What If Being Called a “Racist” Is the Beginning, Not the End, of the Conversation? Learning What It Really Means to Be a White Teacher

 By Elizabeth Denevi


Editor’s Note: The following is an edited version of a chapter from The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys, a collection of essays curated by Eddie Moore, Ali Michael, and Marguerite W. Penick-Parks (Corwin, 2017) It is posted here with permission of the author.


In the mid-1990s, as a young white teacher with a few years under my belt. I took a long-term substitute position because a teacher had quit and the school needed someone right away. The high school class had been meeting for a few weeks, and had just read a short story by William Faulkner. On my first day, I jumped right in. I opened the class by asking what the students’ reactions were to the story so I could get a sense of where the students were in their analysis of the form.

There were three black boys in the class. One raised his hand and said, “I’m tired of reading books with the N-word in them. For my entire life in school, I’ve had to read this word over and over. It’s not right, and I’m not going to discuss it anymore.” He and the other two black students got up and left.

What would you do?

I doubled-down. I thought, “Ah, these boys don’t understand why it’s important that we look at ‘authentic’ texts in English class. We cannot scrub the text of the original language. We must consider the historical context and teach the work of literature as an artifact of its time, and certainly, Faulkner’s time in the South.” Blah, blah, blah. I brought in articles the next day for the students to read so that I could prove to them why it was important to talk about the N-word in English class.

I can sense your groan and/or gasp of breath. I feel it now as I write. I still get goosebumps when I tell the story, evoking the racial stress that still lives in my body.

What did those well-educated, young black boys do? They got up and left the class again. Good for them. They were demonstrating a healthy resistance to racism that I could neither see nor understand.

As for me, I kept right on going. Eventually, the students came back to the class, and we muddled through. I never discussed this incident with them. What I would give for a time machine so I could go back and try to see the incident again more clearly. Twenty years later, the details are fuzzy. But I have never forgotten those young men and what I learned from them.

The socio-cultural aspect of that classroom was invisible to me; I had no understanding of the “cumulative effect” of hearing these slurs in the classroom over and over. For me, it was an intellectual exercise. For these young men, it was an assault on their very being.

While I now know that the greatest predictor of academic success is the teacher’s expectation, I had not established any kind of relationship with these young men; thus, my explicit/implicit bias and privilege were in play. I still shudder at the power I had, but of which I had no sense. How terrifying, right? And how common. I bet there are a lot of white educators out there who could tell a similar story. And that’s what makes it all so systemic and illusory. White cultural bias and privilege was just the water I was swimming in at the time.

Here’s my second example:

A few years later, I was sitting in a parent-teacher conference. A black mom sat across the table from me as we discussed her son. By this time, I had been through a master’s program and had been asked to join a diversity committee. I considered myself a “good” white person, now “thinking” about racism (it was still an intellectual exercise for me). So I was particularly troubled by this young black boy who “was not living up to his potential.” I felt that he could do more, but he was not. I expressed my oh-so condescending concern as, “Look at all I’m doing. Why won’t your son meet me halfway?” — a sentiment I have felt and heard in schools more times than I can count.

This mom looked at me and said in a calm voice, “I think you’re being racist toward my son.”

And what did I do? I doubled-down again. I proceeded to explain to this mom all the ways that I certainly was not racist, how much I had worked with her son, given him extra time. I had not written him off as so many other teachers had done, telling me that I shouldn’t waste my time with him. Couldn’t she see how “good” I was? I defended myself, and my whiteness, just as I had been taught to do by centuries of white superiority and white silence on this topic.

Are you cringing again? Years later, I shudder when I recall this conversation. But I do so — and do so publicly — because it brings me to the central question of this article: What if being called “racist” was the beginning, not the end, of the conversation? What if, instead of offering a ranting defensive of my intentions, I had taken this mom at her word? What if I considered that she might know her son’s experience better than I did? What if I had owned the outcome of my behavior and considered with her how my work with her son was perpetuating racial stereotypes and prejudice? Do you think that might have impacted her son’s experience in my class? In the school? Do you think it would have made me a better teacher?

Here’s what I wish I had known before I started teaching, and what I now try to communicate to all teachers. I want other white women educators to know:

  • that they are white;
  • that being white matters — because, as Parker Palmer notes, “We teach who we are”;
  • that their students see race either implicitly or explicitly; and
  • that our failure to locate ourselves as white and to talk about what that standpoint/position means is doing more harm than good — for our students of color and our white students.

When I first learned that I was white — and I mean really white, not just the abstract concept that I was white with no awareness of my complicity in a system of unequal power — I was angry.*

And I was obnoxious about it. My husband often calls me the “white tornado,” but a bulldozer metaphor works as well. I was going to solve the problem of racism once and for all — a mindset, of course, that also reflects the arrogance embedded in white privilege. The hardest piece for me was getting over being colorblind. I had been carefully taught not to see race or comment on it. It was a huge shift for me to even use the term “students of color” because for me to see and notice race meant, in my mind, that I was “racist.” For me to have identified as really white felt tantamount to saying I was a KKK member. I had no examples of white people who had worked for social justice. I had no idea that, for as long as there was slavery in the U.S., there were white people working to end it. Nobody taught me about those people.

In time, I would learn. In particular, I have been profoundly impacted by the research of John Dovidio and his work to illuminate “aversive racism.” He clearly explains why being colorblind is so pernicious:

When Whites attempt to be colorblind, they tend to be self-focused and more oriented toward monitoring their own performance than toward learning about the particular needs and concerns of the person of color with whom they are interacting. In interracial interactions, this will impair the ability of people (particularly less explicitly prejudiced individuals) to engage in intimacy-building behaviors (Dovidio, 2016).

Those “intimacy-building” behaviors are what lead to strong, connected relationships in schools and to academic success. When we are worried about what we might say or that we might be called “racist,” we’re not paying proper attention to our students of color or helping our white students understand the ways in which they are racialized. Thus, we are not grounding our teaching in who they are, what they know, and what they bring to the table. And when we’re not doing that, we’re not being excellent teachers.

Along the way, there have been additional critical points of learning:


Difference as Difference, not Deficit: The noticing of race is not racism. To understand that my students of color have a different experience is just that — different. Their experience is not a representation of deficit culture (see Luis Moll).

Diversity vs. Multiculturalism: While “diversity” is quantitative, meaning it speaks to differences that can be measured and counted, “multiculturalism” speaks to the quality of life that diversity leads in a school. These two terms are related and connected, but they are not synonyms. White teachers need to not only think about representation, but also consider classroom climate and culture.

Equality vs. Equity: “Equality” means giving all students the same thing. “Equity” mandates that we give each student what she or he needs to be successful at school. Equity pedagogy signals that the playing field is not equal, thus including elements of power and privilege in our analysis of what students need (my gratitude to Paul Gorski, writer, educator and founder of EdChange, for holding our feet to the fire on this topic).

Safety vs. Comfort: White folks will often complain that they feel “unsafe” during conversations related to race when what they are generally referring to is a feeling of discomfort. We have to be willing to wade into this topic with our white colleagues as this “complaint” usually goes unchallenged in white circles. (See Robin DiAngelo’s research for an excellent analysis of “white fragility” around topics of race.)

Intent vs. Impact: While I cannot crawl inside your head and know your intentions, I can see, hear, and feel the outcome of your behavior. If we spent even half as much time owning and dealing with the outcomes of our behaviors as we do defending our intentions, we might actually create classrooms that are equitable.

I am deeply indebted to a whole host of white educators who have dedicated their careers to illuminating whiteness and the inequities created by racism. We have inherited a carefully crafted structure by which white people avoid, ignore, challenge, and collude in any way possible to avoid being seen as “racist” — better known as the “Scarlet R.” This kind of “white talk,” as writer and educator Alice McIntyre describes, keeps white teachers from learning why our awareness of our own white identity is so critical to being excellent teachers.

