Mathematics Learning and Participation
as Racialized Forms of Experience:
African American Parents Speak
on the Struggle for Mathematics Literacy
Danny Bernard Martin
College of Education and Department of Mathematics, Statistics,
& Computer Science
University of Illinois at Chicago
This article draws on 3 ethnographic and participant observation studies of African
American parents and adults from 3 northern California communities. Although
studies have shown that African American parents hold the same folk theories about
mathematics as other parents, stressing it as an important school subject, few studies
have sought to directly examine their beliefs about constraints and opportunities as-
sociated with mathematics learning for both themselves and their children. I argue
that, as they situate the struggle for mathematical literacy within the larger contexts
of African American, political, socioeconomic, and educational struggle, these par-
ents help reveal that mathematics learning and participation can be conceptualized as
racialized forms of experience. As they attempt to become doers of mathematics and
advocates for their children’s mathematics learning, discriminatory experiences have
continued to subjugate some of these parents, whereas others—as demonstrated in
their oppositional voices and behaviors—resisted their continued subjugation based
on a belief that mathematics knowledge, beyond its role in schools, can be used to
change the conditions of their lives. The characterization of mathematics learning as
racialized experience put forth in this article contrasts with culture-free and situated
perspectives of mathematics learning often found in the literature.
As a result of their experiences with oppression in this society, the concept of race has
historically played a major role in the lives of African Americans. Although race has
dubious value as a scientific classification system, it has had real consequences for
the life experiences and life opportunities of African Americans in the United States.
MATHEMATICAL THINKING AND LEARNING, 8(3), 197–229
Copyright © 2006, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Correspondence should be addressed to Danny Bernard Martin, College of Education, University
of Illinois at Chicago, 1040 W. Harrison Street, Chicago, IL 60607. E-mail: email@example.com
Race is a socially constructed concept which is [a] defining characteristic for African
American group membership. (Sellers, Smith, Shelton, Rowley, & Chavous, 1998,
really matter? Although some scholars have argued for its “declining
significance” (D’Souza, 1995; Wilson, 1978), the sentiment expressed in the
previous quote by Sellers, Smith, Shelton, Rowley, and Chavous (1998) suggests
that because race permeates so many areas of African American life—an asser
tion that is supported in the sociological, psychological, and critical studies liter
atures, in the mass media, as well as in the everyday accounts of ordinary
folks—those contexts where mathematics learning and the struggle for mathe
matics literacy assume primacy offer no exception. In light of this claim, I ad
dress three questions in this article. First, in what ways can mathematics learn
ing, participation, and the struggle for mathematics literacy be conceptualized as
racialized forms of experience—that is, as experiences where race and the mean
ings constructed around race become highly salient? Second, based on their de-
sires for equal treatment and meaningful participation in all aspects of life, and
their frequent experiences to the contrary, what do the narratives of African
American parents and caregivers reveal about their struggles for themselves and
for their children in the context of mathematics? Finally, how do African Ameri-
can parents respond to these racialized constructions of their own and their chil-
dren’s mathematical experiences?
RACE PROBLEMS AND PROBLEMS WITH RACE
The questions just posed are provocative ones, capable of stirring emotions, as is
often the case when issues of race enter a dialogue. Given the backdrop of dispro
portionately low mathematics achievement and persistence of African American
students (Johnson, 1989; Tate, 1997; U.S. Department of Education, 2000), how
ever, the need to develop interventions and solutions that are in the best interests of
these students (Delpit, 1988, 1995), and the increasingly political nature of mathe
matics education that empowers some parents and silences others (Anhalt, Al
lexsaht-Snider, & Civil, 2002; Civil, Andrade, & Anhalt, 2000; Civil, Bernier, &
Quintos, 2003; Civil, Quintos, Bernier, & Bratton, 2004; Gutstein, 2004; Martin,
2002, 2003, 2004; Peressini, 1997, 1998), there is an urgency that demands the
stirring of emotions. In my view, disregarding race in discussions of education in
America would be dishonest and sloppy science (Bonilla-Silva, 2001; Bulmer &
Solomos, 2004; Connoly & Troyna, 1998; Gunaratnam, 2003; N. Lopez, 2002;
Race is viewed here as socially, politically, and relationally constructed so that issues of margin
alization, power, dominance, and devalued social status assume prominence.
Moreover, to disregard issues of race for the sake of less controver
sial, but far less meaningful, analyses would essentially silence the voices of Afri
can American parents and others who take seriously their advocacy roles for Afri
can American children (Delpit, 1995; Lareau, 1987; Lareau & Horvat, 1999).
Admittedly, the dialectic between racialized experience on one hand and adap
tive responses by African American parents on the other is both interesting and
complicated. Within the broader literature on African Americans and schooling,
this dialectic is one that has often received ineffectual or controversial treatment
(e.g., Ogbu, 1978, 1988, 1990, 2003). Discussions are typically framed within a
deficit perspective, finding fault with those cultural norms and adaptive behaviors
that do not conform to a single, normative notion of good parenting and advocacy.
Moreover, these same studies of African American parental practices and family
socialization rely on frameworks that are related, explicitly or implicitly, to one of
two questions: Do the supposedly deviant cultural norms and parenting behaviors
give rise to differential treatment and subjugation, or does racism and differential
treatment give rise to so-called deviant cultural norms and parental behaviors? In
my view, both of these questions do a disservice to African American parents. The
first question leads to answers that “blame the victims” for the treatment that they
endure. The second question fails to address within-group variations in the re-
sponses of African American parents, ignoring the fact that, despite negative expe-
riences, many African American parents exhibit positive agency and advocacy on
behalf of their children, historically and in contemporary times (J. Anderson,
1988; Clark, 1983; Harding, 1981; Lareau, 1987; Lareau & Horvat, 1999; Martin,
Within mathematics education, research on African American parents is scarce.
Although recent educational (e.g., Rutherford, Anderson, & Billig, 1997) and
math education reform documents (Nation Council of Teachers of Mathematics,
2000) have identified increased parental involvement as an important goal to be
achieved, I argue that underlying these calls is a normative notion of White, mid
dle-class parents as all parents. I make this claim knowing that extant mathematics
education research, with a few notable exceptions, has failed to present sufficiently
detailed characterizations of the mathematical beliefs, experiences, and advocacy
practices of parents of color. What are their theories of mathematics learning and
participation? In my view, it would be incorrect to suggest that what a majority of
White, middle-class, or politically powerful parents want for their children is what
they also desire for African American, Latino, Native American, and poor children
(e.g., Becker & Jacob, 2000). I argue that what most of these parents want for their
children’s mathematical educations are those things that are better than what is
MATHEMATICS LITERACY 199
Because I do not wish to perpetuate essentialist perspectives of African American experiences,
race is but one of many factors that I consider in my research with African Americans. My argument
here is aimed at those who would advocate consideration of any factor except race.
provided to African American, Latino, Native American, and poor children to
maintain any advantages that their children might enjoy. Consider the following
statement by Gilmer (2001):
People who receive status from their kids performing well in school do not like the
idea that other kids’performance might be raised to the level of their own kids (Kohn
1998). They are not concerned that all children learn but that their children learn.
