Studying While Black: Trust, Opportunity, and Disrespect, 2014

Studying While Black: Trust, Opportunity, and Disrespect, 2014

Author(s): Sally Haslanger
  • Type: Article
  • Researcher: Other Researchers
  • Timeline: 2010s
  • Affiliation: Faculty


How should we explore the relationship between race and educational opportunity? One approach to the Black-White achievement gap explores how race and class cause disparities in access and opportunity. In this paper, I consider how education contributes to the  creation of race. Considering examples of classroom micropolitics, I argue that breakdowns of trust and trustworthiness between teachers and students can cause substantial disadvantages and, in the contemporary United States, this happens along racial lines. Some of the disadvantages are academic: high achievement is more difficult when one faces mistrust, ego depletion, effort pessimism, and insult. And within a knowledge economy, exclusion from knowledge work makes one vulnerable to injustice. But the problem goes deeper than achievement, for schools are contexts in which we develop self-understandings and identities that situate us as members of society. If students of color are systematically denied full participation in trusting conversations that create shared knowledge—especially, knowledge that holds power within the dominant culture—they are unjustly deprived resources to form flourishing selves that are suited to the positions of power and authority.

The argument suggests that knowledge is not best understood simply as a commodity to be distributed, and opportunity is not just a matter of access. Moreover, even if access is granted, those who are motivated and talented can fail: they drain their willpower by coping with insults, or reasonably lose optimism about  their efficacy. Over  time, motivation  may shift away from achievement, and under the circumstances this can be a rational response. The barriers to achievement are many, but true opportunity is impossible without trust and trustworthiness. 

About the Author

Sally Haslanger is the Ford Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT, and an affiliate in the MIT Women's and Gender Studies Program. Haslanger is the recipient of a 2014 MIT MLK Leadership Award.


Haslanger, Sally. “STUDYING WHILE BLACK: Trust, Opportunity, and Disrespect.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, vol. 11, no. 1, 2014, pp. 109–136., doi:10.1017/S1742058X14000095.