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Sometimes Leaving Means Staying: Race and White Teachers’ Emotional Investments

by Zeus Leonardo & Blanca Gamez-Djokic - 2019

Emotional praxis is not a phrase usually associated with teaching and teacher education. Yet when race enters educational spaces, emotions frequently run high. In particular, Whites are often ill-equipped to handle emotions about race, either becoming debilitated by them or consistently evading them. Without critically understanding the relationship between race and emotions—or, simply, racialized emotions—teachers are unprepared to teach one of the most important topics in modern education. This chapter addresses this gap in education and teacher training by surveying the philosophical, sociological, and burgeoning literature on emotion in education to arrive at critical knowledge about the function and constitutive role it plays in discourses on race. Specifically, the argument delves into white racial emotions in light of the known fact that most teachers in the United States are White women. This means that our critical understanding of emotion during the teaching and learning interaction entails appreciation of both its racialized and gendered dimensions, and attention to both race and gender becomes part of emotional praxis. Finally, the essay ends with a proposal for an intersubjective race theory of emotion in education.


White women play a central role in schooling, as well as a particular and sometimes peculiar function in maintaining White dominance. It is a well-known fact that the majority of U.S. teachers (eight of ten) are not only White, but women, specifically White women (Feistritzer, 2011). To say it in reverse, the majority of teachers are not only women, but White: again, White women. If educators understand the teaching force to be dominated by Whites, race becomes centered in the analysis. As a result of this framing, a common anxiety is the cultural mismatch between the White teaching force and a student population that will soon be minority-dominant. Alternatively, other educators may remark that the teaching force comprises mostly women; therefore gender takes center stage, sometimes referred to as the feminization of teaching. Our analysis differs to the extent that we examine White women’s racialized gender positioning, experience, and history. This means that our critical understanding of the teaching and learning interaction entails appreciation of both its racialized and gendered dimensions, and attention to both race and gender relations becomes part of educational praxis. Regarding White women, the politics of race and gender are mutually reinforcing interpellations that need accounting. In education, White women’s racialization process is an understudied phenomenon, with a few exceptions (Coloma, 2011; Leonardo & Boas, 2013). As the “caretakers” in education, White women teachers occupy a unique history, which is particularly important in their interaction with children of color.

For instance, White women played an important role in the vote for President Donald Trump. After all the reports of his sexual misconduct, including comments caught on tape about “grabbing” women, Trump still garnered 47% of White women’s votes (Pew Research Center, 2018). Even more surprising, this was accomplished in the face of a White woman as the alternative choice for president. One possible line of analysis is that Trump reminds many White women of their patriarchal father, partner, uncle, or brother, whose familiarity was emotionally comforting, even if jarring. Taking race into account, and against their objective gender interest, nearly half of White women voted for Trump and signaled their approval of his “get tough” attitude toward people of color, captured in his proposed Muslim immigration ban and U.S.–Mexico wall. In other words, White women will put up with Trump’s transgressions so long as he protects them from the perceived racial threat of Muslims and Mexicans, not to mention Marxists and migrants.

Because they have long played a role in which they are dependent on White men’s patriarchal protection, it is possible to interpret White women’s Trump vote, like other moments in race–gender history, as White women’s bargain with Whiteness. Like White workers’ alliance with Whiteness (Roediger, 1991), White women’s deal with Whiteness is a history of both injury and injunction. Injured by patriarchy, White women are then compelled to show their loyalty to Whiteness as an imperfect but binding remedy for their gender melancholia, something we will have more to say about below. As Dyer’s (1997) study of how Whites represent Whiteness to themselves showed, White women are not cleanly White. Minimally White while being liminally White, they “betray—the hopes, achievements and character of the race. They guarantee its reproduction, even while not succeeding to its highest heights” (Dyer, 1997, p. 29). Being the lower gender of the White race (Stepan, 1990), White women have that much less far to fall, and so they strike a compromise with Whiteness. Thus, White women’s objective gender interest is complicated by their race interest.

A corollary point of this essay concerns the politics of emotion in education. Emotional praxis is not a phrase usually associated with teaching and teacher education. Yet when race enters educational spaces, emotions frequently run high. Emotional praxis “acknowledges that emotions play a powerful role in either sustaining or disrupting hegemonic discourses about past traumatic events” (Zembylas, 2012a, p. 22) and provides the tools and platforms necessary to investigate one’s own emotional investments. Emotional praxis “exposes privileged positions of psychic and socio-political power and moves beyond the comfort zones in which teachers and students are usually socialized” (p. 22). Without this sort of critical emotional praxis, Whites, including White women, are often ill-equipped to handle emotions about race, either debilitated by them or consistently evading them. Without critically understanding the relationship between race and emotions—or simply racialized emotions—teachers are unprepared to teach one of the most important topics in modern education. Although writings on emotion have enjoyed some engagement in the disciplines (Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Feagin, 2009; Sartre, 1957; Yancy, 2012),1 this essay addresses a gap in education and teacher training by surveying the burgeoning literature on emotion in education (e.g., Chubbuck & Zembylas, 2008; Matias, 2016; Zembylas, 2008). Specifically, we delve into White women’s racial emotions in light of the fact that most teachers in the United States are White.

