DO NOW: What is Whiteness?

Social Justice & Equity
Editors Note: This post was originally published on Catherine’s blog on Medium.

DO NOW: What is Whiteness?

After taking out their supplies and getting ready to engage, my students reacted to the question I’d written on the board as their “DO NOW.”

Some students giggled. Others made faces  –  perplexed, overwhelmed, entertained. A few began to chat with classmates. Some looked at me hoping for guidance. My co-teacher, having just entered the room, said, “That’s a great question!”

After giving my students time to react, I told them I knew it was a difficult question, but I wanted them to think about it. I told them there were no right answers, but they should draw upon their lived and learned experiences  —  and that I expected them to try to respond.

After a few minutes passed, my students began to share their responses by going around in a circle. They were allowed to pass if they wanted, but few did.

They said:

“Whiteness is skin color.”

“… privilege.”

“… a social caste system.”

“… history.”

“… people of European descent.”

“… respect.”

As the conversation continued, they began to respond to one another, developing and critiquing previous points. One student talked about bloodlines and the idea of racial purity in the United States. Another noted that the definition of whiteness had shifted historically and named the inclusion of the Irish, Italians, and Germans within the category. Another connected skin color to the dominant standards of global beauty. Another pointed out that not all white people are of European descent.

We spent at least twenty minutes unpacking whiteness. As we concluded, we paused to look at the board and process the conversation. I laughed and reminded them of their initial discomfort. Clearly they had a lot to say  –  once they pushed past their discomfort.

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, given the immediate rise in hate crimes and white nationalism, it’s urgent for educators to guide students into conversations surrounding race and whiteness.

Such conversations are essential, but they will be difficult and possibly even messy. Students may leave your classroom with more questions than answers. Discomfort is inevitable and necessary  –  because it’s through pushing into our discomfort that we grow.

The overarching goal of my race unit is for students to develop a critical consciousness around race. Over the course of six weeks, my students and I did just that. We studied the social construction of race, race’s codification into law, and the efforts to preserve distinct racial groups in the United States during times when racial hierarchy was challenged.

Such lessons can only begin once teachers have prepared — thoroughly — to navigate such fraught conversations. To prepare yourself for the challenge, I recommend the following steps to begin considering your own biases:

  • Read When Implicit Bias Shapes Teacher Expectations from NEAToday. As you read, consider the impacts of the “racial mismatch of expectations,” aka implicit biases, in classrooms. Think about how this connects to your own classroom, what is most difficult about exploring your own biases, and what barriers you face in eliminating your own biases.
  • Take the Implicit Bias Test about race from Harvard. Consider your personal biases by using this resource to make implicit biases explicit. By jump starting your thinking, this test provides you with the opportunity to become aware of your biases, consider where they originate, and begin the complex work of reducing them. Challenge yourself to be open to the results, as biases form the foundations of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.
  • Read The Cycle of Socialization, by Bobbie Harro. This text is a powerful tool for understanding how we’re socialized to perpetuate oppressive systems. As you read, consider your social identities  –  what they are and how those identities predispose you to unequal roles in oppressive systems. Focus on thinking of examples of the manifestation of oppression in your life to personalize the text. Note that by beginning to think about, challenge, and question your biases and socialization, you’re already resisting.

Finally, take some time to reflect and write. Ask yourself a few questions to guide you through your thinking:

  • How has your thinking changed?
  • How have your beliefs been confirmed?
  • What promises are you going to make to yourself?
  • What goals will you make moving forward?

How do you teach about race in your classroom? What resources can you bring to the conversation? Please add your ideas in the comments.

Catherine Thompson is an 11th and 12th grade social studies teacher at School of the Future in New York. She has been teaching since 2006, working with historically disenfranchised populations, including immigrants and students of color in urban communities of the South Bronx and Manhattan. Catherine is a passionate advocate for social justice and equity in education. She is currently a candidate at Mount Holyoke College for Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership 2017 and is a Fellow with the Academy for Teachers. Catherine just began blogging with the help of the National Blogging Collaborative. Connect with Catherine on Twitter: @LiberatoryEd.

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