Professor Uses Personal Background to Help Nix Racism in Education

by Lauren Provencher / Oct 29, 2020

What does it mean to be anti-racist? That question has sparked discussions nationwide, especially now, as racism and discrimination are at the forefront of an increasingly tense social climate in the U.S.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a virtual event titled “The Anti-Racist Educator: Engaging Students through an Equity and Justice Framework,” presented by Dr. Victor M. Rios, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Throughout the presentation, Dr. Rios focused on what being anti-racist means for educators and how they can empower their students with an equity-centered mindset.

The event was hosted by the Illinois Community College Board with collaboration from the Southern Illinois Development Center and the Central Illinois Adult Education Service Center.

Rios began the seminar by emphasizing the need to focus more on daily practices educators can use to help students overcome obstacles, such as lack of resources, poverty, and racism, rather than look solely at the bigger pictures of structural and institutional change. He talked in detail about his own experiences in facing adverse barriers, revealing the significance educators can have in shaping students’ lives when becoming more involved in their needs.

The scholar shared a news clip about his journey called the “American Graduate Story,” which showed how he defied the odds despite his background. The piece highlighted Rios’ success in becoming a professor after dropping out of high school and becoming a gang member in 1994.

In the succeeding 18 years, Rios managed to earn a high school diploma and eventually a doctorate from the University of California, Berkley. He later wrote two books on juvenile delinquency and began assisting troubled youth.

All these years later, with a wife and three children, Rios described his experience as living two lifetimes and emphasized the vital role educators have in helping students who are often forgotten.

“As an educator, you have the power to help individuals that have experienced bias, discrimination, inequality, and racism to be able to bypass those systems, to be able to become an advocate that works to change those systems, and to improve the quality of life for individuals in this country,” he said.

The way to do this, Rios stressed, is by showing students daily how those who teach them can also serve as advocates while highlighting their own diverse experiences. Students come from varied backgrounds, so it is important for educators to recognize diversity and build their practices around it so students can flourish.

To exemplify this point, Rios went back in time and shared when he was 3 and his brother was 7. His mother was a single parent working 10-hour days to make ends meet. After leaving for work, she would lock the door to their studio apartment from the outside, leaving Rios and his brother unable to leave. His brother was in charge, and Rios explained that by the time his sibling was in school, he wasn’t thinking about his own education—Rios was more concerned about his family’s survival.

This reflection is an example of the common hardships students face at home, which necessitates a focused response from educators, he said. Students with adverse backgrounds are too often dismissed and left behind instead of receiving the support they need.

“We have to look at students that have had adversity in their lives as students who can also reach a level of prosperity,” he said, adding that it’s imperative for educators to have a judgement-free mindset.

Rios then discussed forms of discrimination present in schools today, which is often against the poor, though it may not be blatant. In the U.S., he said, people tend to blame the destitute and underserved for their own misfortunes.

Using himself as an example, Rios began by describing the community he grew up in. It was a poor, drug-addled environment with a great deal of hopelessness. Growing up, he witnessed a lot of violence and shoddiness; for example, people would break his windows to steal from him, followed by his landlord boarding up the blemished areas with unsightly plywood.

In the third grade, Rios’ teacher asked him to read aloud for class. He refused, causing the teacher to yell at him and then dismiss him from the classroom. She thought he was being defiant, but the truth was that Rios didn’t want to read because he needed glasses and couldn’t afford them. Rios felt his teacher was discriminating against a poor child because, rather than adjust her practices to empower him, she expected Rios to learn in her own uncompromising way.

Similarly, educators discriminate against culture. After getting kicked out of his third-grade class, Rios was sent to the principal’s office. He said the principal yelled at him and stated, “Look me in the eyes when I’m talking to you.” What the principal didn’t know—or perhaps didn’t care about—was that Rios was staring downward because looking people in the eyes is a sign of disrespect in his culture.

This story highlighted how individuals don’t always embrace other people’s cultures and understand their outlooks and values, and so they are often ridiculed, ignored, or dismissed.

How can educators eliminate bias and discrimination in their practices? Rios said all teachers discriminate in some way, but that they can adjust and add to their usual teaching routines through a framework of equity and justice. The key, he said, is for educators to continually reflect on their power and privilege and think about how such opportunities impact their everyday teaching.

For example, rather than using the term “at-risk” to describe young people, it is more helpful to view them as “at-promise” youth, which perpetuates the idea that these students can thrive, according to Rios. Educators should also speak up against racism and classism and make their material available in a multitude of formats to support all learners.

He also stressed the importance of humanizing students and their families and understanding their diverse backgrounds. Rios recalled how the most significant teacher in his life, Ms. Russ, once said, “I don’t teach subjects; I teach students.” This way of thinking, he believes, is crucial for all educators.

Ms. Russ tried to understand her students and prove she was there for them. She would drive to the neighborhoods where he and his classmates lived, for instance, and knock on doors to get to know them and their community better.

This practice is not so different, Rios said, from the teachers driving through neighborhoods these days, visiting students during a worldwide pandemic. Doing this shows that their teachers care, and students respect such efforts.


My teacher believed in me so much, she tricked me into believing in myself."


The support Ms. Russ gave Rios provided him with the foundation he needed to push onward through his academic journey, a classic example of the significant impact educators can have on students’ lives.

“My teacher believed in me so much, she tricked me into believing in myself,” Rios said.

Toward the end of the talk, Rios discussed the idea of “educator projected self-actualization,” which entails instructors constantly projecting a successful future for their students that they haven’t begun to imagine. Educators may not be able to predict the future for their students, but Rios emphasized they can project it by relentlessly supporting them and fighting against racism and classism.