I’m also grateful to the educators of color with whom I’ve had the privilege to teach alongside of, learn from, and speak with. In particular, I’m grateful to Randolph Carter, an inspiring black male educator and father of two black boys, who first asked the question that serves as the title for this article.

And speaking of titles, at first, I struggled with the title of the book in which this essay first appeared. I wanted it to be “The Guide for White Women Who Teach.” Yet, if the three contributing editors had not posed their preferred title, "The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys,” I might not have remembered those black boys I mis-taught. If white women can learn how whiteness impacts their teaching, it will certainly benefit black boys. But most important, it will allow white women to be excellent teachers for all students. It will allow them to be educators who are wise to the fact that racial identity has, and will probably always, impact teaching and learning in profound ways.


Elizabeth Denevi is the cofounder of Teaching While White and the Associate Director for Mid-West Educational Collaborative, a nonprofit agency that works with schools nationally to increase equity, promote diversity pedagogy, and implement strategic processes for growth and development.

*This happened while I was reading four authors: Beverly Daniel Tatum, Janet Helms, Ruth Frankenberg, and Peggy McIntosh.



To better get at what it really means to be white, take this challenge. For one week, try to include people’s racial identity each time you use their name. For example, “I had lunch with Ali, my white friend, and we…” Watch how people react. I couldn’t make it through seven days. By Day 4, white people (not people of color) were so challenging, I gave up. What would it mean to make it seven days? 30? A year?



Elizabeth Denevi & Mariama Richards, “Diversity Directors as Leaders: Making the Case for Excellence,” Independent School (2009).

Elizabeth Denevi & Nicholas Pastan, “Helping Whites Develop Anti-Racist Identities: Overcoming Their Resistance to Fighting Racism,” Multicultural Education (2006).

Elizabeth Denevi, "White on White: Exploring White Racial Identity, Privilege, and Racism,” Independent School (2004).

E. Denevi, "Whiteness: Helping White Students and Educators Understand Their Role in a Multicultural Society,” Independent School (2001).

Robin DiAngelo. “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol. 3 (3) (2011).

John Dovidio, et. al. “Included but Invisible? Subtle Bias, Common Identity, and the Darker Side of ‘We,’” Social Issues and Policy Review. Vol. 10, Issue 1 (2016).

Ruth Frankenberg. White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1993).

Paul Gorski. Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty. New York: Teachers College Press (2013).

Janet Helms. A Race Is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life. Content Communications (1992).

Peggy McIntosh. White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies. Wellesley, MA: Center for Research on Women (1998).

Alice McIntyre. Making Meaning of Whiteness. Albany: State University of New York Press (1997).

Luis Moll, et al, Ed. Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms. New York: Routledge (2005).

Parker Palmer. The Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers (1998).

Howard Stevenson. Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools. New York: Teachers College Press (2013).

Beverly Daniel Tatum. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Basic Books (1997).


Recovering from “the Anesthesia of Power”: Conflict and Healing in Dialogue

By Shanti Elliott 


“For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.Audre Lorde


“You don’t buy it, do you?” I said to my co-teacher, Marcus Campbell.


I was smiling anxiously.

He was not smiling.

“And I do,” I said. “I’m trying to train myself not to, but I still do.”

We had just shown a video to our class of graduate education students. The video highlights a racial conflict between representatives of First Nations people and a group of Canadian reporters. One of our students had blamed the conflict on “white entitlement.” Although we can’t see the reporters in the video, we know they are white because of the response from the First Nations speakers facing the camera.

Marcus asked our class, “Where do you think entitlement comes from?”

The first response came from Leann, a 23-year-old white woman: “Ignorance.”

 In the video, a white female reporter phrased a question in a way that drew a pained and angry reaction from the First Nations people who had called the press conference. Like Leann, I believed that the white woman didn’t know she was causing pain. Marcus did not believe this.

This difference of perception created an opening for me to explore how racist complicity can form and spread within and between white people. I am a white female and Marcus is a black male. By analyzing my own response to this moment in my teaching through the lens of what Mab Segrest, in her essay, “Of Soul and White Folk,” calls an “anesthetic aesthetic,” I want to learn about emotions and historical consciousness in antiracist pedagogy. I center this inquiry on a graduate education classroom discussion of a moment of conflict in which strong emotions, rooted in histories of trauma, reshape a context that is raced white. The interchange in the video puzzled the white reporters because it registered as neutral to them — and most likely to most white audiences — but which evoked a history of oppression to First Nations people in the space.

“Stop Talking!”

Here’s what happened. On June 30 of this year, during Canada Day festivities, First Nations women leaders held a press conference to demand that the government prioritize its investigation into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The leaders emphasized that extreme violence targeting Indigenous women meets with public indifference. In so doing, it continues the legacy of settler colonialism and ongoing systemic racism. In the newsclip that we viewed in class, a white female reporter asks, “How can he [Prime Minister Justin Trudeau] be blamed? You don’t think anything he’s doing is helping the situation? Is he an improvement over [former Prime Minister] Stephen Harper?”

The women leading the press conference were outraged by the implication of these questions. Spokesperson Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, quiets the reporter, saying, “You don’t know how to communicate,” and demands that the reporter change her tone. She reminds the assembled reporters that they are guests in this space and they must speak with respect. She observes that racist behaviors in the room are continuous with a history of racism in the Americas: “You haven’t changed, because you haven’t started your own healing journeys!”

When things quiet down, she asks if anyone else has a question. A white male reporter speaks up, promising to speak respectfully. But his question is basically a rephrasing of the previous one: “Are things better now than under Stephen Harper?”

Ms. Wabano-Iahtail observes that the reporters are playing out the customary patterns of white fragility — the white man defending the white woman’s right to her question. “Who,” she then asks, “defends our rights? Five hundred and twenty-four years of genocide; who has stood up for us?”

The reporters are pushing for a narrative of progress. They don’t acknowledge the wracking pain of the Indigenous people in the space with them, people who have seen many of their daughters killed and generation after generation decimated, belittled, colonized. The trauma of oppression is present in this room, active in this moment. Ms. Wabano-Iahtail cuts off the reporters: “No! Stop talking! This press conference is over!”

Ignorance as Oppression

After watching the video of this anguishing interchange, our class processed what we had seen and heard, taking note of the importance of tone and place and historic relations between white people and Indigenous people in North America. The students had just read Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and they were paying close attention to humanization and dehumanization, both within the press conference and within themselves as they watched.

We sought to discuss the people, words, and history in the video with respect, conscious that we were watching the video out of context. We were trying to counter the conventional emotional distance of the classroom with our personal responses of outrage and love.

Expressing strong emotion in a setting like a university classroom, where the unspoken norm is coldly intellectual can feel awkward, unnatural. But Ms. Wabano-Iahtail’s rebuke to the reporters made us realize that a response that avoided touching the historic and present trauma of the First Nations community was racist. She traced out a boundary that had been invisible to the white reporters, and in doing so forced us as listeners to pause and reflect.

When students broke into small discussion groups, I checked in with Marcus about Leann’s comment that entitlement comes from ignorance. The video had been upsetting; it had reminded him of other press conferences he had watched on TV over the years in which black people on either side of the microphone had been publicly disrespected. These memories had been painful. Then, when hurtful behavior was ascribed to ignorance, no one had spoken up to challenge what this really meant.

Though we start our class with readings that help us talk about the difference between intent and impact, I, like many of my white students, am still ready to see racist attitudes as emerging from ignorance. “I’m not sure how to get through this block,” I said to Marcus. “My default response is still to assume ignorance.” I have acted, spoken, and thought out of ignorance countless times. I have made a habit of dismissing the impact of other white people’s behavior by calling it unaware.

