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The 180 Podcast Jan 8, 2020

The 180 Podcast: Na’ilah Suad Nasir


Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Race, Identity and Equity in Education

Race in America is a daily part of nearly every aspect of our lives including, of course, education. And that intersection where race, identity, equity and education all meet – that’s where Na’ilah Suad Nasir has dedicated her research, action, and career.

Nasir’s work centers on what she calls the “racialized and cultural nature of learning and schooling” – in other words, how to consider identity and racial inequality with the goal to advance equitable access to high-quality education. And how, as a result, school districts might rethink a “standardized” approach.

Nasir is President of the Spencer Foundation, the Chicago-based funder of education research (the Spencer Foundation has provided financial support to Turnaround in the past). Previously, Nasir was a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley and served as the university’s second Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion. She is the author of numerous publications, including “Racialized Identities: Race and Achievement for African-American Youth” and co-editor of “We Dare Say Love: Supporting Achievement in the Educational Life of Black Boys.”

We discussed her philosophy – as well as the practical steps educators – from K-12 and beyond – can apply from the science of learning and development to change the way kids learn.

Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: This is The 180, our podcast that explores how to transform 21st Century education – how to turn it around – using 21st Century science.

Race in America is a daily part of nearly every aspect of our lives including, of course, education. And that intersection where race, identity, equity and education all meet – that’s where Na’ilah Suad Nasir has dedicated her research, action, and career.

Nasir’s work centers on what she calls the “racialized and cultural nature of learning and schooling” – in other words, how to consider identity and racial inequality with the goal to advance equitable access to high-quality education. And how, as a result, school districts might rethink a “standardized” approach.

Some background: Nasir is President of the Spencer Foundation, the Chicago-based funder of education research. Previously, Nasir was a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley and served as the university’s second Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion. She is the author of numerous publications, including “Racialized Identities: Race and Achievement for African-American Youth” and co-editor of “We Dare Say Love: Supporting Achievement in the Educational Life of Black Boys.”

We discussed her philosophy – as well as the practical steps educators – from K-12 and beyond – can apply from the science of learning and development to change the way kids learn.

Chris Riback: Na’ilah, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Yes, happy to be here.

Chris Riback: I think you likely have work for life in your current ideas and efforts in the things that you spend, it seems like, 24/7 thinking about, so let’s get into it: Race. Race infuses every aspect of our society. Obviously, employment, housing, politics, friendships, marriage. What are the core aspects of race in education? Does it differ from the influence of race in all those other parts of our lives?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: No, I think it’s actually all incredibly linked. This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently that the ways in which race plays out in education, both in terms of how we structure opportunity, and then what interactions look like inside education spaces, very much mirrors the types of racialized processes that happen across every sector of our society.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: In fact, it’s a little bit problematic to think that education is going to fix all of that. But I do think education is a key part of addressing the ways in which race plays out.

Chris Riback: Do you think about it in terms of how evolving the way race works in education might fix all the rest of it? Is that kind of the path as you think about it? Or the education sector is just where you ended up, so that’s where your focus is?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: No, I think the education sector is where I place my bets, right? Like if these problems are longstanding, historical, vast, pervasive, but if there’s a good lever for changing them, I think education is a great place to center the work.

Chris Riback: And there’s another centering of the work and beginning place that I would want to start a conversation with you, and that is around the term “racialized identity.” You use it a lot. You wrote a book with that as the primary portion of the title. In there you wrote, “My use of the term racialized identities is an effort to honor the idea that race and thus racial identities is not an inherent category, but rather is made racial through social interaction, positioning, and discourse.” What is racialized identity, and what do you mean by the idea that race is “made racial through social interaction, positioning, and discourse?”

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: What I’m trying to signal there is that race is not … racial categories are not biological categories. That in fact there aren’t biological correlates that define race. Race is socially constructed. On some level, you can say that that means it’s not real. But race is actually made very real by the power that it holds in our society and by the ways people are treated in relation to the racial categories to which they are ascribed.

The racialized is partly about honoring and keeping in mind that race is something we continue to make and remake again and again and again through our interactions, through our discourse, through the ways that we talk and think. But there’s nothing inherently magical about it. There’s nothing inherently present about it. Does that make sense?