They see school not as a place for learning but as a place for accumulating creden
tials. Often these are predominately white, middle-class parents of high achieving
students. These parents might be some of the community’s most outspoken and influ
ential members … . With their substantial political power, they fight efforts to create
more heterogeneous and inclusive classrooms—preferring instead ability grouping,
gifted and talented programs, honours courses and a tracking system that keeps virtu
ally every child of colour out of advanced classes … . Arguably, their agenda has lit
tle to do with meeting children’s needs. (p. 86)
Although not specific to mathematics, a recent example from the San Francisco
Unified School District also sheds some light on this issue. According to a June 28,
2004, article in the San Francisco Chronicle (Knight, 2004), more than 50% of the
students at Newcomer High School, located in the wealthy Pacific Heights neigh-
borhood of San Francisco, are Chinese or Chinese American. During a recent
Board of Education meeting, discussion focused on the sharing of the Newcomer
building with students from another high school. After listening to a string of New-
comer parents express their unwillingness to share the school with the incoming
students—mostly African American and Latino—the African American superin-
tendent, Arlene Ackerman, chastised the parents. According to the Chronicle:
It was just the latest rebuke from Ackerman to those she sees as promoting racist
agendas, however subtle. She says racist motivations undermine her mission of im
proving the achievement of all students, especially African American and Latino
children, and she refuses to sit back and say nothing. “This is my perspective as an
African American living in this country for some five decades, OK? … I understand
racist behaviors and racist policies when I see them. It’s the elephant in the room that
none of us will talk about. I’m really disappointed, and the minute you bring it up, ev
erybody gets offended … . I’m now saying enough is enough. I’m going to call it the
way I see it.” (pp. B1, B5)
What this episode and Gilmer’s example demonstrate is that African American
parents often do not control the political discourse on education, nor do those at the
forefront of reform actively seek out African American parents (Becker & Jacob,
2000). Rather, their voices are often marginalized. Moreover, many policies and
practices that are developed in the name of being race-neutral and color-blind can
be detrimental to African American parents and their children because such poli
cies often assume that everyone is starting off in the same place when, in fact, race
is often used as a factor to keep some groups farther behind (Bonilla-Silva, 1997,
It is true that race has been highlighted as an important “variable” in many re
ports on differential mathematics achievement and persistence among various stu
dent groups. These studies, however, often fail to unpack the term race beyond its
use as a descriptor for group membership (e.g., Campbell, Hombo, & Mazzeo,
2000; Johnson, 1989; Lubienski, 2001, 2002; Reyes & Stanic, 1988; Secada, 1992;
Tate, 1997). Race rarely, if ever, appears as a social construct open to contestation,
resistance, and agency (Auerbach, 2002; Lewis, 2003a, 2003b). Few studies in
mathematics education consider the interaction of race, as a social construct, with
documented causal variables (Holland, 2001). Another reason that race remains
undertheorized in mathematics education is that most studies of achievement and
persistence focus on children and adolescents, many of whom cannot, or do not,
provide articulate or detailed perspectives on issues of race and mathematics.
Moreover, many survey studies, for example, do not probe far enough beneath the
“surface talk” to uncover the deeper meanings and beliefs that reflect experiences
of differential treatment and denied opportunity in school mathematics.
In this article, I address some of the theoretical and practical limitations of the
concept of race as it has been dealt with in mathematics education research. First,
rather than consider race as merely a label for group membership, I explore the so-
cially constructed meanings for race and the consequences of these meanings in
the daily lives of African American parents and their children. I pay particular at-
tention to how racialization processes (Ginwright, 2004; Haynes & Comer, 1990;
Lewis, 2003a, 2003b; Lipman, 1998; Omi & Winant, 1994) operate and are con-
tested in school and nonschool contexts where knowledge of mathematics is cen
tral. That is, rather than focus on race as the central category of analysis, this article
centers on an analysis of its consequences: racism, racialized experience, and
racialized inequality. Second, I show, via the parents in my research, that the social
devaluing of their African American status and their subsequent treatment makes
African American status a salient marker for participation in mathematics. Else
where, I further explain how this social devaluation, and responses to it, influence
the formation of identities of participation and nonparticipation in mathematics
(Martin, in press).
In proposing my conceptualization of mathematics learning and participation
as racialized forms of experience, I am well aware that it is potentially subject to
the same kind of resistance from the larger mathematics education community that
has been well-documented among many White preservice and in-service teachers
(e.g., Sleeter, 1993) when issues of race are introduced into conversations about
students of color. Although my discussion in this article is confined to African
Americans, elsewhere (Martin, under review) I discuss how White, Latino, Native
Americans, and Asian American subgroups also experience mathemetics learning
MATHEMATICS LITERACY 201
and participation as racialized forms of experience. Characteristically, research
that focuses on race is often viewed as nonrigorous, inflammatory, and ideological,
whereas research that is vested in subject matter concerns or curriculum and that
ignores the murkiness and complexity of sociocontextual forces is often canon
ized. As a result, the idea that teaching and curriculum design can contribute to
these racialized experiences and that disparate achievement and persistence out
comes merely reflect this racialization (e.g., Oakes, Joseph, & Muir, 2001; Solór
zano & Ornelas, 2002, 2004; Tate, 1995a, 1995b) is rarely considered by many
mainstream math education researchers. This, in turn, can lead to the belief that dif
ferential outcomes in mathematics achievement and persistence are best remedied
by focusing on “good teaching” and reform-oriented curriculum.
KEY THEMES AND CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORKS
In the following, I focus on three themes that consistently emerged across my in-
terviews and interactions with a select group of African American parents. First, I
have found that many African American parents situate their struggle for mathe-
matics literacy within race-based frameworks that they believe characterize their
lives and their children’s lives, as both African Americans and learners of mathe-
matics. In stating their views, many of the parents expressed a kind of racial real-
ism (Bell, 1992), signaling a belief that race will always be a salient marker for
meaningful participation in society at large and mathematics in particular. Second,
although discriminatory experiences in a wide range of mathematical contexts had
the potential to overwhelm and subjugate these parents, many were able to resist
this subjugation—utilizing a variety of agency-related behaviors—often based on
a belief that mathematics knowledge is an important liberatory tool to help under
stand and change the circumstances of their lives and communities (see Franken
stein, 1990, 1994; Gutstein, 2003; Martin, 2000, 2003). This resistant behavior
was also reflected in their theories and beliefs about the need to expose African
American children to role models in mathematics to overcome negative thinking
that mathematics is for others and that who does and does not do mathematics is
determined by race. Third, (re)investment in mathematics and (re)assuming the
role of mathematics learner can serve as a basis for meaningful parent agency and
advocacy in mathematics education (Anhalt et al., 2002; Civil et al., 2000; Civil et
al., 2003; Martin, 2000, 2002, 2003).
Conceptually, what parents had to say in their own words aligns with the theo
retical perspectives of critical mathematics educators (e.g., S. Anderson, 1990;
Frankenstein, 1990, 1994; Gutstein, 2003; Gutstein & Peterson, 2005; Moses,
1994; Moses & Cobb, 2001; Skovsmose, 1994; Skovsmose & Valero, 2001;
Stanic, 1989; Tate & Rousseau, 2002; Thomas, 2001), many of whom focus on so
cial justice issues and the sociocultural context of mathematics education by high
lighting factors that extend beyond the school: history, politics, language, cultural
values, gender roles, and internationalization and globalization, to name a few.
African American parents’ views also closely align with perspectives outside of
mathematics education, for example Critical Race Theory (CRT), as it has been
applied to education (e.g., Auerbach, 2002; Bernal, 2002; Delgado & Stefancic,
2001; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Parker, 1998; Parker
& Lynn, 2002; Rolon-Dow, 2005; Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). CRT
represents a paradigm shift in discourse about race and racism in education. CRT
consists of basic insights, perspectives, methods, and pedagogies that seek to iden
tify, analyze, and transform the structural and cultural aspects of education that
maintain subordinate and dominant racial positions in and out of the classroom.
(Solórzano & Ornelas, 2002, p. 219)
There are at least five defining elements of CRT: (a) the centrality of race and rac
ism, (b) the challenge to dominant ideology, (c) a commitment to social justice, (d)
the centrality of the experiential knowledge of people of color in understanding ra-
cial subordination, and (e) analyzing race and racism in historical and interdisci-
plinary context (Parker, 2004; Solórzano & Ornelas, 2002). Although the themes
and methods are not new, Solórzano and Ornelas claimed
they represent a collective challenge to the existing methods of conducting research
on race and inequality. Indeed, using CRT in education is different from other critical
frameworks because it simultaneously tries to (a) foreground race and racism in the
curriculum, (b) challenge traditional paradigms, methods, texts and separate dis-
course on race, gender, and class by showing how these social constructs intersect to
impact students of color, (c) help us focus on the racialized and gendered experiences
of students of color. (p. 219)
CRT often relies on storytelling and counternarrative to bring forth these issues
(Solórzano & Yosso, 2002).