From Thinking to Thinking-and-Feeling

I am learning to resist the gravitational pull of my assumptions. This means fighting my natural response; it means believing in the experience of others more than in my own judgment — at least when it comes to these racially charged moments. Since my mind doesn’t want to do this, I have to tell it that it doesn’t really know. An emotional lurch quickens the process. Conflict, grief, anger — the feelings that are hardest to face — fling me past my limits.

It’s only when I force myself to listen to the pain of a person like Ms. Wabano-Iahtail, when I force myself to remember the historical, generational, lifelong, constant trauma that Latina/o, African-American, Native-American, Asian-American, and Middle Eastern people carry, that I’m able to shift my perspective and realize that attributing racist acts to ignorance has the impact of minimizing their suffering.

Ms. Wabano-Iahtail’s repeated command in the video, “Stop!” helped me to stop.

When I stop and push myself through a slower thinking-and-feeling process, I realize that people who come from historically targeted backgrounds have inherited a pain that flares acutely when it meets racism. When the racism is denied, questioned, or ignored, the pain spreads rapidly. In the press conference my class watched, the focus was on the excruciating issue of violence against Indigenous women, and the government’s inadequate response. The reporter’s question about whether matters had improved under Justin Trudeau’s government glossed over the deep trauma the First Nations leaders were feeling, voicing, and acting on, regarding this issue and related matters of residential schools, the Indian Act, and so many other ways in which the genocidal history of white supremacy has continued to impact First Nations people in Canada. As I think this through, I begin to hear the disrespect in the reporter’s question, the dehumanization it allows and perpetuates. But this takes me a long time. It was not my first reaction.

The colonialist mentality, a black student in our class pointed out, still dominates, prescribing not only policy but also interchanges like the one we were watching. “I don’t know if it sounded this way to you,” he said, “but to my ears it sounded like the reporters were saying, ‘Haven’t we done enough for you?’”

I recognized it once he said it, but I hadn’t articulated it. I had watched the newsclip many times by the time I showed it in this class, and I felt troubled and confused. Moments like this make me question my own responses. How did my student hear a colonialist message that I didn’t? Why is my co-teacher pained by watching scenes like this in a way that I am not? Why do I accept ignorance as justification for racist behavior? Why am I OK with my own confusion? What’s wrong with me?

Amnesia, Anesthesia, Contradiction

Mab Segrest, as I mentioned earlier, writes about the “anesthetic aesthetic” that blocks dominant-culture people from pain, awareness of their own responsibility in systemic violence, and their own consciousness — how they think and feel about systemic violence. She studies the emotional atrophy of slave-owning white people, as an example of white numbness in the face of violence against people of color. “Necessary to the slave system was the masters’ blocked sensation of its pain,” she writes, “an aesthetic that left him insensible not only to the fellow human beings he enslaves, but to the testimony of his senses that might have contradicted ideologies of slavery.”

Inner contradiction, denial, and systemic violence blunt our feeling capacities and our health: “The affective void from which feelings and perceptions have been blocked in oneself and cast onto Others,” Segrest writes, “is the space where addictions arise.” The damage of disconnection and distance, Segrest argues, isn’t just direct, physical, or historical. It is hardwired in white people like me and there is much in white supremacy culture that maintains it.

Recovering our human connectedness through focused inner work and outer action helps us to heal ourselves and our world. “Action expands perceptions,” Segrest writes, “because it shifts and enlarges our point of view and our capacity and motivation to process bigger chunks of reality.” Though we have inherited a destructive disease, white people can reverse the racism that “encodes itself in our consciousness, closing the doors of our perception.” We become more whole as we sit with the pain that we have for so long pushed away. We can reclaim our souls, planting our mental and social processes within the affective life of feeling, respect, and mutual responsibility.


Shanti Elliott is an educator and activist with 25 years of experience supporting antiracist work in schools, universities, and organizations. Her 2015 book, Teaching and Learning on the Verge: Democratic Education in Action, is available from Teachers College Press. A version of this article appears on Elliott’s blog, millmuse.wordpress.com.

Why Race Should Remain a Factor in College Admissions

By Michael Brosnan


A recent New York Times article noted that an organization named Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard University for race discrimination in its admissions practices. Such lawsuits pop up occasionally. But the twist this time is that Asian Americans, not whites, are the ones who feel cheated.

The article’s lead focuses on an Asian-American student, Austin Jia, who was rejected by Harvard (which has a 5.4 percent acceptance rate) and ended up at Duke University (which has a 9 percent acceptance rate). Jia, as it turns out, isn’t taking part in the suit. He was just willing to speak about his feelings of deep disappointment. Although he also says he likes Duke, it’s the idea of working hard to be an outstanding high school student only to be rejected at institutions that hurts. Jia was particularly upset that students with lower GPA’s and SAT scores were accepted to Harvard.

Edward Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions, told the Times, “It falls afoul of our most basic civil rights principles, and those principles are that your race and your ethnicity should not be something to be used to harm you in life nor help you in life.”

While I agree with the statement, I wish Blum would turn his attention to the serious forms of institutionalized racial discrimination in housing, jobs, public precollegiate education, the criminal justice system, health care, and elsewhere that actually do cause harm to many and help others because of their race. But in the case of Harvard, making admissions decisions based on a host of qualities and qualifications, including race, does not amount to harming people or to giving others unfair advantage.

Does it hurt to be rejected? Sure. Is it discrimination? No.

The students involved in the lawsuit say they are taking part because they feel Harvard policies amount to setting quotas for the number of Asian-American students admitted each year. They believe that if admissions came down to “merit” alone, far more Asian Americans would be admitted.

For its part, Harvard’s admissions office makes it clear that it does not have quotas for any group. At the same time, Harvard defines “merit” more broadly than the simple ranking of students by GPA’s and standardized test scores. Similar to the admissions office at just about every competitive college and university, Harvard seeks each year to build a freshman class of students who (a) have the ability to succeed at Harvard, (b) are truly interested in what Harvard has to offer, and (c) bring something to the mix that will make Harvard a highly engaging learning community.

There’s a good reason for Harvard to do this: learning in a diverse community is better than learning in a monoculture. This is not wishful thinking; it’s an empirical truth.

Also, since graduates of colleges and universities will be living in a multicultural nation and world, they are better off learning in a diverse community when possible. This is particularly true in an era in which our precollegiate schools are highly monocultural, created and maintained in large part by real acts of racial discrimination.

College and universities have more or less painted themselves into an uncomfortable corner by seeking prestige. They do this because perceived prestige drives up the pride of association and, thus, corresponding interest and financial support. But by sidling up to the likes of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, colleges and universities tend to give the impression that SAT scores, GPA’s, AP courses completed, etc., matter most in the admissions process. They also play the less-than-admirable game of encouraging as many applications as possible, knowing that having a very low acceptance rate makes them appear special — elite, important, desirable.

But Harvard and other colleges and universities also balance these less-than-admirable practices with some quite admirable practices and other fairly practical ones.

If Harvard is going to have a biology department, a Celtic studies program, a business school, an education program, etc., it obviously needs to admit students who are interested in these various programs. In 2016, only 5.4 percent of the students admitted to Harvard were undecided about their majors.

If Harvard wants to have successful sports teams — and it does — it needs to consider athletic ability as an admission factor, at least for a percentage of students. It also considers the geographical mix of students — which currently includes every region of the nation and numerous countries — knowing that a diversity of regional perspectives will deepen learning. For obvious reasons, along with other colleges and universities, it also pays attention to gender.

Harvard, as reported in the Times, also wants to admit students who have “the ability to work with people of different backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives.” This cultural mix includes socioeconomic status and race. For reasons that reach back to the founding of this nation, race is the most challenging and challenged criteria. Some will argue that it’s fairer to have race-neutral admissions policies and simply let the racial mix be what it will be naturally. But it’s clear that race-neutral policies would, in fact, favor whites over other races. By examining the “whole person,” as Harvard does (as best it can, given the flood of applicants each year and the limited time to review each application), a college can determine college potential, readiness, commitment, academic interest, extracurricular interest, etc., and in doing so build a dynamic community of learners.