Chris Riback: It does, and it leads to something else that I was thinking about in researching your work and among the aspects that I found really compelling was this idea that you don’t consider the experience that a student with a racialized identity has inside school as being totally separated from that student’s experiences outside of school. Which leads me to first question: How do children discover their identities, and how do experiences like stereotype and bias affect learner identity?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Yes, those are great questions. People typically discover their racial identity when it is called out by someone else. Occasionally, I mean, sometimes that’s when they’re in one type of schooling environment that’s more homogenous, and then they enter a schooling environment that is more diverse. And all of a sudden the salience of their race is called kind of onto the floor. When you ask people when they first knew they were whatever race, there’s usually a story there.

Like people remember the moment when they realized they were different or when they realized they were being categorized by others in a particular kind of way. I think it’s sometimes most interesting in cases where people are of mixed race or racially ambiguous, the ways in which they have to choose categories. They talk about that there’s not really the space for ambiguity. There’s not really the space for someone who doesn’t fit neatly into one of the boxes.

It’s kind of like when you start to see how powerful the boxes are and how arbitrary they are in some cases.

Chris Riback: Is there sufficient understanding, do you feel maybe within education writ large, around this idea that inside school and the experiences that a student with a racialized identity may have inside school, they’re not totally separated from that student’s experiences outside of school? Are you hopeful around a growing understanding of that connection, or are we not maybe there yet?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: No, I think that that’s an important connection. Young people will tell you that when you ask them about their experiences of being racialized, they talk both about things that happen in school and things that happen outside of school, which is both worrisome and promising. Right?

It’s worrisome because you hate to think that schools are places where kids are being racialized in negative ways though that is the case. But it’s promising in that if we can create different kinds of school structures and different types of interactional patterns in schools, then you can shift that. And maybe, and in some cases, and in our greatest hopes, schools are places where students are emotionally safe, where they are cared for, where they’re treated as kind of first and foremost human beings worthy of care and teaching, and that schools should be a place that undo or at least kind of mediate what kids are experiencing outside of schools.

Chris Riback: In building off of what you just described, are schools places where children should have the opportunity to hone their identities, learn more about themselves and build on whatever they kind of have come into the school thinking and feeling and believing about themselves? Or are they places where an awareness of individual identities needs to be primary and where an approach to education needs to be, on the one hand, sensitive, but even more than that, almost customized to an individualized approach to education that recognizes and takes positive advantage of individual identities?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Yes, that’s a great question. I think it’s both. I think schools are both places where young people bring aspects of themselves, and when they come into a space and realize that not all of them are accepted there, they disconnect and disengage. So schools do need to be places that send messages that all of who you are is okay here kind of as a starting place. At the same time, young people spend an extraordinary amount of time in school and during that time they are thinking about figuring out who they are – who they are in relation to their peers; who they are in relation to the world. It’s crucial then that schools provide the kind of appropriate fodder for kids to create the most productive, healthy, robust identities possible.

Chris Riback: I want to ask you more about some of those opportunities and some of the ways that schools do that. In particular, some of the casework that you identify in “We Dare Say Love” and how that works with black male students. But before we get there, fast-forwarding to the present. Just over two years ago, you left Berkeley, you were on the faculty, you served as Vice Chancellor of Equity and Inclusion and you joined the Spencer Foundation in Chicago.

First, the obvious side question, did folks hide Chicago’s weather history from you as a person who has experienced both Chicago and California? That’s a strange trade to make … I’m going to be honest.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: I need you to know it was a real dilemma, the weather challenges, but ultimately, the opportunity to lead this foundation and do work in education kind of across the field was so exciting that I bought one of those really heavy winter coats that you zip up like from the neck all the way down to the ankles.

Chris Riback: Yes, it’s a great look.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: It’s been okay. It’s been okay so far.

Chris Riback: What did inspire you to join, and what is your goal?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Well, Spencer’s just an amazing foundation and I have a kind of long personal history with the foundation. It funded my doctoral work, funded my dissertation work and really there was a … I tell this story, there was a program officer here who at the time when I was coming through my PhD program was in charge of the Dissertation Fellowship Program, which wasn’t just money. They gave you money, but they also brought you together with your peers across the nation, with fabulous researchers in the field. Like people whose names you had only read.

