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A Divergence of Interests: Critical Race Theory and White Privilege Pedagogy

by Ryan M. Crowley & William L. Smith - 2020

Background/Context: Informed by the increasing racial disparity between the nation’s predominantly White teaching force and the growing number of students of color in K–12 schools, along with the well-documented struggles that White teachers have in exploring race and racial identity, the authors critique the use of White privilege pedagogy as a strategy for promoting antiracist dispositions in White pre-service teachers.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: By deploying several concepts central to critical race theory, as well as critiques that note the shortcomings of past attempts at racial reform (Brown v. Board of Education, Voting Rights Act), the authors investigate the effectiveness of White privilege pedagogy within the teacher education setting.

Research Design: To construct our conceptual critique of White privilege pedagogy within teacher education, we reviewed the extant literature that discussed the range of shortcomings to this pedagogical approach. To create a more historical and structural critique, we demonstrated how the tenets of White privilege pedagogy conflicted with key principles of critical race theory and with lessons from past racial remedies. We contend that White privilege pedagogy arises from a racial liberalist worldview and requires an untenable convergence of interests that limits its long-term impact. We parallel our critiques of White privilege pedagogy with arguments used by critical race scholars to explain the limited impact of previous efforts at racial reform.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The authors urge teacher educators to move away from the individualized and over-essentialized representations of racism inherent to White privilege pedagogy in favor of historical, structural, and intersectional discussions of race, racism, and the construction of White privilege.


A group of students walked into their Tuesday methods class to find the desks pushed to the sides of the room and a long line taped across the floor. The course syllabus listed this session as “Teaching Diverse Students,” but the teacher candidates could only guess as to the reason for the room’s arrangement. While the students milled about, their instructor entered and asked them to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their feet on the line in the center of the room. The instructor faced the students, a group who resembled the demographics of the nation’s teaching force: predominantly White, female, and monolingual. However, the class also contained smaller numbers of males, people of color, speakers of more than one language, and other members of minority identity groups.

The instructor announced that she would read a series of statements and that students should follow the directions if the statement applied to them. If you can find Band-Aids at mainstream stores designed to match your skin tone, take one step forward. After scanning the room nervously, all of the White students in the room took one step forward. If you are able to move through the world without fear of sexual assault, take one step forward. After a pause, the males in the classroom took one step forward. If you can show affection for your romantic partner in public without fear of ridicule, take one step forward. With the discomfort spreading, all but a few students took a step forward. If you are never asked to speak on behalf of a group of people who share an identity with you, take one step forward. After some reflection, all White males and some White females stepped forward. The instructor continued reading statements and the students spread out along predictable lines in terms of their race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other identity elements. As this sorting occurred, the students grew increasingly uncomfortable, avoiding eye contact with those they knew were either ahead of or behind them in this microcosm of society. In the end, nobody felt good about where they stood.

Although this vignette is a composite of our personal experiences, the scenario depicted is quite common. Social justice educators use activities like the privilege walk to provide students with a visceral demonstration of how unearned advantages create unequal positions in society. Although such activities often add elements of intersectionality through statements related to class, gender or sexuality, the exercise leans heavily on racial privilege. Many scenarios common to this activity, such as the Band-Aid statement, draw directly from McIntosh’s (1989) widely used White privilege checklist. As such, this activity is an example of what Levine-Rasky (2000) calls White privilege pedagogy (WPP), referring to the use of White privilege literature or concepts to help (usually White) students understand racial inequality. WPP is common to many educational spaces and often plays a significant role in teacher education, typically as part of the broader effort of helping the majority-White teaching force work effectively with students of color (Lensmire et al., 2013; Margolin, 2015).

Despite its popularity, we argue that WPP is a flawed approach to antiracist teacher education. Our critique adopts a historical and structural posture, arguing that the precepts of WPP conflict with key tenets from critical race theory and with important lessons from the United States’ racial past. We contend that WPP fails to advance racial justice for the same reasons that the racial remedies of the 1950s and 1960s (i.e., Brown v. Board, Voting Rights Act) failed to dismantle the U.S. racial hierarchy (Crenshaw, 1988). WPP, like these past racial reforms, is rooted in notions of racial liberalism (Guinier, 2004) and depends upon a perceived interest convergence (Bell, 1980) between White progressives and people of color. The emphasis on the individual within racial liberalism distracts from a structural racial analysis while the convergence of interests that makes WPP possible obscures interest divergences among White people along class, gender, and other lines. When White people partake in WPP and acknowledge their White privilege, it may feel like the beginnings of a move toward racial justice. However, much like the reforms of the civil rights era, WPP is likely to produce short-term benefits that do little to disrupt the more permanent, structural racial hierarchy.

