More on Foggy Mirrors: Allowing Whiteness in the Classroom

By Elizabeth Denevi

I thought it might be helpful to say more about the notion of “foggy mirrors” and why white kids need to explicitly talk about whiteness, not just race, in classrooms. The specificity is important.

Research cited in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s NutureShock reveals how hard it is for white families to talk about being white and what that means for both them and the society. Rather than talk directly about race, most white parents encourage their kids to “respect everyone.” As a result, many people assume that white children are generally neutral about their interactions with students of color. But it turns out that most white children are unable to connect the abstract notion of “respect everyone” to a clear sense of how to be respectful in racial interactions.

Patricia Marshall, in Cultural Diversity in Our Schools, found that white kids, just like white adults, experience anxiety due to the demographic shifts that have led to larger populations of people of color nationally. In turn, that anxiety can, and often does, encourage notions that white culture is the "right” culture, and that whites are, in fact, losing ownership of what they stereotypically think of as “American” culture.

In such a landscape, school becomes a critical site for learning about one’s racial identity. As Marshall puts it, without teacher intervention:

Students are unlikely to recognize the inherent racial-group hierarchy manifest in the mainstream focus of traditional curricular content and the marginalization of people of color through add-on units in February or any other time of the school year… Educators need to create deliberate learning opportunities that promote healthy racial identities.

And here, perhaps, is one of the most important reasons why white students need to learn about whiteness: “White students with a more developed sense of their own racial identity tended to espouse fewer racist beliefs” (Carter, 1990).  

The research makes it clear. Just talking about race, in the abstract, is not enough; students need to have the time to explore their own specific racial identity. And when it comes to white children, exploring racial identity will not only create students with a stronger sense of self, but it will also help to undermine racism.

Yet teaching white children about whiteness can be challenging. There has always been a strong social norm in U.S. society that sanctions white people who talk explicitly about race. When I was growing up, I was quickly hushed if I mentioned the specific race of a person of color because, as the logic went, to name race was to be racist. And the notion of calling myself “white,” as opposed to Italian or Irish (my nationalities of origin), was the same as calling myself a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It just wasn’t done. That norm, shared widely among whites, had a profound effect on our society. It not only kept racism firmly in place, but also kept white people from understanding they have a race and, thus, any responsibility or agency around racism. “Good” whites did not talk about race, and so they could not be called racist. One result of this today is that many white educators have a difficult time talking with white kids about race. At the same time, most white kids resist this conversation because they, too, have been so strongly normed to either avoid or to challenge any conversation about race.

This combination becomes pernicious in school settings, as noted by Julie A. Helling, a professor at Western Washington University:

White students also get to learn in an educational system that is still predominantly taught by other white people. This creates a level of comfort for white students that might not exist for students of color. While many white teachers are doing great work, racism still exists in the classroom, however unconscious… Quite simply, students of color have to spend much of their energy on racism in one form or another, and white students have that same energy to spend on education. If one’s time is taken up either responding to racist statements or behaviors — or anticipating that these things might occur — one does not have as much energy to put elsewhere.

Without any mirrors to reflect and support their culture, students of color spend a lot of energy navigating whiteness, the dominant culture. Meanwhile, the white students are just swimming along in the water they know so well — or rather don’t even see because it is just that, the air they breathe. So, while the white students’ experience is reflected all around them, the reflection is nebulous. It’s foggy because it is never named for what it is: white identity, unearned privilege, and power.

Helling goes on to describe a really challenging moment in her class when her white students began to push back on the notion of their whiteness. Yet her willingness to stay in it with them, to wade into the conversation, as opposed to running from it, made all the difference. When we have high expectations for all our students — including the expectation that white children can learn to acknowledge and understand what unearned, white-skin privilege has meant and continues to mean — then we are giving them real mirrors. They can see a true reflection, not one that has been muddied and obscured.

And once they know who they are, then they can be in true collaboration with their peers of color.

Works Cited:

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, NutureShock: New Thinking About Children, Twelve, 2011.

Robert T. Carter, “The Relationship Between Racism and Racial Identity Among Whites: An Exploratory Investigation,” Journal of Counseling and Development, 1990.

Julie A. Helling, “‘Allowing’ Race in the Classroom: Students Existing in the Fullness of Their Beings,” New Horizons for Learning, Johns Hopkins University.

Patricia L. Marshall, Cultural Diversity in Our Schools, Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002.