Whiteness and Racism

To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point pretending that this won’t happen.

James Baldwin

[W]e as dark people see—which White Americans cannot—a country with enough promise to capture and hold four hundred years of freedom dreams while systematically attacking, reducing, and/or destroying each and every aspiration…We who are dark want to matter and live, not just to survive but to thrive.

Bettina Love

I have a lot to learn about fighting racism. It’s June and I’m reflecting on the moments I came up short this school year. I’d like to share a bit of what I’m thinking about, from reading broadly and trying to better understand racism at my school. I’m writing in the hope that reflecting on my experiences might help me and other white educators to see in new ways and develop new tools to address racism in our schools.

For four hundred years, people of color have been locked out of the promise of the United States. Whiteness is the system that perpetuates this racism; it ensures that white people remain at the top of the racial hierarchy, and prevents change that might provide more opportunity to people of color. In Making Meaning of Whiteness, Alice McIntyre defines whiteness as “[A] system and ideology of white dominance that marginalizes and oppresses people of color, ensuring existing privileges for white people in this country.” In its modern form, whiteness is rarely explicit; it isn’t acceptable to advocate openly for white superiority. But even in the absence of explicit advocacy, whiteness perpetuates and protects white hegemony.

What Is Whiteness?

Whiteness is a system, and I mean something very specific by the word “system.” Racism didn’t happen by accident, and it can’t be eliminated overnight. It was built over centuries and permeates modern culture. Whiteness is a system that, when the racial hierarchy is challenged, responds by undermining the voices working against it and reinforcing the existing hierarchy in a self-perpetuating cycle. Any time the status quo is threatened, whiteness acts to maintain control of the narrative and distract and deflect from the truth of racism, preventing progress.

Whiteness is a central narrative in American history. Here’s just one example. For centuries, white people have plundered wealth from Black communities. First through slavery, but in the century and a half since slavery plunder has continued through discriminatory housing practices, underresourced schools, mass incarceration, and more. Any time an element of the system of plunder is threatened, the Black community is given a small fraction more opportunity. Immediately, white people say “Well we solved racism. Let’s move on.” and “Why haven’t Black families caught up to white people on [insert measure]?” Why aren’t Black families buying homes immediately after they’ve first been allowed to take out mortgages? Because mortgages were just one of hundreds of obstacles to building wealth for the Black community. The fact that Black families don’t instantly recover and match the economic success of whites is taken as justification for reversing progress and reinscribing the same systems that have kept the Black community from accumulating wealth. In the same way, any gains from affirmative action, decriminalizing drugs, and more are immediately eroded as whiteness reframes the problem as a deficit of people of color, ignoring the impacts of centuries of plunder. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of incremental progress and blame undoing that progress, as each step reinforces the other.

I see these same dynamics at play in schools. For instance, racism is likely to prompt an emotional response from those most affected by it. But when someone speaking up about racism expresses emotions, they are characterized as letting their emotions prevent them from thinking rationally, minimizing their perspective and experience. Racism is allowed to continue, and the frustration of watching oppression perpetuated engenders more emotions. The cycle continues.

Intention is another weapon in perpetuating racism in schools. An individual in power does something that perpetuates racism. If someone speaks up, those in power claim good intentions, and others defend those “good intentions.” This acts as a distraction, deflecting attention, preventing further conversation, and slowing change. Robin DiAngelo writes:

We’re never going to be able to come to an agreement on intentions. You cannot prove somebody’s intentions. They might not even know their intentions. And if they weren’t good, they’re probably not going to admit that. The question I ask is, “How does this function?” The impact of the action is what is relevant.

Self-perpetuating systems also function because of the lack of racial awareness in white people. White people rarely need to monitor their language or social context. Meanwhile, people of color grow up knowing they have to act in specific and arbitrary ways to ensure they survive encounters with the police, aren’t accused of shoplifting, and are perceived as competent in the workplace. Then, when white people are asked to think critically about the impact of their language on those around them, they bristle with defensiveness because they’ve never had to check their tone before. The existing hierarchy is recreated because of a lack of racial awareness. Similarly, white people are socialized to believe that if they work hard, they deserve to be successful. If something doesn’t go their way, they fight and try to bend the rules. Meanwhile, people of color know the system is rigged and might feel a sense of futility, knowing that those in charge don’t look like them or understand them. White people continue to hoard opportunity and control the levers of power. Finally, white people rarely talk about race, yet race is always impacting the lives of people of color. So when race comes up, white people are likely to be uncomfortable and shut down the conversation, or accuse someone of “just making it about race, when there are so many other factors.” Of course it’s never just about race; humans are complex, and no one can be essentialized to one element of their identity. But white reluctance to talk about race means that the ways that racism is never surfaced and opportunities for change pass by.

So I’m a white teacher. I work in a school where I see whiteness perpetuating racism. What is my role?

How Is Racism Operating Here?

