Educate against racism – and whiteness

Ideologies of race dominance persist in our schools, and educators must actively work to counter them.

Police shootings in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, and attacks on police in Dallas, have once again highlighted the need to address racism in the United States. Angelina E. Castagno from Northern Arizona University explains why we need to educate not only against racism, but also against whiteness.

By Angelina E. Castagno

In light of the most recent publicized killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, mainstream media outlets have been buzzing with renewed talk about Black Lives Matter, policing, and institutionalized racism. What I haven’t seen, however, is much discussion of schooling and the impact of racism and whiteness in the education of our young people.

The events of late are intimately connected to what happens in our schools daily. There are the obvious links such as the incredible growth of law enforcement positions housed in schools, the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and the inexcusable instances of school-based officers body slamming young people in classrooms. But there are many more, perhaps less obvious, ways racism is present in schools. It can be seen in the curricular materials used by teachers, in the handouts and examples given in classrooms, in the dialogue that happens between kids and between kids and the adults in schools, in the “behavior management” and escalated responses to behavior in school, in the referrals to special education and Advanced Placement, and in the expectations educators have for the youth sitting in front of them.

“The events of late are intimately connected to what happens in our schools daily.”

Racism in schools and classrooms is not random or isolated. Schools are institutions within a larger society that is obviously still plagued by racist policies, practices, ideologies, and institutions. Research and experience have long indicated that students of color are not well-served by our nation’s schools. Reports by the U.S. Department of Education corroborate this, with the most recent reports highlighting that students of color have less qualified teachers and are more frequently and harshly punished than their White peers. The disparities begin early: Black preschoolers are far more likely to be suspended than other preschoolers. And these disparities grow as young people progress (or not) through the educational system. Indeed, most colleges still have racially disproportionate enrollments, and lower retention rates among students of color who do enroll.

The issues stem from what many of us call whiteness and the multiple ways whiteness creates and perpetuates racialized inequities in schools. By whiteness, I mean structural arrangements and ideologies of race dominance. Whiteness maintains power and privilege by perpetuating and legitimating the status quo while simultaneously maintaining a veneer of neutrality, equality, and compassion. Part of the problem is that educators tend to embody particular traits. We are overwhelming White and, especially in lower grades, female. My work with teachers and undergraduate students going into teaching suggests that we also tend to ascribe to what I call niceness. By niceness I mean we encourage particular forms (read: White, middle class) of engagement: polite interactions, cautious behavior, censoring anything that may upset others, and avoiding uncomfortable or potentially contentious issues. We see this when major textbook publishers refer to slaves as “workers” and downplay the terror and violence that built and still sustains this country.

“We see this when major textbook publishers refer to slaves as ‘workers’ and downplay the terror and violence that built and still sustains this country.”

But it is here that educators should take a cue from the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter is centrally about focus and context; it is not to say that other lives don’t matter, but it is to say that in our current (and historical) context, Black lives have clearly not mattered. Black lives must matter, and until they do, justice and equity are impossible goals. Research shows that Black children are overwhelmingly perceived as older than they really are and as more culpable than their White peers. This is just one example from a large body of research that points to the persistent and consistent ways students of color, and especially young Black bodies, are terrorized (both literally and figuratively) in our schools.

I teach a class about racism and whiteness in US schools to students pursing their doctorates in education. Most of my students are full-time teachers, principals, and district administrators in communities across the state of Arizona. My students have not only persisted through the educational system themselves, but also now occupy various influential positions within that same system. The vast majority of them enter my class apprehensive and defensive but generally curious about the material. With rare exception, this is their first exposure to the vast body of scholarly work that paints a very clear picture of racism in schools and an educational system built and sustained by whiteness. By the end of the course, most of my students express regret about some of their previous decisions and behaviors, but they also possess an eagerness to instigate change in their schools and classrooms.

“It can’t stop at critique. It also means working on solutions.”

Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough to ensure that whiteness and racism do not persist in our schools and society. Indeed, many White folks are well-intentioned, and educators especially are mostly caring individuals who want to see “all kids” succeed. But in the colorblind, well-intentioned discourse of “all kids,” we fall prey to the same errors inherent in the claims that “all lives matter.” Of course all kids matter. Of course all kids should be given opportunities to succeed in school. But we lose focus and erase context when we rely on colorblind discourses about “all kids,” reject evidence that explicitly names race as central to the problems we’re trying to address, and dismiss the call to educate against whiteness.

What does it mean to “educate against whiteness?” It means thinking hard about our identities, beliefs, relationships, behaviors, assumptions, and commitments. It means acknowledging what we don’t know. Listening to those who are saying things that make us uncomfortable. But it must go beyond this self-work. It also means talking to our peers, employees, and supervisors. Asking tough questions about patterns, outcomes, and decisions. Naming race. Naming racism. Naming whiteness. And it can’t stop at critique. It also means working on solutions. Joining movements and efforts that are already in place. Listening to leaders, students, and communities of color for what we can and should do. And young people must be involved. I mean really young people, and not so young people. Preschoolers, elementary grade kids, tweens and teens. Educating against whiteness will not just happen by sitting passively by and waiting for racism to disappear. It takes active involvement, it takes emotional work, it takes giving up some things. Ask yourself, and ask those around you: What are you doing to educate against whiteness?

Featured image courtesy of Patricia A. Murray