Critical reflective practice: Whiteness in the school system

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.

 

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13 thoughts on “Critical reflective practice: Whiteness in the school system

  1. I am not quite sure what the definition of ‘whiteness’ is or what synonyms you would use for it. In a multicultural school where even the teachers are not necessarily white and I am called an ‘Anglo’ I would say that even the ‘non-Anglo’ teachers have taken on the ‘Anglo’ purposes for learning; i.e. learning to get prestige and to get ahead in this world.
    As an EALD teacher I want my students to acquire the language needed to think deeply and critically. Without the words to express our thoughts are we actually able to tease them out and have a good look at them? Then again, maybe that’s a ‘white’ value?

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  2. Really interesting and pertinent. Thank you.

    I really recommend the work of Darren Chetty https://ioe-ac.academia.edu/DarrenChetty and HipHopEd in the UK. And you might enjoy this blog. https://unseenflirtspoetry.wordpress.com/2013/10/12/teaching-remixing-education

    Learning to Divide The World by John Willinsky is a really useful starter text for historical background too.

    Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, edited by Dr Fatima Pirbhai Illich is brilliant (though academic book pricey) and contains Australian case studies.

    I have recently used the image of ‘shrink wrap’ as an analogy for the experience of being educated in what is effectively a closed system, largely impervious to content and criticality which challenges its central tenets – many of which are based on quite insecure scholarship eg much of what was refound in the Renaissance had nevr been lost and came from out of Europe in the first place and the ‘illumination’ of The Enlightenment should be viewed with much scepticism.

    In my experience, the majority of students experience this educative insulation, whether racialised as white or members of the global majority with all the diversity of language and heritage that betokens. So the challenge of rethinking the curriculum and its codified values is often a shared as well as necessary project.

    So great to make global connection on these issues.

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  3. Gloria Anzaldua remains one of the most influential writers for me. I can also recommend bell hooks. Her work is political, philosophical, pedagogical, with a deep thread social activism running through it.
    Deanna Ramirez

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  4. Thank you for being so candid about your journey. I’m a teacher of color, and am on the same path, as we are all affected by these oppressive systems. I intend to follow you on Twitter. Keep up the great work and reflection.

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  5. Naomi, I’m on a very similar path though in research methods rather than education. Over the last year, I’ve been reading as much as I can find about Indigenous research methods (the term in most general use, though the terminology is contested). I have a book by Gennaro Ascione, one of the very few white authors I’ve found working on this, called Science and the Decolonization of Social Theory: Unthinking Modernity. He says we have to learn to ‘think the colonial’. From my UK perspective, where even today more people are proud than ashamed of the British Empire http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/british-people-are-proud-of-colonialism-and-the-british-empire-poll-finds-a6821206.html, it seems to me that ‘thinking the colonial’ involves being aware of the benefits white people still accrue that stem from invasion, slavery and genocide. (If you check the link, you will see that education plays a key role.) I agree that white people need to problematise these issues and educate each other about them, rather than trying to extract solutions – or, worse, sympathy – from people of colour. Let’s keep talking!

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    • Thank you. That book sounds good. I would suspect that British descended Australians feel proud to be part of the British Empire, deep down once you peel away the surly attitudes. Treatment of Indigenous peoples and refugees in Australia means race is in the news here A LOT, and not for good reasons. I agree that this shouldn’t a lonely path for us. I’d love to talk more.

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