Harvard, in short, argues that to ignore race would diminish the “excellence” of a Harvard education.

I agree.

The one admissions practice, at Harvard and elsewhere, that is worth debating is the practice of admitting legacy students — children or close relatives of alumni. But even here, in being critical of the practice, the tendency is to suggest that Harvard is playing some sort of sneaky, elitist game. It’s not. The legacy students who are admitted are all qualified for admission — but not all qualified legacy students are admitted. The problem of top-tier colleges and universities admitting the well-educated children of alumni, as one article points out, is society’s problem more than Harvard’s. Which is to say, in the United States today, money provides greater access to quality precollegiate education. Wealthy children also have greater access to test preparation, opportunities for extracurricular activities, as well as access to high-quality health care and food. The wealthy are good at placing their children in top colleges because money provides huge advantages. If we are really concerned about this, we should show greater concern about the growing wealth divide in the nation and reexamine our commitment to quality public education across the socioeconomic spectrum.

At Teaching While White, we believe that the best way for colleges and universities to have fair admissions policies is to consider a broad range of qualities and qualifications. We also believe that this holistic approach is the right way to ensure the best possible learning community. Given this, our goal is to encourage and support white educators in serving students well across the range of races and cultures in their preparation for post-secondary education. When it comes to lawsuits such as the one by Students for Fair Admissions, we also encourage white educators to be clear in their support for racially diverse school communities — why it’s both educationally and morally right. This means understanding and articulating the value of racial and other forms of diversity in learning. It also means being willing to engage in conversation with those who claim discrimination. The research is clear: diverse school communities are better learning communities. As the research also makes clear, creating and supporting diverse learning communities is also a moral imperative because of historical and ongoing racial discrimination that primarily hurts black and Latino communities.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, also writing in the New York Times, makes the latter point crystal clear: “Affirmative action has proved to be one of the most effective tools for expanding opportunity and promoting diversity for students of color. Race-conscious admissions policies have made campuses across the country more representative of our society. In doing so, they have helped remedy inequality created by centuries of discrimination.”

Ifill also points out that affirmative action efforts have not resulted in equal access for black and Latino students — which nationally is around 5 percent in top-tier colleges and universities. As disconcerting as this is, black and Latino students fair even worse in states that have abandoned affirmative action policies.

We get that Asian-American students who are rejected by some of the top-tier colleges and universities they apply to would be frustrated. But we’d also note that Asian Americans have the highest percentage of educational attainment. According to a report from the Brookings Institution, “While 36 percent of whites, 23 percent of blacks, and 16 percent of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree or more, 54 percent of Asians do. Furthermore, while 14 percent of whites have advanced degrees, 21 percent of Asian Americans do.”

Much of this, no doubt, is attributable to individual effort and cultural commitment to education. But there are other factors involved, including access to better precollegiate schools. The quality of school one attends in elementary and high school, it turns out, has a huge impact on college attendance. This is true even within the Asian-American community.

“The huge inequalities between people in different racial categories are s of the most pressing challenges for public policy in the 21st century,” write Nathan Joo, Richard V. Reeves, and Edward Rodrique, of the Brookings Institution.

Holistic admissions policies do far more to address these inequities than race-blind policies, which have the tendency to maintain the status quo. Those who dig deeply into the data will see this — and should encourage Harvard and other colleges and universities for doing what they can to contributing to a more just and vital nation.


For the Record:

Harvard’s class of 2021 is 14.6 percent African American, 22.2 percent Asian American, 11.6 percent Hispanic and 2.5 percent Native American or Pacific Islander, according to data on the university’s website. It’s not a precise representation of the United States, but it’s certainly a fair one.

Duke University is about 14 percent Asian American, significantly lower than Harvard’s. On the other hand, Asian Americans currently make up 5.6 percent of the U.S. population — which means they are overrepresented at both Harvard and Duke.

Emily Choi, an Asian-American student at Harvard, was asked by the New York Times about her experiences at Harvard. She replied: “I firmly believe in affirmative action. The diversity at Harvard has been key to my learning, and I think that if there weren’t so many people of different backgrounds, I wouldn’t be forced to think about things in new ways.”



“Speak White”

By Julia Donnelly Spiegelman

It is a typical school day, and my middle school students are learning to express themselves in French. As they converse, I flit from table to table, listening and offering word suggestions, quiet corrections, and explanations. My aim is to be their guide and resource, affirming and challenging them — in contrast to my own experience learning French in school, where teachers had mainly ranged from ineffective to authoritarian.

Still, in quiet moments, I feel a nagging fear: “What am I actually teaching?”

My students would say “French.” As the only teacher in my discipline at a small private school near Boston, to them, I am French and French is me. Never mind that I am a white, Jewish New Englander who began learning the language in middle school. Of course, my real goals are more complex. At best, I hope to create opportunities for my students to discover themselves and others through authentic communication about the inherent similarities and differences of being human. Through the study of another language, I reason, comes cross-cultural understanding. Foreign language teachers often operate under the assumption that exposure to different ways of living, eating, celebrating, and communicating naturally leads to understanding different viewpoints. But I could not stop wondering: How much of my teaching is actually deepening a form of cultural superiority and elitism, justifying centuries of colonialism, and even reinforcing a doctrine of white supremacy?

About five years into my teaching career and halfway through a master’s program in French, my exposure to multicultural teaching principles, peers and perspectives from different Francophone backgrounds, and a good dose of post-colonial theory left me unsure of whether what I was doing was actually good for students. Yes, I had been hired to teach French, and they were definitely learning it, but my mind was buzzing with questions.

For one, which French? The study of linguistics teaches us countless words to describe varieties of language considered inferior by those in power. Definitely no “pidgins” or “creoles” or “dialects.” No Haitian, no Québécois, no Congolais. The French I teach is what might be called “French French” — the name of the language identical to that of the colonial power. No “accents” or “regionalisms,” either — no sign that you are “from” anywhere in particular. I knew, without being told, that I had been hired to teach “Parisian French.” But even this phrase is vague and troubling. Which Parisian? A teenager from Saint-Denis with Algerian-born parents, or my host mother from Neuilly who, in grooming me to speak “le bon français,” also warned me to hold onto my purse in neighborhoods full of “les Noirs et les Arabes”?

Perhaps the bigger question is why French? What are the realities throughout history that led to the spread and continued prestige of the “French” language as the supposed language of culture, class, and diplomacy? What of the French language being used as a weapon to systematically dominate and eliminate countless languages in North Africa, West Africa, and the Caribbean, erasing culture and identity to such an extent that, even decades after independence, the mastery of French is still required for economic opportunities?

The more I struggled with these questions, the more I felt stuck in my teaching. I realized that the reality of my own education and choices was that I could not proficiently teach any variety of French other than “standard,” despite having grown up just hours away from Quebec. All of my direct cultural experiences had been in and about France, and despite providing some opportunities for research-based culture projects, I didn’t trust myself to teach in depth about any other Francophone countries without risking the possibility of misrepresenting them or, worse, otherizing them. I also realized that the reality of my job as a private school teacher was to train my students to have access to further elite education and opportunities, and so I felt professionally obligated to teach them a form of French that would open these doors for them.

Yet it felt wrong to move onto the next chapter with my seventh-grade class without addressing questions of justice in what we were learning. I decided that if I couldn’t yet find a way to remove the underlying messages of cultural and white supremacy in my curriculum, I could make them explicit by talking about language and power with my students.

So I switched gears, put my curriculum aside, and started an honest conversation.