First, we use the framework of racial melancholia, as laid out by David Eng and Shinhee Han (2000) and Anne Cheng (2000), to understand better the role that the ideology of Whiteness plays in regulating White emotions. As these authors define it, racial melancholia is the condition of unrecognized, misremembered, and interminable mourning that afflicts people of color in the United States as a result of the impossibility of assimilation and the daily dehumanization resulting from the structures of Whiteness. We problematize suggestions of a White melancholia and question the idea that Whites suffer from a racial melancholia for which they are responsible. We then draw on Judith Butler’s (1995) work on gender melancholia to suggest that White women are racially premelancholic. Although premelancholic in race relations, White women experience gender melancholia through patriarchy and therefore inhere the possibility of awakening a latent awareness to the oppressive functions of Whiteness.

Second, we explicate the role that White women have played, and continue to play, in race relations. From enslavement of Africans to the education of Black children, White women have participated in the racialization process. White women are neither innocent pawns who do the bidding of White men nor fully coherent subjects of their own actions. That is, they occupy a contradictory space of subjectivity whose explanation is not exhausted by appeals to either racism or sexism, but must account for both, even as we focus this essay on White women teachers’ place in race relations. In other words, we account for their precarity in gender relations as a mitigating dynamic in their racial performance of Whiteness.

Victims of what Thandeka (1999) called “White racial abuse,” White women are participants in the hazing process called Whiteness even if they accrue benefits from learning to be White. As injured injurers, White women bear the markings of structural marginalization within patriarchy, which is further complicated by their White privilege within race relations, producing both gender injury and racial advantage. Finally, we end with some thoughts on future research and praxiological directions concerning racialized and gendered emotions in education.


In this section we draw on psychoanalysis to show how White feminine emotion is implicated with racial melancholia. In particular, we draw on Eng and Han’s (2000) take on racial melancholia as a productive rather than pathological way of making sense of the loss and alienation that impact a racially minoritized person’s sense of identity and belonging as a result of the pressures of assimilation to Whiteness. We take a specific interest in the cultural function and signification of what one popular online blogger called “the weary weaponizing of White women’s tears” (Ajayi, 2017) alongside suggestions of a “White melancholia” (Cheng, 2000; Hübinette & Räterlinck, 2014; Spanierman & Cabrera, 2015).

Anne Cheng’s (2000) work is instructive for understanding the deep imbrication between race and melancholia. She asked: “Melancholia has thus seeped into every corner of our landscape. Is there any getting over it?” (Cheng, 2000, p. 56). Whiteness saturates all aspects of non-White life (Leonardo, 2002; Sullivan, 2006), setting the terms and conditions of racial melancholia. As we explain below, Whiteness produces the loss that comprises racial melancholia for people of color; in light of this predicament, we propose that Whiteness cannot be racially melancholic. That established, we find purchase in the literature that looks at racial melancholia as productive rather than pathological (Eng & Han, 2000) and consider the possibilities of Whites' becoming melancholic, or getting in melancholia, instead of getting over a condition of which Whiteness is the purveyor, not the host.


The potential misapplication of racial melancholia to Whiteness—i.e., White melancholia—is partly due to the idea that Whiteness experiences mourning as a result of racial loss. White melancholia is defined as an affective condition growing out of a fear of loss of racial dominance, paired with a romanticization of Whiteness as an innocent and magnanimous force (Hübinette & Räterlinck, 2014; Spanierman & Cabrera, 2015). As these authors suggested, in White melancholia, Whites presumably introject elements of the other that they fear losing; as a result, White fears lead them to identify with the other. Enduring identification is necessary, as Whiteness defines and shapes itself based on that which it abjects and projects toward the racial other. This intimate, recursive process of introjection, projection, and abjection is what leads scholars like Hübinette and Räterlinck (2014) to suggest that White melancholic performance of otherness, such as Blackface minstrelsy, can be read as deep, libidinal desires to know the other rather than fetishistic ventriloquization of the other (see also Roediger, 1991). Although the authors recognized that such efforts to “approach” the other in a humanizing way are “doomed to fail” (Hübinette & Räterlinck, 2014, p. 509) because of the racist, capitalistic logic of consumption that subsumes relations with the other, they nevertheless insisted on the presence of White melancholia in their analysis of White affect.2