To develop our critique of WPP, we begin by discussing the landscape of WPP in formal education settings as well as in informal spaces such as Internet sites and social media. Second, we review the extant critiques of WPP. Third, we draw from three concepts in critical race theory—racial liberalism, interest convergence, and interest divergence—to demonstrate the limitations of WPP in promoting racial justice. We close with a call for alternative racial pedagogies in teacher education.1


When Peggy McIntosh (1989) encouraged White folks to unpack their “invisible knapsacks,” she created a racial discourse with impressive staying power. Although scholars of color outlined the contours of White supremacy far in advance of McIntosh’s work (Acuna, 1972; Deloria, 1969; Dubois, 1992; Takaki, 1993), the concept of White privilege proved highly influential. McIntosh continued a tradition of racial awareness training for White people dating back to the encounter groups of the mid-1960s (Katz, 1978). McIntosh (1989) defined White privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious” (pp. 1–2). Lensmire et al. (2013) elaborated on White privilege as the “concrete ways that the social, legal, and economic constructions of race benefit White people in their daily lives” (p. 413). White privilege discussions often emphasize an individual’s affective relationship with racism and typically involve White people doing antiracist work with other White people.

The notion of White privilege rose to prominence around the same time that Critical Whiteness Studies proliferated in the academy (Fine, Weis, Powell, & Mun Wong, 1997). While Critical Whiteness scholarship explored the nuanced ways that Whiteness operated as a set of power relations (Mills, 1997) or as the “unnamed, universal moral referent” (Giroux, 1997, p. 286), McIntosh discussed White privilege in a style accessible to wide audiences. This accessible language, as well as the accompanying checklist of White advantages, promoted “a-ha” moments as readers reflected on the everydayness of White privilege. White privilege acted as a wake-up call and an opportunity for progressive-leaning White folks to acknowledge their fortunate place in society. The term has undoubtedly found a home in the academy. A Google Scholar search returns 776 instances of books or journal articles with titles that include White privilege and over 1500 people attend the annual White Privilege Conference (“What is the WPC?”, 2017).

The notion of White privilege exists in popular discourse as well. After the shooting of Michael Brown, the U.S. Department of Justice opened its town-hall-style meeting in Ferguson, Missouri by asking attendees to consider how White privilege exists in their community (Lovelace, 2014). Recent college courses, such as one offered at Notre Dame, offer “personal transformation” through explorations into White privilege (Audia, 2014, para 1). Wealthy White communities in the Northeast have asked high school students to consider the details and implications of their racial privilege (Williams, 2017) and a Norman, Oklahoma teacher recently came under fire for asking students to discuss the notion that all White people might be racist (Rosen, 2016).

White privilege is also commonplace in social media and in online news outlets. The Huffington Post, for instance, has over 500 articles tagged with the terms “White Privilege.” Included in the culture website Buzzfeed’s extensive coverage of the concept is an online quiz entitled, “How Privileged Are You?” (Jha & Wesley, 2014). Elsewhere, the news and culture site Gawker hosted a “Privilege Tournament” that pit biographical traits (e.g., South Asian, blind, Buddhist, allergic to Latex) against one another to determine the most and least privileged identities (Nolan, 2013). The hip-hop artist Macklemore has released two separate songs on the subject, the second of which, “White Privilege II,” garnered over five million views on YouTube and sparked controversy (Demby, 2016). Finally, the popularity of White privilege in both online and in-person race conversations has led to a new admonishment handed out in these discussions: “check your privilege” (Fortgang, 2014). This curt phrase acts as shorthand for the policing of language in spaces like Facebook or Twitter, as well as in college classrooms, typically using privilege as a means of shaming a participant who does not follow the unwritten rules of such engagements (Sehgal, 2015). This brief survey demonstrates the myriad ways in which White privilege has permeated social discourse, particularly among students and young adults.


A small body of recent scholarship has questioned the effectiveness of focusing on White privilege as a vehicle for consciousness-raising. We developed the following categories of concern to make sense of these authors’ varied critiques: WPP Flattens the Issue, WPP Does Not Work, and WPP Lacks a Connection to Action.


A number of the critiques of WPP center on how it oversimplifies the issues involved. For example, the emphasis on individual race privilege tends to suggest that racial inequities are primarily a problem of, or by, individuals (Lensmire et al, 2013; Margolin, 2015). Framing racial inequities as an individual challenge homogenizes the diverse set of experiences within racial groups into a single narrative, regardless of variations within that group (Blum, 2008). The individual emphasis also obscures how a long history of political, economic and social policy-making formed the racial hierarchy in the United States (Lipsitz, 2006; Mills, 1997). Leonardo (2004) reminds us that emphasizing privileges as “unearned advantages” removes any actor from the equation. White supremacy—“a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources [and in which] conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread” (Ansley, 1997, p. 592)—offers a better description of the active processes that sustain the racial hierarchy as opposed to White privilege, which more closely refers to the everyday manifestations of the legacy of White supremacy (Lensmire et al., 2013).

Similarly, the notion of what constitutes a privilege is itself misleading. Many items framed as privileges in WPP activities—like physical and emotional safety—should be viewed as basic human rights (Chater, 1994; Margolin, 2015). When re-framed as rights, the purpose of an activity aimed at giving up one’s privileged status loses its clarity. Gordon (2004) notes that a White-privilege emphasis “condemn[s] whites for possessing, in the concrete, features of contemporary life that should be available to all” and so, “how can whites be expected to give up such things?” (p. 115). Gordon’s concern also begs the question of how White students reasonably could divest themselves of these privileges, even if they desired to do so. Yancy (2004) adds that

After a day of theorizing, the white theorist rides back to the suburbs, escapes being profiled, walks up and down the streets of all-white neighborhoods without fear of being harassed or labeled a problem, and finds it easy to hail a cab if necessary. (p. 17)

Yancy highlights the practical and sociological impossibility of opting out of so-called “privileges.” Furthermore, the process by which these actions might improve the lives of people of color remains unclear.