Racialization of Mathematics Learning and Participation
Vis-á-Vis Cultural Perspectives on Mathematics
In raising questions about the racialized nature of mathematics learning, I concur
with I. H. Lopez (2000), who argued that using the “language of race forces us to
look to the pronounced effects on minority communities of longstanding practices
of racial discrimination” (p. 376). Viewing mathematics learning and participation
as racialized forms of experience contrasts with two other common conceptualiza
tions found in the literature, neither of which deals explicitly with issues of race:
mathematics as context and culture-free on one hand and the doing of mathematics
MATHEMATICS LITERACY 203
as situated or cultural activity on the other. The former approach is based on as
sumptions about the universality of mathematics content and a belief that this con
tent is accessible to anyone, regardless of social, ethnic, or economic background. I
argue that views of mathematics as context-free and culture-free often omit discus
sion of or deny the effects of the racialized experiences of African Americans in
mathematics learning and participation.
Gilmer (2001) commented on this point
of view and its impact on African American students:
The notion that mathematics is culturally neutral … [leads] subsequently to a school
mathematics curriculum devoid of contexts. So while mathematics educators ac
knowledged the universality of truth of mathematical ideas—such as the sum of the
angles of a triangle in a plane is 180 degrees—this knowledge was divorced from the
cultural bases that gave rise to it. For many reasons, such a curriculum has had devas
tating effects on the representation of African Americans and others in mathematical
studies and careers. (p. 80)
In contrast, the situated approach has appeared in the literature in at least two
ways. First, researchers focusing on mathematics activity in the classroom have
highlighted the coconstruction of mathematical knowledge and sociomathemat-
ical norms along with the negotiation of mathematical meanings among teachers
and students (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Cobb, 2000; Cobb & Bowers,
1999; Cobb, Yackel, & Wood, 1992; Lave & Wegner, 1991). Missing from the
studies in this perspective are analyses of power (Apple, 1993, 1995, 1999)
and status differentials (i.e., whose knowledge and knowledge contributions are
viewed as more valuable) and analyses that focus on how the negotiation of mathe-
matical norms in the classroom mimics and reproduces the larger social relations
that exist outside of mathematics classroom (i.e., are some children shut out of the
process). We are often led to believe that children are valued equally and that activ
ities in these mathematics classrooms unfold in a color-blind manner. The achieve
ment and persistence trends cited earlier clearly demonstrate, however, that not all
children experience school mathematics equitably.
Second, there is a growing body of research devoted to ethnomathematics—the
study of mathematical techniques used by identifiable cultural groups in under
standing, explaining, and managing problems and activities arising in their own
environment (D’Ambrosio, 1985, 1990, 2001; Powell & Frankenstein, 1997).
Gilmer (2001) provided a summary of the ethnomathematical approach:
My critique of the culture-free and context-free perspectives is not meant to imply that African
American students cannot learn mathematics that is devoid of context. As the narratives presented later
in this article illustrate, the racialized experience of African Americans in schools is the main impedi
ment to achievement, not whether the mathematics is taught according to Standards or back-to-basics
approaches (Martin, 2003). I thank Arthur Powell for his commentary on this particular section of the
Researchers in ethnomathematics tend to examine how people learn and use mathe
matics in distinct cultures and in everyday situations within cultures … . In this con
text, we may think of culture as acquired knowledge transmitted among groups. It is
shared meaning but not necessarily consensus. It includes taken-for-granted values
and beliefs seen in what people do, what they know, and the tools they use … . From
this concept of culture, race is not a proxy for culture and “ethno” in ethno
mathematics is not a proxy for ethnic. Since ethnomathematics is oriented to the
masses and the multitude of ways in which mathematical ideas are used on a regular
basis in the community, the concept expands our understanding of what mathematics
is and of who creates it. In ethnomathematics, the focus is on the concepts and tech
niques actually used by a cultural group rather than the possible mathematical theo
ries available (Barton 1985). The concepts and techniques are usually learned with
out formal schooling but are actively transmitted from one generation to another.
Through this cultural interaction, there develops an instinctive kind of common
mathematical knowledge among adults and children who belong to the same cultural
group (Gilmer 1985). (p. 80)
Powell and Frankenstein (n.d.), citing D’Ambrosio (2001), highlighted the po-
litical nature of ethnomathematics:
Beside this anthropological character, ethnomathematics has an indisputable politi-
cal focus. Ethnomathematics is imbued with ethics, focused on the recuperation of
cultural dignity of human beings. The dignity of the individual is violated by social
exclusion that often causes one not to pass discriminatory barriers established by the
dominate society, including and, principally, in schools. (p. 9, our translation)
What is significant about the ethnomathematical perspective is that it does not
privilege the statusof school mathematicalpractices, which are often used tosort and
stratify students along many different lines. Moreover, it is grounded in the history
and experiencesof cultural groups. Unlike most mainstream mathematics education
research, however, research in this perspective also attempts to unpack the concept
ofrace to explainhowitoperates in the livesof mathematics learners (Powell,2002).
To address the three questions that I raised previously—(a) in what ways can math
ematics learning, participation, and the struggle for mathematics literacy be con
ceptualized as racialized forms of experience; (b) based on their desires for equal
treatment and meaningful participation in all aspects of life, and their frequent ex
periences to the contrary, what do the narratives of African American parents re
veal about their struggles for themselves and for their children in the context of
mathematics; and (c) how do African American parents respond to these racialized
MATHEMATICS LITERACY 205
constructions of their own and their children’s mathematical experiences?—I pres
ent data from three ethnographic participant observation studies designed to ex
plore the factors contributing to mathematics success and failure among African
American youth (Martin, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, in press).
The studies took place in Oakland, Richmond, and San Pablo, California, over a
time period covering 1994 to the present. The first study, the author’s dissertation,
is described in Martin (2000). Work presented here is from the second and third
studies, which build on the earlier work in Martin (2000). For all three studies, the
participants were African American adults, adolescents, and teachers of African
American students. All three studies relied on a grounded theory approach (Glaser
& Strauss, 1967). Data collection included field notes from middle school class
rooms; interviews of more than 100 student, parent, and adult community mem
bers who were identified using convenience sampling or who were self-selected
based on posted and hand-distributed solicitations for the study; and teaching ob
servations in community college mathematics classrooms ranging from arithmetic
to differential equations. In analyzing the parent and adult community member
audiotaped interviews, which lasted anywhere from 1 to 4½ hr and took place in
homes and other community settings, I utilized content analysis and iterative cod-
ing methods to uncover themes relating to the participants’ experiences in and be-
liefs about mathematics and their beliefs about being African American. Questions
solicited information ranging from early life, family, and school experiences to
mathematical experiences in and out of school. All interviews were listened to at
least twice for emergent themes. These themes were analyzed for both uniqueness
as well as any consistency across participants.
