Category Archives: Whiteness

The Paradoxes of Dismantling Racism and White Privilege

If you just clicked on a link and are reading this, you are experiencing one of the paradoxes of dismantling racism and white privilege because by writing this and making it available across the Internet, I have centered my whiteness and the voice of (yet another) man.

As a white man, I simultaneously have an ethical obligation to dismantle racism and white privilege (and gender inequity) that sits in contrast to another ethical obligation that I (to cite a group of white men) need to STFU and not occupy the spaces where Black and women’s voices must be centered and embraced.

My scholarship and public work have for many years now been focused on class, gender, and race inequity, especially as they intersect with formal education.

Any credibility in addressing racism and white privilege that I have earned comes from my critical unpacking of my own whiteness and of my racist heritage in my home and community of birth, but I also have manufactured a greater level of racial awareness by reading and listening to Black voices—notably Black artists/writers and Black scholars.

My teaching seeks always to center Black voices and the voices of women, which I have documented by detailing who is included in my syllabi.

However, there I stand in front of my classes, centered by my role of authority, my whiteness, and my being a man with the additional weight of almost 6 decades.

Two situations, one recent and one a year or so ago, have pushed me to continue to wrestle with the paradoxes of my activism dedicated to dismantling racism and white privilege.

More immediately, I have been disturbed to see a blog post discrediting Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility being shared across social media, often by Black academics and friends. This challenge to DiAngelo’s work, I discovered, comes from a source that is neither credible nor reliable.

The other situation came over a year ago when I was invited to speak on whiteness and racism at a university (in a series of programs that also included DiAngelo before I spoke there).

What these two contexts have in common, I think, is one of the most difficult paradoxes of dismantling racism and white privilege: centering whiteness to de-center whiteness.

If and how any of us dedicated to anti-racism work engage with DiAngelo’s concept of white fragility is itself a problem and a paradox.

I added DiAngelo’s popular book to the choice reading selections in my foundations of education course recently, and the book proved to be popular and effective with my students who tend to be white, privileged, and conservative (or from conservative homes).

Many students confessed that they went into the book not believing in white privilege or systemic racism but that DiAngelo had opened their eyes and changed their minds.

These students also read For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too by Chris Emdin as well as essays by James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison; they are introduced to bell hooks and Maxine Greene as well.

But there is always a risk of centering white works such as DiAngelo’s since that can imply that Black voices and experiences with racism are valid only when verified by white witnesses or when in proximity to white witnesses.

Black advocates for anti-racism embracing the “don’t read DiAngelo” is coming from, I think, recognizing that risk and from their own experiences where only white voices are allowed in formal education. White witnesses to confirm their lived experiences and white proximity giving credibility to the moment-by-moment stress of their being Black in the U.S.

It is a powerful and important question to ask why white people do not find this credible itself, without white confirmation:

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you. (James Baldwin from “The Negro in American Culture,” Cross Currents, XI [1961], p. 205)

As I opened in this post about my white man’s voice, DiAngelo is in fact not only occupying spaces where Black voices are not being read or heard, but also profiting on anti-racism, the capitalism paradox of dismantling racism and white privilege.

Activism, scholarship, and the Market are invariably going to overlap in the U.S., and even as we worship at the alter of capital, we also become skeptical when activists and scholars gain celebrity status or simply earn money from other people’s inequity.

It is inexcusable in the U.S. to ignore that racism has always fueled capitalism and profited almost exclusively white people.

I remain resolute that the primary obligation of anti-racism work dedicated to dismantling racism and white privilege belong to white people. But that drives the paradox of centering whiteness and can perpetuate the muting or erasing of Black voices.

The paradoxes of white people doing anti-racism work cannot deteriorate into fatalism, however.

For white people, awareness of racism, white privilege, white fragility, and the paradoxes of dismantling racism and white privilege as a white person is a first step often wrapped in the paradox of centering whiteness to de-center whiteness.

For far too long, there have been far too many white-only spaces, and the work of anti-racism by white people must seek shared spaces among all races, not just creating but allowing through white absence enough space so that voices do not have to compete and so that whiteness does not justify or regulate whose voice ultimately matters.

Confronting White Responses to Racism: De-centering Whiteness and White Fragility

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s with daily contact with what Ta-Nehisi Coates labels as “oafish” racists. These white men of my childhood and teen years were brazen and arrogant in their racial slurs and embarrassingly ignorant philosophies about race.