Finally, WPP leaves little room for interrogating how race intersects with other factors such as social class, gender, or sexual orientation. Some facilitators of WPP may explicitly silence threads of the conversation that veer into these other identifiers, seeing them as a mechanism for deflecting the issue from race and onto safer emotional ground (Gay & Kirkland, 2003). Gorski (2012) writes:

The most heavy-handedly enforced rule, and the one we, in the white privilege brigade, still seem determined to protect with the greatest earnestness, dictates that nobody shall, during a conversation about white privilege, mention any identity that is not a racial identity or any oppression that is not racism. (p. 3)

While these critics likely agree that time should be spent learning about race in isolation, we concur with Blum’s (2008) assessment that students must also have opportunities to explore the “deep empirical and normative interconnection[s]” (p. 315) between race and social class as well as between race and other social structures.  


Failures of Resistance

Scholars also argue that WPP is ineffective at preparing antiracist teachers. This “failure” generally takes one of two forms. First, those who are involved with training White teachers are likely familiar with the well-documented resistance that many students and pre-service teachers offer when confronted with WPP and other antiracist content (Jupp, Berry, & Lensmire, 2016). For instance, McIntyre (1997) introduced the concept of “White Talk,” a category of discursive moves White pre-service teachers make in order to protect themselves from complicity with a White racial hierarchy. Similarly, Picower’s (2009) study revealed how White teacher candidates responded to race conversations with “tools of whiteness,” ideological, emotional, and performative maneuvers that protected White supremacy. Some scholars have complicated White resistance, framing the resistance as protection for the social status of White people (Sleeter, 1993), as pushback to the over-essentialization of White identities (Trainor, 2002), or as the result of ambivalent feelings about race (Lensmire, 2010). Others argue that teacher educators should focus on the assets these students bring to learning about race rather than their deficiencies (Jupp & Slattery, 2010).

Pierce (2016) offers attribution bias as a psychological explanation for why White students may struggle to comprehend the tenets of White privilege. Humans tend to recognize personal achievements as the product of internal factors (e.g., hard work) and regard failures as external (e.g., a “rigged” system). Resistance to WPP makes sense, then, when considering that White students are asked to reconsider their successes in light of systemic advantages conferred passively to them (but denied to others). In light of these attribution biases, Pierce highlights the psychological trauma WPP can inflict, calling into question one’s agency in her world and “mak[ing] her more, rather than less likely to derogate and blame those who are disadvantaged by systems of privilege “(p. 513). Leonardo (2004) similarly describes the psychological bind of well-meaning White people: a desire to pursue social justice but little taste for the radical reorganization of social and material life that such a system of justice would entail.

Failures of Acceptance

WPP can fail through the resistance it produces and, counter-intuitively, it can also fail when students acknowledge their privileges too readily. WPP aims to engender an understanding of how individual White people have benefited from unearned advantages. In all likelihood, some students will then demonstrate that they understand the concept, take ownership of their privileged status, and undergo what Jupp and Slattery (2015) term a “critical conversion” in their racial identities. However, as Margolin (2015) cautions, such a disposition provides “antiracist cover” by allowing White people the appearance of having given up something without actually having done so. In other words, the confessional aspect of WPP absolves White students of responsibility and affords them a feeling of accomplishment that “redeems them from their complicity with racism” (Levine-Rasky, 2000, p. 277).

Ahmed (2004) similarly argues that when students express a desire for action, such a sentiment may represent other iterations of WPP’s “failure of acceptance.” Ahmed suggests that the tendency toward action could represent a number of purposes, such as an expression of shock after learning about racism or of solidarity with marginalized peoples. However, Ahmed cautions that these expressions can act to prevent deep listening. She writes, “The desire to act, to move, or even to move on, can stop the message ‘getting through’” (para 56). As teacher educators, we undoubtedly see action as an important, and often absent, piece of these critical conversations about race. However, we also support Ahmed’s critique of race discussions that move too quickly and carelessly into action, eschewing the necessary emotional and intellectual work.

In addition to providing these forms of antiracist cover (Margolin, 2015), “successfully” enacted WPP can have other unfortunate consequences. Conversations about White privilege in general can re-center the White experience and promote the notion that individual identities matter more than either White supremacist structures or the individual experiences of people of color (Leonardo, 2004; Margolin, 2015). Chater (2015) notes, too, how WPP can create unhelpful divisions within a class or group of students, with those who “get it” feeling a sense of moral superiority over those who do not. Studying White privilege can reinforce White dominance, as students’ newly acquired knowledge—in the current parlance, being “woke” (Foley, 2016)—perpetuates hierarchical perspectives (Ahmed, 2004). Or, as Lensmire et al. (2013) put it, WPP acts as a tool for sorting students, separating them into those who confess and those who refuse and, therefore, remain racist.

Although WPP can elicit responses more complicated than “resistor” or “confessor,” the reductive terms of the pedagogical interaction often push students into this binary space. Additionally, while WPP might compel some students to embark on a more comprehensive racial education, it is more likely that White privilege pedagogues produce students emotionally and intellectually unprepared to undertake antiracist work.


