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Raising Race Questions: Whiteness and Inquiry in Education

reviewed by Maxine Roberts & Estela M. Bensimon - October 21, 2015

coverTitle: Raising Race Questions: Whiteness and Inquiry in Education
Author(s): Ali Michael
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807755990, Pages: 192, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Building whole classrooms requires supporting each student to have a positive racial identity; teachers, however cannot accomplish this unless they have a positive racial identity themselves. (p. 3)

In this book, Ali Michael, Director of the K-12 Consulting and Professional Development group at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses a project conducted in three Philadelphia schools (private, public urban, and public suburban) with six White, middle class teachers who sought to build anti-racist classrooms by engaging in an inquiry project. Scholars of participatory critical action research use the term inquiry in reference to practitioners studying their own practices in order to understand how they work, who they work for, and who they fail. Inquiry is a means of creating the conditions that will bring about “self-change” because, as Kemmis and McTaggart suggest, if practitioners “do not change themselves, their understandings, their practices, or their construction of the setting . . . social and educational change is more difficult to obtain” (p. 70).

Michael used an inquiry approach to help White teachers reflect on their White identity and how it shapes their beliefs, perceptions, and practices. The process used by Michael was somewhat different than inquiry in the tradition of action research. Michael’s inquiry consisted of questions that the six teachers generated to learn how race is embedded in teaching practices, how to manage relationships with African American students and their families, and how to understand being White as a racial identity. The logistics of the inquiry methods are not discussed in detail, but it appears that there was a division of labor whereby the teachers came up with questions and Michael provided insights and clarifications based on her knowledge, research, focused conversations with the teachers, and most of all, by observing them in the classrooms.

Examples of the kinds of questions posed by the teachers ranged from logistics (e.g., “How do I find good resources that are inclusive of many racial backgrounds?” [p. 22]) to critical race-focused questions (e.g., “Why are Black males overrepresented in special education?” and “What’s wrong with the system?” [p. 23]) to self-reflective questions (e.g., “Am I a racist?" [p. 25] and “How do I come across?” [p. 25]). One of the contributions of this book is the discussion on the inquiry impasse, a phrase that denotes instances when teachers respond to evidence of racialization with seemingly rational explanations that naturalize racial patterns of inequality. Critically, Michael calls these explanations “perfectly logical explanations” (PLEs) (p. 28). The inquiry impasse also refers to explanations based on stereotypes (e.g., “They are here on athletic scholarships" [p. 33]). In part, the inquiry impasse is created by educators’ tendencies toward analyses that call attention to the deficits of students, their families, and culture rather than to institutionalized racism.

One of the examples Michael provides to illustrate the inquiry impasse is the type of question that is labeled “untouchables” because teachers often do not ask them for fear of appearing racist. An untouchable question that the author discusses at length is one teacher’s preoccupation with the disciplining practices of Black parents and how to intervene to let them know that they are not consistent with the school’s principles. Michael shows that the way the teacher posed the question (e.g. “How do I address families who discipline their children in ways that I see as inconsistent with our school’s principles?” [p. 36]) positions the Black family as the “problem.” In her role as “inquiry coach” (our term), Michael reframes the question to make the teacher the focus of inquiry: Why do the discipline strategies of some Black families look so different from what I expect and see consistent with the School’s policies?” Through a variety of vignettes based on actual observations of the six teachers Michael shows the very harmful consequences of ordinary practices that would escape the notice of racially naïve practitioners.

Michael combines human development theory and her experiences as a consultant to inform her work with teachers and frame suggestions for improving their practices; this model can appeal to practitioners and scholars alike. Michael does not prescribe answers to these and many other issues that the teachers raise. Instead, she comes up with explanations and a range of responses that teachers can consider in dealing with sensitive topics such as disciplining practices, “Black” dialect, and teachers’ unrecognized racial biases and stereotyping. She carefully validates her analysis by sharing it with the six teachers, and in the last chapter, she provides their responses. Having the teachers’ reactions to the analysis adds substance to the book because the reader gets a sense of what the teachers learned and what difference their learning made in their capacity to create anti-racist classrooms.