I started with “Speak White,” a poem by Michèle Lalonde (1968) recommended by a Québécoise friend. The phrase “speak white” is a racist insult used by English-speaking Canadians to shame French-speaking Canadians for using their language in public. In her poem, which she delivered powerfully at La Nuit de la Poésie in 1970 and which switches between French and English, Lalonde powerfully describes the construction of the English language as superior and the French language as inferior, as well as the social, political, and economic realities of each group in Canada at that time. She tells of the exploitation of the Francophone working class under a system that is supposed to be fair (“Tell us again about Freedom and Democracy!”) and uses her experience of oppression to denounce imperialism and colonialism worldwide. I challenged my students to dig into the descriptions of each language and people, and of their roles in society.

In class, we spent time discussing the link between language and power, and the students were eager to share their experiences, observations, and questions. What are the different factors that determine how you speak in different circumstances? Which kinds of speaking are perceived as “correct” or prestigious? Which are perceived as “incorrect” or lesser? Who decides this? How do different ways of communicating relate to aspects of identity such as race, class, and gender? Which ways of speaking are accorded more or less power, and how does that play out in terms of access and opportunity? Concepts that I didn’t learn about until college — such as linguistic registers, code-switching, sociolinguistic variation, assimilation, the perceived or constructed “legitimacy” or “illegitimacy” of different linguistic forms — were well within the reach of my middle schoolers.

In a class of eight students, I had a racially diverse group: two were black, one Latina, two white, and three identified as Asian or multiracial. While discussing these ideas in theoretical terms was interesting, I wanted to give students a chance to both express their own and hear each other’s varied personal experiences related to power, privilege, and language.

I asked my class: Have you ever been told to “speak white”? I asked them to think, write, and share about a time when they have been told to speak “properly” or “correctly.” What were the words or phrases involved? What were the reasons or feelings behind such corrections and how were they received? And finally, how do these different kinds of speaking play out in society, especially in terms of identity development and opportunity?

Every student had an answer. One, who had learned English in kindergarten, described her embarrassment when her peers made fun of her for mispronouncing words. She wrote: “I was lucky that I started to learn English early, but my mom, who started speaking English when she was 24, still has a heavy accent and has trouble with grammar. These kinds of things affect opportunities like job offers and other things like that.”

One student whose family is from Haiti wrote about having to learn to “speak white” in private school interviews: “I have been told to speak properly by my mother, my aunt, and my older cousin. It was a long time during my life when I was practicing interviewing for private schools. My mother would always tell me, that since you’re not white, you have to try harder then ever before, starting with your language and/or vocabulary. I didn’t really feel anything by it, I was just annoyed I have to go through the interview process. We all have different sides to us and so the language you use with your friends is different than the language you use with family members. And speaking creates a lot of opportunities for people, and so the way you talk is important.”

One white student, who had experiences of being teased for her pronunciation, concluded that although it happens, it’s unfair for people to be judged by how they speak: “I think that how you speak, and where that language/variation of that language came from determines which is inferior, and superior. I believe that people make too many assumptions about someone’s identity when hearing them talk. I have been told that I must have grown up in Europe, Australia, or New York, and as funny as that sounds, all of those assumptions are completely incorrect. Sometimes you can piece together small parts of people’s identity but you shouldn’t rely on it because, like me and lots of other people, it isn’t true.”

I wanted to prioritize student voice and choice as much as possible in the final project of this two-week unit. Several students chose to make visual art, incorporating text and images from Lalonde’s poem in some moving multimedia work. One wrote a series of haikus in French and English called “Speak Black,” addressing the bias against black communities and urging his fellow black students to “Speak Black, go to school / Be proud because of your voice / Meet friends and be you.” Another student drew a cartoon that showed a child being continuously corrected on his Québécois French until he assimilated to “standard” forms of speaking. A number of students did research and presented in French on different topics related to language-based power and oppression, including minority languages in France and how the French government systematically worked to forbid and shame regional languages like Alsacien, Breton, and Provençal into near extinction. One student chose to learn about African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and presented about the linguistic construction, stigma, and policies related to AAVE. I remember her lighting up while reading about vocabulary specific to black communities and saying, “No wonder nobody at this school understands when I say ashy!” She paused. “How do you say that in French, anyway?” We looked it up together.

Whiteness was the invisible force in my classroom that shaped our norms of communication and learning. As a white teacher of a discipline that has been rendered powerful through white supremacy, I was inadvertently reinforcing white, colonialist linguistic norms at the expense of other ways of speaking. I was not neutral; I was complicit. That I have only just become aware of it does not prevent my students from being harmed by, or harming others with, the racism and classism that underlie our latent beliefs in linguistic superiority.

But here’s the problem: these prejudices don’t just live in my French classroom. They are embedded in the foundations upon which our education system is built, and they bleed through constantly in the ways in which language is modeled, evaluated, praised, and policed in our schools. Most important, they impact the access students have to opportunity. From self-identified “Grammar Nazis” to public speaking classes to refining the essay, students are constantly being told to “speak white” in order to be respected as competent, intelligent, and (the perpetually racist supposed-compliment) “articulate.”  The identity development and achievement of all students, and particularly students of color, is at stake when we let systems of linguistic supremacy remain unchallenged in our schools.

What if our classrooms and schools affirmed the validity and beauty of different language practices instead of enforcing a single norm?

As teachers, and especially white teachers, we need to be self-aware, critical, humble, open to new perspectives, and ready to evolve our craft in a way that affirms the diverse linguistic practices of all of our students. Jamila Lyiscott, in her article “Your Pedagogy Might Be More Aligned with Colonialism Than You Realize,” offers three ways to develop “linguistic pluralism” and turn your classroom into a “linguistic celebration”:

1)   check your attitude about the multiple language practices of your students,

2)   check your students’ attitudes about their multiple language practices, and

3)   put voice before form.

By working to truly know our students and widening our definitions of correctness and legitimacy, we can work to be part of a cultural shift that embraces and empowers diverse voices rather than seeking to assimilate them.

I am far from finding the answers in my own practice, but I am committed to educating myself and working to make both my classroom and my school more equitable. Most of all, I am constantly heartened, challenged, and inspired by my students. The fact that we can work together to see linguistic bias, name it, and have honest conversations about it gives me some hope that they will be able to challenge the messages that they receive and use their voices for greater awareness and justice.

I hope they will speak up loud.


Julia Donnelly Spiegelman teaches French, Spanish, and Social Justice at the Meadowbrook School of Weston (Massachusetts). An alumna of Bryn Mawr College, she is currently a graduate student at Middlebury College. She is a faculty member of the Multicultural Teaching Institute (MTI).




Calvet, Louis-Jean. Linguistique et colonialisme : Petit traité de glottophagie. Éditions Payot: 1974.

Delpit, Lisa. The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom. The New Press, New York: 2008.

Lyiscott, Jamila. “Liberation Literacies: Teaching for Social Justice.” 10/26/16

Train, Robert W. “Language Ideology and Foreign Language Pedagogy.” French Applied Linguistics, Ed. Dahlia Ayoun, 2007, pp. 238-269.



Nikole Hannah-Jones Named a 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow

By the TWW Staff

Because we work in the field of education, we pay attention to the way that education is covered in the press Sadly, what we find, for the most part, is disappointing. Even the New York Times, one the nation’s best newspapers in all other respects, often treats education as an afterthought.

If our leading newspapers dedicated half the amount of energy to education as they do to sports, we’d have a far more robust and well-informed public conversation on how we educate our children.

That said, there are a handful of writers who impress us with their in-depth writing on issues related to education. One of them is Nikole Hannah-Jones — an investigative journalist who primarily focuses on issues of racial injustice for the New York Times Magazine, but who does so often through the lens of education. So we were thrilled to learn that Jones was named as one of the 24 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellows for 2017. First of all, it’s great to see a journalist receive the prize. But it means even more to us to see a journalist who focuses on education acknowledged for her insightful work.

In giving her the award, the foundation made it clear she deserved the fellowship for “chronicling the persistence of racial segregation in American society, particularly in education, and reshaping national conversations around education reform.”