Several critiques of WPP highlight the disparity between the purported goal of WPP and its actual outcomes. When framed as an exercise in taking responsibility for White racial privileges, WPP leans on two problematic suppositions. First, this process of taking responsibility, of confessing one’s privilege (Lensmire et al., 2013), and of undergoing the “critical conversion” (Jupp & Slattery, 2010), becomes the end goal of WPP activities. Gorski (2012) similarly argues that dialogues on White privilege suffer from “too much conversation about how hard it is to be a white person taking responsibility for white privilege” as well as the view that “the dialogue, itself, is the antiracism, rather than what prepares us for the antiracism” (p. 3, emphasis added).

The emphasis on taking responsibility also lacks connection to specific actions or practices as a result. As Blum (2008) notes, by focusing solely on accepting one’s privileged place, “We fail to provide White students who are awakened to their White privilege with one constructive place to go with that realization” (p. 315). While we concur with Ahmed’s (2004) critique of rushing to action, without any emphasis on action or activism, the lessening of one’s privilege becomes the goal rather than a pathway toward working for change (Lensmire et al, 2013). McWhorter (2015) questions the premise that understanding White privilege even constitutes a necessary first step in pursuing racial activism, instead calling these confessional sessions a “kind of performance art” (para. 28) with little connection to promoting social change. Blum (2008) suggests that when teaching White students, the question posed must change from, “‘How can I divest myself of White privilege in my own life?” to “What can I do to make my society more racially just?” (p. 318). This latter question draws a clear line toward action, leaving behind privilege confessions as a precondition for conducting antiracist work.


We offer a historical and structural critique of the shortcomings of WPP, rooted in critical race theory and in the history of failed racial reform in the United States. Our argument draws from three concepts in critical race scholarship: racial liberalism, interest convergence, and interest divergence (Bell, 1980; Guinier, 2004). Below, we define each of these concepts, provide examples of the concepts in action in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and then apply these concepts to develop our critique of WPP.


Racial Liberalism

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, legal scholar Lani Guinier (2004) reviewed the case’s legacy. Specifically, Guinier teased out the root causes behind Brown’s general failure to bring about significant, nationwide change in opportunities and outcomes for low-income and African-American families. Guinier cites a range of evidence, from racial disparities in income to the severity of residential and school segregation, in support of her claim that Brown’s triumph over state-sanctioned segregation had done little to alter the makeup of an entrenched racial and socio-economic hierarchy in the United States.

Guinier (2004) explained Brown’s failure by locating it within the theoretical tradition of racial liberalism. As the predominant orientation toward racial reform in the post-World-War-II era, racial liberalism focused on eliminating de jure segregation and other formal legal barriers for people of color. Adherents of racial liberalism believed that allowing minority groups equal access in U.S. society (schooling, public places, voting) would reduce, and eventually eliminate, racial inequities (Crenshaw, 1988). This strategy sprang from a liberalist worldview, which Mills (2008) defines as “the egalitarian ideology of individual rights and freedoms” (p. 1380). Liberalism’s ascendancy, particularly in the West, has placed individual rights at the center of socio-political thought, and of socio-political structures, in the United States (Mills, 2011). Although now widely critiqued by critical race scholars (Crenshaw, 1988; Ladson-Billings, 1998), the liberalist emphasis on the individual—rather than the collective or the structural—cast racism as a psychological problem of irrational, individualized prejudice.

In the context of the Brown case, racial liberalism encouraged the NAACP legal team to emphasize the “corrosive effect of individual prejudice” (Guinier, 2004, p. 95) that Black children experienced due to the stigma of segregated schools. School integration could act as a balm for this psychological wound while also creating greater tolerance through interracial interaction. Following this logic, improving education for Black children would eventually elevate the social status of the Black population writ large. Although the legal team used constitutional arguments (e.g., the Fourteenth Amendment), a primary thrust of their case involved framing Black children as suffering from the negative psychological impact of segregation (Scott, 1997). The famous “Doll Study” by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark influenced this strategy, and the oft-quoted lines from Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion show how racial liberalism informed the Court’s thinking:

To separate [Black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because

of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954, para 18)

Again, this perspective views racism as a byproduct of segregation that produces psychological trauma rather than viewing segregation as a manifestation of ideological, structural, and material forces.

By emphasizing the damaging psychological effects experienced by Black children, rather than calling for equal funding or improved educational outcomes, the lawyers in Brown inadvertently treated what Guinier called the “symptoms of racism, not the disease” (p. 99). Rather than being the nation’s disease, segregated schools were merely one “visible manifestation of a larger, constantly mutating racialized hierarchy” (p. 99). Steeped in racial liberalism, reformers approached the challenge of improving opportunities for students of color in the slow, incremental manner made possible by the US judicial and political systems (Bell, 1992; Crenshaw, 1988). As Ladson-Billings (1998) suggests, “Racism requires sweeping changes, but liberalism has no mechanism for such change. Rather, liberal legal practices support the painstakingly slow process of arguing legal precedence to gain citizen rights for people of color” (p. 12). While these legal or legislative victories can make a positive impact on the lives of people of color, the reforms often fail to transform the underlying racial hierarchy, particularly as it morphs to absorb discontent in hegemonic fashion (Bell, 1980). In line with Lorde’s (1984) theorizing, the master’s tools (the courts and the legislatures) were not designed to dismantle the master’s (racially hierarchical) house. Instead, “only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.” (Lorde, 1984, p. 110). We explain below that WPP also suffers from an adherence to racial liberalism and falls short of its antiracist goals because of this theoretical starting point.