One oafish racist calmly explained to me that Black people were the result of Cain mating with apes after being cast out of the Garden of Eden. His “it’s in the Bible” racism was common in my South Carolina life.

But this is not about some racism in the past. Oafish racists remain throughout the U.S., not some vestige of the Old South. Social media and the Trump presidency have allowed and even welcomed overt racists into the American “both sides” approach to the free press and free speech.

However, the specter of oafish racists allows white people to keep whiteness and white fragility centered while refusing to acknowledge the greater danger posed by whiteness throughout the twentieth century and in 2020; as Martin Luther King Jr. confronted:

A leading voice in the chorus of social transition belongs to the white liberal…. Over the last few years many Negroes have felt that their most troublesome adversary was not the obvious bigot of the Ku Klux Klan or the John Birch Society, but the white liberal who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality….

The White liberal must see that the Negro needs not only love, but justice. It is not enough to say, “We love Negroes, we have many Negro friends.” They must demand justice for Negroes. Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all. It is merely a sentimental affection, little more than what one would love for a pet. Love at its best is justice concretized. Love is unconditional. It is not conditional upon one’s staying in his place or watering down his demands in order to be considered respectable….

The white liberal must rid himself of the notion that there can be a tensionless transition from the old order of injustice to the new order of justice…. The Negro has not gained a single right in America without persistent pressure and agitation….

As the U.S. experiences a revitalization of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the wake of repeated police violence toward Black citizens, the killing of George Floyd as a notable flash point, white Americans are daily confronted with the recognition of racism, white privilege, and racial inequity.

White nationalists and racists have been especially emboldened for years now under Trump, but white people who claim to be invested in eradicating racism must also be invested in eradicating white privilege while working to resist the language of white fragility and centering whiteness.

A policeman’s knee on the neck of George Floyd, a state-endorsed execution lasting 8:46, demands a response from white people.

Consider these white responses to racism:

  • “Not me.”
  • “Not all white people.”
  • “Not all police.”
  • “I don’t see race.”
  • “I have Black friends.”
  • “What about Black-on-Black crime?”
  • “If they would just do what the police said, they would not have been shot/killed.”
  • “I am not a racist, but …”
  • “What about reverse racism?”
  • “I don’t have white privilege because I was born poor.”
  • “I didn’t own slaves, and slavery ended in the 1800s.”
  • “Heritage, not hate.”
  • “Taking down monuments and renaming buildings and schools is erasing history.”
  • “The Civil War was fought over states’ rights, not slavery.”
  • “There is only one race, the human race.”
  • “All lives matter.”
  • “What about affirmative action? What about Miss Black America? What about Black colleges?”

These white responses are grounded in two racist sources: white fragility and centering whiteness.

Racism is not just anti-Black; racism is whiteness.

Any white person responding to racism with an “I” statement is requesting that they and their whiteness (and delicate sensibilities) remain centered when the focus should remain on racism and its consequences for Black citizens.

To understand the centering of whiteness we need only to confront monuments and building/schools named after historical leaders with racists ideologies and practices.

De-centering whiteness looks like the statues of the Little Rock Nine, the young Black people who suffered the consequences of racism:

White fragility (“Not me!” and “Not all white people”) responses are ironic in that they unconsciously admit that centering whiteness has been the norm of their lives and their defensiveness is a fear of losing that centering. No white person can be allowed to continue to cling to their whiteness if racism is to be eradicated.

Racism and white privilege are inseparable, and that means by simply being white, all white people are moment by moment benefitting from white privilege and racism even as they did not create them, even as they ideologically denounce them.

Being white means being complicit in racism, which means to be white is to be racist.

Anti-racism language and practices, then, are not when a white person says “not me” or “not all white people.” There can be no “but” response to confronting racism.

As with all equity work, good intentions are not enough.

Policing shooting in the back and killing Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta rests most recently in the wake of civil unrest after the killing of George Floyd.

The site of the killing of Brooks, a Wendy’s, has been razed, and the centering of whiteness seeks to keep the public gaze on the outcomes of the racist killing—property as a marker for whiteness and rioting as code for racist stereotypes—and not the racism that precipitated these events.

Less dramatic is the response of white fragility in language that makes how white people feel and respond more important than the racism.

A different dramatic is pop culture where Blackness is elevated only in relationship to centering whiteness—The Help, Green Book, The Matrix trilogy, To Kill a Mockingbird.

