I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be critically reflective as a teacher. For most of my teaching life I thought being reflective meant reviewing the tasks and strategies I designed and organised for my class. If students weren’t engaging it was because I needed to mix up the activities and pick up the pace. If students were exhibiting unproductive behaviour it was because I hadn’t planned engaging enough lessons or that I hadn’t differentiated the tasks for enough of the diverse abilities in my class. I pride myself in being a continuously reflective teacher. I try to see the process of learning as a collaboration between the curriculum, my pedagogical skills, and the performance of my students.
It is not until recently that I have begun to see that there is a further barrier to learning which I have never considered in a practical way. I have considered it in an academic way, but really that isn’t good enough. It’s been a long process of learning for me and it will be a process of learning for the rest of my life.
You see, I’m white. I’m also socially conditioned to be middle class because I come from a family of teachers. I might have been brought up in poverty, but the social niceties that were drummed into me were white middle class.
Critically addressing Whiteness is a sociological process that questions what seems “normal” to me. So normal that it slips into the problematic terrain of “natural”. The word “natural” is a loaded word with a long history of sociological criticism but, in a nutshell, it is a word that has been used to justify hierarchies of race, eugenics, who comes form Mars and who from Venus. In other words, to critically reflect on my Whiteness is to think very hard about the things which seem natural to me and wonder if they really are socially constructed. If they are, what conceptual framework formed them?
For example, in reflecting on problems I have in my lessons I have been considering everything but who I am as a barrier to learning. Because I think I’m a good person (and hopefully good teacher), it doesn’t seem “natural” that I might be the problem. I might blame my planning, institutional poverty, sexism and racism, parents who don’t insist on appropriate behaviour, cultural differences that don’t understand Western schooling. It’s very easy to be academic about the problems which are facing me in the classroom. It’s very easy for me to throw up my hands and say there’s nothing else I can do until someone else fixes poverty, the History curriculum inserts more Indigenous content, or schools get more funding. All this is VERY important, but recently I’ve begun to understand that railing against a broken system is not enough. In fact, it’s probably perpetuating the cycle.
What being white in a White school system does is lay out an expectation that every student I teach should aim to be like me. I am “naturally” set up as an ideal, placed in front of students everyday. Being a teacher is a very seductive construct of a white ideal: its a service profession which allows room for social justice, it’s middle income, it’s largely respected in the community because it’s something not many people believe they could do but still think is important. But this is an ideal that has been dreamed up by Whiteness. I often rail against the dead white men of philosophical theory, but I am at the same time performing the nice white lady (NWL) construct. The NWL rescues poor poverty stricken African American kids by connecting “classical” white poetry to “gritty” rap music and suggesting the kids are already halfway there to being able to function in a White meritocracy. That’s a Dangerous Minds reference for those confused and an excellent movie for illustrating what I’m talking about.
I might say to my students that I want them to “Be themselves”, but my position as their guide and role model is a hidden curriculum of what direction “being themselves” leads. I might say, “You need to go to university” [because that is what I did and look at me with my nice house and nuclear family]. I might appropriate the culture of the students I’m teaching to make classics relevant [because knowing the classics is what is needed to get into a good university so you can become like me – or better than me]. All the time the hidden White curriculum is saying “my culture matters more than yours”.
Teachers are largely white and middle class in Australia. Is it any wonder there are learning barriers?
So what can be done? Honestly, this is something I am still working out. But one thing I am doing is trying to read education, sociological and critical theory written by people of colour. Education theory often gets caught up in reading the “important” theorists and educationalists. There is a culture of not being “with it” if you haven’t read the big names. I have started this process by being political about who I read in education. The more I read education theory, the more I realise a lot of people are saying the same thing in different ways – so why not pick different people in order to bring new voices into the education conversations? My first step has been to read females. I have been in enough reading groups to know that ideas get composted in them. I have read enough theorists to know that the men in those reading groups get most attention – so I’ve started reading the female contemporaries of the male philosophers. My second step will be to expand my reading list further into people of colour. I have a few on my list who I found by looking at who has cited the women I’m reading. I have found others by following critical race scholars and women of colour online. Zuleyka Zevallos’ Twitter account and blog have been valuable as she generously and systematically breaks down many White tropes through analysing contemporary media. Maha Bali is also incredibly hospitable and often teases out Whiteness in online practices through her Twitter account and blogging. She has gently coached me many times. Maha recently recommended I read Thirdspace theorist of colour, Homi Bhabha, for my critical digital pedagogy work. I also recommend reading Sara Ahmed and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, who I discovered through reading and following citation trails of other feminist writers. This is a very short list and I would appreciate some more recommendations.
An important thing to remember is that it is not a woman of colour’s duty to teach me how to recognise my Whiteness. This is not a new thing. It has been written about for decades. It is my responsibility to read, research and listen. Many women of colour are very generous and are happy to share education resources and curricula they have developed, but it is very important to not expect it is given to you. That’s colonialism. That’s Whiteness. That’s lazy.
This journey is about two years old for me and it’s very difficult (as it should be). I have a long way to go. This will be a lifelong process of continuous critical reflection. Are you also on this journey? I would love to hear what you are doing to break down the barriers built by Whiteness in your classrooms.