Because we are committed to helping white educators develop their cultural competencies in an effort to create highly functional, inclusive schools that work well for all students, we encourage white educators to read Hannah-Jones. Among her writing to date are three essential articles on education:

“Have We Lost Sight of the Promise of Public Schools?” is an in-depth exploration of the ongoing dismantling of public education driven by the commodification of education, white opposition to school desegregation, and the politics currently informing the U.S. Department of Education.

“Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” uses the occasion of finding the right public school for her daughter as an opportunity to deeply explore the machinations of segregation and correlating inequity in funding and political power in the New York City schools.

“The Resegregation of Jefferson County,” explores efforts in Alabama to undo the hard fought gains for school integration following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The article offers both a detailed history of school segregation in the South as well as an exploration of the complex struggle to protect integrated schools today — in this case, through the efforts of one town, Gardendale, to form its own school system. “What the Gardendale case demonstrates with unusual clarity,” Hannah-Jones writes, “is that changes in the law have not changed the hearts of many white Americans.”

Hannah-Jones also makes it clear in her writing, however, that there are many who defend and support and champion public education as essential to our democratic health. As she puts it, “If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools. Nine of 10 children attend one, a rate of participation that few, if any, other public bodies can claim, and schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix.”

Hannah-Jones is hard at work on a book about school segregation called The Problem We All Live With, to be published this fall. We’re sure this, too, will become a must-read.

Also on the MacArthur 2017 list is photographer Dawoud Bey, who teaches at Columbia College Chicago.

About Bey’s work, the MacArthur Foundation writes, “Dawoud Bey is a photographer and educator whose portraits of people, many from marginalized communities, compel viewers to consider the reality of the subjects’ own social presence and histories.”

We would add that his images are stunning works of art. The quality and composition are exquisite. He not only has a way of capturing a moment but also of revealing the deep humanity of each subject.

As educators, we are particularly taken by his Class Pictures, large-scale color portraits of students representing a wide economic, social, and ethnic spectrum from across the United States. 



Getting Names Right

By Ali Michael


Whiteness isn’t everything. You can’t necessarily tell what kind of person someone is just because you know he or she is white. But in this society (U.S.) in this moment (2017), the fact of being white is not meaningless. A great many white adults — the majority, in fact — grew up in communities that were racially segregated. This means that most white people know a whole lot about white people — how they talk, how they dress, what they find fun. It also means they know less overt things, things that don’t even seem like knowledge. For instance, white people can quickly distinguish white people, and remember white faces, better than they can people of other racial backgrounds. This is the byproduct of growing up segregated. White people know a lot about white people.

On the other hand, white people tend not to know much about people of color. This is particularly clear for white educators working with students of color. At the Race Institute for K-12 Educators, when we have panels of students of color speak about how race matters in school, the students’ responses usually comprise a litany of the microaggressions they experience. They are generally not experiencing overt racism, but they are routinely “surprising” people with their academic achievement, being asked to speak for their group or defend the actions of others who look like them, having their public image shaped largely by racial stereotypes, or being addressed by the name of a classmate of the same racial background.

The name thing is what I want to address in this piece. It seems so small, but it is so big. Names are connections to family, to culture, to community, to the core of our selves. It’s important to get them right, to pronounce them correctly, to honor them. Diversity educator Alethea White says, “I still remember every teacher who mispronounced my name.” When white educators get the names of black students wrong, or when they confuse one black student for another black student, they are committing a microaggression.

Microaggressions have a few notable characteristics:

  1. They are often not intended to be hurtful. Sometimes they are intended to be compliments. Sometimes, like when we use someone’s name, we simply intend to be respectful.
  2. They gain their power from their cumulative effect.
  3. They usually communicate a larger social message that is offensive.

Getting someone’s name wrong isn’t inherently offensive, although it is usually awkward for both parties. It has a distancing effect. It makes you wonder, “Maybe I didn’t know him (or like him) as much as I thought I did.” Last year, I called another Hebrew school parent by the wrong name in passing, kept walking, realized I did it after getting in the car, and then felt embarrassed every time I’ve seen him since. It’s awkward!

But when those of us who are white educators get the names of students of color wrong, it is more than just awkward. It is a microaggression. Why? Because it is something that has happened repeatedly for students of color. In schools with a predominately white teaching staff, many students of color are called by the wrong name (often the same wrong name) on a regular basis. And the underlying social messages are clear to the students. When you call an Asian-American student by another Asian-American student’s name, you communicate age-old tropes such as “All Asians look alike” or “Asianness is not normalˆ or “I can’t tell you apart.” The weight of those tropes, coupled to the weight of the cumulative effect, is what transforms a mistake into a microaggression.

Recently, I organized and led a Race Institute for K-12 Educators in which students spoke about the pain and alienation of being called by the wrong name. Afterward, we separated the teachers into affinity groups where the discussion turned to names. One white teacher who must have been in her late fifties said, “I get everybody’s name wrong. I get my own children’s names wrong! Names are hard for me and they get harder as I get older. I just explain to kids that I’m bad with names. I’m the worst with the blonde kids who are the same size and shape and have the same haircuts.” Others seemed to agree and to empathize.

And then it hit me. This is it. This is why it’s so hard to make change in schools. It’s hard because each individual white teacher, even the ones who want to make positive change, can justify the microaggressions they commit a thousand times over with what they believe are legitimate excuses (busyness, age, sheer exhaustion), good intentions (almost always positive, loving, caring), and logical explanations (I do this with everyone). But the microaggressions we commit are not just a lack of attention to politically correct language. They are actual microcosms of our bias and our conditioning.

When we struggle to remember the names of our students of color, this is about more than aging. In fact, in most cases, it’s primarily about living in segregated worlds. It’s literally about white educators seeing black students as looking alike, seeing Asian-American students as looking alike, and seeing Latino students as looking alike — while seeing white students as individuals. It’s evidence of living in a society in which race is used as a primary organizing principal. It’s about growing up in segregated communities in which one is used to certain conventions around naming, conventions that do not prioritize originality or uniqueness. It’s about being able to distinguish between white people better than between Latinos or Asian-Americans or blacks because of sheer exposure to white people and white people’s names.

The weight of all of this hurts students of color. It also hurts our schools and our communities. And I don’t know how quickly we can change it. But I think we have to start by recognizing that it’s not a question of whether your racism is big or little.  Every form of racism, including microaggressions, both reflects and perpetuates racism.


Ali Michael is co-founder and director of the Race Institute for K-12 Educators and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. More details at http://www.alimichael.org.


The Role of Teacher Unions in Urban Districts


By Michael Rebne

According to Linda-Darling Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University, we are entering a crisis that is decades in the making. Aside from seeing fewer college graduates choose teaching as a profession, retention of those who do choose it is also a problem. The reason for both, according to Hammond, stems primarily from a lack of teacher autonomy in the classroom. Teaching doesn’t feel much like an appealing profession when states increasingly aim to control what teachers do minute by minute in the classroom.

The low interest and high attrition rates hold true for both white teachers and teachers of color. The latter statistics are particularly troubling, given the already too-low percentage of teachers of color — driven in large part by racial discrimination in hiring practices — and the increasing need for such teachers. When teachers of color are hired and retained, research shows, they make a big difference in the educational experiences of students, particularly in urban districts with a high percentage of students are students of color.

I teach at a public high school in Kansas City, Kansas, with a high percentage of students of color and know firsthand the value of engaged teachers, especially teachers of color. The problem of hiring and retaining teachers, therefore, has got me thinking about how those of us already committed to the profession, especially those of us in urban districts, can best collectively advocate for a teaching force that feels supported and that serves students well.

One solution is for school districts to embrace and work more collaboratively with teacher unions. The reality that unions have been in decline for decades is no surprise. Much of this is attributable to “right to work” laws — which allow teachers not to join or pay dues — and similar policies that make it increasingly hard for unions to function well.