Whether through racial dominance, imagined love for the other, or imperialist nostalgia, "yearning for what one has destroyed [is] a form of mystification" (Rosaldo, 1993, p. 71)." The ongoing coloniality of Whiteness (Quijano, 2000) assures that it has never been denied what it desires. As a product of colonialism, Whiteness emerges from the history of loss and trauma that haunts generations of racialized people. This raises questions about the extent to which White individuals can experience racial loss, compared with the loss incurred by racialized others.

bell hooks (1992) aptly described this emotional dynamic as “eating the other.” Drawing on instances of White appropriation of Black cultural production, hooks argued that Whites suffer from anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure. They “eat the other” in an effort to feel alive, indeed to feel human (see also Fanon, 1952/1967, p. 129). hooks’s cultural diagnosis of White affective apathy interrupted the assumptions of White racial melancholia, distinguishing between empty, voracious consumption of the other and introjection toward identification with the other. Introjection is an internalization of aspects of the object without which an individual feels incomplete. Indeed, Cheng (2000) pointed out that in Freud’s original formulation of melancholia, he described it as a sort of “consumption,” “a way of digesting loss” (p. 27). If Whiteness actively consumes while simultaneously abjecting the other, then how can Whiteness be melancholic?

The lack of melancholic impulse in Whiteness arises from the role that Whiteness serves in Whites’ developmental process. Janet Helms’s (1990) important White Racial Identity Development model posited that Whites come to understand their own racial identity, as well as their difference from others, in a nonracist manner when they become “autonomous” from Whiteness. This model reveals that from infancy to adulthood, Whites remain unindividuated from Whiteness. That is, as a “familial tie” and “form of racial kindred” (Ahmed, 2014, p. 2), Whiteness fills the void left from the cleavage between child and mother during the individuation stage (cf. Thandeka, 1999). As a result of this process, one could claim that, with respect to race, White children do not suffer the initial experience of loss and grief that comes with separation from the mother during early developmental phases. Whiteness disciplines Whites’ behaviors and beliefs while also casting a wide safety net for them in both material and immaterial forms, which is well understood in the literature.3 The privilege, entitlement, and safety that come with being White in a White-dominated world offer the same guidance, discipline, and care to Whites previously provided by the mother figure. Thus, Whiteness mothers Whites, and in so doing, it assumes a feminized form in the White consciousness.

As White individuals develop and pass through various stages of development, their relationship with Whiteness changes. We propose that while White males develop a depravedly violent, dependent, and protective relationship toward Whiteness as facsimile of mother, consistent with the Oedipal complex, by contrast White women come to embody, maintain, and reproduce the affective technologies of Whiteness (Leonardo & Zembylas, 2013). Socialized by the ideological, mothering hand of Whiteness, White men act as the sentinels of Whiteness, and White women take up symbolic arms as silent sentinels. That is, in contradistinction to White men’s masculinist role in Whiteness, White women’s affect largely performs the emotional labor that allows Whites to control emotional exchanges, not unlike the way that capitalists control the economy. That is, not only do Whites control the means of production, but also the means of emotion.


We have suggested that within White development, the figure of the mother, Whiteness, and the family become socially indistinguishable. Thandeka (1999) also suggested as much when she wrote that “the first racial victim of the White community is its own child” (p. vii), collapsing all three categories into one “White community.” Thandeka recounted the process whereby Whites learn to be White by being “abused” into Whiteness under threat of abandonment by their parents—initially the heterosexual nuclear family, and then writ broadly to include other guardians in the White community, including teachers. Too young and naive to understand the social and racial implications of this kind of intimidation, these White children transition from being “pre-White” (p. 69) to White, or from an “internal non-White zone” into a White one (p. 23). This practice of intimidation is encountered in the family, home, and later, school. White children are reared not only by their own parents but by institutional forms of Whiteness that provide an extended system of guardians. Whiteness as mother alienates the White child within the protective walls of Whiteness and against the threats of White racial shame and guilt, filling the void otherwise left by the relations of racial melancholia.

What, then, do we make of melancholic gender identification (Butler,1995), and how might this square with the seemingly melancholic performances of White women weeping during public, racialized exchanges, including those in classrooms? Drawing on Freud’s Oedipal conflict, Butler argued that heterosexuality is a melancholic construct because of the way the incestual attraction of the child to the opposite-sex parent already presupposes heterosexuality. The Oedipal analysis, Butler continued, preempts and thus forecloses the possibility of homosexuality, rendering the possibility of such attachments impossible and their loss ungrievable. It is the unacknowledged and thus inarticulable life of the homosexual attraction upon which heterosexuality is determined and which renders it melancholic. If this is true, and insofar as femininity is implicated with normative gender identification, do heterosexual White women have access to a form of racial melancholia by virtue of this gender melancholia?