It was actually a program officer during that set of activities who was the first person that I felt like made me feel like I could be a researcher. Like I could really do this thing. And so I have a soft spot in my heart for the foundation just for the way that it’s transformed my own professional trajectory. Then, in talking to people, realizing that this foundation has done that for so many scholars. Everywhere I go in the country people say, “The Spencer Foundation changed my life.” It’s just a real honor to be a part of that changing of people’s lives and opening up doors of opportunity in ways that folks might not have imagined for themselves.

Chris Riback: To do that, you recently outlined your clarity of goals and commitments and you not only talked about the qualities that you’ll seek in research – “rigorous, relevant, equitable, transformative, collaborative” – but you got pretty specific in terms of key areas of interest. One of those areas you identified as “cultivating equitable educational spaces.” How do you define equity? What is equity, and what do equitable educational spaces look like?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: You really do your homework.

Chris Riback: Well, on the interesting people, sure.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: I think by equity what we mean is the broadening of opportunity. In particular, how are districts organized, how are schools organized, how are classrooms organized, how does instruction occur in ways that produces opportunity for all, in ways that disrupt some of the kind of racialized inequalities that we see so often across systems in our society?

We frame that initiative around cultivating equitable educational spaces so that we weren’t just talking about the production and reproduction of inequality, but that we were able, we were kind of honing in on what happens when things go right? What do we know about that? What can we learn about that? How can we continue to support the creation of spaces where opportunities opened?

Chris Riback: But listening to what you just described, is equity possible? Do you think of equity as a North Star, or do you see it as a realistic destination that through work that you do and others that you hope to scale?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Yes, I think equity is possible. I don’t think I could do this work if I didn’t believe that. I think the challenges are great. I think the history of our country would suggest that we have not as a nation really invested in equity. In fact, we’ve invested in inequality to maintain the privilege for some. But I do think it’s possible, and I feel like I’ve seen it. Like I’ve seen systems at the very least become more equitable.

Again, it’s part of why I’m in education, because I think it gives you a bounded space. Like part of what I was excited about in my work as vice chancellor at Berkeley was, here we have this campus and it’s a huge campus and lots of people on it. But it’s our campus, and we get to kind of figure out the policies and the practices and the programs that we need to make this place more equitable.

I kind of feel like schools offer that, whether you’re talking at the district level or at the school level or at the classroom level. It’s a bounded space, and within that space, I think it’s completely possible to create equity.

Chris Riback: That’s an excellent example of equity or of an opportunity to create equity. You said a moment ago that you’ve seen it, and I guess perhaps with Berkeley, you’ve just described one example. Are there other examples that come to mind of what equity in a classroom or in a school district looks like?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Yes. I do feel like I have seen great examples of what equity work looks like in practice. One example comes from a book project that I did a few years ago with a group of mathematics teachers. These were teachers in a large urban public high school who had created a curriculum in a way of structuring mathematics instruction such that they eliminated race and gender gaps in achievement and persistence by the time students reached their senior year of high school.

Kids came in their freshman year, there were gaps by gender and by race. By the time they left, those gaps no longer existed. One of the keys there in their work was about holding high standards and doing work in mathematics classrooms that was about thinking practices and creating tasks that, no matter what kind of level you started with, that everyone had the same opportunities to think together and grow their understanding of mathematical concepts.

Those classrooms were also places where teachers did a lot of identity work with students, helping to have them rethink what counts as being a mathematics learner, building mathematics learning identities, making it clear that anyone can develop a strong mathematics learner identity. I do feel like creating equity and equitable spaces is possible.

Chris Riback: So interesting to hear you say that because it also, it seems to provide evidence of what you were talking about earlier about schools being both a place that helps students and children evolve their identities. You just talked about children kind of gaining the identity of being a mathematician and able to do math problems, in addition to being places that create customized opportunities for individual identities. By my listening to what you just said, a real example of how creating equity actually can help evolve personal identity as well, perhaps.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Right. Yes. That’s a great point that they’re intertwined. Part of what equity means is that people have the full opportunity to develop all of who they are, to develop their full potential. I think that for me is a really foundational piece of understanding. That what we’re really talking about is creating structures and experiences and processes where people can develop fully all of the potential that they are born with.

Chris Riback: Can that be done at scale?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: I think it can be done at scale. I mean, we scale education, right? We teach it. I mean, we organize schools and school systems kind of en masse. There’s already a kind of at scale system. I think what we’re talking about is how do you support educational systems financially with respect to professional development, with respect to the kind of cutting edge ideas about what great teaching and learning looks like? How do we support those systems so that they can produce the kind of optimal results that we’re wanting to see?