To be white and anti-racism is to acknowledge whiteness is always complicit in racism. To be white and anti-racism is to work to de-center whiteness, to resist the language of white fragility and respectability politics, and to eradicate white privilege.

There is no room in anti-racism for “not me” or “not all white people.”

Here are resources for understanding white privilege, centering whiteness, white fragility, and respectability politics:

Racism scale copy
rigid refusal

A Reader for Confronting Whiteness, Supporting #BLM: “How Do I Open Their Eyes?”

A former student and current college student sent me an email with the subject line “How Do I Open Their Eyes?”

Their story is one that resonates with me since they have found themselves quarantined during Covid-19 “with my parents and neighbors, all of which I would say are very religiously right leaning.” During the more recent re-energized #BlackLivesMatter movement, they have experienced yet another challenge as they confronted those around them to support #BLM, but “was unable to get a word in because I was simply outnumbered by conservative white men.”

This is a journey that fits into this racism scale that details the challenges facing white people who genuinely seek to rise to the level of allyship/abolitionist:

Racism scale copy

The work of dismantling racism includes confronting whiteness and white privilege in order to eradicate both—and this is the work of white people in confrontation with white people.

There is a sizable faction of “conservative white men” who will not listen, will never listen, and will never move beyond their white fragility and white denial.

But racism cannot be overcome in a state of fatalism.

Here then is a reader, some resources for doing the work by white people and for white people who aspire to allyship/abolitionist:

 

All White People Must Confront How the System Only Works in Total Whiteness

I was born in 1961, after Brown v. Board but before the Civil Rights Act.

My childhood in the upstate of South Carolina included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy as well as vivid memories of my mother’s family living through the racial unrest in nearby Asheville, North Carolina and my uncle being shipped off to the Vietnam War.

My parents had been raised in the 1940s and 1950s throughout North and South Carolina; they were among the white Americans who disapproved of King, and I recall vividly my parents’ animosity for Muhammad Ali that sat next to their anger at the mainstream media for bringing down Richard Nixon.

I was born in 1961, but I was baptized and washed daily in whiteness.

I believed in whiteness even as I was conditioned never to see it because my accusatory gaze was trained on blackness, and any racial identity not white.

These were the lessons of my home, my community, my school, and nearly every moment of the media I was consuming through news or entertainment.

My history books, TV shows, movies, novels, and comic books were filled with white saviors—and all that was wrong with the world shaded in darkness, blackness.

By the time I entered college during the fall of Jimmy Carter and the rise of Ronald Reagan, I believed entirely in the reverse racism narrative that buoyed Reagan’s ascent.

Despite the challenges of growing up in a working class family in the South at mid-twentieth century, I had been afforded tremendous privileges of race, gender, and more that, once again, were rendered invisible to me, and in that un-self-aware blindness, I was allowed to pity myself at every perceived disadvantage.

College, however, was a paradox; it was my ticket out of white denial even as it helped intensify my white privilege.

In 2020, I am the small percentage of people with a doctorate, and my salary as a tenured professor places me in a life of comfort and leisure that is well beyond what I have earned, what I deserve by the mere content of my character.

My working-class roots certainly contributed to my work ethic, but they also allowed me to believe the rewards I garnered were mostly about effort, even as white privilege supported me at every turn.

For about 40 years, then, I have been on a journey to confront not only my whiteness but also all whiteness.

Here is what I can confess at this moment on that journey.

Even as I did not create racism and white privilege, even as I have come to denounce the forces at the root of both (the enslavement of Black people, capitalism, etc.), I have daily benefitted from racism and white privilege.

Daily.

Moment by moment.

To be white in the U.S. is never to be neutral about race. Whiteness has a lift and momentum that carry me and all white people unless we actively resist it—and even then, at best, we are applying meager brakes, merely slowing that incessant force.

A person of the rural South, I know in my bones what Southern white poverty and ignorance look and sound like. I know they are real, and I have heard and still hear the voices of that angry whiteness who feel cheated by life, who can only exist in white denial because of the inability to confront their whiteness.

Systemic racism and white privilege can work invisibly to those who benefit from it. The mythologies of America have come out of racism and white privilege, working to maintain them and keep them invisible.

Rugged individualism and individual freedom implore us all to think about the individual person, and maintain a lie about individuality that keeps in place blinders hiding how the system only works in total whiteness.

Whiteness is the most powerful vaccination in the U.S., but like even the best vaccination, it isn’t universally effective.

White people fail, and white people struggle—while some Black people succeed, and some Black people seem to rise effortlessly above the barriers of racism and white privilege.