To better understand how students and parents experienced mathematics, I fo-
cused on what I called mathematics socialization. Mathematics socialization re
fers to the experiences that individuals and groups have within a variety of contexts
such as school, family, peer groups, and the workplace and that facilitate, legiti
mize, or inhibit meaningful participation in mathematics. To understand how their
mathematical experiences were internalized at a psychological level, I focused on
the construction of mathematics identities. Mathematics identity refers to the dis
positions and deeply held beliefs that individuals develop, within their overall
self-concept, about their ability to participate and perform effectively in mathe
matical contexts and to use mathematics to change the conditions of their lives. A
mathematics identity encompasses a person’s self-understanding of himself or
herself in the context of doing mathematics (i.e., usually a choice between a com
petent performer who is able to do mathematics or an incompetent performer un
able to do mathematics, but often flowing back and forth). It also encompasses
how others “construct” us in relation to mathematics. As a result, a mathematics
identity is expressed in its narrative form
as a negotiated self, the results of our
Some researchers—Sfard and Prusak (2005)—defined identity as narrative, equating the two. Oth
ers—McAdams (2001)—defined identity as internalized life stories.
own assertions and the sometimes-contested external ascriptions of others. The de
velopment of particular kinds of mathematics identities reflects how mathematics
socialization experiences are interpreted and internalized to shape people’s beliefs
about mathematics and themselves as doers of mathematics.
Because I wanted to contextualize my findings about mathematics learning and
persistence, I decided to incorporate several different levels of analysis—socio
historical, community, school, and individual (see Martin, 2000). This approach
allows for a better understanding of the dialectal relationship between racialized
experience viewed sociohistorically and racialized experience as it plays out in
contemporary settings and in the everyday experiences of African American par
ents and their children (Lewis, 2003a, 2003b; Noguera, 2003; Omi & Winant,
1994). My efforts at the community level were largely focused on documenting the
variety of ways that African American parents and adult community members
shape and influence the mathematical beliefs and dispositions of children as a
function of their own experiences in mathematics. I also wanted to explore the ad
vocacy practices of parents and the kinds of relationships that they developed with
school officials and teachers. In doing so, my goal was not to confirm any presup-
positions about the parents. Rather, I wanted to understand, from their point of
view and in their own voices, the meanings they attached to mathematics learning
and their struggles for mathematics literacy.
Although I have generally tried to include African American parents and adults
from the larger communities, a great deal of my research has focused on parents in
the community college setting where I taught mathematics for 14 years. The Afri-
can American parents that I encountered at the college were from varied socioeco-
nomic and educational backgrounds. Many grew up in the local communities and
are products of the local schools, most of which have experienced long-term prob
lems typically affecting urban schools.
Long before any of my research projects began, I had heard more than a few of
my African American students talk about their prior mathematical experiences in
mostly negative ways. These discussions were often couched within discussions of
their negative experiences and treatment as African Americans. For many stu
dents, the tension of these experiences is often heightened because they face the
prospect of re-enrolling in mathematics courses as a prerequisite to their new edu
cational and socioeconomic goals. It was this convergence of experiences that al
lowed me to explore African American parent views about mathematics learning
and their struggles for mathematics literacy.
My years of teaching mathematics to African Americans parents and other
adults have convinced me that deficit-based characterizations lack complexity.
These deficit-based perspectives are also often ahistorical in nature in that they ig
nore the long history of individual and collective educational activism and advo
cacy by African American parents (e.g., J. Anderson, 1988; Harding, 1981).
In contrast to the deficit approaches, my work has been motivated by a commit
ment to view these parents as insightful commentators, critics, and theory builders
MATHEMATICS LITERACY 207
fully capable of expressing their desires to obtain quality and equitable mathemati
cal educations and opportunities for their children.
AFRICAN AMERICAN PARENTS SPEAK
ON THE STRUGGLE FOR MATHEMATICS LITERACY
Elsewhere (Martin, 2000, 2002, 2004), I have used in-depth case studies to present
parental beliefs and views. This allowed for detailed study of a few representative
individuals. In presenting the following data, I use a combination of abbreviated
case studies and excerpts from other narratives to illustrate the themes highlighted
earlier: (a) many African American parents situate their struggle for mathematics
literacy within race-based frameworks that they believe characterize their lives and
their children’s lives, as both African Americans and learners of mathematics; (b)
although discriminatory experiences in a wide range of mathematical contexts had
the potential to overwhelm and subjugate these parents, many were able to resist
this subjugation—utilizing a variety of agency-related behaviors; and (c) (re)in-
vestment in mathematics and (re)assuming the role of mathematics learner can
serve as a basis for meaningful parent agency and advocacy in mathematics educa-
tion. The narratives should not be viewed as definitive characterizations of all Afri-
can Americans. Moreover, I acknowledge that the stories that I tell about racialized
experience in mathematics are reflective of my own construction, given the ar-
rangement and use of selected portions of the participants’ words. In this light, the
narratives should also be viewed by readers as serving another purpose: to raise
critical questions about the role of race in mathematics learning and participation
so that sustained and serious conversations can continue to take place, allowing for
race—beyond any novelty assigned to it—to become central in conversations
about mathematics education for African Americans.
Theme One: The Centrality of Race and Racism
During the interviews, some of which lasted up to 4½ hr, the discussion flowed
across a number of areas: overall life experiences, family and educational history,
early mathematics learning, childrearing or assistance, work-related experiences,
higher education experiences, and socioeconomic and educational goals, to name a
few. That race was central in constructing meanings for their experience was no
surprise. What was surprising was the clarity and vividness in which parents de
scribed how race factored into their mathematical experiences and the fact that
many of these parents had internalized their racialized experiences and were still
affected by them. Despite their treatment, many of the narratives highlighted par
ents’ willingness to challenge, in words and actions, what they viewed as the domi
nant ideology: the inferiority of African Americans. A few challenged this ideol
ogy by working within the school context. Others left the system altogether. Others
created home contexts that provided academic support for their children. Many of
these parents also referred to the historical plight of African Americans in the
United States and how elements of this history continues to manifest itself today.
For them, fighting against and resisting their subordination was not just about
gaining access to mathematics or getting math-related jobs, but more about issues
of social justice, equal treatment, and fairness for themselves and their children.
Consider the case of Raheem,
who I use as a focal example. Raheem was a
35-year-old, married African American father of one. Although Raheem’s daugh
ter had not yet entered school, I include his comments because, in his role as a
teacher and community activist, he had also served as a surrogate parent and care
taker to many African American children. Raheem had attended the community
college several years earlier and subsequently graduated from the University of
California as a history major. At the time of the interview, he was enrolled in
a teacher credential program at a local state university. Before enrolling in the
credential program, Raheem had worked as a teacher’s aide in Los Angeles, Oak-
land, and Richmond. Having passed the California Basic Education Skills Test
(CBEST), he was also able to work as a substitute teacher. Raheem was very much
an activist in spirit and action, as evidenced by a run for the local school board. For
him, the world appeared to be divided along racial lines in almost all respects. He
frequently contrasted African American and White lifestyles and experiences. On
most occasions, he identified people and events using race as a salient marker. In
terms of his teaching career, Raheem made it clear that he was determined to con-
tinue teaching in African American communities so that African American chil-
dren could see teachers who looked like them and so that they could be taught in a
racially conscious and uplifting way, something that he believed many White
teachers did not do. Raheem developed this goal after reflecting on his own lack of
exposure to African American teachers as well as a belief that the images and mes
sages that he had been exposed to about African Americans were distorted and
used to further suppress African Americans:
Raheem: I grew up in North Richmond, and I’m not sure if you are familiar with
North Richmond, it is considered the most depressed area in the city of
Richmond. And I went to the elementary school in the neighborhood as
well … . I didn’t see Black people in positions of power, authority. You
know. I grew up seeing the “Brady Bunch” on television, “Leave It to
Beaver” on the television, “Happy Days,” the “Partridge Family.” So I
grew up looking at the images of families that were pretty much intact
and had more going for them than I saw in my community. So that was
MATHEMATICS LITERACY 209
All names used throughout are pseudonyms.
sort of like my contrast there. Seeing that, I’d be honest, I used to think
that White people just naturally had it better than we did, and that was
the way it was meant to be … . I’ll be honest, I thought that Black peo
ple were inferior and White people were superior because of what I
saw in the world around me. And then also as a child growing up, I can
count on 1, just about 1 hand the Black teachers that I had. I look back
and reflect on the way I thought, in the way I perceived things. That had
an impact on the way I felt about my own people. I saw people that
were not Black as my teachers. So that made me self-consciously come
on with the thought that Black people are just not that smart. White
people are smarter than us. That’s why most of my teachers are White.
