Reshaping the Liberal Conscience: A Reflection on Jason Sokol’s "All Eyes Are Upon Us"

By Michael Brosnan

I grew up in the New York metropolitan area, went to college in Boston, and have lived most of my adult life in Maine and New Hampshire. This makes me part of a region known for its political liberalism. With its “Live Free or Die” motto, New Hampshire is the least liberal place in the Northeast, but in the last two presidential elections, it went for Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. It currently has an all-Democratic — and all-female — Congressional delegation in Washington.

I admire much about the region’s aspirational politics, but I’m also aware that, when it comes to race, there’s a troubling gap between the ideals espoused in Northeast liberalism and the reality of life. Another way to put it: The Northeast is as racially divided and inequitable as any region of the country. This was true in the mid-20th century. It’s true today. As a New Englander who has spent time working on social justice issues, I find this reality disconcerting. How is it that the region can elect numerous African-American politicians — mayors Thirman Milner in Hartford, and David Dinkins in New York; Senator Edward Brooke in Massachusetts; seven-term Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm in New York; and Governor Deval Patrick in Massachusetts; among others — and yet its major cities have remained centers of racial tension and persistent divide?

In 2004, Steve Clem, the executive director of the Association of Independent Schools in New England, pointed out to me that New England’s independent schools, while mostly progressive in philosophy, were coming up short when it came to appointing heads of color, hiring and retaining teachers of color, and enrolling students of color. He had asked me to write a research- and solution-based monograph to help schools move forward with their multicultural ideals. So I studied key research on inclusion in education, interviewed dozens of school leaders who were having success in meeting espoused diversity goals or who had important insights into steps all schools could take, and then wrote not one but three monographs. In my naiveté, I assumed that having these documents in print and online — with plenty of references to successful practices — would transform schools within a couple of years.

Now I know differently. But even so, the forces of resistance to racial equity and integration in the Northeast puzzle me. By all accounts, we should be in a much better place.

So it was with interest that I picked up a copy of Jason Sokol’s 2014 book All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn. Sokol explores the irony of a region that professes to be racially welcoming and yet remains racially divided. Sokol doesn’t have the answers, but he does punch holes in the Northeast’s mystique about itself as a racially welcoming place and makes it clear that those of us who live in the region have been “unable to fully turn the page” from a racist history to a present that embraces pluralism.

What attracted me to Sokol’s book is that he narrows the focus to New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts — three of the nation’s most liberal states. Sokol, an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, makes a clear distinction between racism in the North and the South. James Baldwin, for one, observed that “it has never been the North’s necessity to construct an entire way of life on the legend of the Negro’s inferiority.” Yet African Americans migrating north in the decades after the Civil War, in Sokol’s words, “swapped the South’s racial hell for the Sisyphean futility of the North.” There was, in other words, a deep cruelty in the promise of a better life in the North.

If you are inclined to think, “OK, that was then, but surely things are better now,” Sokol and others would tell you it’s only in a matter of degree.

What Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal observed about America in the 1940s holds true today in New York and New England: “ The ordinary American follows higher ideals and is more of a responsible democrat when he votes as a citizen… than when he just lives his own life as an anonymous individual.”

The gaps between professed ideals and practices have led us to our current situation. Many in the Northeast have worked hard for racial equity in each generation, but Sokol surfaces the start-and-stop pattern of such efforts. In the late 1930s, to take an example from the field of education, the good citizens of Springfield, Massachusetts, embraced the Springfield Plan — essentially a plan to teach a multicultural curriculum in integrated public schools. The plan was influenced by John Dewey but created by John Granrud, a Columbia Teachers College graduate and superintendent of the Springfield public schools. Granrud was asking schools to do what many of us are asking schools to do today: teach democratic engagement as a means to curb racial and religious prejudice created in the broader culture. The impetus for this plan was the need to respond to the racial segregation in Springfield itself, but also to the growing nationalism that was sweeping the globe, which gave rise to Hitler and Mussolini as well as, in this country, the conservative America First Party led by Gerald L.K. Smith.

