Grit – May 12, 2016


26877661236_5b1ca9f032Photo Credit: TintedLens-Photo (on&off) via Compfight cc

Here is an email I sent to my department regarding the idea that the quality of having “grit” could be a racist construct.

Hello again, all.

I am fascinated by [the question] “Is grit racist?”

I have been thinking about this question. I would say anything can be racist if it is used to oppress others or deny people resources, tools, or support. Yes, it would be disturbing and racist if poor children from minority backgrounds were told to sit down, shut up, and do what they are told for the sole purpose of controlling them and ignoring  their circumstances. If we simply tell them “you’re not working hard enough,” just to get them to do what we want then that isn’t benefiting them or equipping them with the skills they need to improve. Likewise, if we are saying that they need to try harder but don’t teach them how, then we are simply depriving them of opportunities for the future. I personally do not see grit equal to compliance, I see it as the opposite of compliance: creativity, inspiration, and vision with a plan to carry it out and the determination to see it through.

However, I think that critics of grit and those who believe it perpetuates white privilege may define “grit” differently than how it was originally intended. Maybe it is the word “grit” and all of its connotations that make it unpalatable. Would it be racist to call such a quality “self-determination,” “strength,” “purposefulness,” “tenacious,” “goal-orientation,” or “resolve?” I understand that words can be negative: “persistent,” “unrelenting,” “obsessed,” “aggressive,” “stubborn,” “nerve,” and “obstinate” all describe similar qualities. However, critics of powerful influencers in minority communities have sometimes accused them of having these less-than-desirable characteristics when the influencers question an unjust status quo or reveal some injustice for all to see.

Alfie Kohn is a prominent critic of grit (here is his scathing criticism: His points, and [the shared articles], illustrate real concerns about how the idea of grit can be perceived. Kohn explains, that grit is a “deeply conservative notion, part of a larger focus on self-control.” However, here is another article about grit (and I think most people would agree that the Huffington Post is hardly a bastion of conservative thought):  

In this article, Tim Elmore describes a research trip to Singapore to study why students in Singapore were doing significantly better than American students in math: “When the researchers arrived back in the U.S., they set up a similar experiment on American students, following the same steps they created in Singapore. The results, however, were drastically different. Whereas Singaporean students worked until they were forced to stop, American students on average spent only 34 seconds before proceeding to quit. They were quoted as saying, “I don’t get it,” “I’m done,” “This is too hard,” and “How do they expect us to know this?” As a result, researchers concluded that the attitude and perseverance of American students was almost nonexistent in comparison to Singaporean students.

[The Paul Thomas article] said, Cody’s argument has deep roots among many of us who have argued for quite some time that…grit arguments are not sound educationally, scientifically, or ethically. In fact, we have demonstrated that this entire package of narratives and policies is essentially racist and classist.” However, this article by Vicki Davis tells a different story: She demonstrates that grit is a skill that can be measured and has been researched and proven to be important in great achievers. She addresses both sides of the argument and provides tips on how to teach grit, much of it based in Carol Dweck’s decades of research on growth mindset, even directly countering the idea that grit teaches students to persist in tasks that are detrimental to their learning:

“In particular, I agree with the point that there is a time for grit and a time to quit. There are times when it’s OK to quit something that just isn’t within your range of talents, or when trying something different may enrich your life. Worthy tasks deserve persistence. But there are tasks that would be worthier in a different season of your life. There are jobs that should be left. Sometimes you have to let go of something good to grasp something great. Students need discernment to know when they need grit and when it may be a time to quit.” But I was thinking of this: would we tell our disadvantaged students and students of color that they should not have grit? Is “growth mindset” also racist? The ideas are rooted in the same philosophy: that all children can learn skills and those who learn the skills that shift a fixed-mindset have significantly greater chances of success in their endeavors.

I concede that many people who do not care about people living in poverty or assailed by adversity may dismiss the problem by saying those individuals should stop being lazy, work harder, or make more of a personal effort to overcome their circumstances, and yes, this “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality is cruel and inhumane if the people are not assisted or given the tools they need to improve their situations. Blaming people for circumstances beyond their control is unfair and illogical, a red herring likely designed to dismiss the need to spend any resources on them and relegating them to an underclass undeserving of compassion.

