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Equity & Diversity Opinion

‘The White Voice, Experience, and Interest Dominate Education’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 20, 2021 16 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What books and articles should white educators read about race and racism?

In Part One, Tameka Porter, Ph.D., Dr. Denita Harris, Keisha Rembert, and Sara Boeck Batista offered their recommendations. Dr. Porter, Dr. Harris, and Keisha were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Shannon Jones, Shaeley Santiago, Emily Golightly, and Timothy Hilton shared their suggestions.

Today, Jennifer Hitchcock, Donna L. Shrum, Sarah Cooper, and Kiera Beddes “wrap up” this series.

Speaking “to my white peers”

Jennifer Hitchcock co-leads a committee on Equity and Culturally Responsive Teaching at her school. She teaches AP Government for the Fairfax County public schools:

I presume if you are reading this, there is something about race, racism, and education that drove you to this discussion. Maybe your school decided to engage race and education, perhaps you are here on your own accord. Either way, welcome. My white voice is going to speak to my white peers in education. I welcome IBPOC—Indigenous, Black, People of Color—educational professionals to stick around and engage in the conversation, as your voice and experience is critical, respected, and valued.

The white voice, experience, and interest dominate education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2017-18 school year, public school educators were 79 percent white and overwhelmingly female. Of course, when we look at this school by school, things get tricky. The overwhelming majority of America’s Black and Latinx students attend schools where the population of IBPOC students is over 90 percent. This reality is intentional. (See Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law).

We are no more than 60-ish years outside of American segregation and discrimination. As a white woman in my mid-forties, that means that my parents grew up in segregated schools. I am one generation removed. My children are two generations removed. That reality should get more play in our conversations. You know, old habits die hard. Education very much lies within the realities of race in America, and we should shed light on this via dialogue and action.

One caveat. Remember that each person is a collection of identities, and when layered with personal experiences and beliefs, we have a better understanding of our students and peers as unique individuals. For more on this, check out Kimberlé Crenshaw’s seminal work in intersectionality (See Critical Race Theory, Edited by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, and Gary Peller). I appreciate the work of Dr. Sharroky Hollie and his book on Strategies for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning (2015) in validating and affirming the intersection of identities as we build bridges toward equitable classrooms.

Where do we start this journey of understanding how our race mingles with our identities as loving, caring educators? Here is a good place to start.

  • Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum (2017) I love that Dr. Tatum’s experience as a leader in psychology drives this discussion. In the 20th Anniversary edition, Dr. Tatum provides a recent history to contextualize race relations since 1997. Dr. Tatum then turns to her classic text, which primarily looks to define and explain the psychology of race identity in students. I appreciate her presentation of academic research on race-based identities, as it helps me understand how this intersects with the classroom.
  • We Want To Do More Than Survive by Bettina L. Love (2019) Understanding race in school means seeing where inequities lie and where folks can work to repair such inequities. Demands to end the school-to-prison pipeline, equitably fund and allocate resources to all communities, develop culturally responsive curriculum and systems of evaluation, and recruit and retain educators of color are critical to understanding how we can rework education to place equity first. Dr. Love’s book untangles the importance of these reforms in a manner that took my breath away; a combination of personal narrative, educational theory, and academic research dispel misunderstandings related to equitable education. Furthermore, she created the Abolitionist Teaching Network to continue this dialogue and support efforts ranging from changing the classroom environment to changing education.
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (2019) If you understand how the identity of race impacts individuals, I think it is critical to remember that discussing these identities is complex and delicate. Asking anyone to launch into a deep discussion about race requires consent from all parties and some basic understandings about where one should and should not tread. This book is that. I appreciate her candor and ability to thread her own personal experiences with concrete recommendations in a very approachable and personable voice. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (2018) is a great optional follow-up to Oluo’s work, which gives advice on discussing race from the perspective of a white woman.
  • Not Light, But Fire by Matthew R. Kay (2018) Navigating the discussion about race relations is essential groundwork, but as teachers, we often need concrete tools that help us earn the trust and consent of our students to participate. Matthew Kay’s work provides us incredibly tangible methodologies from his own classroom experience that are great for building community, establishing trust, and creating a place where students feel respected and valued. Discussing race is vulnerable work. (To see and participate in vulnerability in action, check out How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi) We are asking folks to discuss hurt and possibly be hurt while we grow. I appreciate Kay’s assistance in thinking deeply about structures that support students and establish systems of consent.