The Springfield Plan was born of the progressive belief that our strength is our collective diversity. The plan got lots of positive press in the Northeast and led to spin-off programs in Brookline, New York City, Denver, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Portland (Oregon), and elsewhere.

Somewhere between then and now, however, most of the hard-won progress slipped away. One might predict this in a region of the country that espoused separation of the races and promoted one as superior to others, but why and how did this happen in the Northeast? What combination of cultural, political, and economic forces overpowered the Springfield Plan and other efforts at equity and justice? Why is racial inequity still a central issue of contemporary life — given all that we know and believe?

I could walk readers through Sokol’s book, which takes us up to the election of Barack Obama and the accompanying hope, once again, for societal transformation. But I think you get the point. Why did Brooklynites embrace Jackie Robinson on the field, but resist integrated neighborhoods? How could Boston vote twice for Edward Brooke, the first African-American U.S. Senator since Reconstruction, and then be the site of intense resistance to school integration? How did New York City, our nation’s most pluralistic city with an African-American mayor, become a hotbed of intense racial violence in the 1980s? Is it inevitable that the Obama presidency, which did give many of us hope, would give rise to a white supremacy backlash?

Sokol’s job is not to answer these questions, but to help us see the ongoing irony of a region that likes to think of itself as culturally progressive. There are many other writers, of course, who address this problem and its cultural staying power — including James Baldwin and his contemporary counterpart, Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as researchers such as Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Cornel West, bell hooks, Beverly Daniel Tatum, and Pedro Noguera. The stories of the effects of the ongoing racism are laid out in the literary works of Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, and Gwendolyn Brooks, and in contemporary writers such as Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Colson Whitehead, Nikki Giovanni, and Claudia Rankine. Numerous writers, including Tim Wise, Debby Irving, and Peggy McIntosh, have written thoughtfully about white identity and privilege as well as the persistence of white supremacy. Many journalists have also tackled the contemporary version of racial inequity and tension, including Jamelle Bouie in Slate, Radley Balko in the Washington Post, Tanzina Vega in the New York Times, and, again, Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. This is just a surface list of hardworking writers who long for, work for, a more just society.

What I want to see happen, however, is for the majority whites in this region — if not the entire nation — to play a more active role, to not only read these works but also open up this conversation in a more public way, take it to heart. In particular, I’d love to see white educators get more engaged in the conversation — given that they are key gatekeepers of future culture.

What struck me personally about Sokol’s account of racial tensions and inequities in the 1970s and 1980s is that I was a young adult at the time. I was aware of some of these issues — certainly the bussing battles in Boston when I was a college student in the city. But I don’t recall having any deep conversations with other adults about it. Any conversation stayed on the surface — in which we expressed dismay and vaguely wished for something better, then went off to do something else. If all of us who are white and of a certain age had embraced this conversation back then, if we had done our homework and engaged in cross-racial dialogue and connection, if we had explored what it means to be white in a white-dominant culture, if we understood that a commitment to social justice was not only the moral thing to do but also the best path to fulfilling the American promise, we would all be in a better place today. Since we can’t change the past, I hope we can open up the conversations today — in our homes, schools, churches, newspapers, and elsewhere — so that thirty years hence we won’t be reading another painful, well-researched account of how, once again, we fell woefully short of our aspirations.

When it comes to racial justice, what I want, in particular, is that those of us who call ourselves liberals, or progressives, or even simply Democrats to read and talk intelligently and openly about race. In order to bend the arc of history with greater moral force, we first need to know what the arc is made of — and what we’ve personally contributed to it.

Sokol concludes his book with this observation: “On the matter of race, the Northeast has been a place at war with itself.”

Let’s each do our part in ending this war.


Michael Brosnan is the senior editor at Teaching While White.  