WPP Is Rooted in Racial Liberalism

Like Guinier (2004), we see the racial liberalist perspective of WPP as an oversimplification of the complex system that creates and perpetuates a racial hierarchy in the United States. To explain how WPP embodies racial liberalism, we return to the privilege walk activity outlined at the opening of this paper. Essentially, the privilege walk asks the White teacher candidates to consider the day-to-day advantages they receive by virtue of being White. One such privilege walk exercise, found on the website Peace Learner (2016), asks participants, “If you would never think twice about calling the police when trouble occurs, take one step forward” (Privilege Walk Statements, #14). With such a statement, one presumes that White students from middle-class backgrounds will have little fear or skepticism of the police. Conversely, students of color, particularly those from lower-income urban areas, may connect with such a statement, having themselves had second thoughts about the ramifications of inviting the police into their affairs.

The pedagogical concern is not with the relevance of such statements for teacher candidates. Rather, framing race issues as fundamentally a series of experiences or non-experiences, such as with fearing or not fearing the police, suggests a liberalist view of how racial hierarchies are constituted. As discussed above, racial liberalists saw racism as the product of irrational individual prejudices and unequal access to rights. The means for addressing these ills were similarly viewed as individualized: increasing cross-racial exposure, eliminating prejudicial beliefs, and ameliorating the psychological damage incurred by people of color (Crenshaw, 1988; Guinier, 2004). In the policing example, this WPP activity presumes that having White students confess to never having feared the police, while students of color voice the opposite experience, will promote antiracism. However, as Guinier (2004) notes, racism “has not functioned simply through evil or irrational prejudice,” as the racial liberalist worldview suggests; rather, “it has been an artifact of geographic, political, and economic interests,” (p. 98) and should be considered as such in teacher-education spaces. Otherwise, teacher candidates may walk away from WPP with a psychological view of racism as a problem of improper thinking rather than a structural view of racism as a system of power relations (Mills, 1997).

Critical race scholars like Bell and Guinier would likely interpret this WPP activity, and its statement about attitudes toward calling the police, as an oversimplification of the issue. Instead, students should be encouraged to consider the historical and socio-political forces that created the conditions for differential policing practices. To return to Guinier’s (2004) terminology, questioning one’s individual attitudes toward, and experiences with, the police addresses the symptoms of racism, rather than the broader disease, which would mean connecting policing practices and prison-sentencing to White supremacy (Alexander, 2010). Again, White students could admit to their different experiences and to the benefits of being able to trust the police without themselves having to make any substantive changes to their lives. Even for students already aware of racial inequities in society, WPP fails to dramatically shift their thinking on how these inequalities are constituted: WPP offers individualistic views of racism with solutions rooted in individual actions. These students will likely not leave such an educational experience with an appreciation of what to do about the privileges they possess nor with a greater sense of how to promote antiracism in their future teaching practice.

The checklist included in McIntosh’s (1989) article—a series of “I” statements about one’s daily experiences with White privilege— set the course for WPP’s focus on the individual in understanding U.S. racism. As discussed previously, an individual emphasis in these educational spaces portrays U.S. racism as a product of evil actors rather than racist policies and structures (Blum, 2008) and squeezes out consideration of White supremacy alongside privilege (Leonardo, 2004). This individualization of one’s race education can also prompt resistance from some White pre-service teachers (Picower, 2009), unproductive acceptance from others (Levine-Rasky, 2000), feelings of superiority among the “critically converted” students (Jupp & Slattery, 2010; Lensmire et al., 2013), a general re-centering of White experiences at the expense of others (Margolin, 2015), and/or viewing race dialogue as an end in and of itself (Gorski, 2012). Each of these pitfalls should caution against the racial liberalist approach to creating substantive improvements through an emphasis on the autonomous individual (Mills, 2011). Although WPP may raise the racial awareness of individual White people, it falls short as a tool of racial progress due, in part, to its grounding in racial liberalism.


Interest Convergence

Bell’s (1980) theory of interest convergence occupies a central place in critical race theory and frames the second aspect of our critique of WPP. Interest convergence arose as a way to make sense of the uneven racial progress of African Americans throughout U.S. history. Bell (2004) concluded that “Black rights are recognized and protected when and only so long as policymakers perceive that such advances will further interests that are their primary concern” (p. 49). In short, White elites only grant certain privileges to subjugated groups when such privileges also serve White interests. Therefore, civil rights advances do not occur because of White benevolence or through the moral force of public outcry against racial injustice. Bell notes that “even the most serious injustices suffered by blacks, including slavery, segregation, and patterns of murderous violence, have been insufficient, standing alone, to gain real relief from any branch of government” (p. 49). Instead, advances that provide relief must “secure, advance, or at least not harm societal interests deemed important by middle and upper class Whites” (Bell, 1980, p. 523). By granting concessions to Black interests (or to other subjugated groups) in ways that do not diminish long-term White supremacy, White racism absorbs elements of racial discontent in hegemonic fashion.