I think we can. I think it’s about the level at which we support the systems that exist as well as obviously, the creation of new spaces. But I think we have the infrastructure; we’re just not investing in it as a nation.

Chris Riback: Thinking about that investment, how do you define the Science of Learning and Development and how do you want that research to be part of your strategy at Spencer?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: I would define the Science of Learning and Development as the kind of body of work in human development, in the developmental sciences, and in the learning sciences that help us understand how learning and development happen in the ways in which they are intertwined. I think that that’s a part of our work here at Spencer, because, one, it’s an incredibly rich emerging field of study where people are starting to make connections across sub-fields in ways that is both exciting and impactful. I think the work that the SoLD initiative has done along these lines is really important. And I think it’s creating those interdisciplinary conversations, research syntheses across sub-fields, I think is going to be really critical to our ability as scholars to speak to practice, to speak to policy in ways that have impact.

Chris Riback: Do you think about that impact in terms of higher ed versus lower ed? Is there a part of the education spectrum where you specifically want to make an impact or where you think Spencer ought to be focusing or beginning? Or the education spectrum is the education spectrum, and let’s use what we learned from the Science of Learning and Development to make the impact where we can?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Yes, I think we think across the education spectrum and the Science of Learning Development work is kind of one example of a body of work that is being organized in a way that has great potential to make an impact. There are others as well. But I think if we’re talking about learning and development, in particular, I think there’s great possibility if we’re thinking about pre-K environments and in terms of what we know about brain development and social-emotional development as well as K-12 environments, but also higher ed.

I mean, I think that higher ed environments are very often organized in ways that do not align with the needs of late adolescence or early adults developmentally. I think there’s definitely possibility across the education spectrum. My goal at Spencer isn’t necessarily to fix all of education. I don’t think I could do that. I mean, of course, that’s the on the horizon goal all the time. But I think my goal is really about how we leverage research and researchers to be more useful to the improvement of education systems.

Chris Riback: Can that usefulness, can that utility, can the insights from the Science of Learning and Development, can they be applied to the issue of equity? Do you see real connections there?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: I do see real connections, and I feel like this past year I’ve had some kind of just personal and intellectual insights around this, that part of what inequality and racial inequality do is define some folks as more deserving and some folks as less deserving, some folks as more human, and some folks as less human. Actually, equity is very much about honoring the learning and developmental needs of all kids.

That the problem is, and what inequity is, is that we’re honoring those needs for some and not for others. This incident happened with my son about a year and a half ago. He’s 14 now, so he was about 12-1/2, and I won’t go through the long story, but it was essentially a kind of racialized incident in our neighborhood while my son – goofy kid – was standing outside holding a carton of ice cream, waiting for his dad to come pick up this carton of ice cream.

As he’s standing there on the corner where we live, a neighbor comes by and kind of questions his right to be there – questions his presence in the neighborhood. In the aftermath of that incident, I realized that part of the challenge was that his kind of developmental needs as a 12-year-old goofy kid were not honored because this adult was seeing him as a threat. That wasn’t aligned with where he was developmentally.

Then, he had to reconcile, “Wow. Why am I being treated like I have some ill intent when I’m really just standing here waiting for my dad?” It’s that, it’s that thing where he was not allowed to developmentally be just where he was. He actually had to have a whole other lens on how the world is viewing him. That’s inequality, right? That’s what it means to navigate unequal systems, that you’re faced with these tensions and conundrums that everyone’s not faced with.

Chris Riback: Is that perhaps as well an example, may not be the first example for your son’s personal life, but an example of what you meant earlier in this conversation when you said that race is something that people become aware of more through external incidents than it being a classification?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Yes, absolutely. I think this was a combination of race and gender, like right at a moment when physically his body starts to look more like a man than like a child. There’s always this kind of developmental and gendered piece that plays in there as well.

Chris Riback: In “We Dare Say Love,” you and the other editors take on the issue of what it means to educate black male students in a large urban district. You follow the development and implementation of the African-American Male Achievement (AMA) Initiative in the Oakland Unified School District.

In fact, following a small group of black male educators who changed district policy and practice to create a learning experience for black boys that was rooted in love. And you open the book with some pretty direct language. You write, “It has been difficult to comprehend a sincere relationship between public schools and black male students (or all black children for that matter) that is predicated on love.”