First, without understanding the way that whiteness and racism work, and realizing where they manifest themselves, they cannot be undone. Paul Gorski writes:

The path to racial equity requires direct confrontations with racial inequity—with racism. We start… by asking, “How is racism operating here?”

I need to be able to recognize how racism operates, and how whiteness works to entrench the existing racial hierarchy, slowing progress toward racial equity. This takes practice; I lean heavily on Gorski’s work identifying common racial equity detours. When those in power blame people of color for their challenges or insist that “we’re working on it, but this takes time,” I know that I’m witnessing whiteness at work.

One central part of doing this work as a white person is recognizing that I will never see dynamics of marginalization in the same way as those most affected by oppression. As a white man, people are likely to listen when I speak. I can use my position to elevate voices people of color, and members of marginalized communities more broadly, to help surface problems of equity and explore potential solutions. I will never have all the answers, but by learning from others I can help recognize the problems that need to be solved, problems that might be ignored otherwise.

Tell the Truth Harder

As I get better at seeing the truth, I have a responsibility to speak up. Naming racism makes those in power uncomfortable, and I should expect to see backlash. But as a white person, I have an opportunity to break the cycle of racism and whiteness that is often denied to people of color who speak up. I can amplify those whose experiences and perspectives allow them to notice dynamics that I don’t, and practice telling the truth harder when racism comes to light.

Why do emphatic equity advocates often face harsher repercussions for their advocacy than equity heeldraggers face for their inaction? Why is taking a strong, impassioned stand on racism interpreted as deviant while refusing to take a stand on racism is interpreted as in a developmental process (Mayorga & Picower, 2018)?

Paul Gorski

In Dare to Lead, Brene Brown describes the emotional responses people are likely to experience in these situations:

The majority of shame researchers and clinicians agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.”

Guilt = I did something bad

Shame = I am bad

While shame is highly correlated with addiction violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying, guilt is negatively correlated with these outcomes. Empathy and values live in the contours of guilt, which is why it’s a powerful and socially adaptive emotion. When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends, or change a behavior that doesn’t align with our values, guilt—not shame—is most often the driving force.

As I tell the truth harder, I also need to recognize the emotions at play when white people hear hard truths. I need to put my defensiveness aside and find opportunities for action within my sphere of influence, while naming unproductive emotions in others and using my position to help other white people see the ways that their emotional responses function to perpetuate racism.

Creative Insubordination

Whiteness is a self-perpetuating system, and working within the system inevitably leaves racist structures intact. Rochelle Gutiérrez offers strategies for undermining power dynamics “creative insubordination.” I can press for explanation, uncovering the reasoning behind racist behavior while I formulate arguments. I can counter with evidence, drawing on broader research to undermine faulty logic. I can use the master’s tools, flipping racist structures upside down and use them to dismantle oppressive systems. I can seek allies, building a network of support to better advocate for change. I can turn a rational issue into a moral one, shifting the discussion from logic that minimizes the feelings and experiences of marginalized communities to ethical questions that require action. And I can fly under the radar, making change within my sphere of influence without drawing attention to equity work that might otherwise cause a backlash.

A sentence each doesn’t do justice to these strategies; read Gutiérrez’s paper for more context. The most important strategy for me is to seek allies. I learned this year that when I go it alone, I am easy to dismiss as “radical” or “biased.” When I build relationships and seek allies, I can help others hear hard truths. And I’ve found that people I don’t think will be interested in speaking up can become powerful allies and sources of learning; I often position myself as a lone crusader, letting my frustration convince me that I’m fighting the battle alone when I can be much more effective and learn much more by leaning on others.

Action Steps

I’ve experienced a lot of emotional responses as I’ve come to see racism in schools in ways I didn’t before. As a white person, shame can paralyze me and prevent action. At the same time, I can fall into the trap of easy fixes and token change that don’t actually address racism. I’ve often come up short at speaking up and working to redress inequity when I see it. I want to practice using my understanding of whiteness and my identity as a white man to feel a sense of agency, and to search for the structures and decisions I can influence and moments when I can disrupt racism. I have three commitments to make to better practice equity work in my sphere of influence:

  • Use my privilege to elevate voices of people of color, creating space to hear and see in new ways for myself and others.
  • Tell the truth harder, speaking up when I see whiteness in action and articulating the ways that systems perpetuate racism.
  • Seek allies, finding ways to collaborate with others to surface inequity and create change.

Anyone who has been transformed through a struggle can attest to its power to open up more capacities for resistance, creativity, action, and vision.

Nick Montgomery & carla bergman

I’ve experienced sadness and frustration in attempting to do equity work in the last year. At the same time, I notice and understand in ways I did not before, and I know I have made change, even if that change is smaller than I would like. I want to focus my energy on my capacity for action and remember that, while fighting racism seems like an endless uphill battle, my role is not to center my frustration, but to support those most affected and continue to develop my ability to create schools where every student is truly seen and valued.

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