Let’s talk about whiteness in schools.
While educators often engage in conversations about race, these talks sometimes neglect the foundation of racism—namely, whiteness and white supremacist ideology. Though these factors are always present, a failure to recognize them can derail systemic change. What are whiteness and white supremacy, and how do they get in the way of equity efforts in schools?
Dr. Anjalé “AJ” Welton is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who studies anti-racist school leadership. At a recent Courageous Coaching Conversation, she encouraged white educators to look inward to examine their own racial identity as a critical first step of anti-racist work.
This post will describe whiteness, how it manifests in schools, and three strategies to address it.
What are whiteness and white supremacy?
According to Welton, white supremacy is an ideology that pathologizes and marginalizes the experiences of people of color. White supremacy involves gaining power for whites by denying the validity of the experiences of people of color, insisting on individual causes for disparate treatment, and relying on presently unequal distributions of power and privilege as justification for white supremacist ideology.
Whiteness, then, is the execution of white supremacist ideology. It comes in the form of individual attitudes and mindsets in addition to being embedded in culture, organizations, structures, and norms.
How does whiteness get in the way of equity work in schools?
Whiteness is evident in schools when students and families of color are treated as problematic—for example, asking questions that place blame such as Why don’t families of color do x? and Why are students of color like y? This framing sustains harmful stereotypes and exculpates educators from analyzing their own responsibility in perpetuating inequality.
“When we diagnose the issue, actually the diagnosis should be positioned as how white supremacy and whiteness are the problem or the root cause and that racism and racial inequality are the outcomes and consequences of white supremacy and whiteness,” said Welton.
When we reframe our work to address the root causes of racial inequality instead of merely talking about the consequences of it, we are better positioned to take on structures and beliefs within our schools. Rather than externalizing and looking beyond our control for blame, our gaze should turn inward.
How can we combat whiteness in schools?
Equity work is ongoing. It takes sustained commitment and continual revisiting. Lasting change is unlikely when these efforts are delegated to a single committee, particularly when those who are not on the committee are free from considering their own role in whiteness. As part of larger ongoing commitments, there are things that educational leaders can do to oppose whiteness and white supremacy in their schools.
1. Establish norms
Folks who have been involved with equity work can likely point to examples when their efforts were undermined by members of the group. At the outset, have a conversation about the scope of the project and the expectations and norms that will support it. Creating the space for difficult conversations is important, but these conversations will only be successful when leaders consider community agreements.
“Sometimes you might have that one person or two people who try to get you off track and spend time and debate with you why racism does or does not exist,” said Welton. “And so typically what I do when I start facilitating a professional learning workshop is right away I state that I’m not here to debate that race matters because it does. However, we can begin to unpack why and how it matters to our community.”
2. Honor the voices of community members of color
When someone shares how they have experienced racism in your school, listen to them. Fight the white supremacist urge to look for individual causes, thereby denying the existence and impact of racism. It is also critical to evaluate how you receive first hand testimonials by people of color in comparison to the secondhand accounts of white people who bore witness.
“It can be very frustrating when, as a person of color, you are brave and you name racism and you call it out and you’re not listened to,” said Welton. “It can be even more frustrating when a white person talks about it and addresses it and they’re more so listened to than a person of color.”
(For more on this topic, read “Seven Tips for Educators to Have Tough Conversations about Race.”)
3. Model commitment
In order for anti-racist work to result in systemic change, it takes ongoing effort and sustained commitment. One discussion is not enough. While some may complain that it’s exhausting to keep having these conversations, it’s worth noting that community members of color are continuously engaged in the work whether they have chosen it or not. Until we create the change that our young people deserve, we must continue to have difficult conversations and do challenging work.
In a recent article published in EdWeek, “Principals Need Help Building Anti-Racist Schools,” Welton told education journalist Denisa R. Superville that traditional accountability measures for school leaders will not fully capture the scope and long-term commitment required to achieve educational equity.
“Six months from now, are we still doing this work?” Welton said. “Are we still committed to continuously checking our policies and structures and asking ourselves questions about who we are not serving and who we are serving well? That should be your metric.”
We should also consider differentiation for staff in our schools and recognize that not everyone needs the same thing. Do not, however, allow folks to “opt out.” Whether it’s a book study or a professional learning community focused on racial equity, be conscious of the emotional labor that you are expecting from community members of color and compensate that labor accordingly.
Many of the challenges we face in our classrooms and schools exist within larger systems of oppression. We encounter inequity all the time, and we do what we can to push for change. However, we cannot do it alone—we need collective action.
It takes a coalition of dedicated educators to create transformative learning experiences and sustainable anti-racist change.
Dr. Welton is teaming up with the professional learning specialists at PLACE to launch the yearlong Coalition for Leading Anti-Racist Schools in July 2021.