Butler argued that gender becomes legible when articulated alongside racial scripts, such that “the unmarked character of the one very often becomes the condition of the articulation of the other” (Bell & Butler, 1999, p. 168). If gender melancholia afflicts White individuals, it could emerge as a window into racial melancholia for White women in particular. But, as Butler pointed out, gender melancholia is not untempered by Whiteness in the same way that Whiteness is not untempered by gender. Women of color as well as White feminists, for instance, have long discussed the possibilities of cross-race solidarity along the lines of gender subjugation (Collins, 2002; Frankenberg, 1993). White feminists have been criticized for their fragility (DiAngelo, 2018) and invulnerability (Applebaum, 2017) to critiques of colorblindness (Anzaldúa, 1987; Crenshaw, 1991). While scholars continue to debate the primacy of gender over race, as it pertains particularly to White women’s role as victims or equally active agents of White supremacy (Alcoff, 1998), the debate points to an inclination that White women are simultaneously subjectivated as both.

It is possible to understand gender and racial melancholia as mutually informing experiences that complicate the invulnerability of White women’s tears. Tears communicate information that mediates body and social space and assumes cultural signification (Neu, 2000; Watkins, 2011). The inner workings of gender and racial melancholia compel us to question whether and how White women’s tears might be disarmed by a broader understanding of how melancholia saturates and organizes social relations within the United States (McIvor, 2016). A pedagogy of racial melancholia seeks to identify the ways that gender, race, and emotion are co-constructed and, in particular, how racial melancholia can be cultivated and incorporated into shared democratic praxis (McIvor, 2016).


Studying the history and experience of White women remains a gaping hole in the research on teaching. It is here that we want to make our mark in this essay, by highlighting a “hidden” history that scholars would do well to understand better, not in order to fix the problem but rather to begin to analyze its complexity. As the gender that is perceived as caring, White women are often encouraged to participate in emotional labor, such as nursing, paralegal work, and teaching. This process, which leads to the gender queue in the job market, is well known and explains the socialization differences between girls and boys in the family (Chodorow, 1993), moral development (Gilligan, 1993), and school experiences (Sadker & Sadker, 1994).

On the receiving end of patriarchy, women are socialized to take on relational habits and work that, while not bad in themselves, reduce women in these human endeavors. How do we account for White women’s victimization under patriarchy simultaneously with their victimizing of others under racism? In other words, it is not the case that White women are only socialized to be women (often into heteronormativity), but also to become White. Therefore, White women occupy two constitutive spaces of affective development, whereby they cope with the injuries of gender by wielding Whiteness and injuring people of color, becoming what we call the injured injurer. White women also further injure themselves in the process when they obscure the primary cause of their marginalization and displace their pain onto others. In education, students of color become conduits for White women working through their injury, which is part of their contradictory emotional work.


As we use it here, emotional work in schools is a form of “caring for” children of color. But a complex theory does not conceive of caring as only and obviously about giving. For example, Valenzuela (1999) has shown that depoliticized frameworks of care, such as Noddings’s (1984) notion of aesthetic care, fail to account for concrete, communal practices of care like the ones Valenzuela (1999) found in the Mexican American families through her ethnography. Leveraging this reframing, we argue that love and care are potential forms of colonial violence when they insufficiently analyze race relations. Consistent with this essay’s concern, we disrupt facile associations between care and goodness, love and concern.

For example, the film Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary (Trench & Simón, 1997) showcases a White woman teacher’s lack of racial sensitivity toward her mainly Latino students, which borders on paternalism (maternalism?). In her defense, she argues that she teaches her students what they need, and in fact that she cares deeply for them. This portrait is reminiscent of Coloma’s (2011) description of White women in places like the Philippines, who were either religious missionaries saving souls or teachers saving minds. Ironically, it was not their hatred for the natives that fueled this imposition, but precisely their love that drove them. This form of racist love or colonial care should give us pause about the hegemonic—often romantic or platonic—meaning of care or love that educators have at their disposal as they desire to help students of color. Of course, there is another line of research regarding “colonial love,” which is the colonized’s problematic affection for the colonizer—indeed, the desire to be like the colonizer—which is beyond this essay’s focus (see Freire, 1970/1993). The colonizer’s love, in this case teacher’s care, is ironically violent.