Raheem’s racialized framing of his early life experiences is helpful as a back
drop when the focus turns to mathematics. Despite having excelled at mathematics
in earlier grades and barely missing out on early placement in algebra, Raheem in
dicated that he struggled with mathematics from the eighth grade onwards, having
lost interest. To say that Raheem struggled with mathematics is somewhat mis-
leading, however. It is probably more accurate to say that he struggled with the
boredom that he had to endure after a decision was made about his mathematical
future. Reflecting on his trajectory in mathematics, Raheem recounted to me how,
years later, he discovered that he had been intentionally overlooked for early place-
ment in algebra, but not by mistake, as he had been told by his White teacher at the
Raheem: I always liked math. I was in a 3rd grade class and I was running circles
around other students in math. I was just taking tests and getting A’s
like it wasn’t nothing ….Iwasinamath class, a regular math class in
the 7th grade, and I got a B the first quarter and all A’s the other 3 quar
ters in math. And not only that, but whenever Ms. Berks asked a ques
tion in the classroom, my hand was usually the first hand to go up and it
was so obvious that Ms. Berks would call on the other students first to
give them a chance to answer. If they didn’t get it, then she would come
to me and let me give the correct answer. And the only other student in
the classroom whom I thought of was Bruce. He was a White student
who wore braces and he got an A all 4 quarters but Bruce hardly ever
answered questions. Even if he did answer questions, he never beat me
with raising my hand. Part of it was I was always very competitive so I
liked to show what I could do. So anyway I remember Ms. Berks at the
end of the school year telling me that she made a mistake not putting
me in the algebra class in the 8th grade. And I remember her telling me
this and not realizing what algebra was and I was just, “Oh well, no big
deal to me.”
To justify his claims that race played a factor, Raheem made reference to the
fact that Bruce, his White classmate, was given access to algebra:
Raheem: But she put Bruce in algebra, I remember she said she should have put
me in algebra also. I thought she was saying that because I used to raise
my hand all the time and because I got the A’s the rest of the 3 quarters.
But the first time I really found out why she made that decision was
when I requested my school records this past summer. When I re
quested my school records, I found out that in the 7th grade, I scored in
the 90th percentile for mathematics. And this is the 7th grade. So Ms.
Berks as a teacher should have seen this. And when I read that and saw
that I got in the 90th percentile, I was angry. I was like “Man, I should
have been further. I should have been pushed further along in math than
what I was.” And I tell you man, no way in hell I should I have been put
in a regular math class … . But anyway that’s to me an example of the
fact that Black children, even when you do well, your educational fu-
ture is not planned out properly for you … . When I took math in the
8th grade, because it was a regular math class, I got all Bs that year.
And part of the reason why I got all Bs, I was bored as hell in that class.
It was the first time I ever remember hating math … . I mean it was a
pain to sit there through that. Not only was it the same work that I did
already and knew how to do, the teacher didn’t do much for me. I can’t
remember his name, but I do know he was a White male and me and
him, I don’t recall really hitting it off and he didn’t give me any interest
in math. But by the time I got to algebra in the 9th grade, I had kinda
lost interest in math.
Raheem’s experiences were not unique. Other parents revealed similar epi
sodes, making references to their encounters with (White) teachers whom they be
lieved had steered them out of mathematics or having had experiences that con
veyed the message that participating in mathematics was for others and not for
African Americans. Raquel was a 39-year-old African American mother taking
classes in nursing:
Raquel: I was in high school, it was in the 9th grade, and I had a teacher, I’ll
never forget his name … . I’ll never forget him. I had a C in algebra the
first semester and I had a D the second and he told me, “This is as far as
you can go in math.” I never took another math class from that point on
till I came to Cal State Hayward.
DM: And you bought into it?
Raquel: Why wouldn’t I? I am a 15-year-old Black student and my teacher’s,
whatever race he is, a White male, and you know he’s telling me “This
MATHEMATICS LITERACY 211
is it. You’ve gone as far as you can go.” He didn’t have any patience. It
wasn’t like “Maybe you need to look into another class, maybe another
teacher, maybe another method of instruction.” You know, it wasn’t
stressed, it just wasn’t.
DM: So, now I guess you have this emerging idea of the importance of math,
and how it really relates. And the fact that you stopped in the 9th grade,
do you feel like you had been hurt in any way to not have that math?
Raquel: Oh yes. I really wanted to sue my school district at one point.
Raquel: Yeah, it’s just a fantasy. I mean I’m not going to do that, obviously. Be
cause I felt that it was a disservice to me, I went through school on a
false pretense that I was okay and I wasn’t okay. And I felt that I wasn’t
Larry was a 29-year-old fatherof one child who wasenrolled in a local elementary
school. Larry was a social science major who had completed, or attempted to com-
plete, several math classes ranging from arithmetic to statistics. His goal was to
transfer to a 4-year university and eventually become a writer or teacher. Larry was a
student whose struggle with mathematics was lifelong, including his current
coursework. At one point in his early schooling, Larry had been labeled as gifted. He
transferred from the local schools to a nearby wealthy, mostly White school district
for a short time and characterized his experiences at both schools by saying that he
had been both “the smartest of the dumb and the dumbest of the smart.” Although he
was labeled as gifted very early in his schooling, Larry still struggled, consistently
receivinglow grades and neverreally feelingsatisfied with his education. Because of
his poor performance, he was eventually removed from the gifted track:
Larry: I tested very high as a youth and so thus I got put in special programs.
You’re in inner city schools but they send you to another class where
they celebrated learning and all of that stuff like that. But then at a certain
point, I never got good grades. I could always verbally talk but I could
never write that well. I don’t mean the art of writing or composition. I
mean my handwriting and everything was so terrible. I was spelling
things backwards all that kind of stuff. So, they basically told me, kicked
me out of the program and then basically said, “You’re not gifted any
more.” I failed all of high school. I mean I basically felt like they passed
me just because I was 18. I think they just wanted to get rid of me.
When I asked Larry if he thought his experience of being removed from the
gifted program was unique or whether he believed it was a common experience for
African American children of high ability to be identified and nurtured, his com
ments were very similar to those of Raheem and Raquel:
DM: Do you feel that African American children are often identified as be
ing the best and the brightest?
Larry: No. I think a lot of times they are overlooked, or whatever as being the
best and the brightest. Yep. But a lot of times their teachers really don’t
recognize where they’re from and don’t see what this child has been
through or is like “This kid can’t even do basic math.” Yet this kid is
more gifted than some kid whose parents and everybody else has been
showing him stuff and even overhearing it his whole life. And so they
get overlooked that way. A lot. Way too much. It’s the same thing with
a lot of kids now. They get labeled as behavior problems. And a lot of
those kids probably they are bored or either fed up or disgusted or you
know, whatever, with the situation and they need a more interactive
style of dealing with the classroom situation.
When the conversation turned to mathematics, Larry generated several explana
tions for his own aversion to mathematics as well as for underachievement and lim-
ited persistence among African Americans in general. Larry’s explanations were
grounded in history and also referenced the impact of teachers and what many re-
searchers have called cultural capital:
Larry: Because, I don’t know. I don’t have the confidence, I feel in math be-
cause I’ve had lots of bad experiences with math. I’ve lost jobs over
math. They start training you and you get to a certain point. I just have
an anxiety attack right there at the job. Just like “I can’t do this, you
know?” Obviously my life has kinda shown you gotta have math to ex-
cel, I feel. It shuts off a lot of doors for you if you don’t do well at it.
