Notes on: Picower, B. (2009): The unexamined Whiteness of teaching: how White teachers maintain and enact dominant racial ideologies, Race Ethnicity and Education, 12:2: 197-215.

Dave Harris

How White preservice teachers life experiences influence their understandings of race and difference, and how these help resist a critical multicultural education course. Following critical race theory, their understandings were assumed to be hegemonic. They used a set of '"tools of whiteness"' to manage their understandings of race, not just as passive resistance but more to protect their hegemonic stories (197)

90% of the early teaching force in the USA is white and half the schools do not have a single teacher of colour, so we need to look at whiteness and how White teachers conceptualise race. Race is a key category for inequality in the USA, and CRT suggest that racism is a normal, inherent feature, that 'racism is  "endemic and deeply ingrained in American life"' (198), implicit in discourses that seem to be race neutral or colourblind, and thus maintaining white supremacy and the ideology of whiteness. Whites benefit from institutions that seem to have nothing to do with race, although the land of Native Americans and the labour of African-Americans has been crucial.

Participants are often unaware that they have a racial identity and so can deny their place in a racial hierarchy - 'power erasure' masking whiteness in everyday consciousness, blanking privilege and group membership. Many privileges are 'invisible and earned and not consciously acknowledged', and this can reinforce institutional hierarchies and the larger system. Privilege is not necessarily only passive but can result from active oppression where the system benefits a group, mystifies a system, stops agents from action discoursing about it and stifles discussion often by talking about the 'reality'of the situation. This can be seen with white teachers.

There is a connection between race and the attempt of teachers to build sociopolitical consciousness and cultural competence, but often notions of whiteness are taken for granted together with implications for privilege and power. Nevertheless, they must develop critical consciousness if they are to be successful with students from diverse settings, to understand teaching from a culturally relevant perspective. Sometimes prospective teachers are provided with courses to help them analyse their own belief systems and experiences, with the assumption that this will help them become better educators. For example stereotypes of urban students can be challenged leading to greater capacity to identify and empathise, or create relevant curriculum. Courses are offered in things like multicultural education, and some work. However some report resistance. It is important to look at life experiences as a resource to negotiate understandings.

Eight white female preservice teachers in their 20s were studied on a course on multicultural education in New York City. The course wanted to help them explore their own racial identity and class privilege and their assumptions about students of colour. There were interviews, transcripts of class sessions and prior written assignments from the course. Grounded theory was used to analyse the data. Very personal data was sometimes obtained. Picower was a white woman and this helped participants feel safe, and the assignments encourage them to reflect on their own life experiences. There were contradictions between course materials and previous understandings which caused 'a great deal of confusion and discomfort' and it was useful to voice these.

Participants had a variety of early experiences with diversity. Some used religious identities to avoid discussing racial identity and generally to deny the role of race in oppression - one said she was Jewish and so had experienced discrimination not based on colour, and saw whiteness as a surface identity. Some identified as white but told 'a hegemonic story about how people of colour should be able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps' (201) like their own Italian immigrant family. This upholds the dominant view of people of colour as lazy and perpetuates the myth of meritocracy. This can be admitted to be racist and can also include resentment towards affirmative action which unfairly redistributes resources.

Experiences of people of colour were often limited, and where they existed were hierarchical, involving hiring nannies, about which they had mixed feelings, which seem to involve [1 case] accepting the status quo for what it was.

These participants 'gained maintained hegemonic understandings of the world concerning race' (202), in the form of internalised ways of making meaning, multiple stories justifying their fear of 'people of colour urban communities and students'. Often whites were seen as victims of racism and stereotypes and assumptions and misconceptions about people of colour, especially African-Americans, were reproduced. Fear was especially prominent, ranging from anxiety to terror. Most stories involve seeing African-Americans as dangerous criminals, unsafe, neighbouring schools have threatening black football players, for example, or stereotyped threatening black teenagers, which was seen as general and normal, and were carried over into practice schools in the form of fear of some of the larger pupils, even where they were eight year old children.