Confronting racism and white privilege, however, means coming to recognize that when white people fail and struggle, it isn’t because of their whiteness, but in spite of their whiteness.

Black people are daily, moment by moment, living under the weight their blackness because of racism and white privilege.

Despite the ever-trivialized manipulation of King’s “content of their character” message, in the U.S. whiteness trumps character and blackness renders character irrelevant.

In my journey confronting whiteness, then, I cannot be complacent simply in that confronting. White people created racism and white privilege; white people maintain racism and white privilege, both actively and in naive neutrality.

Only white people can dismantle racism and white privilege.

The very things that have allowed my success must be eradicated, and I must lend my hand to the dismantling.

Two acknowledgements sustain me in that quest.

Howard Zinn explored his life through a metaphor for understanding whiteness, warning that you cannot be neutral on a moving train.

And James Baldwin offered possibly the best discrediting of white denial in 1979:

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here [emphasis in original]. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

The system only works in total whiteness.

The system must change.


Imagine a Unites States …

Malcolm X knee

People often either over-idealize or reject as a “bad” song the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but the concept serves a useful purpose.

Imagine a United States where the public and political leadership took seriously Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests against the racially inequitable policing and justice system in the US.

Imagine white America taking action because they listened, believed, and truly wanted an equitable and just country.

Imagine the many Black lives that would be with us today, alive and mostly anonymous in those lives.

Imagine no marches, no protests or signs emblazoned with “George Floyd” or “Black Lives Matter.”

But, instead, white America attacked Kaepernick, retreated into their comfortable white denial.

But, instead, white America today points accusatory fingers at “riots” and laments the loss of property, proving that for many whites, Black lives in fact do not matter.

White America created this, and only white America can end it.

Baldwin law

Now.

Imagine a country where the police protect and serve.

To make that real, white America must admit that the police protect and serve white interests at the expense of those lives that do not matter.

If you suffer white denial, if you are fretting over the protests and not the blue knee that took George Floyd’s Black life, I am providing a reader below.

But this is not a place for your white denial or white arguments.

“There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now,” James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name (“Faulkner and Desegregation”)

Reader

James Baldwin: “the time is always now”

False Equivalence in Black and White

James Baldwin: “It’s a trauma because it’s such a traumatized society”

Understanding Racism as Systemic and about Power

All Lives Matter as a response to #BlackLivesMatter is offensive because…

James Baldwin’s “They Can’t Turn Back” (1960): “On such small signs and symbols does the southern cabala depend”

The “White Gaze” and the Arrogance of Good Intentions

This Is U.S.: “To be a Negro in this country…”

“The Other America,” Martin Luther King Jr. 14 March 1968

“Every white person in this country…knows one thing,” James Baldwin (1979)

Sounds about White

All Lives Matter

“Karen” is the same as the “N” word

We value diversity but will hire the most qualified candidate

I don’t see color, race

I grew up poor and built this from hard work

Heritage, not hate

Traditional family values

Just follow the law/rules, and you don’t have anything to worry about

Blue Lives Matter

Make America Great Again

To quote Martin Luther King Jr. …

There are a lot of different kinds of diversity

There is only one race, the human race

Build the wall

Breaking Bad

Black-on-black crime

Second Amendment

Open carry

Face masks

Dick Cavett

 

 

Better Call Saul: On the High Art of Centering Whiteness

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in Better Call Saul (2015)
Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in Better Call Saul (2015)

Among the pantheon of white-man art, including the Coen brothers and David Lynch for me, the creators of Better Call Saul offer a finely crafted and deeply flawed series that is really hard not to look at and enjoy.

This prequel to Breaking Bad shares many of the strengths (beautifully and finely filmed, nuanced and morally ambiguous characters) and most of the flaws (centering whiteness, ignoring or running roughshod over brown and black characters) with its source. As I am nearing the end of the series on Netflix (with the newest season on AMC), I often find Saul better than the original, in part because I think it unpacks extremely well being a lawyer against the moral ambiguity of many compelling characters (even as I have no real expertise in whether or not the series captures the law in any sort of valid way).

Saul fits into my fascination with moral ambiguity, notably Andy Sipowicz in NYPD Blue as one example. But I have to admit that I am primarily drawn to how well made the series is; as TV, it is just damned compelling to look at. (I often find myself seeing comic book panels, still camera shots that do as much as the acting or dialogue.)

