Reflection on “Racial/Ethnic Identities and Learning Mathematics”

A talk by by Mahtab Nazemi

Reflection on “Racial/Ethnic Identities and Learning Mathematics” by Mahtab Nazemi

On Tuesday, February 6th 2018, we had the opportunity to attend a talk entitled “How do racial/ethnic identities play a role in learning mathematics?” presented by Dr. Mahtab Nazemi. Dr. Naezmi presented results from her PhD in curriculum instruction/mathematics education from the University of Washington. Her PhD examined racialized narratives of female students of colour enrolled in an AP statistics classroom.

We both had some personal observations about Dr. Nazemi’s research.


Multiple participants shared this idea of not being a math person, while trying to explain their difficulties in mathematics courses.

This idea of a math person stayed with me, not because I had never heard it before, on the contrary, I have heard it too many times. The question is what do we mean by that? How often as educators do we use it and accept it as a normal characteristic? This belief that only few people can have mathematical minds (Frankenstein, 1998) made me question how much students are affected by it; do they start believing that they are not part of this “elite group” - or as Bourdieu would say “dominant group” - that can do well in mathematics? Do they think that they cannot have a successful STEM career? Frankenstein (1998) mentions the impact of language in education, how certain labels might not help critical consciousness.

Using the lens of Bourdieu’s social reproduction theory, specifically in the field of education, mathematics has become a symbolic capital. A lot of prestige and power is giving to those who do well in mathematics. Since students’ habitus is affected by their amount of capital (Archer & al., 2015), students’ dispositions will vary depending on how much exposure in mathematics they will experience.

Using the lens of Critical Education theory, this idea of math person is not contributing to a equity in education. And as an educator, it makes me reflect on my own practices used in class (Frankenstein, 1998). Do I provide all of my students equal opportunities to develop mathematical thinking by categorizing them as math people vs. non-math people?

My final question is how do I provide students (no matter their background) enough capital to decide for themselves whether mathematics (or even science) is for them?



I initially wrote this post in February, and found Dr. Nazemi’s talk interesting from a methodological perspective. She used institutional ethnography as her methodology, which was new to me as a first-year graduate student in education, having come from a research background in the sciences where qualitative methodologies are rarely used. Institutional ethnography involves examining the lives and interactions of individuals within social institutions, in this case a school, more specifically an AP statistics classroom. Dr. Nazemi observed the class, and conducted semi-structured interviews with the teacher as well as six students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. One big eye opener, again from my somewhat naive perspective, is that it is possible (or even likely!) to get interesting, rich, informative data from a relatively small number of participants. Okay, depending on your position within the field of qualitative educational research you may be laughing at me as you read this, but I’m not embarrassed to admit at the time it was a refreshing discovery! Now that it is July and I have finished my first year of PhD-level course work and read a huge number of papers in the fields of education and sociology, I am more and more inspired by research that embraces depth rather than breadth, and words and discourse rather than numbers and statistics.

The other concept from this talk that was compelling is that of meritocratic discourse, which is one of the frameworks that Dr. Nazemi used to analyze her data. In the context of her research this related to the fact that a number of the students she interviewed saw themselves as being 100% responsible for their math learning, rather than considering the idea that instruction or the class environment or even their socioeconomic class may have contributed to their success or lack thereof.  This links back to Maria’s discussion of being a math person, the idea that being “good” or “bad” at mathematics is an innate quality, rather than something that is influenced by numerous external factors. Teachers and schools need to undertake an honest discussion about whether student achievement in a particular topic is entirely related to inherent ability and hard work, or whether it is related to instructional quality and access to resources. Since it is likely a combination of these factors, how should educational institutions both acknowledge and reduce the inequalities that are beyond students’ control?



Archer, L., Dawson, E., DeWitt, J., Seakins, A., & Wong, B. (2015). “Science capital”: A conceptual, methodological, and empirical argument for extending bourdieusian notions of capital beyond the arts. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(7), 922-948.

Frankenstein, M. (1983). Critical mathematics education: An application of Paulo Freire's epistemology. Journal of Education, 315-339.

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