Foggy Mirrors

By Jenna Chandler-Ward & Elizabeth Denevi


The original idea for Teaching While White — our new blog aimed at helping white educators understand their work in a multiracial society — owes its inception to a chance meeting that we, Jenna and Elizabeth, had back in 2009. During a humid DC summer, we came together with teachers from other schools to examine issues of equity and diversity. From that collaboration, Jenna went back to her school to continue teaching and to help found the Multicultural Teaching Institute (MTI). Her work with MTI focuses on trainings and consulting for schools and a yearly conference for teachers. Elizabeth continued with her work with schools on issues of strategic planning to increase equity in schools. We reunited last spring at a professional development conference and in a subsequent conversation the idea for this blog was born.

As white female teachers with years of experience leading diversity work in schools, we feel uniquely positioned to frame these conversations and to shine a light on something that is rarely illuminated: the role, responsibilities, and needed skills of white educators in helping students become racially literate.

Why is this a topic most shy away from? In the United States, white culture has become synonymous with normalcy and even “American-ness.” As a result, attempts to have conversations about how racism is perpetuated by and impacts white people usually leave all participants frustrated. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo, a lecturer at the University of Washington and an expert on multicultural education, explains that the primarily white space within which most whites move “protects and insulates white people from race-based stress.” She goes on to say that these isolated environments “offer racial protection which builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress. This leads to white fragility, where even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”

What is true in society at large is also true in schools.

Typically, the more unearned, racial privilege a student has, the more removed she or he becomes from racial stress and the more isolated against learning the critical skills of adaptability, problem-solving, and negotiating across difference.

Students of color are, more often than not, required to grapple with and understand their racial identity and encounter race-based stress on a daily basis within a white-dominated world. Not only are white students at a disadvantage because of the fragility they experience when they encounter difference but they also often make it through their school careers never knowing that they, too, have a race, and that whiteness impacts the way they move through the world.

There are, of course, a whole host of moral and societal reasons for educators to address race in school from a variety of perspectives. But the research makes it clear that white children are at risk for being unable to navigate a racially diverse and ever-changing world. Most important, this lack of racial self-awareness will leave them unable to locate themselves within this new complex landscape.

Emily Style, equity educator and co-founder of The National SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity), created a framework for educators called “Windows and Mirrors.” As Style notes, the framework seeks to:

Explore the need for curriculum to function both as window and as mirror, in order to reflect and reveal most accurately both a multicultural world and the student herself or himself. If the student is understood as occupying a dwelling of self, education needs to enable the student to look through window frames in order to see the realities of others and into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected. Knowledge of both types of framing is basic to a balanced education which is committed to affirming the essential dialectic between the self and the world.

Students, in short, should be able to see into their own lives and realities in a mirror and to gain empathy for others through a window into another world.

Schools are adding “different voices” into what they teach to provide more windows. But if white students are never made aware of their own racial identity, nor understand that it impacts their standing in the world, then their racial identity is never explicit. It remains obscured in that feeling that only students of color have a race — that they are different — and once again whiteness passes for normal. Therefore, what should be clear mirrors remain foggy, and that haze creates all kinds of misunderstandings and missteps.

Clearly, teachers are not the only ones who impact a student’s understanding of her or his racial identity, but they play a major role in creating racially literate students, who become adults in an ever shrinking global system. Racial literacy is a complex set of goals, but at its most basic, it is about knowing the history of race and racism in this country and its impact today, and being able to discern how that history, and the beliefs born from it, create systemic racism. It is our job as teachers to ensure that ALL students know their racial history. It’s not just learning about enslavement, or internment camps, or the Holocaust; it also learning about how “whiteness” created all of these atrocities, and how white people are implicated — then and now — and also negatively impacted by racism.

Here’s the tricky part. As Gary Howard, founder of the REACH Center for Multicultural Education, has warned “You can’t teach what you don’t know.” Teachers must be aware of how their race impacts what and how they teach. This blog seeks to explore what teachers are doing in their classrooms to explicitly teach whiteness.

We will focus on the following critical questions to guide our inquiry:

  1. What are the best practices for making whiteness explicit in classrooms?
  2. What skills do both teachers and students need to become racially literate?
  3. How does investigating whiteness impact the identity development of white students?
  4. How does investigating whiteness in the classroom relieve or create stress for students of color?  
  5. How do teachers who do not understand their own racial impact cause stress for students?
  6. How do racially literate teachers ease the burden for students?
  7. How do we measure success? What does it look like, sound like, feel like to be racially literate?

Seeking answers to these questions is not a frivolous pursuit. Most schools’ mission and inclusion statements demand that we consciously pursue racial equity within our institutions. It is an expected skill, just as utilizing technology in the classroom is an expected skill. Yet there is often little or no training or even discussion on how to move forward in this essential work

And here’s another foggy mirror: While 83 percent of K–12 teachers are white, 45 percent of the students in K–12 schools are students of color, thus ensuring a teacher population that does not reflect the racial makeup of the student body. It would be nice if we had a better racial balance among teachers. But even then, there’s clear evidence that white educators need to better understand their racial identities — why it’s important for them, their students, the school, and the community at large.

We hope that Teaching While White helps to defog the mirrors so that all of us who “teach while white” can see ourselves, our students, our institutions, and our work more clearly.

Read Jenna and Elizabeth’s bios here.

Works Cited:
Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 2011.

Gary R. Howard, We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Classrooms,w.Teachers College Press, 2006.

Emily Style, “Curriculum as Window and Mirror,” http://nationalseedproject.org/about-us/timeline/26-latest-articles/41-curriculum-as-window-and-mirror.