Larry: If you’ve got the history of not doing well. I mean African Americans
were not even allowed in math and sciences in certain colleges for a
long time. You got historically not being exposed to math. Like my par
ents. How are they gonna? I mean when I was with other kids in high
school, their parents are like doctors, scientists, you know, newspaper
writers. And all these people went to college. They all had to take some
type of higher math and they all know what college represents and they
all got to push it all strongly on their children. And their children see
that their parents do it, can do it, have done it, brother, sister, mother,
grandparents, have done it. It’s like ice-skating downhill. It’s not
Chantal was a mother of two elementary school children. Like many of the
other parents, she, too, had internalized the belief that African Americans do not
readily identify with mathematics as “ours” and that seeing African Americans
who actually do mathematics would go a long way in changing these beliefs and
MATHEMATICS LITERACY 213
stereotypes. She makes reference to Kaleel, one of the few African American
mathematics tutors at the college, to make her case. His outward appearance did
not fit the “image” of someone who was talented in mathematics. He often wore a
large coat, a scarf on his head, or his hair in braids. Over the years, Kaleel had
worked in the tutoring center and was a tutor in the math and science honors pro
gram as well as the Equal Opportunity Program. He had attracted a large following
of African American students, who utilized his services through several of their
courses. Many young African American men on campus were like Kaleel, in terms
of outward appearance. And because of stereotypes and presumptions about who
can and cannot do mathematics, many of these young men are often overlooked by
society as potential scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, and their potential
status as role models in mathematics is diminished. For Chantal, these role models
are essential in helping African Americans establish ownership of the idea that
mathematics is something in which they can participate:
Chantal: Because a lot of Black people that I’ve come encountered, we all like
basically have the same stories, there’s a phobia about math that must
come from probably further back than I would even care to remember.
Stereotypes, you know. People automatically think that if you are
Asian you can do math, you know and that’s not true. Kaleel for in-
stance. You see Kaleel out on the street, that’s the furthest thing from
your mind, is that this brother is brilliant in math. And that has a way of
influencing our kids … . But a lot of people don’t get this opportunity
to meet someone like that and using math … . I think we’re going to
have to have more Black role models, more Black people like you to go
into the communities and maybe go to different community centers
and get together a math group. If you’re having trouble with math, this
group meets at this time. Parents would have to be involved. Taking
them there so they could get these skills. And I think that would, like a
snowball, you know, gradually build up over years where we would
have a race of Black people that aren’t scared of math … . With Black
people, we’re going to have to find a connection, that would connect us
[to math] like this is ours, because right now, I don’t think that Black
people look at math as being ours. You know, this is something we
don’t feel like we’re good at. It’s because it’s not ours. And we were us
ing math back in Africa.
Larry also commented on this notion of mathematics as being “ours” versus
“someone else’s.” Commenting on classrooms that are populated mainly by stu
dents of color but taught mostly by White teachers, Larry was critical of how these
teaching classroom interactions often perpetuated the superiority of Whites in ar
eas like mathematics and science:
Larry: In the community where so many people just don’t know, and don’t un
derstand the point of higher math or higher education, then you’re go
ing to have to have places where people look like those students come
back to their community, teach these kids to be excited about math. We
had a guy named Mr. Smith, who came to my elementary and we use to
call him Mr. Einstein. Still it was like he came in and was still basically
a White guy coming into a Black school doing magic. That’s how it
was to me. It wasn’t like you know someone I could really relate to or
whatever, you know. He’s from over there and that’s what they do. It’s
not what we do.
Amber was a 32-year-old African American mother. She attended ethnically di
verse private schools before transferring to an Oakland high school. After transfer
ring, Amber’s past academic accomplishments, including having already taken al
gebra, were nullified by her experiences at this new school. Rather than make room
for her in the appropriate advanced classes, she was placed in unacceptable alter-
natives. Following, readers can see how Amber resisted this situation and exer-
cised her agency to fight back:
Amber: Everyone got bussed in. It was supposed to be great … . I went up there
and I’m a year ahead of everybody because I came from a private
school [but] they’re going try to hold me back a year because they said
all of their classes were filled for the classes I needed to graduate. Now
in private school I already had Algebra I. I should be going onto trig,
and then algebra II and statistics, leaving out of there. They told me that
trig was full, algebra II was filled and statistics was filled. All the kids,
the people that was in there was Asian and White. So they gave us 2 PE
classes. Why the hell you need 2 PE? I had 2 PE, a dance and an insur
ance class. That was most of my day. And all the people who were in
insurance were Black and Hispanics. Why do I need insurance? … But
I didn’t plan on being a small business person in that kind of business.
It was orientated for someone who was in small business. Everybody
else who wanted to be doctors and lawyers who were the Asians and
Whites, got all the science classes, all the algebra, algebra II, statistics,
Theme Two: Agency and Resistance
to Racialized Mathematical Experience
One of the limitations of the literature on African American parental practices and
school involvement is that these parents are often portrayed as passive, lacking the
kind of agency and advocacy that is accepted and expected as the norm for White,
MATHEMATICS LITERACY 215
middle-class parents. The practices and behaviors that are idealized—for example,
volunteering in schools and classrooms, helping students with homework, fund-
raising—are those against which all parents are judged. What is not discussed or
conceptualized is the fact that agency for many African American parents can take
alternative forms and may or may not involve direct involvement in the school con
text. If school policies and practices are such that they make schools appear to be
unwelcoming places, these parents may avoid contact with teachers and school of
ficials and choose to engage their energies in other ways. For many African Ameri
can parents, this often includes support of community-based organizations and ef
forts such as church-based academic support. Even in those cases where African
American parents enter the school context, it may be for the purpose of challenging
those practices that are thought to be detrimental to African American children. Or
it might be to insure that the needs of African American students are brought to the
attention of teachers and other school officials. The main point is that those forces
that are often thought to be deterministic—poverty, negative school experiences,
teacher bias, and discrimination in nonschool contexts, for example—are often re-
sisted by African American parents in ways that take into account what they have
learned from their own racialized experiences in life as well as in school.
For example, believing that her progress in school was being stunted and that
the best learning opportunities were being reserved for White and Asian American
students—despite the fact that she was 1 year ahead on transferring—Amber de-
cided that the best way to fight back was to leave the school system altogether. She
dropped out and earned a GED, explaining her decision as follows:
DM: And so when you think back on these classes that had mainly Asians
and Whites in the upper levels, did you notice that back then?
Amber: I knew it right away. They do that because they want to push them
along and keep us back. A lot of the minority students knew this but
they accepted it. I hated it. Why should I accept this, just because I’m a
Black person? This is not fair. You’re advancing them and letting them
advance … . So that’s why I said forget it. “I hate this, I’m leaving.” I
checked out, getting a GED and went ahead and did what I needed to
Keith, a 37-year-old, married father of two boys had taken several steps to in
sure that his children gained access and exposure to educational opportunities out
side of school:
Keith: But we have never had the opportunity or exposure that Whites have.
And what I mean by that, is for example with my own children, my
children have to sleep, eat, and drink education. My wife is at home for
the specific raising of the children. We could live a lot more affluent
lifestyle, but the issue for us is education. My children are exposed to
things, she, every month she knows all the free places in the Bay Area,
she takes them to the museums, the aquarium, the Lawrence Hall of
Science, so my son can see how math relates to what he is doing right
now….Forexample, my wife never knew about the Berkeley Young
Scholar Program. You told us about that, but because I knew you, you
in turn told me and I in turn told my wife. My wife in turn tries to get,
she’s trying now to get in contact with the program so she can get in
volved with that. So that’s the primary example of exposure … . Her
being involved with his education after school, before school, picking
him up from school, taking him to school, being able to talk to him, in
teract with him. “How’s school going? How are you doing?” Having
someone interact like that and having immediate interest makes a big
difference on how well you will do in school … . In school my wife is
so involved that she grades some of the papers for the teacher. She’ll
help with the hot meals at the school just in case they are short staff. So
there’s a lot of involvement.