As an example of how extending minority rights also served White interests, Bell (1980) discussed the Brown case within the context of the Cold War, suggesting that White elites perceived progress in the realm of civil rights as integral to winning the ideological struggle against the Soviet Union. The blemish of state-sanctioned segregation in the United States handicapped the struggle for the hearts and minds of people in the Cold War battlegrounds of Asia and Africa. Action from the federal level, such as Brown, served to distance the U.S. government from the suppression of people of color and bolstered the geopolitical position of the United States (Dudziak, 2011).

Although interest convergence created the conditions for certain types of racial progress, it did not lead to the lasting coalitions necessary for maintaining or advancing that progress (Bell, 1980; Crenshaw, 1988). Primarily, interest convergence demonstrates that the rights of subjugated groups are always contingent upon their ongoing interaction with the rights of dominant groups. The current state of voting rights demonstrates this phenomenon, as minority-voting protections—seemingly guaranteed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965—are now under attack through legal decisions (e.g., Shelby v. Holder) that diminish the effectiveness of the legislation and through the surge of voter identification legislation aimed at people of color (Crowley, 2013).

WPP Relies on a Perceived Interest Convergence

Bringing Bell’s theory to a contemporary racial-justice context, we argue that the success of WPP as an antiracist teaching strategy depends upon a perceived interest convergence between White progressive educators and people of color. WPP only “works” when the participants in that pedagogy—White teachers and students, primarily—feel that acknowledging their own racial privileges serves their own interests while also helping to alleviate the oppression of people of color. Although this relationship bears similarities to the interest convergence arrangements of the civil rights era, the parties in WPP interact a bit differently. In particular, the overlapping of interests exists more in the perception of the White people engaged in this pedagogy (both teachers and students) than in reality.

To tease out this relationship, we must explore the interests of the participants involved in this pedagogical exchange, both those present and those who the pedagogy intends to help. When WPP takes place in the teacher-education setting, White teacher educators hope to convince White pre-service teachers that acknowledging their own individual White privilege can combat racial inequality and make them more effective teachers (Leonardo, 2009; Levine-Rasky, 2000). White educators who have experienced—and accepted—WPP will then undertake more productive racial discussions and avoid deficit views about students of color and the communities in which they live. As such, the benefit to White teachers is that they become more capable and competent in diverse educational settings. White teacher educators can also benefit from this relationship in a variety of ways, including developing a reputation for employing social justice concepts in their teaching.

In addition to these putatively noble interests of progressive White educators, engaging with and accepting the precepts of WPP also allows White people to feel self-congratulatory about their racial awareness (Schick, 2000). This awareness can lead to feelings of self-righteousness and even to the sorting of White people into those who “get it” and those who do not (Chater, 2015). When this occurs, the ability to acknowledge and discuss White privilege becomes the action rather than a framework for taking action. As these individuals develop more fluency in the language of White privilege, they can participate in the online and classroom spaces where WPP holds sway.

As for people of color, their role in the interest convergence of WPP differs somewhat from their role in the interest convergence of the civil rights era. Whereas civil rights groups influenced the legal and legislative agenda of the movement in a more direct fashion, the stake people of color have in WPP is less clear. As activists in civil rights groups, people of color crafted the methods and the targets of their protests, having a direct impact on social change. Within WPP, people of color are imagined as beneficiaries of this pedagogical approach regardless of whether or not they view WPP as effective (McWhorter, 2015). On the surface, it would appear that increased discourse about White privilege would be in the interest of people of color. However, the murkiness comes from the reality that WPP often operates as a way for White people to discuss race with one another and, in many ways, re-center White people in the race conversation (Leonardo, 2004). This focus can obscure the experiences of people of color. McWhorter (2015) punctuates this point with his critique of White privilege:

It’s a safe bet that most black people are more interested in there being adequate public transportation from their neighborhood to where they need to work than that white people attend encounter group sessions where they learn how lucky they are to have cars. (para 28)

Furthermore, when people of color participate in WPP, they have to endure discursive violence in the form of White fragility (DiAngelo, 2011), White victimization (Matias, 2016) or White silence (Mazzei, 2008) as White folks grapple with the implications of White privilege. This violence occurs in addition to the problematic roles people of color often have to play in majority-White race discussions: the “spokesperson” for a racial group, the “teacher” of White people, or, in the case of the privilege walk, the physical body that acts as a reference point so that White people can understand privilege.

Despite these concerns regarding WPP’s actual benefit to people of color, WPP still depends upon a perceived interest convergence for its success. The notion that WPP is effective is predicated on a belief that the interests of people of color and of White people are served because WPP develops greater racial awareness in White people and, ultimately, chips away at White supremacy (McIntosh, 1989). This perceived interest convergence gives WPP its moral force. Like the concessions granted to people of color during the civil rights era, the acknowledgment of White privilege required by WPP is supposedly in the service of racial justice but, in reality, can act as a means of reproducing White supremacy, even if in kinder, gentler forms.