As I noted above, I have this affection for Lynch and the Coen brothers, although I would put the creators of Saul closer to the latter.

Well into my 20s and my young teaching and writing career, I was an uncritical (and self-contradictory) devotee of a sort of John Gardner “craft idealism” that had too much grounding in modernism and white-man art arguments that posed craft over (for example) diversity of characters and voices in the name of “universal”—a humanities/fine art veneer like “objectivity” to protect the status of white men.

In those formative years, I wasn’t paying very close attention to the tension among my love and admiration for Ernest Hemingway, Alice Walker, John Gardner, Ralph Ellison, e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes, and Adrienne Rich (just to offer a brief array).

I recognized some of that tension directly, then, in Season 3, Episode 10, Lantern, of Saul, when Kim Wexler, hyper-ambitious romantic partner of Jimmy/Saul, is left injured after a car accident.

Wexler, distracted by her newest client’s case while driving on a dangerous highway, crosses three lanes of traffic and crashes into rocks on an embankment. After returning home battered and with a broken right arm, the law office assistant, Francesca, brings Wexler her law files and has rearranged her schedule so that Wexler can salvage a deadline with the new client and maintain her commitment to her main client.

We watch as Wexler immediately drops into her Type A self-sacrificing persona. But Wexler pauses, freezes in fact, before telling Francesca to cancel the new client rescheduling and push forward her commitments with her main client.

The next time we see them together, Francesca is on her cell talking to the new client, and recommending a different law firm, while Wexler grabs a couple handfuls of DVDs.

Later when Jimmy/Saul returns to the newly relaxed Wexler on her couch, Kim asks Jimmy what he wants to watch next, handing him Monty Python before musing about watching To Kill a Mockingbird, “again.”

Jimmy and Kim then have what I imagine to be a conversation with a much different meaning than intended.

In the popular consciousness, the film Mockingbird is an iconic moment for the actor Gregory Peck but also a window (like the novel it is based on) into the white savior narrative that few in the U.S. are willing or able to confront.

There is much to unpack in Wexler saying she was motivated as a child to be Atticus Finch, but to the show’s credit, Kim does make fun of her idealism when she responds to Jimmy’s dig about becoming a lawyer to change the world; she acknowledges she is working herself almost literally to death to make a successful local bank into a successful regional bank.

Again, where I think Saul excels is in the many types of lawyers the show explores, knocking the sort of idealistic and hokey shine off the Finch iconic lawyer myth.

Yet, Saul for all the craft and care isn’t much different than Mockingbird for its inability to avoid possibly the most common flaw in pop culture in the U.S., centering whiteness.

While Walter White in Break Bad can be seen as something of a twisted Finch white savior, Jimmy/Saul is certainly not that, but remains the center of a morally ambiguous and morally corrupt world where lawyers, police, and the Mexican cartel all intersect in ways that do not leave anyone in the best of light—even Jimmy/Saul’s Finch-like brother, Chuck.

Michael Mando in Better Call Saul (2015)
Michael Mando in Better Call Saul (2015)

By comparison, Saul is far more aware of and attentive to black and brown characters; on balance, characterization, along with camera work, is an admirable craft in both series, I think.

The Salamanca/Fring dichotomy is fascinating and tense even as those who watched Break Bad know where these men’s lives are leading.

Saul is rich with allusion and references as yet another hallmark of craft-focused art; yet, even as we may enjoy and value this craft, I think we must remain vigilant to set that aside and recognize that while care is taken in many of the elements of making a series, there is enough carelessness to take the series to task.

Mike and Nacho are fascinating ancillary characters (although many of these types of characters often feel as important as Jimmy/Saul)—the former yet another centered white man and the latter, a powerful example of the type of diversity that deserves more than it receives.

With Saul, I am torn, but I think it unintentionally makes a case against itself (the use of Mockingbird, for example) that suggests centering whiteness is a feature and a flaw of this sort of film-making craft, but to acknowledge that doesn’t mean this flaw has to be fatal.

Unsweet Tea: On Tokenism, Whiteness, and the Promise of Culturally Relevant Teaching

I stood as I have many times in front of the two tea dispensers at a chain sub sandwich shop. But this time, I was suddenly struck with the choice I always make—the “unsweet tea.”

Medium Freshly-Brewed Iced Tea Unsweetened

I was born, raised, and have lived my entire life in the Deep South. My mother made tea that would rival pancake syrup and trained my sister and me in the meticulous ritual of steeping tea bags and then pouring the hot tea over a huge mound of processed sugar.