In 2002, I (Leonardo) described a scene that is more familiar and happens more frequently than educators would like to admit. Whether it happens in a teacher education classroom or one’s living room, some White women wind up crying during conversations around race (Srivastava, 2006). A racialized hermeneutics of suspicion, which is a staple of ideological critique from Marxism to critical race theory, may chalk up the event to White women’s political manipulation of a situation. Displacing the attention away from centering and analyzing the injury that people of color suffer under the thumb of White supremacy, White women’s tears (no longer “crocodile tears”) siphon the room’s energy toward their emotional healing and away from the needs of people of color. This is not necessarily intentional, but its effects are nevertheless racially profound. First, it has the ability to displace victimhood from people of color to White women; the act of crying turns White women from victors to victims. Second, White women must now be comforted, while the people of color who were the original subject of race injury in conversations about racism must comfort themselves. Third, White women’s emotional outbursts may be resented by people of color, who are now recast as insensitive or, worse, the perpetrator of an injury, the victim turned aggressor. And last, White women’s innocence is reified, while people of color’s guilt and nocence are confirmed. The tables have been turned.

All of the above interpretations of White women’s crying are reasonable, but incomplete without a gender analysis. Through socialization, White women learn that they are the desirable form of racialized femininity (Dyer, 1997). Being “liked,” “approved of,” or “popular”—in a word, desired—is paramount in their self-concept and tantamount to self-worth (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). When they confront situations that indict their participation in racism, a certain cognitive-emotional dissonance occurs, and they begin the process of dis-integration. Unable to contain their emotions, they may cry because, in this very moment, they fail to “take care” of others. They are failing as women. But it remains to be asked, if we hold gender constant: Why don’t women of color, also perceived as members of the emotional gender, cry? There may be a couple of reasons for this difference, the most important of which is women’s unequal entitlement to public space, which is complicated by race and affective relations.

First, women of color fight against the perception that they are needy, and crying would only confirm the stereotype. They soldier on, partly because crying over racial injuries, which happen often throughout the course of a normal day, would lose both its salving effect and its political efficacy. In other words, due to the frequency of racial injuries, women of color choose carefully those events to which they react. As Accapadi (2007) described it:

Let us consider a conflict between two women, one Asian American and the other White. How might we assess the situation if we noticed that during this conflict the White woman was crying while the Asian American woman continues to talk without any noticeable change in her tone or voice? Our societal norms inform us that crying indicates helplessness, which triggers automatic sympathy for the White woman. Certain stereotypes of Asian Americans characterize them as unfeeling and/or devoid of emotion, therefore our norms also reinforce that the Asian American woman, showing no physical reaction, must not be experiencing emotion. As we piece together these observations to create "the story," we might further conclude that the Asian American woman caused the White woman to cry, without regard for her feelings. (p. 209)

Women of color’s tears would be treated as evidence of “working the system” in order to get unearned benefits, from social welfare to sympathy.

Second, women of color may also cry, but they do not dare do so in public; they may weep in private with their friends. Not only must women of color, including teacher candidates, appear strong in public to ward off perceptions of weakness, but they have a different sense of ownership of public spaces than do White women, which is our third observation.

Whereas White men take up more discursive space, White women take up more public emotional space. In fact, they exert a sense of entitlement over the emotional public. True, White women are positioned as the private, emotional gender, compared with men as public and rational, including men of color’s provisional entitlements to the same male privileges. Even future Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s emotional outburst during his confirmation hearings, as he cried on camera when confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct, did not seem to hurt his chances at one of the rarefied seats on the U.S. Supreme Court. But among women, White women monopolize a sense of ownership of public space, speech, and spoils of legitimate gender performances. Although it does not come without hesitations or contradictions, for White women crying in public articulates with a long history of speech acts that are given the benefit of doubt. When they cry “injury,” and the perpetrator is a person of color, a White system of affective politics rushes in to confirm them. From the Emmet Till tragedy to the more recent Fisher v. University of Texas (2012), and from settler colonialism to gentrification, White women enjoy a certain legitimacy to move across public space, including speech.

In the case of Fisher, the innocence of White women is once again reified. In this case, a young White woman sued the University of Texas system for racial discrimination, claiming that students of color with lower credentials than she were admitted while she was not, never considering that students of color with higher credentials than she may have been turned away. Although it is not an example of an emotional outburst, Fisher’s affective investment in Whiteness comprises part of its architecture, a certain White structure of feeling. She is not constructed as racially motivated but as caring about meritocracy. In these and other public displays of emotion, such as crying in educational courses, White women may accuse people of color and be given the benefit of the doubt, and thus feel a sense of possessive ownership around the display of public emotion. In matters related to race, they deploy racial power that regulates race relations and people of color, and in a way different from that of White men.

As a feminine variety of racism, White women’s participation in racial advantage assumes a particular form. It differs from White men’s masculine racism, such as war and pillage, because White women’s racism goes through the detour of an emotional economy, as sexism reduces women to the status of caretakers. The emotional labor that burdens or taxes White women as caretakers also produces racial dividends during situations that interpellate (Althusser, 1971) them as reproducers of the White race—that is, as subjects who maintain the race through ideological, rather than coercive, acts.


