A white teacher's work in critical self-reflection is key to rethinking our classroom practices.
White supremacy is frightening. It promotes mental illness and various dysfunctional behaviors on the part of whites and non-whites.
(hooks, 1996, p. 30)
Professionals in schools need rigorous and continuing equity training to develop a more nuanced awareness of structural and institutional racism, learn how they personally reproduce structural inequalities through individual bias, and explore strategies to unlearn it.
Confronting one’s own bias is a fraught subject, and it is important that the design and facilitation of implicit bias trainings address the tendency of white educators to feel they stand accused of racism, triggering defensiveness, and shutdown. Effective trainings allow participants to be open about acknowledging, exploring, and ultimately unlearning their own bias.
(Davis, 2019, p. 55)
Find the space that hurts.
It is most often the case that teachers enter the profession with the intent to create engaging spaces of learning for their students. However, white teachers are not aware of the range of diverse experiences that shape the lives of students of color. Often, this is because whites have lived in self-segregated communities shared by mostly other white families. Therefore, we generally live within the safety and protection afforded through our white privilege. When we are not exposed to a range of diverse life experiences, we generally assume that all people are protected within the same privileges that allow our own feelings of security. This disillusionment is further supported in the belief systems that teachers are generally taught to embrace regarding the purpose of education. Remember, the vast majority of teachers are white women and thus embrace paradigms of the western worldview; a worldview constructed through systems of oppression. Some false beliefs that teachers bring into the classroom include:
- Each person has an equal opportunity for social advancement within the capitalist structure. Those who “earn” positions of power and wealth, do so through the merit of their work ethic.
- In this day and age, teachers don’t see race. We treat everyone the same. If students show respect to teachers, then teachers will show respect to students.
- I have overcome many challenges in my life. My life has not been easy. If I have overcome my challenges, they can too.
- There is no excuse for students who do poorly in my class. I give students the opportunity to ask questions, make up assignments, and I am always responsive to email. If students were not successful, it was because they did not try.
The Work of
The critical work of the white teacher is the journey into self discovery to position our own belief systems within broader paradigms and systems of oppression that shape both our work and the lives of our students.
Schools serve as one of the largest institutions of surveillance in the country. As teachers, our acts of surveillance seek out the students who are disruptive to discipline to then be punished. Students who create further disruptions are met with greater acts of punishment always in escalations of severity.
Beyond punishment, teachers also send constant signals to students regarding the values and the beliefs that inform our worldview. In our often subconscious behaviors, we tell students that the only knowledge worth teaching in the classroom is that of the western worldview. We teach students that only the histories and cultural traditions of white Americans should be recognized within school and curriculum. We tell our students “we do not see race,” and even though that is not true, we use this simple explanation as a personal excuse to overlook the systemic oppression that is embedded in every facet of our students’ lives. In short, teachers center our own wellbeing, thereby privileging our own feelings of comfort as the high priority in the classroom.
For many teachers, the decision to center our privilege is not one that we make with conscious intent. These behaviors are rather a product of our implicit biases. While we may fool ourselves, our students recognize our behaviors and the socially-unjust implications. Students feel silenced, unseen, and/or unvalued as teachers routinely privilege our own comfort over their emotional wellbeing.
Our harmful behaviors not only hurt students, but as teachers we also harm ourselves. The paradigms of modernity/rationality, capitalism, white supremacy, and discipline/punish also produce emotionally harmful spaces for the white teachers who enact them. Therefore, we must confront our own internal manifestations of these harmful paradigms in order to envision new, healing, and loving ways to relate to our students of color. Four key areas for further exploration are offered.
Rethinking the PRoblem
At the turn of the twentieth century, whites imposed the social order of industrial capitalism to institutionalize new systems of power and wealth.
Below are some of the key events that took place at the turn of the twentieth century to further institutionalize social oppression:
- The population of the U.S. was divided into two groups, white and non-white. The rights of full citizenship were reserved to whites.
- The industrial revolution and westward expansion forced poor whites and people of color to the most marginalized ranks in the capitalist ladder.
- All people of color and poor white immigrants were forcibly indoctrinated into the “American way of life” via social assimilation.
These institutional forms of oppression have been further supported by broader colonial paradigms and have caused devastating and ongoing harms to our students of color and their communities.
A critical step for white teachers in dismantling our own participation in these harmful systems is to understand that we too are emotionally harmed in our violent acts as disciplinarians.
Below are four key emotionally harmful practices that white teachers enact at great cost to the emotional wellbeing of both ourselves and our students.
At turn of the twentieth century, industrial mass production became the framework for a new form of oppressive capitalism. Both whites and people of color were forced to conform to their new roles as docile bodies, thereby achieving optimum efficiency of production under the minut surveillance of discipline.
To undergo this process of assimilation, all people with the exception of the white elite had to surrender many qualities of a joyous life including sensuality, sexuality, and free play.
Whites perverted such joyous behaviors as an ascription of inferiority. Suddenly people were placed on social hierarchies by their abilities to assume capitalist fidelity. Those who engaged in joyful practices were deemed: lazy, immoral, uncivil, or inferior. In other words, these were not the behaviors of whites.
Therefore, whites rid their community of supposed “inferior” displays of joy through acts of shame and punishment. Whites see displays of joyfulness as acts to be denied within themselves and against those over whom we hold authority (our students). In this context, students’ joy reminds us of our long-ago and now shamed forbidden desires thereby triggering within the teacher a negative emotional reponse.
Early in U.S. history, the rights of citizenship were granted dependent on a person’s categorization as either white or non-white. As only whites could be citizens and enact the power of legal protections, whiteness became a possession, something of value, a property.
However, historical systems of oppression that target people of color are not overlooked by whites. We are aware that our position of privilege can be withdrawn by white-elites. We are comfortable with knowledge of exploitation as long as we remain among the protected. Shame is therefore a micro-exiling in which whites are reminded of the limits of their community’s love. Social exile onto the other side of the abyssal line is more than most whites are willing to risk.
As teachers internalize the belief that whites are only deserving of conditional love, we so believe the same of our students of color. When we punish students, we remind them that they are not within the protection of the social institution. Students must conform, or become unlovable.
Whites cultivate internal shame in our white racial identities in more than one way. The first example I shared was the acts of shame whites enact against others who perform the qualities of a joyful life.
A second example of such shame is the internal kind that whites accrue through our knowledge of the historical violence of white-supremacy. Overtime, whites learn to mask our collective shame in the knowledge of systemic exploitation. Whiteness has thus become a subconscious aspect to our identities. Whites have become so disassociated from the privileges that our white identity provides that we refuse to acknowledge our racial identity all together. In other words, whites never publicly assert their identity as white. Thandeka (2000) concluded that whites are ultimately too emotionally repressed to publicly name and speak to the white identities of either themselves or others.
Freire (1970) defined sadistic love as one that enforces domination, manipulation, and repression. Santos (2015) declared sadistic schooling as a practice of “epistemicide” or rather, “the murder of knowledge.” Matias (2019) added that the culmination of surveillance and punishment administered by white teachers throughout U.S. history has totaled to a social oppression of “spirit murder” targeted toward students of color. Spirit murder is the emotional culmination of the micro-acts of white-supremacist discipline that lead students to a persistent state of post-traumatic stress.
In other words, in the words of Matias (2016), whites are loving whiteness, to death.