The tea pot was dedicated only to steeping tea, and the tea jar and the giant plastic sugar spoon were sacred as well.

Once I left home, my mother flirted with sun tea, but the syrup-sweet tea of my childhood later became my defining feature of what could rightfully call itself The South. When ordering tea, The South hands you sweetened ice tea; hot tea or tea without sugar are not even mentioned, or considered.

So with a great deal of shame, I must admit that only a week or so ago I was truck with the absurdity that is “unsweet tea,” which of course is just tea.

The “unsweet” is a necessity only because “sweet tea” in South Carolina is the norm, the default, what has been rendered invisible and simultaneously right.

All across the U.S., then, “unsweet tea” in The South is a less controversial entry point into how whiteness works as the norm, the invisible, and the right.

Whiteness as the normal and as the invisible drives the greatest bulk of privilege in the U.S., but once that whiteness and privilege are exposed, confronted, white fragility is the response, as Robin DiAngelo (2011) details:

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

White fragility as a response to naming and confronting privilege as well as racism is extremely powerful because that response is clinging to an entrenched norm with incredibly long and anchored roots.

Despite claims that formal public education works to change students and thus reform society, schools most often reflect and perpetuate privilege and all sorts of inequities and norms. Thus, education—teachers/teaching, curriculum, testing, discipline, dress codes, etc.—tends to work in the service of whiteness.

Just as whiteness must be exposed and confronted in society, education that is liberatory and life- as well as society-changing must be willing to commit, as Gloria Ladson-Billings explains, to culturally relevant teaching:

A hallmark for me of a culturally relevant teacher is someone who understands that we’re operating in a fundamentally inequitable system [emphasis added] — they take that as a given. And that the teacher’s role is not merely to help kids fit into an unfair system, but rather to give them the skills, the knowledge and the dispositions to change the inequity. The idea is not to get more people at the top of an unfair pyramid; the idea is to say the pyramid is the wrong structure. How can we really create a circle, if you will, that includes everybody?

Instead, Ladson-Billings laments:

I find that teachers often shy away from critical consciousness because they’re afraid that it’s too political [emphasis added]. A perfect example for me is some years ago when Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, that district in Ferguson sent out a directive that teachers not talk about this. This is exactly what kids are talking about every single day, because at night when they go home and turn on the news, their streets are flooded with protesters, and they need an adult to help make sense of this. But the school has said, “No, you can’t talk about this.”

One result of teachers and schools self-regulating in the service of whiteness, privilege, and inequity is tokenism—viewing culturally relevant teaching through a deficit lens isolated on Black and Brown students or students living in poverty; and selecting curriculum, materials (texts, programs, etc.), and events that highlight diversity and multiculturalism,

but [as Ladson-Billings explains] what research has found is just changing the content is never going to be enough, if you are pedagogically doing the very same things: Read the chapter, answer the questions at the back of the book, come take the test. You really haven’t attended to the deep cultural concerns. What happens is school districts want you to do just that — teach exactly the way you’ve been teaching, just change the information [emphasis added]. That does little or nothing to increase engagement, and it certainly doesn’t help kids feel any more empowered about what they’re learning.

Whiteness, like sweet tea in The South, is ubiquitous in the U.S.—but whiteness desires to remain invisible as it drives privilege for some and further entrenches inequity for others. White fragility is the only consequence of rendering whiteness visible so that it can be eradicated.

This confrontation of whiteness is the duty of white people, and that must not be dulled by tokenism and self-regulation.

Recognizing that “unsweet tea” is just tea serves as a powerful example of the importance of naming as a first step to exposing in a journey to eradicating whiteness and privilege.

Genuine and robust culturally relevant teaching does offer a promise to move beyond whiteness and to quell white fragility, as Ladson-Billings argues:

When we do this work, there are certain baselines that people have to have. Number one, they have to believe that racism is real, and number two, they have to believe that they may be acting on it….

The most segregated group of kids in the country are white kids. We never refer to their schools as segregated. We refer to black and brown kids as going to segregated schools.

So, integration in which kids of different races and ethnicities have an opportunity to fully participate in the life of the school is what I would hope to see.

De-centering whiteness proves to be a bitter drink for white people who are too often compelled to respond with white fragility or tokenism.

Now, whiteness must seek ways to work against itself, making whiteness visible, centering it one last time in order to recenter our society and schools in ways that are equitable.


See Also

The female price of male pleasure