Public race dialogue for White women is precarious. At any moment, they may not be able to avoid feeling indicted, if the conversation is honest and revealing. This does not mean that people of color are necessarily confrontational, but it does not take much for them to appear so in the eyes of Whiteness. Gladly participating when race discussion is detached, White women eventually find it impossible when it becomes personal. They opt out and leave. However, by leaving the proverbial table, they stand with Whiteness (DiAngelo, 2006). By leaving the room, they express their solidarity with colorblindness (Bonilla-Silva, 2003). In other words, leaving becomes an act of Whiteness, and staying an act of anti-racism.

In race discussions in education, White women’s “fragility” (DiAngelo, 2018) allows them the option of leaving the room, not just literally but also figuratively. The act of leaving is a form of race privilege when White women disqualify themselves from participating because (a) it is uncomfortable, (b) they don’t possess the pre-requisite knowledge of race, and (c) it is not worth the investment when they perceive it to be a no-win situation. Flight becomes the answer. People of color do not have the luxury of leaving, and engagement is a sign of their humanity. Interestingly, fragile or weak is not a description one would use for women of color, particularly Black women, which does not preclude their being represented as needy (e.g., the "welfare queen"). More often, Black women are stereotyped as overbearing and overassertive, even overpowering Black men whose protection they do not necessarily need (Brown, 2011). By comparison, White women are delicate and need preserving and protecting (Dyer, 1997). They are the symbol not of strength but rather of sacrifice, at once virginal, pure, and virtuous. This pattern of representation leads to the latter’s fragility as a form of racial innocence, a performance that allows them to injure people of color through feminized racism.

But White teachers also leave the room figuratively, as in abandoning anti-racism when the going gets tough or abandoning people of color out of fear of intimacy. As we have argued, this is a gendered conditioning that is also racial, a sign of both White women’s marginalization and their centering. As such, it is not a politics of vacillation but simultaneity. By leaving the discussion, they stay within the comforts of Whiteness. By leaving, they stand with privilege. But we could imagine another kind of leaving in which White teachers leave behind their invulnerability (Applebaum, 2017). To Applebaum (2017), “White fragility is performative practice of invulnerability . . . a form of doing Whiteness” (pp. 5, 8). To DiAngelo (2018), Whites’ failure to stay in race dialogue was a symptom of their weakness, a sign that they lack stamina. Besides the phallocentric and sexual overtones of “stamina,” White fragility, however, is not only about having a low threshold for discomfort or a passive sense of being. As Applebaum explains, "White people actively perform fragility and continue to perform it in a way that consolidates White narcissism and White arrogance—signs of power and privilege, not weakness" (Applebaum, 2017, p. 7).

By staying in anti-racist discussion and withstanding the ensuing discomfort, Whites leave the ideology of Whiteness, or at least walk away from it. By staying with people of color, they leave the politics of melanin and enter the pedagogy of melancholia. Sometimes leaving means staying.

Heightened racial emotions are evident in White communities more than ever. Through countless images since Trump’s election—from angry, torch-bearing nationalists to the guilty pleasures of listening to provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos—White emotion seems at an all-time high. Trump may have opened the floodgates, but he is a conduit rather than the cause. Racial resentment has been brewing for quite some time: against affirmative action, against multiculturalism, and against the Obama years. Educating our emotion seems warranted if an embodied form of rational dialogue around race relations is to take place in schools. White women teachers ironically occupy the center of this reform, as the caring gender in a caring profession. Educators’ definition of caring has to be troubled, and our warm and fuzzy associations with it have to be disrupted. The politics of caring enters the stage of anti-racist care as the antidote to colonial care.

Of course, emotional praxis in education is not a panacea. It is only part of an ecology of solutions that chip away at the political economy of affect, including feelings, gestures, and regard for others. When young people use the urban slang feels or ask, “You feel me?” they inform us that affect is relational work. In a sense, feels is less tactile and more visual, because it requires seeing the other as concrete rather than abstract. Students of color and other marginalized groups in education have been rendered invisible for too long, and White women teachers’ emotional practices are part of this uncomfortable story. Validating the critical study of emotion in education is a way for participants—learners and teachers alike—to feel visible as a requirement for their full participation.


It might seem counterintuitive to suggest through a pedagogy of melancholia that melancholia is something that can be systematically and strategically taught or cultivated. After all, racial melancholia is a condition that afflicts subjugated, racialized individuals and is contingent on their particular social position (Cheng, 2000; Eng & Han, 2000). In other words, racial melancholia is not something that can be consciously apprehended. To address this impasse, we lean on David McIvor’s (2016) notion of the democratic work of mourning.

