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We Canít Teach What We Donít Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools

reviewed by Lisa A. Mazzei - July 05, 2006

coverTitle: We Canít Teach What We Donít Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools
Author(s): Gary R. Howard
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807746657, Pages: 172, Year: 2006
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In his expanded second edition of We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know, Gary R. Howard summarizes his experience as a multicultural educator and provides research by others in the area of whiteness studies and multicultural education to flesh out how culturally responsive teaching practices might be engaged by competent teachers. The text raises several questions: What do we know about ourselves as white educators? What difference does our “whiteness” make in our ability to work successfully with students in multiracial schools, especially in light of the passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act? The answers to these questions are central to the discussion presented by Mr. Howard as he probes the implications for educators of whiteness as a racial identity and whiteness as a dominance paradigm. Furthermore, these questions are embedded in his notion of white privilege that he strives to dismantle via what he describes as a “transformationist pedagogy.” A transformationist pedagogy, as developed by Mr. Howard, is “the place where our passion for equity [emphases in original] intersects with our cultural competence and leads to culturally responsive teaching in our classrooms and schools” (p. 133).

Mr. Howard begins by progressing through the stages of white identity awareness and development in much the same way that he proposes whites must move through what he terms “ways of being white” toward an “authentic white identity.” I question whether there can be an “authentic” white identity, which, if characterized, would prove commensurate with the same essentializing stereotypes that whites engage in with those of other races, but that dilemma is best left for a later essay. Nonetheless, Mr. Howard clearly locates himself as white from the very beginning of the text, a naming and positioning that demonstrates his own sense of a white racial identity, and an acknowledgement that in order to credibly and “authentically” enter into the dialogue, such naming is essential.

While he cannot do otherwise in writing from and about his specific identity, a problem that emerges, at least for this reader, is that the book seems far too weighted on that very experience.  Granted, his stories are very interesting and they do provide valuable lessons to support his premise. However, I would have welcomed (especially in a 2nd edition) either a reframing of those stories or additional examples that would prove to be more specifically engaging to a larger audience such as (as he indicates) 90% of new teachers who are white and female. As a white female who has been a teacher educator for the past 10 years, I want more stories to which my white female students can relate. These students don’t need more stories that they can write off by saying, “[B]ut that was in the 60s, or that was 10 years ago, or that was yesterday.” For them, I want more compelling examples of a contemporary nature that they can engage in and say, “[T]hat sounds like me, or that is a lot like one of my classmates or one of the students in my field placement.”

Mr. Howard’s stories would also be more effective if accompanied by further reflection and explanation. For example, Mr. Howard recounts the experience of a young African American teacher who describes her experiences as having been “educated to be White (p. 133).” What does “educated to be White” mean? Why is it problematic to even make such a statement? In another example he recounts a failed inservice that resulted first in silence and then in hostility (p. 122). Why were the teachers silent? Why did they become hostile? What might have been done differently? Stated again, Mr. Howard’s stories are both interesting and germane as they provide much opportunity for discussion and reflection; however, they concurrently lack such reflection and discussion in their ability to provide the depth of a probing of whiteness and white dominance to which Mr. Howard aspires.

Of course, this critique of “his story” is seen through the lens of an academic who has been engaged for several years with the issues of multicultural education and the need to locate whiteness. Mr. Howard correctly asserts that this interrogation of whiteness must not be located solely in the academic community (p.114) and this is certainly evident in his approach. But in the reading, I found myself at times disengaged, or feeling like I was simply reviewing a compilation of various texts that I have read over the years about multicultural education and the need to locate whiteness. Perhaps, as an academic in this field of whiteness studies, I have lost the ability to approach the conversation from the perspective of those young white females as they prepare to go out into the schools and teach those “other children.” Perhaps the nonthreatening narrative that Mr. Howard presents is more effective with this audience as opposed to my desire to shake them up and make them “see,” an approach that can result in an uncomfortable silence—both mine and theirs.

The approach taken in the text raises the question of the intended audience for this work, and subsequently, whether I am asking Mr. Howard to do more than he intends. If the intended audience is the group of neophyte white educators who are in the inchoate phase of an examination or recognition of themselves as having a racial identity and recognizing whiteness as a racial identity, then perhaps this level of discussion is what is needed. In Mr. Howard’s words, it is an approach to help them begin to understand how whiteness in fact “colors” their views and experiences in the world. This assertion is particularly poignant and important—the fact that whiteness colors the ways in which whites, and in this case white teachers, view themselves and their students as “different” just as blackness or brownness colors the way that students of “color” view themselves and their white teachers as different. Such awareness is essential to developing culturally responsive teaching practices.

If this book can help teachers, especially a portion of the 90% of white teachers in U.S. schools to begin to see their whiteness, name their whiteness, and question their assumptions and pedagogical practices as they are both determined by and informed by the fact that they are white, then it is well worth the read, even with its limitations. If such is the case, as Sonia Nieto states in the foreword:  “More teachers need to read this book, more schools need to make sure it is in their libraries, and more schools of education need to include it in their reading lists.”

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 05, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12580, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 2:45:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Lisa Mazzei
    Manchester Metropolitan University
    E-mail Author
    LISA A. MAZZEI is beginning a two-year appointment as a Research Fellow at the Education and Social Research Institute (ESRI) at Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, England. Her research interests include: the normalizing effects of mentoring on new teacher performance; and how a recognition of whiteness on the part of white teachers impacts curricular and pedagogical decisions in racially and culturally diverse classrooms. She is currently finishing a text that engages silence as data in qualitative research. The book is scheduled to be released next spring.
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