There are so many more books to read than this. I highly encourage a continuation of your education in race beyond these four must-reads. There are also so many resources to help guide you to your next read, discussion, and action. I love the work of Valerie Brown, Cornelius Minor, Paul Gorski, Gholdy Muhammad, Zaretta Hammond, Lisa Delpit, Amber Coleman-Mortley, Donna Ford, bell hooks, and Dena Simmons. Here are some places for you to continue your own education:

Final thoughts? This journey is personal. I find that I confront uncomfortable truths about myself and how I relate to my students and community. I take to journaling and dialogue with trusted friends who are willing to hear my reflections in private discussions. I need to do this so that I can “intentionalize” equitable impacts and effects of educational practices in my classroom, school, and community without making it about myself. I remember that I love my students, each one, as they are. I have to put them first in this work. That means my time to process, reflect, and plan happens continuously and external to my role as an educator. And it is worth it. Acts of love always are.


Learning about Reconstruction

After teaching English for over 20 years, Donna L. Shrum is now teaching ancient history to freshmen in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She remains active in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and freelance writing for education and history magazines:

A white educator can start understanding race and racism with 2017’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. Serendipitously, its publication coincided with the aftermath of the last presidential election. Isenberg examines the historical evolution of not only racism but xenophobia against all “outsiders.” She explains why anger at inequalities have festered and exploded among the lower white classes.

Much of that anger has been directed toward Blacks in particular who before 1865 had been the default bottom class. As they began to gain civil rights, they were easy targets. The whole time I read Isenberg’s book, I remembered Gene Hackman’s character in Mississippi Burning (an excellent movie about the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers). Explaining why his father had killed the mule of his black neighbor, Hackman’s character says, “He looked at me and said, ‘If you ain’t better than a <expletive>, son, who are you better than?’ . . . My old man was just so full of hate that he didn’t know that bein’ poor was what was killin’ him.”

White educators should also learn about the Reconstruction era following the Civil War to realize that the Civil War never ended but entered a new phase in which Blacks were returned to subjugation. Reconstruction is woefully underrepresented in history teaching standards, leaving most Americans unaware of its significance. One of the compromises that ended official Reconstruction in the South was the disputed election of 1876, a presidential race that remained an anomaly until 2000. No book or article dominates the topic, which still deserves more honest scholarship, but a search can provide a general history, such as those by Eric Foner. Ideally, those interested in the topic should turn to online newspaper archives to read firsthand about the events from 1865 to at least 1877. The Zinn Education Project offers an introductory essay, “When Black Lives Mattered: Why Teach Reconstruction,” followed by excellent lesson plans on the topic.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. It’s an incredible timeline of institutionalized racism embedded in our penal system. I read it when it was first released, and, when I shared some of the shocking stories, others would shake their heads and say it wasn’t possible they could be true. Since the events of the summer of 2020, the book has returned to the bestseller lists, and the head-shaking has lessened.

The 2017 movie Denial portrays the fight of Deborah E. Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, in British courts to prove the reality of the Holocaust against the charges of a Holocaust denier. Her most recent publication, Antisemitism: Here and Now, sounds a warning that persecution against the Jews didn’t end with the defeat of the Nazis, as many assume, but is alive and well and growing.

Racism in Indian Country by Dean Chavers unfolds the systemic racism directed against Native Americans. Each chapter details a different aspect of life and how it has been corroded by racism. The First Americans’ history is unique in that they populated the continent well before whites arrived, and the preferred method of their repression was open murder or forced assimilation. The chapter “Stereotypes of Indians” would be an excellent selection for students before reading newspaper articles or non-Native writings that feature “Indians.”


“On the journey”

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and is assistant head for academic life at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9 (Stenhouse, 2009) and Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom, Grades 6-9 (Routledge, 2017). Find all of Sarah’s writing at her website:

As a white Jewish educator, I feel I’m always on the journey to understanding more about race and racism. I don’t expect ever to arrive but rather to keep searching for understanding. The following three books have deepened this search immeasurably in recent years. And I’m always open to learning more! Please get in touch with any suggestions.

Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom by Matthew Kay. This book shook up how I taught. Matthew Kay urges us to create a “dialogic classroom” and to focus on the contributions rather than simply the oppression of historically marginalized groups. When I reviewed the book for MiddleWeb, I acknowledged, that, as a history teacher, I need to nurture “an always developing understanding” of questions about race, “not a single shock and awe moment” that leaves students without emotional or historical context.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. If you think you are a totally enlightened white educator, this book may give you heart or call you out, sometimes on the same page. DiAngelo makes a compelling case that racist actions are not overt but often inadvertent, especially when people think they are trying not to be racist. As DiAngelo points out: “If I believe that only bad people are racist, I will feel hurt, offended, and shamed when an unaware racist assumption of mine is pointed out. If I instead believe that having racist assumptions is inevitable (but possible to change), I will feel gratitude when an unaware racist assumption is pointed out; now I am aware of and can change that assumption.” Ultimately, none of us has “arrived.” Instead, we should focus on “engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual anti-racist practice.”

Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele. I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to read this book, even after multiple recommendations. Until I picked it up, I didn’t realize that Whistling Vivaldi would completely internalize for me the concept of implicit bias. By citing study after study, Stanford psychology professor Claude M. Steele shows that stereotype threat is real and can have immediately damaging effects on performance for those who feel even temporarily stereotyped. To counteract these negative effects, Steele suggests “establishing trust through demanding but supportive relationships, fostering hopeful narratives about belonging in the setting, arranging informal cross-group conversations to reveal that one’s identity is not the sole cause of one’s negative experiences in the setting, representing critical abilities as learnable, and using child-centered teaching techniques.”


“We need to do better”

Kiera Beddes has been a high school ELA teacher in Utah for eight years. She is currently a member of the Utah Teacher Fellows and is passionate about social science, literature, and technology in education:

It is easy to feel helpless in the face of systemic violence and institutionalized racism. It is easy, when you are white, to ignore it because it doesn’t directly affect you. But we need to do better, to look deeper, and act more. I teach racial and social-justice issues in my class sometimes but I can, should, and will do more. I have to.

I live and work in the heart of Salt Lake City. Compared with the rest of the nation, Utah is very conservative, mostly white, with a predominant Christian culture. My high school is very similar to Utah as a whole. The student population is mostly white, mostly Mormon, and while the socioeconomic status can vary widely, most are solidly upper-middle class.

When considering the question, what books and articles should white educators read about race and racism, I thought of my classroom and my own experience. I grew up in a very similar environment as the students that I teach. What do I have to say about race and racism, when I myself haven’t had to deal with it personally?

That is why I turn to good books. For one, it’s important to feature authors of color writing about their own lived experience, and two, it’s important to talk about these books in class so that my students, who also have most likely not had to deal with racism personally, can begin to understand this issue and the larger implications for our society. This is by no means a complete list, but these are some books that I’ve found a lot of meaning and understanding from.

First, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds is a powerful story about gun violence, racism, and dealing with consequences of both. I love this book for several reasons. The protagonist is a teenager, which is a great access point for my students, and the book is told in narrative verse. Especially when considering my reluctant readers, this is a gripping story using a different format from what they might be used to.

Second, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an unflinching account of one man’s experience of growing up Black in America. It has been really interesting using this book to teach teenagers because they already struggle with identifying with a perspective other than their own. Add to that a perspective that is from a different race? Our conversations have been really fascinating. I love all the different informational texts I can tie to the book. Coates mentions hundreds of names throughout the book, from victims of racial violence to African American leaders and thinkers. This is a treasure trove of information to dive into with my students, to go beyond the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks.

Lastly, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, an autobiographical story of growing up under apartheid in South Africa. I listened to this one most recently at the recommendation of a colleague. This is one thing that I value with reading, the ability to experience radically different lives. Trevor Noah grew up having a completely different experience from what I could ever imagine. I found it a fascinating read, and there were several moments where I had to stop and reconsider my entire worldview.

As I said, this isn’t an exhaustive list, but it is a practical one. I’ve used two-thirds in my own classroom and I want to include more. The only way we can address racial inequalities in our society is to approach them directly by learning from people and their own experience. The more we can talk about these problems openly and honestly means that as a society, we can start addressing these problems and actually start looking for solutions.


Thanks to Jennifer, Donna, Sarah, and Kiera for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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