conducted by Tucker, Kojetin, and
Harris (1995) for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This
study surveyed almost 60,000 households to
determine what racial and ethnic terminology
individuals who self-identified as White, Black,
Latino/Hispanic, and American Indian preferred.
Nonetheless, the use of these terms does not suggest
that they are the only terms that should be used, nor
does this author seek to impose a preferred word
usage on others. Also reflective of the guidelines set
forth in the sixth edition of the Publication Manual of
the American Psychological Association (2010), “Racial
and ethnic groups are designated by proper nouns
and are capitalized” (p. 75) such as Black, White,
Multiracial, and so forth. When I use the term People/
Teachers/Students of Color, it is my intention to
include all racial and ethnic minority groups.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.