Five Questions With . . . Jessica DeCuir-Gunby on Race and Education

Jessica DeCuir-Gunby, a professor of educational psychology at the NC State College of Education, studies how racial identity impacts the educational experiences of African American students and the relationships between race and emotions within education. Her purpose: to help professional educators shape a more inclusive world.

About DeCuir-Gunby

Jessica DeCuir-Gunby joined the NC State College of Education in 2003. Her active research in critical race theory, racial identity development and emotions in education has led to the publication of three books, dozens of book chapters and journal articles. To date, she has secured over $4.3 million in grant funding for her research. She received the NC State Alumni Association’s 2018-19 Alumni Association Outstanding Research Award, was an inaugural recipient of the NC State University Faculty Scholar Award in 2013, and received the NC State Alumni Association’s 2011-12 Outstanding Teacher Award. Also, DeCuir-Gunby was recognized by the University of Georgia’s College of Education and was awarded the 2015-2016 Alumni Outstanding Educator Award.

Her fourth book Understanding Critical Race Research Methods and Methodologies: Lessons From the Field is due next year and will focus on combining critical race theory with research methods. In the following edited interview, DeCuir-Gunby — who received the NC State Alumni Association’s 2018-19 Alumni Association Outstanding Research Award — discusses her research on racial identity, how it impacts professional educators and why she studies the topic.

What drew you to conduct research on racial identity?

It’s personal. This is the life we live. I have a 9-year-old son, and this is the world I’m preparing him to go live in. He’s the nicest, sweetest little boy; but when he walks out the door, people perceive him as someone who is a threat, who might harm them or rob them. Perceptions could potentially be life or death for my son or husband. Through this work, I discuss ways to challenge racism on both personal and systemic levels.

What are you trying to understand through your research?

We continuously see racially-charged incidents on the news. Perceptions are reinforced, and it spills over into the classroom through both educators and students’ beliefs and actions. Understanding why this happens and creating dialogue around it is one way we can create change. Through our study, we are investigating how people’s racial ideologies impact emotions within predominantly white institutions.

What is the relationship between racial ideologies and emotions?

When people are in racial situations, they become very emotional. The Charlottesville rally in Virginia is a good example of this. A group of people with similar thoughts, upbringings and backgrounds began making decisions based on their emotions about race. In our current study, we’re studying people who want to be in the helping professions — pre-service teachers, pre-nursing students, and students studying social work — and how they reconcile their beliefs about race while regulating their emotions. We hope to expand to studying group behavior — like Charlottesville — next.

What are you finding?

In preliminary findings, the participants in our sample embraced a colorblind ideology, or the ignoring of a person’s race, culture or ethnicity. They had a difficult time reconciling their beliefs about race (stigmatizing thoughts) and were more likely to use emotion regulation suppression strategies. There’s a big disconnect there, especially since these are people we’re training to go into the helping professions to work in multicultural situations.

What are the implications for those who work in education and other helping professions?

I’m also exploring African American students’ experiences with racial microaggressions and how they impact their sense of belonging within the school context. Examples of this include mispronouncing a Latinx’s student’s name repeatedly, assuming a student of color does not belong in an advanced class, and calling campus police on a Black student sleeping in a dorm. By studying racial microaggressions, I hope to create a program or module that can help parents and students recognize and understand what racial microaggressions are and ultimately give them a voice to advocate for themselves and their children.