Drawing on the idea of democratic mourning, we offer the pedagogy of racial melancholia as a way to imagine mourning as shared social practice, and as an opening to melancholia for White women as the caring army in education. McIvor (2016) defined the democratic work of mourning as “both a theory and a set of practices that, together, can form the basis for an open and ongoing response to experiences of social disrespect and marginalization” (p. xii). Democratic mourning “is an ongoing labor of recognition and repair—of recognizing experiences of social trauma and cultivating civic repertoires of response” (p. xii). Insofar as the entrance to melancholia is mourning, Whites—and White women especially—can only enter into melancholia, or awaken it within themselves, through mourning. This means understanding that racial grief is not private, but shared and intersubjective.

A pedagogy of racial melancholia envisions discomfort, trauma, fear, and erosion of safe spaces as parts of democratic practice.4 This does not fetishize racialized violence or loss, but historicizes mourning and connects it to the legacy of colonial violence that gives racial melancholia its shape and character. In his book Mourning in America: Race and the Politics of Loss, McIvor (2016) discussed Emmett Till’s mother’s choice to hold an open-casket funeral for her son so that the American public could see the distorting evil of Whiteness as well as the shared toxic hubris of White femininity and masculinity that caused Till’s premature and horrific death. McIvor (2016), quoting Rankine, took this event as exemplary of what should not be spectacle or anomalous for its attack on the in/vulnerable senses of the American (read: White) public, but rather an “open dynamic” to recognize the place of racialized mourning in the historic foundations of the country (p. xii). Below, we outline three tenets of a pedagogy of racial melancholia that can also serve as practical strategies for White women teachers:

First, taking inspiration from Accapadi (2007) and Yancy (2012), we suggest that when White individuals cry or emotionally deflect culpability in uncomfortable racialized encounters, they should be encouraged by their White peers as well as peers of color to disidentify with their discomfort. This will avoid Whites' centering discussions of race around their own discomfort and colorblindness and unveil the ways in which emotions work to cloud and reify structural racism. This tenet does not depart from scholarship that advocates for the productivity of White emotional discomfort (Zembylas & Boler, 2003), but rather calls for a distinction between toxic and invulnerable forms of discomfort and productively vulnerable emotions (Applebaum, 2017).

For more on negative White affect, such as discomfort and fragility, readers may consult Robin DiAngelo’s texts on White fragility (2006, 2018). DiAngelo’s most recent book, White Fragility (2018), looked particularly at Whites’ feelings of discomfort, fear, and vulnerability when confronted with topics of racism and White supremacy. Like Accapadi (2007), DiAngelo (2018) offered Whites some practical suggestions for dismantling their own fragility.

Second, disidentification with Whiteness needs to be accompanied by an examination of the relationships among race, gender, and emotion. For this reason, a pedagogy of racial melancholia calls for teacher education programs to integrate more systematically an analysis of the historical connections among race, gender, and emotion and how these constructs are reinforced through discourses of identity and belonging. This works to resist the pedagogization of White discomfort (Zembylas, 2018) by situating White affect within larger, structural frameworks that historicize the construction of race, gender, and emotion (Sleeter, 1993).

For close, empirical investigations of the relations among emotion, race, and gender, readers might consult Gillespie, Ashbaugh, and DeFiore’s (2002) examination of White women students’ discomfort with and resistance to discussions of White-skin privilege and Case’s (2012) study of White women’s anti-racist identity development and ally behavior. Similarly, Cabrera (2014) examined how White males’ gender construction causes them to frame their emotions toward race as fact, so that feelings of anger, for instance, turn into matter-of-fact claims about people of color and the myth of anti-White reverse racism. These studies variously show how White men and women relate to and leverage emotion differently in their interactions as they negotiate racialization. Gillespie, Ashbaugh, and DeFiore (2002) offered practical strategies for White women educators dealing with White women students’ discomfort around race discussions, while Case’s (2012) study offered structural and historical context regarding White women’s silence.

Third, locating racial mourning and melancholia within a larger vision of democratic practice works toward demythologizing Whiteness as a promise of happiness (Ahmed, 2010) and unveils the racial melancholia in the United States. In much the same way that affirmative action is intended to dematerialize Whiteness as property (Harris, 1992), a pedagogy of racial melancholia seeks to (a) systematize White discomfort as social and pedagogical praxis (Zembylas, 2018), (b) decouple White comfort from democratic practice, and (c) allow space for mourning and melancholia to inform our social relations. In this context, we suggest interrogating White women’s tears for what they project and abject, going beyond racial guilt, fear, and shame toward an understanding of how White women’s tears might be implicated with the sociohistorical formations of racial and gender identity.