But perhaps equally important is the need for the teachers unions themselves to define their relevance to both students and teachers. In particular, as schools become more diverse the need for unions to hire and support teachers of color and to work with white teachers on behalf of their increasingly diverse student bodies is essential.

For white teachers working in schools composed primarily of students of color, opportunities to learn are endless. Last spring, for instance, I had a conversation with students about their prom experience and the beautiful mix of what these students called “Black and Mexican” music. I asked them about white music and whether they ever listened to it. They laughed and talked about how white music was good for sleeping. Some, however, also admitted that they enjoyed all kinds of music.

More important, my students have also talked to me about racist incidents they encounter in the community, how neighbors would yell at them — often referring to them as “you Mexicans” — to stop walking through the neighborhood on their way to school. They talked about exploitation at work, too — how they’re taken advantage of and made to feel as if they need to work six days per week or more in order to keep their jobs. These are jobs their families often depend on for survival.

The election of Donald Trump and subsequent efforts to ban Muslims along with constant threats to build a wall on the Mexican border, not to mention Trump’s support refusal to condemn white nationalists, has students demoralized and earnestly wondering if they’ll be seized and deported. How can I tell them they are safe when many reports show otherwise?

Once we teachers show that we are interested and willing to listen, students are eager to educate us about what is true and not true about their cultural and family experiences. These can be rich conversations. I always walk away better understanding my kids and the world we inhabit both separately and together.

Obviously, teachers need to know their subjects and have an overall good grasp of child development and classroom management. It’s important for teachers to be aware of new developments in the field. But I think schools and districts and state departments discount the value of a teacher’s relationship with students. In their recent book, Schooling for Resilience: Improving the Life Trajectory of Black and Latino Boys (Harvard Education Press, 2015), authors Edward Fergus, Pedro Noguera and Margary Martin make it clear that for most students learning is relational.

The conversations I have with students about their lives are repeated many times in many ways throughout the school year. They add up to a wealth of knowledge about my students. And this type of knowledge is invaluable when it comes to deciding how to approach a concept in class or choose the right text to present. It’s the knowledge that I and other educators draw on when we decide when to push our kids to the limit and when to step back and let them drive the pace of class. It helps me determine, for instance, when we can have a Socratic discussion about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or about a recent commercial rocket test. It helps me know when we need to discuss what happened in the community the previous night in order to move forward.

Undoubtedly, teachers of color, who have experienced the kind of racism and discrimination many students have experienced, and who can share similar cultural touchstones, are even better at relating to their students. Indeed, educators who come from similar communities to those of our students need less time to build the kind of trust and understanding that it takes white educators like me to build. This is a huge benefit to the students as well as to colleagues willing to learn from these experiences.

The question that weighs on my mind is how our teachers union can (1) best support the hiring and retention of teachers of color and (2) help white educators develop their sort of cultural competencies needed in order for inner-city students to thrive. Part of the answer lies in getting greater clarity about the purpose and role of our union. The union feels it needs to prove it is interested in engaging with district mandates. Unfortunately, this perspective runs up against a demand from educators that unions focus on protecting their rights and autonomy. This tension has put our union at a crossroads. We understand that our students not only benefit from the recruitment and retention of teachers but especially from the recruitment and retention of teachers of color. We need to decide if the teacher experience we mean to preserve for our kids and ourselves is best protected though recognizing ourselves as a professional organization that focuses on intelligent autonomy and teacher retention or on serving state mandates regardless of teacher and student experiences.

A more pointed and related question is do we entrust our districts and large educational organizations like the Gates Foundation, Teach for America (TFA), Marzano Research and others to decide the best way forward for our kids? Established by white people and a decidedly white perspective, these organizations seek to fulfill white needs to find, as Barbara Applebaum claims, “moral innocence” rather than a commitment to grow through uncertainty and vulnerability. Gates, TFA  and Marzano all feature language in their histories that highlight their white founder/s passionately seeking answers to problems in oppressed communities that, the story goes, no one has had the gumption to seek before.  

In contrast to this, teacher unions are highly localized, already organized, and in a position to honor the experience and expertise of classroom teachers and protect the autonomy of the professionals within them. At our high school, we have met and organized in small heterogeneous groups that have allowed us to plan for larger actions that involve diverse groups for both our school and district. These groups have yielded teacher-speakers at board meetings and thoughtful letters to the editor that have advocated for greater teacher autonomy and benefits.

The work of “ed reform” organizations like the Gates Foundation imply that the most valuable knowledge is centered outside of the teacher and comes from another wiser source. The problem is that these sources are often centered in organizations that themselves are run by operators who come from a white-racialized experience. The teacher, regardless of racial background, will always be located closer to the source of knowledge and experience.

By channeling our energies and passions on quality schools, especially for students of color, and by advocating for more teachers of color and great teacher autonomy from broad, corporate, and packaged district-wide initiatives, we can both protect the pedagogical approaches that are best for our students.

If we are to have a significant positive impact on student outcomes and increase the numbers of teacher of color in classrooms, it makes sense that our unions work to protect and preserve the experience-driven wisdom in the classroom rather than become organizations designed to fulfill the dubious motives of for-profit education publishers and supposed “reformers.” As unions sensitive to the needs of diverse teachers, we can successfully advocate for autonomy and the freedom from restrictions to do our best work for kids.

My experience, in short, suggests we cannot afford to transform ourselves into passive professional associations that seek only to curate outside pedagogical knowledge that bow to mostly white and corporatist perspectives on teaching. We need to activate our local unions to truly organize and bring in the viewpoints of teachers of color to open up real conversations about teaching and learning.


Michael Rebne teaches science, engineering, and composition at Wyandotte High School, a public school in Kansas City, Kansas.


What’s Your Pledge?

 By Melinda Tsapatsaris


Note from the TWW staff: As we start back to school in a cultural climate in which too many whites have turned their backs on racial justice or have been outright hostile to people of color, we were happy to receive the following essay written by Melinda Tsapatsaris, head of school at The Westland School, a progressive independent school in Los Angeles. Her voice and leadership emerge at a time when so many leaders in both public and private schools are, at best, mute on the topic of racial justice and, at worst, asking teachers not to engage in social/political discourse that may make white kids uncomfortable.  

At Teaching While White, we want to see all teachers engage their students in conversation about race and racism. In particular, we want white students to better understand the racial history of this nation and the ongoing racism that targets people of color so that they can see themselves taking part in the fight against racism.

Melinda Tsapatsaris’s pledge here has inspired us. We hope it will encourage educators everywhere to make their own pledges for justice. We also want to thank Rasheda Carroll, an amazing educator and director of equity and inclusion at Wildwood School in California, for connecting us to Melinda.


My Pledge

I find it necessary to state my intentions and create a pledge as a white, antiracist activist. My purpose is to synthesize my beliefs and goals for myself as a citizen who cares deeply about social justice, to inspire others, and to demonstrate my support for and solidarity with people of color during this time in the country when overt racism and modern racism are prevalent. This is an imperfect list. It’s me, though.