Your Curriculum Is Already Raced

By Jenna Chandler-Ward

 Just because we might choose not to acknowledge or name race doesn’t mean it’s not there.

 Early in my middle school English teaching days, I started to realize that I only talked about the race of an author, or how the author’s race and culture impacted the writing if the author was a person of color. So I started to experiment by announcing white authors as white when introducing a new novel to my students, and by adding discussion questions about how the author’s race might impact the story and writing style. Somehow, I thought this would be a bigger deal than it was. For the most part, my students took it in stride, as though it were perfectly normal to name whiteness. Perhaps my delivery of this information was matter of fact, and so it did not seem an oddity. Or maybe the act of taking something implicit and making it explicit is something many of us crave.

As Lisa Delpit explains in Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, “We all interpret behaviors, information, and situations through our own cultural lenses; these lenses operate involuntarily, below the level of conscious awareness, making it seem that our own view is simply ‘the way it is’.... We must consciously and voluntarily make our cultural lenses apparent.”

When white teachers avoid naming whiteness, when they remain silent about race when race is clearly a factor in the classroom or curriculum, they are in fact teaching ideological and institutional aspects of whiteness. In effect, they are saying that whiteness is the norm (there are “authors” and there are “authors of color”) and that racism is either imagined or not worth talking about. The silence is a de facto denial of privileges and oppressions. I often hear teachers object: How do we add the objective of naming whiteness to our curriculum when we already feel overloaded with teaching skills and content? It’s a question worth addressing. But we also need to be clear: By not making the privileges and assumptions of whiteness explicit, we maintain white as “normal.”

 I get that it’s not always easy for white teachers to lead discussions about race, especially when they have had little or no practice. For their summer reading, my sixth graders read Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson. After we discussed the novel for a few days, I asked, “What if this book were called White Girl Dreaming? Would it be a different book?” Instantly, an African-American boy raised his hand. “It could not be the same book,” he said. “When you are Black, forgetting about racism is like trying to forget a song that plays on the radio twenty-four hours a day. Even when you want to forget it, it is still playing.”  

 With this perspective on the table, we started a conversation, gingerly dipping our toes in. The class began to discuss how, when you are white, you can choose to forget the song — to ignore the impact of race. Although I could feel some kind of energy, or excitement, from my students of color — that we were actually discussing this — I  became worried that I was making my white students feel guilty, so we quickly moved on. I had the power in that room as the teacher, and I shut down the conversation.

I can say that I honestly feel much better equipped to have these conversations with older students. Yet I also know that, just like my sixth-grader who made this heartbreaking analogy, my younger students are already aware, sometimes painfully aware, of racism and privilege. But I was afraid that I could not control the conversation. I was afraid that someone could say something hurtful. I was worried that in my white ignorance, I could make things worse for my students of color in a racially imbalanced classroom.

 In her article, “‘I Don’t Want to Hear That!’: Legitimating Whiteness through Silence in Schools,” Angelina Castagno argues, “These silences and acts of silencing create and perpetuate an educational culture in which inequalities are ignored, the status quo is maintained, and Whiteness is both protected and entrenched.”

I had silenced my students. I had prioritized protecting the white fragility of my white students over encouraging the eagerness of my students of color. I wonder now if my white students were actually that fragile or if I shut things down for my own projection. How were my own feelings influencing my teaching? I think these fears are very common and can even derail a conversation led by a veteran teacher who is trying to address racism in her classroom, school, and community.

We all mess up. We all need to try to do better next time. This was a seemingly small moment in my classroom. By writing this, I have been given the luxury of reflection, which is something that I think is structurally missing for the professional lives of most educators. But we need to pay attention to the little moments and reflect on them. We need to think about how our feelings, worries, cultural comfort levels, and identities influence our teaching. We need to unpack the myriad ways our curriculum is already shaped by race — and how we want to respond.