However, what if someone who truly cares for students and wants them to be successful encourages them to improve their grit? What if a teacher helps students to cultivate positive self-talk, hope, effective habits of mind, and a strong belief in themselves that they are capable of growth and overcoming challenges? What if the teacher remains there to guide students back up if they fall or the teachers stands there on the sidelines rooting for them in a race, saying, “I believe in you! You can do this! Reach inside yourself – you have what it takes! Just a little more…!” Could anyone argue that this is racist?

Here is a fair account of both sides of the grit issue that considers both perspectives and offers ideas about how to take the positive ideas and apply them while taking poverty, demographics, and other circumstances into consideration:

One interesting predecessor of the grit idea is the marshmallow test, where children were tested on their capacity to delay gratification. You can read about it at  “[The researcher] learned that the techniques that children showed to delay gratification would have a profound effect on them for decades. Mischel has continued to study his original test subjects for the past 50 years and what he discovered is shocking. On the whole, the preschoolers who were able to wait for two marshmallows, over the course of their lives, have a lower BMI, lower rates of addiction, a lower divorce rate and higher SAT scores.” The ability to delay gratification (related to self-control, perseverance, and grit) proved a valuable skill that improved people’s lives.

Much research has been conducted on teachers’ ability to help students become independent learners, most notably, Dr. Marzano. If you still have your Classroom Instruction that Works (By Robert J. Marzano, Debra Pickering, Jane E. Pollock), you can review the chapter on effort, praise, rewards, and recognition (or view it on Google Books) pages 49-59. These are proven instructional strategies that improve student success and they teach grit (although the taboo word is never mentioned.) Another article from the Huffington Post tackles how adults use praise with children and how to do it effectively, similar to Marzano and Dweck’s research:

The idea of learned helplessness cripples many children from at-risk backgrounds. Some of them fall prey to a vicious cycle that prevents them from achieving high levels of success: “All of that said, for many children, acting incompetent is simply a practical strategy: They know from experience that if they stall, delay or refuse to do something they don’t want to do, someone will eventually do it for them.” (From If this habit is disproportionately affecting students from low-income and minority households, wouldn’t it be racist not to address it? “In view of evidence that a relationship develops over time between learned helplessness patterns and children’s achievement level (Fincham, Hokoda, & Sanders, 1989), there is an urgent need to address this gap in researchers’ knowledge.” (From:

Additionally, the idea of grit is illustrated in poetry, song, literature, art, and many other forms of expression from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Here are some voices of powerful influencers from minority communities demonstrating the importance of grit:

Maya Angelou:

“[And Still I Rise]

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may tread me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

“Surviving is important, thriving is elegant.”

“All great achievements require time.”

Native American wisdom:

You already possess everything necessary to become great. – Crow

Everyone who is successful must have dreamed of something. – Maricopa

Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?”

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”

Michael Jordan:

“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

“If you quit ONCE it becomes a habit. Never quit!!!”

“Always turn a negative situation into a positive situation.”

“Everybody has talent, but ability takes hard work.”

“If you do the work you get rewarded. There are no shortcuts in life.”

“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.”

Harriet Tubman:

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

“I would fight for my liberty so long as my strength lasted, and if the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.”

Cesar Chavez:

“…the 1972 film”¡Si se puede!” [documents what happened in Cesar Chavez’s life]: In May 1972, the Arizona Legislature passed a bill that limited collective bargaining and outlawed boycotts and strikes at harvest time. After Gov. Jack Williams signed the bill into law, Chavez began a fast. According to the film’s site, supporters discouraged the fast, arguing with him:”Cesar, no se puede, no se puede.” Chavez would reply. “Si, si se puede.” Yes, it can be done.”

2Pac: “Keep Ya head Up”

“But please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up

Forgive, but don’t forget, girl, keep your head up.

And when he tells you you ain’t nothing, don’t believe him

And if he can’t learn to love you, you should leave him

Cause, sister, you don’t need him.”

Oprah Winfrey:

“I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that’s as unique as a fingerprint – and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“If you can’t fly, then run.

If you can’t run, then walk.

If you can’t walk, then crawl.

But whatever you do, keep moving.”

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”



I enjoyed pondering the questions that my colleagues brought up and had the opportunity to incorporate many articles and concepts I had researched previously. Isn’t that what we want our students to do: to connect ideas, support their assertions, find valuable resources, and synthesize it all into a cohesive piece of writing? I don’t know if anyone actually read it, but knowing I was going to “publish” it motivated me even more. Something to think about for students?

Today is a great day otherwise as well because I have three coaching appointments that I am energized and prepared for. I love meeting with teachers and learning with them. What a wonderful thing to find a job you love — it makes all the difference in the world!



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