Recognizing Others: A Call for Accomplices On the Path to Equity

Thomas S. Greenspon. Ph.D.

Psychology is my profession. After teaching in a university medical center, I began a 44-year career. During that time, the majority of my practice was devoted to individuals, couples, and families within the advanced learner community. My intellectual home is within the busily self-examining and evolving field of contemporary psychoanalysis. Although my clients came to me with a broad range of both immediate and long-standing concerns for us to deal with, if I had to use only one phrase to characterize much of the basic work I did, it would be addressing a hope for recognition — a desire to be seen and understood by others. Not recognition for achievements, though that was welcomed, but recognition as persons with legitimate claims to valued societal membership. In my view, this desire for recognition arises from what seem to be the two truly universal human characteristics: the necessity to experience our world as organized and meaningful, and the foundational embeddedness in connections with others as primary sources of these meanings. The way we make sense of our world has everything to do with the nature of the relationships we are in.

The National Association for Gifted Children exists because of a common frustration with desires for recognition. Student advanced learners don’t feel understood in their desires for interesting and challenging educational programs; their parents don’t feel understood in their desires for an appropriate education for their children; their teachers don’t feel understood in their quest for appropriate curricula for their students’ needs; their administrators don’t feel understood in their need for public support of educational programs appropriate for every student. In our individualistic, consumerist culture, education is not treated as a common good, but as a commodity which, since it exists in limited supply, leads to a struggle for entry into programs adapted to a particular student’s needs. The emotional fallout from all of this is significant: the educational world as it is makes little sense to us, and our connections with others become competitive and frayed. We become overanxious, fearful for our place in the world, and hypercompetitive in our zeal to find suitable programs.

Our basic desire for recognition adds an important dimension to programs that seek to amplify racial equity. This desire doesn’t change with skin color — it is a human need. Responding to the needs for recognition of indigenous students and students of color, referred to by the shorthand phrase BIPOC, is an essential task. Those of us in our community designated as White have a special responsibility to respond to these needs since we have, because of our skin color, better access to the channels of power that can bring change. In our NAGC community, because of our own experiences with lack of recognition for advanced learners, we can understand the problem. That is, if we choose to employ it, we have the grounds for empathy.

NAGC has issued a powerful statement of organizational commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI. We commit ourselves to repairing the gap, well- established by scholars within and outside of the NAGC community, between White and BIPOC students’ access to gifted education. We commit ourselves to repairing the employment gaps, also well-established, between White and BIPOC teachers and administrators in K-12 and higher education. And we wish to look at ourselves in the mirror and repair membership and leadership gaps right here within our own organization. We have become aware that the procedures for determining who qualifies for advanced learner programs and the data describing the typical characteristics of gifted persons have been overwhelmingly based on observations of White individuals, who are then thought of as exemplars of normal giftedness. Lower assessment scores among BIPOC students can then, in our atomized, individualistic, competitive culture, be separated in our minds from social contexts and viewed as inherent lack of ability in these students. We ignore the historic social impediments White culture has placed in their way. I would add that many of us have begun to be aware that the very notion of giftedness adheres to a conceptualization of intelligence and a view of achievement central to a modern, White cultural milieu that characterizes other cultures as exotic, non-traditional, and more primitive. As cultural historians and others have noted, this is the same worldview that for political and economic reasons historically divided human beings into races, connected race to skin color, and created a hierarchy of value with whiteness at the top. We have difficulty seeing giftedness as situated, that is, as arising in differing ways within differing social and cultural contexts.

DEI plans, valuable as they are, treat the symptoms of underlying issues which we should be addressing. Racism — the racializing and hierarchization of humans — and the social and economic systems that maintain it, have created the gaps we wish to address. We should be informed and aware of these influences so that we can do whatever is in our power to advocate for change. At this moment in our country’s history, there are those who wish to prohibit the accurate teaching of these influences, which they have bundled under the purposefully inaccurate label of “CRT.” These teaching bans are now expanding to include social and emotional learning programs as well. NAGC should be at the forefront of resistance to these prohibitions. Advanced learners rely on, and insist on, accurate information with which to explore and understand the world. More importantly, silence on the social history of our country in favor of sentimental myths represents a willful and harmful failure of recognition of large portions of our population. In those we fail to recognize, we engender feelings of shame and defect, not to mention cynicism arising from the fact that their history with Whites is well-known to them but intentionally ignored in school. In those White students whose history we do claim as the ultimate truth, we engender a false, self- serving, and precarious sense of reality. All of this is inimical to educational motivation and emotional wellbeing.

While all of NAGC’s DEI proposals are crucial and deserve our sincere, continued support, it is important to understand the urgency to address this issue of recognition. Closing equity gaps risks becoming simply a performative gesture, amounting at most to inducting non-Whites into a White world. This would represent a lack of recognitionof non-White cultural traditions and their human value. An organization such as ours, committed to acknowledging and meeting the needs of advanced learners, certainly has the ethical obligation to include learners of all colors in that mandate. We also have, I would argue, the ethical obligation to expand our understanding, and recognition of world views having differing concepts of intelligence and how it is assessed. An obligation, that is, to recognize others who make up the “nation” in NAGC’s title, and to engage in a conjoint exploration of ways of meeting the needs of those we can all consider to be gifted. Mutual recognition and conjoint effort hold the promise of reversing the divisions currently threatening both our advanced learner community and our country as a whole. The horizons of the conscious worlds we inhabit are flexible; they expand as we exercise our capacity to empathize — to see the world as others see it. With greater understanding comes the potential for new solutions to old problems.

Our vision of the commons has been lost. Our insistence on the sanctity of individual liberty and personal agency distracts us from recognizing that we live in a society built by all of us. We fail to grasp that our achievements, and our failings, arise in the context of multiple contributions by others, past and present. NAGC, as an advocacy organization, is not empowered to alter the culture we exist in; we are, however, especially in our role as educational advocates, in a position (and, I would argue, under an ethical obligation) to recognize and attend to the deleterious effects of this culture on all advanced learners.

In a recent interview with Deborah Watts, co-founder and executive director of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, she notes that people ask for allies in the struggle for racial equity, but she asks for accomplices. NAGC should consider that a goal.

Greenspon, T.S. (2022). Ending the silence of friends: Commentary on Scott Peters' "The challenges of achieving equity within public school gifted and talented programs." Gifted Child Quarterly, Vol. 66(2) 124–125.

About the Author: Thomas S. Greenspon, PhD, is a an author, psychoanalytic institute faculty member, and retired psychotherapist. He and his wife/professional partner Barbara were past co-presidents of the Minnesota Council For The Gifted and Talented and first met in 1962 in the civil rights movement.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of NAGC.