For more on the affective disidentification from Whiteness that we discuss here, readers might consult Yancy’s (2012) Look! A White, wherein he delineated what daily White discomfort and pedagogical praxis might look like. To achieve affective disidentification with Whiteness, Yancy argued that racialized others notice Whiteness in the same way that Whiteness objectifies non-White individuals. This entails calling “Look! A White!” when a White individual performs or enacts Whiteness in everyday life (cf. Leonardo & Porter, 2010). Readers might also be interested in Mann’s (2018) examination of how social-media users leverage digital platforms to publicize and disseminate cell-phone video footage of White women policing public spaces figuratively and literally. Mann explained how both Whites and individuals of color tap into social media to disrupt White women’s use of helplessness and vulnerability to discipline or control people of color. In much the same way that Emmet Till’s mother leveraged the media spectacle around her son’s open-casket funeral to share her racial melancholia, social-media users engage in racial melancholia as public and shared social practice when they partake in the dissemination, exposure, and critical consumption of images of weaponized White femininity and supremacy online.

These suggestions are especially important practice for White women, whose gender melancholy and status as the lower gender of Whiteness are tied up complexly with the White hetero-patriarchy. White women’s emotions exist as a form of emotional labor that maintains, sustains, and embodies the lifeblood of Whiteness. This emotional labor also produces White women’s affective subjectivity (Hochschild, 2012). When White women imagine being estranged from Whiteness, they arouse a pre-melancholic impulse from its dormant state, allowing new forms of subjectivity to take shape. These new subjectivities are usually alien and anathema to those who embody the normative, educable, grievable, democratic subject (Butler, 1995). The practice of democratic mourning imagines ways out of affective apathy that implicate our collective identities through narratives of national belonging. A pedagogy of racial melancholia exposes how the mutual construction of gender and race is contingent on suppressed collective mourning. A pedagogy of racial melancholia imagines ways of entering melancholia to stay with, rather than leave, the pain of racial loss.


1. The American Sociological Association’s Annual conference theme in 2018 was “Feeling Race: An Invitation to Explore Racialized Emotions.”

2. Our definition of White affect is heavily informed by Ahmed’s (2014) work on emotions and affect. We define White affect as emotions racialized as White that have the capacity to affect or impress upon other objects and people (Ahmed, 2014; Gregg & Seigworth, 2010).

3. For instance, Ahmed (2007) has written on the “phenomenology of Whiteness” and the way White bodies and space have come to constitute one another, such that bodies of color become both literally and figuratively out of place. Similarly, Lipsitz (2007) has written on the “spatialization of race and the racialization of space,” showing how the spatial imaginary is racially marked.

4. There is no shortage of pedagogies that address the intersections of Whiteness, racism, power, and negative affect. Zembylas and Boler (2003) advanced a “pedagogy of discomfort” as a way to guide educators and students out of their emotional comfort zones to recognize the ways in which their identities are complicit with dominant ideology and to cultivate an appreciation for ambiguity and difference. Similarly, Leonardo and Porter (2010) problematized White discomfort as a form of symbolic violence in “safe space” conversations about race. Elsewhere, Zembylas (2012b) discussed how educators can exercise “pedagogies of strategic empathy” as a way of working with recalcitrant students’ reactions to discomforting truths. Finally, Matias and Allen (2013) put forth a “critical humanizing pedagogy of love” that recognizes Whites’ “sadomasochistic” attachments to Whiteness and seeks to abolish Whiteness by teaching Whites how to love others as well as themselves in a humanizing way.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 13, 2019, p. 1-22
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22986, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 6:52:27 PM

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About the Author
  • Zeus Leonardo
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    ZEUS LEONARDO is Professor and Associate Dean of Education and Faculty of the Critical Theory Designated Emphasis at the University of California, Berkeley. He is an AERA Fellow and Vice President of AERA’s Division G (2017–2020). He was co-editor of the Review of Educational Research (2011–2014) and has been on the editorial board of many journals, including Educational Researcher and AERJ, as well as being Associate Editor for North America of Race Ethnicity & Education. He has been a visiting professor at several universities, including the University of Colorado and the University of Washington, where he was acting director of the Center for Multicultural Education in 2005. Leonardo has authored or edited eight books, including Race Frameworks, and several dozen journal articles and book chapters that involve critical engagement with race and class stratification in education, democratic schooling, and diversity in multiple forms, including epistemological and ideological difference. He has received several recognitions, including the AESA R. Freeman Butts endowed lecture, the Barbara Powell Speaker Series lecture at the University of Regina, Canada, and the Derrick Bell Legacy Award from the Critical Race Studies in Education Association. In addition to invitations in the United States, he has accepted keynotes in England, Sweden, Canada, and Australia. He is finishing a book titled Edward Said and Education, which will appear in the Key Ideas Book Series from Routledge.
  • Blanca Gamez-Djokic
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    BLANCA GAMEZ-DJOKIC is a doctoral candidate in the Social and Cultural Studies Program at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include the role that historical, social, and cultural factors play in the way emotions circulate in schools and how students leverage emotions to understand the processes of racial formation.
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