The second element was a deficit construction, the difficulties faced in urban schools and communities. Most students had avoided black communities and had often only experienced them for the first time in placement, sharing fears of travelling, say to Harlem.. The third element was whites as victims, stories where whites had been verbally or physically attacked, or feeling bad and neglected if there is an assumption that whites have privilege, experiencing 'reverse racism' which now privileges others. Overall, 'participants were highly committed' to maintaining these understandings.

The course on multicultural education is designed to interrogate these understandings, and students drew upon a variety of tools of whiteness in order to maintain them - to 'deny, evade, subvert or avoid the issues raised' (205), in the form of active protection. The tools were 'emotional, ideological and performative'.

Emotional tools were based on feelings and emotional responses, not just immediate reactions but aligned with hegemonic stories. For example one statement was '"I never owned a slave"', a matter of anger and defensiveness, anger at being made to feel guilty, seeing the analysis of race as a personal attack, a way of negating general argument about white privilege. The same for '"stop trying to make me feel guilty"', because to feel guilty would be an admission of responsibility. This was sometimes accompanied with '"everyone is oppressed somehow"' to deflect particular responsibility, and to argue that domination is universal, sometimes not even particularly connected to race.

Ideological tools included insisting that things were now equal or that people no longer even saw colour, or that it was beyond their control that they could relate to racism. The implication was that now that things were equal people of colour were playing the race card, that antiracist work is unnecessary. Another argument is that racism was about personal ignorance and discrimination not institutionalised, and so an institutional response was not required. Condemning individuals such as members of KKK could dissociate themselves. Racism was mean words and name-calling, and the main effect was low self esteem [some modern antiracists seem to agree with this]. There was also a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy - one white woman crossed the street innocently but worried because she thought that African-Americans might think she was a racist. [There is the problem that you might get treated with suspicion and hostility no matter how you behave]

Participants saw themselves as out-of-control and not responsible for correcting the imbalances of the traditional curriculum or having to do extra work when they were already struggling just to cope. They also thought they could rely on traditional adages such as just being nice personally, treating people normally, just like their families had always argued and practised: there was no need to learn about culturally relevant pedagogy acquisition strategies or anything else as long as you had an open mind. Others thought that they just could not relate especially to students who are different and this meant they could not take jobs in urban schools, which made them appear as noble in their decision not to teach in those places.

Performative tools involve behaviours such as simply silencing talk about race, ignoring it if it occurred in families, or sidestepping the issue by saying things like '"I just want to help them"' (209) which of course involves a deficit theory, although participants referred to simply bringing love. There can be denial of racism in the present situation. This avoids the need for participants to learn particular skills addressing culture and racism, and locates the problem in home lives rather than in institutions. Some participants referred to '"kissing a minority"', or making friendships with them, even venturing into sexual relations with them [!], Which assumes that personal interactions are a sufficient response. One respondent did indeed claim that she had initiated a sexual relation. She was keen to work with black people, but still held a theory about biological racial differences, and saw an interesting multicultural education as a sexual matter, and other 'inappropriate avenues' (211) [prude].

Teacher education must improve and deal with the negative impact that whiteness can have. Perhaps more black people should be recruited. Until then white students have to be addressed in order to transform their understandings. It is unlikely that one semester of multicultural education will be enough. Instead a serious attempt is to be made to interrupt hegemonic understandings through a variety of forms of critical teacher education, and these must be integrated across the curriculum. Opportunities for self reflection and instruction about historical oppression and current educational inequity should be provided. [Teaching] Methods courses for example should help student teachers design lessons that build upon emerging understandings [might brass off any other non-black pupils who will also be denying, evading etc?]. Issues of equity should be addressed in all courses. There should be more teacher educators of colour, although people of colour can equally use the tools of whiteness, so they should be committed people of colour. Such people will also help interact with conventional teachers. The larger community should be involved, perhaps as guest speakers mentors or panel participants. Student placements in urban schools should be better developed and supervised by skilled university supervisors

Graduates who enter the teaching profession should be supported especially in the first year, focused on resisting the tendency 'to return to hegemonic understandings' (213). There should be critical enquiry groups, networks of alumni continual and repeated challenges.

[I like this, although course it should not just be confined to hegemonic use of race – they could do with good critical examinations of class as well, which brings me to the point that these are not necessary the students own values, but rather the ones they feel they should adopt in the culture of the school. Still the problems of having to balance minorities though]