Keith also invoked the idea of collective protest in affecting the kind of change
that would result in increased African American participation in mathematics.
This kind of thinking is very similar to Bob Moses’ (Moses & Cobb, 2001) notion
of mathematics literacy as a form of civil rights and stresses the immediacy and ur-
gency of building African American community support for mathematics:
Keith: If African Americans got together down in Silicon Valley, if an African
American group of engineers got together, and say “We’re not going to
stand for this anymore. We want you to now start interviewing African
American supervisors that can work in the engineering capacity for
this firm. We know that they’re out there. But unless you do this, we’re
not coming to work.” … It would change things … [In the past,] you
had African Americans get together, fought, struggled for voting
rights. You had African Americans sit down in the restaurant and say
“We’re not going to the back anymore.” When there’s a struggle that
we’re all knowing about that we can associate with, we get together as
a group and say “We’re not going to stand for it anymore.” Oh yes. If
we were to rally around that and the children knew that their parents
were behind them, the community is behind them, I believe that proba
bly in every major university you would have African Americans tak
ing the lead in math. I never realized that there are African Americans
who did math.
MATHEMATICS LITERACY 217
Keith’s individual efforts, as well as his appeal to collective action, illustrate the
kind of agency and resistance that is often overlooked among African American
parents. Raheem, on the other hand, was committed to changing the school system
from within. His decision to become a teacher, and in many ways infiltrate the
schools, was one of the ways that he was able to invoke agency and resistance and
shatter the destructive messages and psychological images that he believes are pre
sented to African American children:
Raheem: So that’s why I decided to become a teacher, because I want to help too,
plus with that perception in other children’s minds, that Black people
are not intelligent, they’re not capable, their advice and suggestions are
not valid. But if I demonstrate to children that a Black person is intelli
gent and they know what they are talking about, that that will help them
have more confidence in themselves and their own people.
Larry expressed a similar sentiment in expressing his desire to become a
teacher. Like Raheem, he believed that forces within the educational system
worked against African American children, and that because they are often taught
by teachers who do not share their culture, beliefs about their inability to succeed
were allowed to perpetuate:
Larry: You got apathetic teachers. Then you got kids at other schools, like
some African-Centered schools or whatever. They’re learning higher
math at a much earlier age from teachers who believe they could do it at
an early age. They do algebra in elementary or whatever. They believe
they could do it. A lot of these [White] teachers don’t. When you go to
the inner-city school, most of the teachers do not look like the students
there, being Hispanic, Asian, or African American. They may be nice,
good people or whatever. But, for all their efforts, I feel they really
don’t have an understanding of actually who they’re teaching. You
have to love children. A lot of teachers you are teaching by default.
They’re not teaching because they love it, want to do it, or even have a
love for the interest of these children or whatever. The 1 thing, why I
would like to teach, is because I don’t want anybody to go through edu
cation kind of like the way I went through. You shouldn’t have to be al
most 30 before you figure out you can do this. You know, I feel like
someone could have caught this from all these counselors and all these
people. Someone could have helped me out a lot, because I was desper
ate to do well. I just didn’t do well.
Maybe because of his own experiences in mathematics, one of Raheem’s goals
was to complete enough mathematics courses so that he could obtain a single sub
ject credential and teach mathematics up to the ninth grade. Raheem was con
vinced that more is needed to promote mathematics to African American children
than slogans and disconnected messages. He believed that it was necessary to show
them real examples of African Americans doing mathematics, and one way to do
this was by teaching mathematics. Details of an encounter with a young student
during the time of his assistant teaching helped convince him of this. This encoun
ter also reveals how African American children, even at very young ages, may have
already formulated beliefs about their relationship to mathematics, hinting at the
racialization that is the focus of this article.
Raheem: I remember one student when I was in L.A. One boy was like consid
ered the worst student at the school in terms of his behavior, the way he
acted, always having problems, getting into fights, and also having low
academic skills. I remember talking to him at one time, and explained
to him that he can do the math. I got to the point where I said, “Let me
tell you, there’s Black people who have the ability to do this. Black
people are intelligent people. You are a young Black boy. You should
be able to handle this.” And he looked up at me and said, “If Black peo-
ple are so good at math, if Black people are so smart in everything, how
come they don’t do well in math? How come you don’t see many of
them doing math?” This is a third grade boy saying this to me. And
when he said that to me, I said, “Damn I cannot just come with an opin-
ion with students, with children, I have to come with facts.” … Because
he basically just let me know that “I’m not going by what you say,
you’ve got to show me and prove to me.” His question that he asked me
was the hardest question that any student had ever asked me at that
school. Because when you are a child’s teacher and you are teaching
them science, mathematics, language arts, physical education, chemis
try, whatever subject you are teaching them, every day that that child
comes and sits under you as a pupil, he has been given a visual example
that someone that looks like him can handle this area … . Black people,
since the beginning of time, have been masters of mathematics, so
they’re only doing what they have the God-given talent to handle. So
those are some of the things that I see that need to be given to our chil
dren to let them know that they can go into math.
I also found that Raheem’s resistance to the dominant ideology of African
American inferiority grew out of an analysis of historical context—commenting
on a time when African American children were more likely to have African
American teachers. As he discussed his decision to become a teacher, and the
struggle to earn his credential, he expressed a great deal of frustration about the
structural barriers that he believed have evolved to stand in the way of African
MATHEMATICS LITERACY 219
Americans becoming teachers. In his view, these barriers were a clear indication
that the educational system works against the needs of African American children,
making it even more difficult for African American children to see the kind of pos
itive images referred to previously:
Raheem: During segregation, the teachers who worked in segregated schools,
didn’t have to have any particular credentials to be a teacher. But now
today in order to be a public teacher you have to have a Bachelor’s, you
have to pass the CBEST, you have to get through a credential program
and/or pass that Multiple Subjects Assessment for Teachers if you did
n’t pass those necessary classes as an undergraduate. But those require
ments don’t necessarily mean you’re a good teacher. But one thing it is
saying to me, and other Black people, that unless we get through these
requirements, we’re not qualified to teach our children. And it’s also
saying to us “We are going to put up standards that keep you from
teaching your children. Even though it is having that adverse effect on
the education of your children, we’re still going to leave it in place.” So
it’s telling me that this educational system don’t give a damn about
Black children because it’s allowing the system to perpetuate itself.
That’s causing this demise of our children in the educational system.
And so because of that, I see it as an enemy to the betterment or the im-
provement of Black people.
Raheem’s narrative, like those of Amber, Keith, and Larry, signals varied re-
sponses that African Americans have to their racialized experiences in which they
employ agency and resistance. To suggest that African American parents are passive
recipients of differential and racialized treatment is clearly a false claim. In fact, Af
rican American parents express a wide range of advocacy-related behaviors, inside
and outside of school, that challenge the dominant ideology of African American in
feriority and deficient parenting. This advocacy clearly shows that race (and racism)
is a construct subject to challenge, contestation, and resistance. “Being black” does
not have to mean that African American parents are antiachievement or that they
cannot identify with and strive for equitable participation in mathematics.
Theme Three: Reinvestment in Mathematics
When African American parents come to the community college, they do so for
different reasons. Many are seeking the skills needed to find immediate and mean
ingful employment, and they take vocational courses to achieve that goal. Others
are changing jobs or careers and need to complete a sequence of courses for degree
purposes. Others plan to transfer to a 4-year college or university to pursue more
education. In most of these cases, a mathematics requirement consisting of one or
more courses has to be met. This convergence of heightened aspirations and, in
many cases, confronting a subject in which one may have previously struggled or
was steered away from is the kind of convergence that often leads to another result:
a reinvestment in mathematics that also has the potential to serve as a basis for
meaningful parent agency and advocacy in mathematics education. That is, by
choice or unintended consequence, many parents now find themselves in the posi
tion of being able to better assist their children with mathematics, both in learning
it and by promoting its value.