 A few weeks ago, in that same sixth-grade class, we discussed how we knew that the characters in A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, were white. That same African-American student said, “Because they don’t mention it. They don’t mention it because they don’t have a problem with race. People only know about race if they have had a problem with it.” This time, we did wade in. We discussed this in detail. Was segregation in effect during this time period? If so, what was its impact on the characters in this story?  How did we know the author was white without a picture of him? What are the effects of white people never naming their race? The conversation was not perfect, but we had it. We, as a class, had built up our race muscles over the year, enough to wade into it and not turn back.

 How can we make the naming and acknowledging of racial power imbalances commonplace? How do we normalize it in our classrooms and schools? If you have strategies or a model for making implicit bias and racism explicit in your teaching, please share them in the comments section.  Tell us what you know!

 Works Cited:

Lisa Delpit, Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, New York: New Press, 1995, p.(151.)

Angelina E. Castagno,“I Don’t Want to Hear That!”: Legitimating Whiteness through Silence in Schools, Anthropology & Education Quarterly, v39 n3 p314-333 September, 2008.

Incidents at Fenway — And What It Means for Educators

By TWW Staff

Last week, Adam Jones, a player for the Baltimore Orioles, reported that a Red Sox fan threw a bag of peanuts at him (hitting a police officer instead) and repeatedly called him the N-word. A few days later, while Mercy Mungai, a Kenyan woman, was singing the national anthem, another Red Sox fan turned to fellow fan, Calvin Hennick, and made racially insulting comments about the singer. Hennick, who is white, was attending a game with his bi-racial son and his African-American father-in-law. He asked the man to repeat the statement, then reported him to the Red Sox organization.

For us, these two incidents and the responses to them were revealing on a number of levels.

One would expect the Red Sox organization, when called out in the press about racial taunts directed by fans toward players, to express shock and dismay — as it did. One would also expect that the second incident a few days later would result in a racist fan being barred from Fenway (although barring him for life — the first Red Sox fan to ever be barred for life — is actually impressive).

We hope the Red Sox will remain vigilant and respond clearly to any future racial incidents.

But we also think the expression of shock is a bit disingenuous. Our guess is that, to most readers, these racial incidents at Fenway -- and similar incidents at other parks and arenas nationally — aren’t all that surprising. If someone were to take a survey of African-American professional baseball players, we’re fairly certain we’d find that many if not most have been recipients of racial taunts in Fenway and elsewhere. This is probably true of African-American athletes in most sports. We’d also bet that if you surveyed white athletes, they would say that, while they’ve never been the recipients of racial taunts, they are aware of African-American teammates who have been.

After the second incident at Fenway, Calvin Hennick, a former Boston Globe freelance writer, said, “People are feeling very comfortable with bigotry that we haven’t seen in a long time.”

We agree, and could spend time here digging into the reasons why this is so. But we want to focus on what white people can do in response to these incidents. Since this blog is focused on white teachers, we also want to offer a few thoughts for those who may want to talk with their students or colleagues about these or other racial incidents.

Our basic point is that when it comes to addressing racism, the intentions are almost always better than the outcomes. At Fenway, for instance, we have no doubt that the Red Sox leadership does not intend to tolerate racial taunting. But revelations by players both on the Red Sox and other teams make it clear that the use of the N-word and other racial taunting has been going on for a long time. And this is true in most regions of the country. In other words, our white-dominant nation tends to tolerate a certain level of racist behavior as long as that behavior doesn’t rise to the level of press attention or public outcry.

Sam Kennedy, president of the Boston Red Sox, may tell the Boston Globe that the team “wants to be at the forefront of this discussion and try to improve in this area,” but in a better world, it shouldn’t take a clearly offensive racial incident reported in the press for an organization to jump to action.

The problem, as we see it, is that most of us who are white are overly cautious about even mentioning race or acknowledging the larger culture of racism. Some of those who acknowledge it do so in a defensive manner — acting as if every incident is an anomaly, or claiming that such behavior is not representative of them (or, in this case, the organization, the fans, or the city). And then there are some, like former Red Sox pitcher Kurt Shilling, who are quick to attack anyone who claims they are the recipients of racial hatred.