Interest Divergence

The dilemma of interest divergence also helps to explain why historical efforts at racial reform failed to bring about lasting change and frames the third aspect of our critique of WPP. As Bell (1980) suggests, the expansion of rights for subjugated groups (e.g. voting rights) only occurs when the interests of those groups temporarily align with the interests of the dominant group. Guinier (2004) adds that those overlapping interests only obscure, rather than change, the deeply rooted interest divergences between those groups. A short-run convergence of interests can generate favorable court rulings or legislation, but the effectiveness of those decisions will be limited by the longstanding conflict of interests produced and maintained by the structural dimensions of racism.

Again, returning to Brown, Guinier (2004) detailed how the ruling failed to secure educational improvements for children of color due to “interdependent yet paradoxical relationships between race, class, and geography” (p. 100). Although these relationships predated Brown, the decision set forces into motion that hardened these divisions and lessened Brown’s impact. Regarding race and class, Brown re-energized White racial consciousness in the South in a way that further cloaked the common class interests that poor and working-class White folks had with the Black population (Klarman, 1994). Although racial liberalists argued that segregation damaged the Black psyche, they did not fully consider the psychological advantages it afforded to White people. School integration rolled back some of those advantages. Poor and working-class White southerners, in particular, viewed integration as a net loss, a blow to their “public and psychological wages of whiteness” (DuBois, 1992). To resist this perceived loss, they reinvested in their Whiteness, further diminishing hopes of any reform movement predicated on racial solidarity across class boundaries.

Along geographic lines—and intersecting with aspects of race and class—Brown exacerbated divisions between urban, suburban, and rural areas, both North and South. As school reform efforts shifted towards integration, funding inequities and disparate educational outcomes between urban and rural areas remained unaddressed. At the same time, urban schools bore the brunt of integration efforts, further driving White flight to the new suburban schools that would remain segregated. Guinier (2004) offers the instructive example of Little Rock, Arkansas, well known for the international attention it received in 1957 during the integration of Central High School. By 1957, Little Rock had three high schools: a new, all-White Hall High School, the all-Black Horace Mann High School, and Central. While Central integrated, affluent White families left for Hall in the wealthier, exclusively White suburbs. Meanwhile, poor Black families remained segregated at Horace Mann. The school leadership in Little Rock pushed for this limited integration plan knowing it would not damage the interests of White elites. These divisions along urban, suburban, and rural lines, entangled with race and class, played out across the nation and helped to minimize the effectiveness of Brown in creating greater educational equity through integration.

WPP and the Interest Divergence Dilemma

Guinier (2004) argued that civil rights victories such as Brown were limited in their effectiveness because they served to harden interest divergences along race, class, and geographic lines. We argue that the interest convergence WPP depends upon for its success calls to attention a series of interest divergences among White people, the intended audience of this pedagogical intervention. These divergences occur due to the over-essentialization of Whiteness and White racial identity that is inherent to WPP (Trainor, 2002). When considering the monolithic notion of White privilege, WPP asks White students to set aside all other salient aspects of their identity (class background, gender expression, sexual orientation, ability status, religious belief, regional background, immigrant status, etc.) and engage only with the benefits of their racial identity. Although considering identity elements in isolation has some merit (Leonardo, 2009), WPP’s anti-intersectional approach tends to bring interest divergences among White people to the surface. Further complicating the issue, when these conflicting interests flare up in the WPP space, they are often interpreted as resistance to the existence of racism rather than as resistance to the reductionist nature of WPP (Jupp & Lensmire, 2016). In contrast to these divergences, an intersectional lens ideally offers a path toward common ground in the understanding of complex social challenges. Drawing on the work of early critical race scholars, Gillborn (2015) writes that “intersectionality has a core activist component, in that an intersectional approach aims to generate coalitions between different groups with the aim of resisting and changing the status quo” (p. 279). Interest divergences, we argue, negate opportunities for cross-racial coalitions.

While these divergences can occur along any identity axis other than race, we focus on class-based divergences, namely between poor/working-class White people and upper/middle-class White people. Educators who frequently discuss race and racism in majority-White settings have likely heard the question, “But what about social class?” While White students might choose to use this question as a means to deflect attention from race (Gay & Kirkland, 2003), evasion may or may not be the intent. Also, asking for a consideration of class is not an unfair question. When WPP paints White folks with a broad brush, students from poor or working-class backgrounds will naturally reflect on their circumstances and see a history of disadvantage rather than advantage. As Crosley-Corcoron (2014) noted, even some of the statements in McIntosh’s (1989) checklist seem as rooted in class privilege as they are in race privilege:

If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live. I can be reasonably sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me. (p. 166)

Students from lower-class backgrounds might reasonably seize upon some of the claims of WPP and suggest that these benefits owe as much to class as they do to race.

Undoubtedly, we do not suggest that all poor or working-class White students reject WPP nor that all middle or upper-class White students will embrace WPP. In our work with White pre-service teachers we have seen cases that support and refute that conclusion (Crowley & Smith, 2015). However, it is crucial to realize that these two groups have different stakes in the White privilege conversation. White privilege is normative in U.S. society (Leonardo, 2009) and White people learn to operate through an inverted racial epistemology (Mills, 1997) that makes a holistic view of race relations difficult. In contrast, class privilege is easily identifiable and the notion that “class matters” is widely accepted and supported by statistical measures (Carr & Wiemers, 2016). Poor and working-class students may or may not bring an explicit racial consciousness to WPP but they almost certainly carry an awareness of their disadvantaged class position. When White privilege pedagogues ask these students to acknowledge privilege, it can feel like an insult to the obstacles they have had to overcome due to their class backgrounds (Gorski, 2012). Although White students from privileged class backgrounds might cling fast to meritocracy and deny race privilege as well, these students, for the most part, face lower emotional stakes in WPP that can lead to their acceptance of its tenets. As discussed above, this parallels the way that school integration efforts played out, with poor and working-class White students taking responsibility for integration on behalf of all White people, while wealthier White families retreated to the suburbs (Guinier, 2004).