  • I pledge to practice self-focus. To voraciously read texts written by people of color and white antiracist activists (articles, nonfiction and fiction books alike) that expand my perspectives, push my thinking, and keep me striving to be an empathetic, lifelong learner.
  •  I pledge to aggressively call myself out on my own biases and prejudices and to continue to unpack the ways in which I have caught racism.
  • I pledge to pay active attention and seek to understand the political, economic, psychological, and social-emotional significance of oppression on people of color.
  • I pledge to bring up “uncomfortable,” not-light topics with other white people at cocktail parties and other gatherings.
  • I plan to stay active in organizations committed to equity and inclusion. This includes local AWARE meetings that put together white folks in intracultural groups to dismantle their privilege and seek out ways to develop antiracist identities. As Malcolm X stated in The Autobiography of Malcolm X: “I tell sincere white people: ‘Work in conjunction with us — each of us working among our own kind.’ Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach nonviolence to white people!” I also commit to being a part of ongoing training through Visions Inc., an organization that promotes change on the personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels through intercultural and intracultural groups.
  • I commit to being a parent who doesn’t avoid talking about differences, especially racial differences, with my white children. I will expose my children to an array of literature that expresses stories from many different perspectives.
  • I will also model to my children the importance of not avoiding contact across differences. I pledge to “get proximate” across differences, as writer and activist Bryan Stevenson espouses. I commit to being aware of the “bubblefication” of my world — to be aware of the “danger of a single story” that novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so brilliantly warns us about.
  • I pledge to continue to work with young people in schools (from all political backgrounds) to help them use their minds and hearts well: to share their perspectives with confidence, to weigh and grapple with other perspectives, to use evidence to back up their opinions, to collaborate with grace even when they are frustrated, to value the arts, to have a keen sense of their own moral compass, and to always be motivated to serve their communities.
  • I pledge to remember that people, specifically other white people, are where they are in terms of understanding the impact of institutional racism — and as such I need to lean into uncomfortable conversations to disagree when necessary, but not to blame or shame them. For me this means not shutting down those who say, “No, all lives matter!” but engaging, questioning, and approaching them with curiosity, compassion, and firmness — both in person and on social media.
  • I commit to being part of communities that value diversity and multiculturalism, so that I am surrounded by individuals who care deeply about serving the common good and striving toward social justice.
  • I commit to organize, to call my state and federal representatives and express my opinions. I will volunteer for campaigns that matter to me.
  • I will continue to pray for President Donald Trump because Lord knows I don’t know what else to do about him. I will actively critique his disregard for institutional oppression, worry about his mental health and decision-making capabilities. I will not mock him.
  • And as Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” So I pledge to dance.
  • I will practice self-care. As one of my friends who is active in the white antiracist community shared with me, quoting from another, “It’s actually not a marathon. Practice self-care when you need to because it’s a relay race. Rely on others to run with the baton, too.


Take Away: So, what’s your pledge? What commitment to racial justice are you willing to make? The beginning of the school year is such an important time to be intentional. If you have a goal you are willing to share, please leave a comment below. To help in the conversation, we also included some related resources for educators. See our list of Foundational Texts and Being an Ally in our Resource section.




I Am Charlottesville

By Jenna Chandler-Ward


Once again, there is shock and outrage from my community, the white community — this time about what took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this week. I grew up in Charlottesville, and as recent public displays of racism became visible there, I was immediately taken back to my childhood. As I watched the terrorist attack unfold on TV, I saw white supremacists march across the campus of the University of Virginia, where I used to play as a child. I saw the counter-protestors assemble in my old church. I saw the wounded being taken to the hospital where I was born. As saddened as I am by it all, I’m not shocked. In fact, to me, this violent outburst makes perfect sense.

The University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, has recently made public the ways in which slavery both created and maintained the university up until the Civil War. Many black people in the community still call the university “the big plantation.” And though many in our country still do not like to acknowledge this about our beloved founding father, and though he attacked the British for bringing the slave trade to the colonies, Jefferson owned more than a hundred slaves at the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Though he penned the line about all men being created equal, he owned more than six hundred slaves in his lifetime. Once Jefferson understood that abolition would in fact cost him actually money, he became remarkably silent on the issue.

In 1959, the elementary school I attended (named after Charles Scott Venable, a Civil War colonel) chose to close its doors rather than integrate as the courts had mandated. Later that year, the school re-opened under court order and admitted a group of African-American children that became known as the “Charlottesville Twelve.” One of the twelve, Eugene Williams, has reflected on the impact of this and other integration efforts: “What comes to mind, still to this day there is no real thought-out plan to desegregate. That’s why our schools are not measuring up academically and providing a good education for all students.” Looking back after a lifetime fighting for civil rights, Williams says, “It’s just so interesting the snail pace of progress, and all the roadblocks to doing the right thing.”[1]

Other area businesses, such as local hub Buddy’s Restaurant, also closed their doors rather than serve black people in the community.

When I attended Venable in 1974, there were two faculty members of color, including my Japanese music teacher who taught us cotton-picking songs in music class, such as, Jump Down, Turn Around, Pick a Bale of Cotton. I understood, even in first grade that there were separate rules for white students. I felt the preferential treatment even then. The school's current website boasts that the school is part of the University of Virginia neighborhood, which in part it is — facing university-associated buildings on one side. On the other side, however, is a distinctly black neighborhood that gets no mention. The city, like the school, had no plan for how to desegregate.

In 2009, the Charlottesville City Council publicly apologized for resisting desegregation back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I read the apology online in my classroom and started to weep. The racial confusion I have felt from such a young age came from these years at this school and in this community- what did it do to the students of color?

Now, in 2017, many in the nation are surprised that such a morally abhorrent racist display could take place in such a seeming liberal, university town. Yet the city, the state, and the country have never fully brought to light their racial crimes. History has been distorted, whitewashed, and (for many) forgotten. This community — and indeed the nation — has never fully uncovered all of the systems of oppression. By obscuring them, too many of us allow ourselves to believe racism, racial oppression, institutional segregation, and a host of racial inequities are things of the past. In doing so, we who are white remain complicit in these ongoing injustices. We who are white, even those who express anti-racist views and would never take part in bigoted, hateful rallies like the one in Charlottesville, have been remarkably silent over the year. In doing so, we’ve fooled ourselves into think things are OK.

We white folks need to stop wondering why this has happened, and instead, look inward to examine the ways in which we — and, yes, this includes liberals — continue to benefit from our own lack of reflection, from our silence. Although this recent event took place in the South, racism is not just a product of the South; the rest of the country often feels immune to public displays of racism. They think it can’t happen “here.” But it can, it has, and it will.

As I prepare to return to the classroom for another school year, I am thinking not only about how I should teach about racial hatred in our country, but also about white silence; because we need speak truth to power in order to reconcile. But then I also want to teach my students about white role models who were and are true allies and activists. Until we show our students something more than white folks wringing their hands over virulent racism, saying, “What can I do?” white students will only see anxiety, shame, and guilt as response options.

Might there be a time when kids can rattle off the name of white abolitionists and white civil rights activists with the same speed as we say Frederick Douglass, MLK, and Rosa Parks? Activism and allyship are learned skills that require practice, just like math or grammar. How can I give my students opportunities to practice these skills? How can I tell my students that the civil rights era is not over? As activist Shaun King has said repeatedly, “If you ever wondered what it would be like to be alive in the Civil Rights Movement, we are living in that time, RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW.”

Perhaps most important, we who are white teachers must address what happened in Charlottesville and what is happening around the country. To be silent is another form of whitewashing. Not talking about it for fear that it is too complicated for kids to understand or too difficult for us to talk about, only leaves white students out of the conversation. Students need to have these conversations in order to become informed and racially literate, and also to be less vulnerable to the gratification of feeling superior — a position built upon an ideology of lies.

No doubt, teachers have had to figure out age-appropriate ways to have other difficult conversations with students. The key to success is wanting to have these conversations. So how can white teachers not become roadblocks to doing the right thing when it comes to addressing racism? What is the cost of having difficult conversations about race with students? What is the cost if we don’t?

Please leave comments below about how you are planning to address recent events when you get back to school.


Jenna Chandler-Ward is the co-founder of Teaching While White and teaches English at the Meadowbrook School of Weston (Massachusetts). She is also the co-director the Multicultural Teaching Institute.

Looking for guidance on how to respond to events in Charlottesville? A few resources for teachers are available on the TWW Resource page.


[1] http://www.readthehook.com/82750/cover-segregations-storytellers-history-emerges-those-who-lived-it

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.  http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/strategies/topics/multicultural-education/allowing-race-in-the-classroom/.

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,” http://nationalseedproject.org/about-us/timeline/26-latest-articles/41-curriculum-as-window-and-mirror.