You continue, “The American school with few exceptions is too often the place where black students come to know that they are despised, feared, and deemed to be of little to no human value to the world.” I had to pause and regroup after that. It is so direct and so depressing to consider. What made you write it?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: That’s the kind of reality we observed and the reality in the literature historically. It is depressing. But what I think is maybe the silver lining around that is just the power of the human spirit and the power of the community spirit that allows people to not only survive but thrive, even in spaces that were not meant for their thriving. I think there are aspects of it that are daunting for sure, but the ways in which people in communities organize to create holistic spaces is really inspiring. I think AMA is such a great example of that.

Chris Riback: It just seems like just an extraordinary case study and example. Did the experience make you or inspire you to rethink the intersection of discipline and school and education? Or did it support what you already knew or believed? Do we in America need to rethink the role of discipline within our schools?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Absolutely. I think that was one of the first things that bubbled up in the data was that these classrooms, and these were all black, all-male spaces with instructors that were mostly recruited in from kind of community-based organizations. These were spaces where discipline look differently. It took us a while to kind of theorize. Like, “Okay, what’s different about this?” Because you have like the gut-level sense. This isn’t standard school discipline practice, but to figure out how to talk about what it is, took us a little while.

That’s where I think this notion of the work being centered in love first started to show up because the discipline practices in these spaces assumed good intent. They assumed that these young men and boys were going to be productive members of the classroom community. They assumed that the young men were capable, brilliant, and that they had tremendous potential, and so with those assumptions on the table, the ways in which two things happened.

They were really noteworthy. One of the sets of things that happened was about when there was a need to have rules, to have policies to hold kids accountable to those rules. That was done in community. It wasn’t just the instructor doing that to kids. It was the classroom community deciding what their rules and norms and values were going to be and holding one another to those.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: The second thing was that they had a much broader notion of what counted as a discipline worthy moment. There were things that in the space sometimes happen, where in a typical classroom it would be a moment of direct discipline. And in these spaces it just didn’t emerge into that, either because it was a highly emotional moment and the instructor saw that there was actually a set of really deep and important emotional needs behind what had just occurred, or because people didn’t see it as a major enough infraction to stop instruction or to create a moment of contention with kids.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: For instance, there was a moment that just sticks in my head where we were observing a classroom, and I think this is maybe a ninth-grader, African-American boy comes in with a hoodie on. And hoodies are not allowed in school or in a classroom. The instructor looks at him and says, “You can take that off now. You’re safe here.”

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: He’s enforcing that “discipline,” but he’s also acknowledging that the hoodie serves a purpose, and it’s a protective purpose for this young man, and to say, “You are safe here,” is to say, “I know you are using that as protection, and you don’t need that protection here.” Very different than saying, “Hats are not allowed. Take off the hoodie.” Right? There’s an acknowledgment of the humanity and the human need in that.

Chris Riback: Yes, that’s a heck of a response, and when one reads the stats widely – some of which you cite – about the difference in discipline rates and suspension rates of black male students versus Latinos or white students or that 2015 New York City study that does, where 57% of all male disciplinary cases were black boys, 61% of all female disciplinary cases were black girls, and yet black students made up 28% of the student population.

When you look at the data that you cite and that others site, no doubt that the change that you just described from that one teacher and that you described more widely in the approach that the African-American Male Achievement Initiative takes, certainly lessons and things that, when we talk about scale, perhaps those are things that could scale.

To close out, and I don’t mean to get greedy here, it’s not like we’re not all really grateful for the work that you’ve done up to this point in your career… but what’s next?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: I think what’s next is figuring out how, in this role from the platform of a foundation, how can we support scholars in doing work that has the kind of impact that they want to have and how do we galvanize, synthesize and push forward on the kinds of things we know create more equitable educational environments? That’s kind of what we’ve been thinking about and working on here, and I’m looking forward to the progress we’re going to be able to make on those things.

Chris Riback: We look forward to the results of that, and the work that you’ve done up to this point. Thank you for that work, and thank you for your time today.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Yes, thank you.

Chris Riback: That was my conversation with Na’ilah Suad Nassir. My thanks to Na’ilah for joining and you, for listening. To learn more about how to transform 21st-century education using 21st-century science, go to I’m Chris Riback. I’ll talk with you soon.