What is particularly important about this reinvestment, and what makes it dif
ferent from the kind of resisting behavior described previously, is that parents are
doing mathematics and not just talking about, reflecting on it, or observing it being
done by others. Their active participation in relearning or learning mathematics
concepts that are, in some cases, also being learned by their children renders them
more capable of helping their children.
Many of these parents also expressed beliefs about the instrumental value of
mathematics and its perceived relation to meaningful participation in the larger
opportunity structure. In expressing their desires for their children, most parents
expressed the belief that lack of mathematical knowledge, coupled with their chil-
dren’s devalued African American status, would further relegate them to second-
class status in society.
Although Keith was one of the parents who could vividly recall the negative
messages that he received in society and in school, he did not succumb. His rein-
vestment, and success, in mathematics helped him develop positive agency and
perspective on mathematics:
Keith: I felt a struggle at one time but what I began to find through the years of
working and exposure is that Whites are not smarter than me….The
point I’m making is that when you’re exposed to things early on and
have role models and this is just banged in your head early on, you turn
out to be a completely different person. There’s no guarantee but at
least you have the tools … I honestly feel that through my struggles and
working and living as long as I have so far, that math is an essential
foundation for everything.
Chantal also believed that it was necessary to invest in mathematics for the sake
of her children, not just for instrumental reasons. This reinvestment had begun to
pay off in the form of improved school performance. Chantal’s reinvestment in
mathematics allowed her to turn mathematics learning into a family event. Al
though she was still hesitant to express full confidence in her mathematics ability,
she had gained greater confidence in her ability to help her children. Moreover, she
believed that the example that she was setting for her children was a very positive
one and that mathematics was something she could “pass down” to them:
MATHEMATICS LITERACY 221
Chantal: I questioned my ability in math. Though it’s better than it was, you
know, before first coming back to it.
DM: Has your thinking changed at all from that time till now?
Chantal: I’m more confident about math, more so than I was. Not as confident as
I would like to be. But it is better since, you know, because I came back
into basic math. So I’ve gone through the basic and beginning algebra,
so I am building my confidence.
DM: But you are making efforts now to … ?
Chantal: Oh yeah. Absolutely. So I can pass it down to my kids, you know. So
when they get here, they should be already at a whole other level. They
shouldn’t have to come in and start at basic. I’m seeing stuff, that I’m
doing in algebra right now, that my daughter is bringing home, and
she’s in the 6th grade. And I’m like “Did I have this stuff in the 6th
grade?” And that’s what made me start questioning, basically what was
DM: Can you say a little bit more about that?
Chantal: Yeah. Well you know, with my oldest son, I had no math experience at
all. So he would come home with math and I was like “I can’t help
you.” And that was discouraging that I couldn’t help him with his 5th
grade 6th grade math. 6th grade math. Same thing with my daughter.
So when I came up here and took math, I found out it was easier for me
to help her with her homework. Before, I wouldn’t be so patient when I
didn’t know what I was doing. You know, “Why didn’t you ask your
teacher before you left, and bring this home to me!” But now since I
can help her with it and remain calmer, she’s learning it better. And I
am able to help her so that’s giving me confidence. So, you know, I
want to progress, so that as she comes along in her math, we can work it
DM: Now does that make you feel any different about yourself as a person
or as a mother?
Chantal: Oh absolutely. Absolutely, I feel better informed and I feel that I can
pass that down to my kids which is something that they will need. I
want them to remember 7 years from now that my mom did this. She
had us sitting down to math every day.
Given the comments presented previously, it is important for mathematics edu
cators to consider the role that African American parents can play in making or
breaking reform efforts. It is often assumed that one reason for limited parent par
ticipation in mathematics education is their own lack of mathematical knowledge,
resulting in an inability to help their children. Yet, a focus on parents who are com
munity college students and who are enrolled in mathematics courses significantly
alters this characterization of parents. First, many of these parents can often dem
onstrate proficiency in topics typically covered in the K–12 curriculum. Second,
many of these parents understand, and can articulate, relationships between mathe
matics learning and the larger opportunity structure, even if those relationships ex
ist only for credentialing purposes and not for immediate, hands-on use of mathe
matics. In my view, parents who are armed with both types of knowledge can serve
as powerful points of leverage to support reform-oriented, school-based mathe
matics practices. Indeed, not all parents have the time, inclination, or personal need
to reinvest in mathematics. But, as the previous excerpts show, reinvestment does
lead to the kind of awareness and advocacy that represents a step in parents helping
teachers and school officials help students, particularly those who need it the most.
Designing interventions to foster reinvestment in mathematics learning among
parents is something that math education reform has quietly overlooked (e.g., Civil
et al., 2000; Starkey & Klein, 2000). Building on the agency and advocacy of par
ents in the community college context would represent a start.
I opened this article with the question “Does race really matter?” in the struggle for
mathematics literacy among African Americans. Studies of achievement and per-
sistence among African American children have only hinted at the answers by
showing that achievement and persistence differ along racial lines. The narratives
from the African American parents, however, make it clear that race does matter.
Being completely aware of the ways that society, including schools and some
teachers, devalue their African American status, these parents were able to recall
specific instances in their mathematical histories where race played a lasting and
prominent role. These parents were also able to formulate personal theories about
how the socially constructed meaning for race comes to be a deciding factor in who
gets to do mathematics and who does not.
I claim that African American parents, within the context of their life and prior
mathematical experiences, conceptualize mathematics learning and the struggle
for mathematics literacy as racialized forms of experience. Their narratives reflect
beliefs that society, schools, and teachers practice exclusion from mathematics
along racial lines. These beliefs and responses are more closely aligned with
race-sensitive theories, such as CRT, signaling a major limitation in mathematics
education research and policy that purport to characterize and include African par
ents in the dialogue about what is best for their children. In contrast to their por
trayal in the deficit-based theories, African American parents presented here and
elsewhere (Martin, 2000, 2002, 2003) proved to be active agents in resisting, and
transforming, their racialized experiences (see also Stinson, 2004). By reinvest
ment in mathematics, many African American parents are able to position them
selves to better assist their children with mathematics and to formulate stronger
MATHEMATICS LITERACY 223
opinions and increased awareness about the relationship of mathematics knowl
edge to the larger opportunity structure.
In my view, utilizing and leveraging knowledge about (a) the mathematical ex
periences of African American parents, (b) their perceptions of school-based
mathematics, (c) how parents situate school-based mathematics in their lives and
their children’s lives relative to their socioeconomic and educational goals, and (d)
their resulting advocacy practices will prove to be an effective strategy to help suc
cessfully reverse negative achievement and persistence trends. African American
parents must become meaningful partners in mathematics education reform. Theo
retical perspectives on mathematics learning and efforts designed to assist mar
ginalized students and parents must be expanded to consider the role of race, not
just as a descriptive variable, but also with a consideration for the social devaluing
of African American status. This further implies that future research on equity in
mathematics education, including that which focuses on parents and students of
color, must move beyond race as simply a way to disaggregate data. Theory and
empirical work must make explicit the ways in which the meanings for race con-
structed by parents, students, and teachers impact student learning, teacher prac-
tice, and parents’ ability to help their children in mathematics.
This article is a revision of earlier papers presented at the annual conferences of the
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, San Antonio, TX (Martin, 2003)
and Philadelphia, PA (Martin, 2004). Portions of the research described here were
funded by a Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded to the author in 1998 and a
National Science Foundation grant (0204138) awarded in 2002, both while the au
thor was a faculty member in the Department of Mathematics at Contra Costa Col
lege. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect those of
the Spencer Foundation or NSF.
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