Shilling’s response, in fact, follows a classic pattern, which Globe writer Christopher L. Gasper pointed out in a follow-up opinion piece, “Racial Taunts Stir Up Ancient Pain in Boston.” Whenever racial incidents rise to the level of front-page news, many white people tend to shift quickly into some kind of defensive posture. Gasper argues that, instead of slipping into this defensive mode, the first step should be “admitting there is a problem.” Pretending the incident is an anomaly won’t prevent future incidents and attacking the reputation of the whistle-blower only makes things worse. Open dialogue is a better approach.

It was wonderful to see Red Sox fans applaud Adam Jones the next night — as a sign of support for the player and appreciation for him standing up for racial justice. But applause is not the same as dialogue. We get it that Bostonians would prefer not to have the nation pointing fingers at the city. We know that most Bostonians want the city to be a racially welcoming city — and many do what they can to make that true. But the reality is that city has a long history of racial incidents such as the ones at Fenway. There is much more to the city than this, of course. And Boston is not alone when it comes to racism, not by a long shot. But the city is not free of racism — and this fact needs to be addressed both by those in positions of authority and by those of us who have a voice in schools.

The lessons for educators are clear. There are few, if any, institutions in America where racism isn’t a palpable undercurrent. If the predominantly white professionals in charge of schools aren’t encouraging and allowing the community to speak openly about how race shapes the culture, the undercurrent will survive intact.

“Racism can’t be regarded as Bigfoot, some imaginary menace that few have witnessed and that even fewer believe exists,” writes Gasper. This is the sort of mindset that allows us to act shocked when a public incident hits the press. This is also the mindset that allows us not to speak up when we witness an incident.  

Gasper concludes his piece by saying, “We need to dial down the denial and treat these reopened wounds as serious.”

All of us who are white and who profess a concern for social justice must engage on a more consistent and deeper level. For those of us in schools, these incidents remind us that having an “inclusion” statement needs to be more than a wish to attract diverse students to our schools. It needs to be the key that opens up conversation that acknowledges the truth and the pernicious effects of racism.

Enid Lee, an amazing teacher educator, says we should always “assume racism is operating until proven otherwise.” What might it mean to start from the premise that racial bias is operating? How would that change the way we approach situations?

How might your whiteness impact the way you interact with students? Are there any assumptions you make about particular students based on your own positionality?

Do you have a strategy for engaging colleagues or students if they raise a particular racial stereotype or bias? When you get uncomfortable, “how are you going to lean into that discomfort?” asks Randolph Carter, Director of East Ed. What’s your catch-phrase: “Wow, that makes me really uncomfortable” or, “Can we talk about what you just said later?” after you have the chance to breathe and collect your thoughts.

As a white teacher, can you point to moments in your curriculum when you specifically locate yourself as white and/or teach about whiteness? For example, students get to identify and represent themselves racially either in writing or in pictures. Or, white authors are noted for how they represent whiteness as frequently as authors of color write about race. And, when you teach about immigration, students learn that when the Irish first came to the US, they were not considered white. Be sure to name whiteness whenever possible.

Ultimately, can we recognize, and then quickly abandon, the little voice in our head that first tries to protect us from admitting racism is happening? The part of us that still hopes -- in the face of all evidence to the contrary -- that racism is “over”? Can we hear it, and then quickly remember that the little voice keeps racism firmly in place? And can we learn to trust ourselves enough to know we can admit racism and the floor will not drop out from under our feet? We must stop treating these incidents as “surprises.” If we know that racism is still operating, we can and must get there first.  Let’s be proactive and not wait for a crisis to address issues of race. 

We would like to hear from any readers on how “you lean into discomfort” in your school. What do you say? Do you have a go-to catch phrase to interrupt bias? Let us know!

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.





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,”