When I was in 3rd grade, I begged my mother to help me choose an outfit for my school’s “Pioneer Day.” My mom looked at me, sighed in resignation, and said, “OK.” My eyes lit up in excitement but quickly dimmed, as she continued, “But you know you would not have been one of them.”
One of them.
Even at 9 years old, I knew she was right. I am biracial, a descendant of enslaved Africans and the daughter of an East Asian immigrant. Clearly, White colonialism was not my history. Yet, I hated that my parents always reminded me that I wasn’t White, or rather, I wasn’t normal.
I don’t know when I had come to understand that Whiteness equated normalcy. In my predominantly White schooling, my teachers, though some well-intentioned, erased me by centering a monolithic, Eurocentric perspective. How students spoke, how we behaved, and what we learned were all premised on a standard that upheld Whiteness. In 6th grade, my teacher pulled me aside and told me not to hang with my African-American friends because they were “bad,” and I was “better” than them.
I don't know when I had come to understand that Whiteness equated normalcy."
Later, I learned to reposition how I understood “normal,” thanks to my parents, who supplemented my formal education with African-American history and sent me to Chinese school to learn about my two cultures. For me, this education was critical for building a sense of self.
Yet, two decades past my primary school experience, the majority of teachers are still far less racially and ethnically diverse than their students. Most curricula still do not extend beyond the dominant Western canon.
Most teacher trainings emphasize classroom management, how to write an objective, and how to check for understanding—which are important for any skilled educator. But before mastering these goals, teachers must reflect on their identities in relationship to power and privilege. This understanding might support teachers working against unjust structures, refusing to passively support systems that oppress vulnerable communities they might serve.
Some cities have tried to address this disconnect, but change hasn’t been easy. When New York City’s public schools chancellor Richard Carranza recently mandated an implicit bias training for teachers, the trainings received mixed reviews. One anonymous White teacher told the New York Post, “It feels like I’m in a dystopian novel where all of a sudden being White is bad. All of a sudden, I’m the enemy.”
What this response exposes is the lack of understanding of institutionalized racism in this country and the ways educators explicitly or implicitly uphold systematic oppression. Ongoing teacher education that addresses Whiteness rigorously and systematically could lessen this confusion.
Whiteness was constructed to establish a racial hierarchy that sustains the privilege and power of White individuals and rewards those who assimilate to Whiteness, shedding their own cultural pluralities. Though race is biologically false, it is socially real. As historian David Roediger put it in his 1994 Towards the Abolition of Whiteness, “Whiteness is not only false and oppressive, it is nothing but false and oppressive.”
People weren’t “White” or “Black” before they arrived on the indigenous land we now call the United States. As Africans were kidnapped and enslaved on western shores, colonists created a “White identity.” In Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi traces how the term “race” was utilized to identify, differentiate, and animalize African people.
So how does this shape our current reality? The construction of Whiteness led to government authorized racially segregated neighborhoods. The construction of Whiteness led to racially segregated schools where resources and opportunities continue to be hoarded for already privileged children. The construction of Whiteness explains the impulses of White parents up in arms about the possibility of sending their children to school with “disadvantaged” (read: Black and Brown) children. The construction of Whiteness explains why Black children are over-disciplined and grow up to be five times more likely to be incarcerated than their White counterparts. The construction of Whiteness can explain why at the tender age of 3 or 4, Black preschoolers are watched more closely and more likely to be marked as behaviorally challenged.
Whiteness fuels environmental racism, maintaining safety for some and toxic environments for others. From South Los Angeles, to Flint, Mich., to the Bronx, N.Y., working class Black and Brown communities are disproportionately exposed to harmful pollutants and live in food deserts with restricted access to healthy food that place their children in precarious health conditions.
Teachers—and not just White teachers—not only need to learn how to be “culturally relevant,” but must gain a deeper understanding of the political histories and conditions that shape the lived experiences of themselves and their students. Teacher education must help everyone think critically of the world around them so that tomorrow’s teachers, policymakers, doctors, lawyers, and service workers don’t perpetuate and sustain inequity.
What does it mean to acknowledge Whiteness in teacher education? It means preventing Black children from being traumatized by teachers who think it’s OK to auction Black students during a lesson on slavery, as one 5th grade teacher recently did at a private school in Bronxville, N.Y. Acknowledging Whiteness in teacher education means reflecting children’s identities in their learning and authority figures. Acknowledging Whiteness means disrupting the notion that there is only one standard of success by instead honoring our country’s beautiful cultural pluralism.
Deconstructing Whiteness in schooling is an ongoing, uphill battle for many of us, but each step forward matters. We as educators should sit in our discomfort, interrogate sentiments of defense or anger that may bubble up when discussing race and power, and question how we might be complicit in producing biases that harm children.
By 3rd grade, I felt ashamed because my schooling rarely connected with my identity. What would it have been like to feel recognized and valued the moment I entered school? Is this not what all children deserve?