It is clear that Michael was able to establish rapport with the teachers by sharing examples of judgments she passed on herself and others, fears or concerns about her ignorance, and guilt about interactions with peers during her racial identity development. For example, when discussing Helms’s stages of the White Racial Identity Model, Michael recounts the actions that she considered taking during her Immersion/Emersion status, such as burning her U.S. passport, moving to South Africa, and adopting Black children. By sharing these concerns and considerations, she opens herself to judgment as a way of helping readers understand that developing a positive racial identity is a learning process.

Some may take issue with Michael’s comparison of the racial competence of Whites and people of color. In the introduction, she discusses the differences in the “average racial competence” (p. 5) of the two groups and uses arithmetic (e.g., basic mathematics) and calculus (e.g., more complex mathematics) to describe the racial competence of Whites and people of color, respectively. She highlights this difference as the reason for the chasm between the two groups during race-related conversations. This distinction frames Whites’ racial competence from a deficit rather than a difference perspective, characterizing them as “daunted and confused by basic [race] concepts” (p. 5). This kind of framing is not unlike the ways that the academic competencies of people of color have been described in literature, portraying Whites as more capable or proficient than underrepresented people of color. It may have been more effective to say that the identity of Whites derives from privilege, whereas the identity of people of color derives from historical experiences of oppression, colonization, and enslavement.

As noted in this review’s opening quote, Michael believes that White teachers who develop a positive racial identity influence their students’ positive racial identity development. This book, however, lacks evidence about the ways students are influenced by their teachers’ positive racial identity development. For instance, in Chapter Three, readers learn about Ann’s (a high school teacher) classroom interactions with two students—Doug, a White male who continuously tries to get Ann’s attention while she is working with Keisha, a Black female student. Michael depicts a scene where a White boy’s persistence successfully takes the teacher’s attention away from Keisha. It is clear that the teacher likes Doug and even though he is being disruptive she responds to him endearingly, and in so doing ignores Keisha’s needs. Later in the book, during Ann’s reflection on her development process, she discusses her awareness of her preferential behaviors and states that she has “learned to push through moments of racial discomfort with students, parents, colleagues, and friends” (p. 130). It is unclear however, whether Ann has developed the critical awareness to understand how her responses benefitted Doug to the detriment of Keisha.

Raising Race Questions shows that the culturally acquired knowledge of White teachers makes it difficult for them to notice the ubiquity of race and their own role in reducing Black students’ opportunity to learn. Earlier publications by Lisa Delpit, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Mica Pollock, Joyce King, and Ana Maria Villegas and Tamara Lucas make clear that teacher preparation programs are not equipping teachers with the knowledge to analyze racial inequality critically. Like these authors before her, Michael mounts a strong evidence-based case for the need to incorporate critical race perspectives into the curriculum of teacher education programs. Racial competence—which Michael defines as the ability to give and receive feedback about race, raise race questions, be reflective about one’s practice, confront racism, and analyze racial dynamics—should be a measure of quality for teacher education programs and a criterion to judge teacher performance.


Kemmis, S., & McTaggart, R. (2000). Participatory action research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 567–605). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 21, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18163, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 9:51:58 AM

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About the Author
  • Maxine Roberts
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    MAXINE ROBERTS is a Ph.D. student in Urban Education Policy at the University of Southern California and a Research Assistant for the Center for Urban Education (CUE) at the USC Rossier School of Education. Her research interests include issues related to community college students, race and equity in developmental education courses, and college persistence and retention.
  • Estela Bensimon
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    ESTELA M. BENSIMON is a professor of higher education and co-director of the Center for Urban Education (CUE) at the USC Rossier School of Education. Her current research is on issues of racial equity in higher education from the perspective of organizational learning and socio-cultural practice theories. She is also co-author of several books, the most recent one Engaging the Race Question: Accountability and Equity in US Higher Education (with Alicia D. Dowd).
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