Sullivan’s (2014) assessment of White guilt and White shame—two common (and generally acceptable) affective responses to WPP—help to punctuate how class divisions mediate the emotional stakes at play in WPP. She suggests that the emotions that WPP often produces “exacerbate insidious class divisions between white people” (p. 137). Preston (2009) adds that, “displays of guilt and shame are a form of cultural capital” (p. 169) more readily available to middle and upper-class White students. Facilitators of WPP seek out particular responses in their students. Certain responses (anger, denial, silence) signal an unwillingness to acknowledge the workings of racism. Other responses (consent, shame, guilt, sadness), although perhaps no more productive, convey movement towards accepting the precepts of White privilege. Overall, middle and upper-class students have greater accessibility to the appropriate emotional responses to WPP, which can ultimately lead to the appropriate intellectual acknowledgement of White privilege.

Race, class, and geographic interest divergences stymied the long-term success of the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and 1960s. In similar fashion, a range of interest divergences undercuts the effectiveness of WPP, as highlighted by our discussion of class-based divergences. Although these conflicts predate WPP, the essentialization of Whiteness and White racial identity in WPP bring these issues to the surface, limiting the reach of this antiracist pedagogy.


Guinier (2004) argues that Brown failed to institute substantive change in racial inequality because reformers of the era focused on the symptoms of racism, rather than the disease itself. We argue that using WPP to do antiracist work with White teachers falls short for the same reason. Individual White people enjoy a litany of advantages in the present due to what Guinier terms a “larger, constantly mutating racialized hierarchy” (p. 99). WPP only draws attention to those everyday symptoms, however, and leaves the disease—White supremacy—unscathed. When pursuing antiracist work with White teachers, we urge teacher educators to abandon pedagogies like WPP that promote absolution through racial confessions and that create good-White-person/bad-White-person dichotomies. These pedagogies fall short, ultimately, because they are mired in a racial liberalist focus on the individual that leads White students to conceptualize racism as an individualized problem with individualized solutions. Even if students readily accept the precepts of WPP, the “solutions” offered to them either point them to personal consciousness-raising as an endpoint or encourage them to run headlong into the sociological impossibility of divesting their individual White privilege. These paths provide students with naive understandings of what constitutes an actual challenge to White supremacy or what actions they might reasonably take to answer Blum’s (2008) question: “How can I make society more just?”

Although these issues are thorny, teacher educators can begin to explore the terrain of race with their students and create a generative racial learning space. To do so, we urge educators to treat racism and the development of White supremacy through a historical, structural lens that highlights complexity and interconnection with other social forces such as class, gender, and geography (e.g., Applebaum, 2010; Bell, 1992; Guinier, 2004; Lensmire, 2010; Leonardo, 2004; Lipsitz, 2006). Through a more foundational approach, students can see that White privilege is an edifice that was actively constructed over time through actions in both the public and private sectors.2 This contextual and intersectional depth can help White students move away from individual feelings of guilt, shame, anger, or defensiveness toward a disposition of identifying the historic and structural elements of contemporary racism as they begin to take action in classrooms and communities.


1. We hope to clarify at the outset that our critique of WPP is not a denial of the notion that White people have significant advantages in society and/or immunity from social, economic, and political inequities (Cabrera, 2017). While we offer arguments here that demonstrate the limitations of White privilege as a concept, our critique centers on the way White privilege concepts are used as pedagogy. We hope that this enriches the conversation on preparing antiracist educators.

2. As an example, we have found that exploring the historical practice of redlining with our pre-service teachers creates a generative racial learning space. It highlights private and public sector contributions to racial inequity and provides a grounding for understanding current residential and school segregation as well as racial disparities in wealth (Rothstein, 2017).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 1, 2020, p. 1-24
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22942, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 5:43:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Ryan Crowley
    University of Kentucky
    E-mail Author
    RYAN M. CROWLEY is an assistant professor of Social Studies Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Kentucky. His research uses critical race theory and critical Whiteness perspectives to analyze how White teachers' make sense of learning about race, racism, and White privilege within teacher education. He recently published “White Teachers, Racial Privilege, and the Sociological Imagination” in Urban Education and “Transgressive and Negotiated White Racial Knowledge” in International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education.
  • William Smith
    University of Arizona
    E-mail Author
    WILLIAM L. SMITH is an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning & Sociocultural Studies at the University of Arizona. William’s research and teaching interests center on issues of race, curriculum, and social studies education with a current focus on identifying and employing transformational pedagogies in race and teacher preparation. He recently published, "Why Do We Focus on Firsts? Problems and Possibilities for Black History Teaching," in Social Education and served as lead author on "Barack Obama, Racial Literacy, and Lessons from 'A More Perfect Union,'" published in The History Teacher.
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