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"What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?": Engaging Privileged White Students with Social Justice

reviewed by Leah Mortenson - April 15, 2021

coverTitle: "What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?": Engaging Privileged White Students with Social Justice
Author(s): David Nurenberg
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1475853734, Pages: 234, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

David Nurenberg’s What Does Injustice Have to Do With Me? offers a thoughtful, reasoned, and pragmatic approach to teaching privileged white students about social injustice and communicating to them why it is actually in their best interest to help dismantle their own privilege. The book is divided into chapters modeled on Diane Goodman’s 2013 “Cultural Competencies for Social Justice,” namely:

developing self-awareness

understanding and valuing others

gaining knowledge of inequities

obtaining skills to interact effectively and work collaboratively across diverse groups

acquiring skills to foster equity and inclusion, and practice active allyship (p. xxxiv)

Each chapter builds on the competency that came before, with the ultimate goal of helping students acquire the necessary skills to practice active allyship and help disrupt systemic inequities since, Nurenberg argues, everyone is needed in the fight to change our broken system. As his wife, who teaches in an urban school with a more diverse student body, puts it, “I’ll work on fomenting social change from below. You train your kids to step aside when mine come calling” (p. xxv).

Nurenberg identifies that educational research tends to focus on urban schools. A search of available scholarship unearths over 275,000 articles about urban teaching, for example, and fewer than 30,000 related to suburban teaching (p. xviii). This is for good reason, as urban schools are often underfunded, understaffed, and may face additional outside challenges that suburban schools may not.

At the same time, the author argues, we need to understand more about what is going on in wealthy suburban school districts that serve majority-white populations to prepare these students to meaningfully engage with those who are different from them, especially since these students may end up in positions of power in the future. He identifies that engaging privileged white students in conversations about race not only offers important lessons in critical thinking, but also helps them to find meaning in their lives, which may be micromanaged down to the smallest details by oppressive expectations from authority figures related to getting into top-rate colleges and achieving “some vague notion of ‘success’” (p. xxiv). In this way, social justice is not only about promoting students’ understandings of societal inequities and how they may contribute to those inequities; it is also fundamentally about helping these students unearth their own happiness and liberation.

Throughout the book, the author offers activities and frameworks he has utilized while teaching at a suburban, majority-white high school—as well as composite stories from colleagues—to teach privileged students about social justice, and he shares italicized anecdotes throughout the book about his own experiences, challenging moments, and triumphs in leaning into, rather than away from, “political” topics in his teaching. Nurenberg follows a constructivist ethos and designs activities that begin by gauging what students already know, then involving them with some kind of outside variable (a reading, TED talk, activity, etc.), and then assessing students’ takeaways via reflective writing and/or sharing in heterogeneous student groupings. Nurenberg presents all information with a necessary caveat: “You Know Your Students—Your Mileage May Vary” (YKYS-YMMV) and leaves it to the reader to determine what from the text may apply to their specific context and student population, and what may need to be adapted significantly or rejected.

Importantly, while this book is about engaging privileged white students with issues of social justice, Nurenberg addresses the complexities that may be present in undertaking these conversations in a mixed-race classroom where students of color (SOC) may be present, and whose lenses must be carefully considered so as not to perpetuate “single stories'' that may tokenize or flatten them unfairly into representations of an entire group. To address this, Nurenberg identifies the importance of cultural norms to guide classroom conversations, namely:


Speak for yourself and your own experiences.


Validate others’ experiences and remember that they may be speaking about what is for them a truth; this includes when someone shares how they feel about something that was said in class, even if the speaker had different intentions.


That being said, assume good intentions—everyone has “permission to “fumble.”


Respond to something that is upsetting by asking questions (i.e., “What do you mean by that exactly?”).  


Practice active reflection and consider the beliefs you hold that inform your actions (p. 26).

Nurenberg returns to these norms throughout the book to contextualize his own experiences and how he has addressed (and/or encourages others to address) challenging moments with majority-white students.

Chapter 1, “Who are Privileged Students and How Should They Be Taught?” identifies that social justice pedagogy is not one-size-fits-all and will necessarily look different depending on one’s setting and school culture. He also addresses the notion that schooling is always political, whether or not that is explicitly stated. A memorable line from this chapter is “We are Aristotle to Alexander,” by which he means we must be careful in the ways we approach teaching social justice since, just as Aristotle would have been out of a job (or worse) had he offended Alexander the Great, teachers undertaking this work could receive similar blowback from parents, administrators, etc. if it is not undertaken in a sensitive manner that encourages thoughtful deliberation, debate, acceptance of discomfort, and reasonableness (Kay, 2018) among students, and positions these as constructive agents of growth.

Chapter 2, “Warming Up the Room,” identifies the importance of establishing a strong and trusting democratic classroom community prior to engaging in conversations about subject matter that may require vulnerability from students. He echoes claims by Matthew Kay (2018) that simply declaring a space to be “safe” does not make it so; we need to earn this distinction through our daily actions and responses to students, which must always support students in this challenging work.

Chapter 3, “Self and ‘Other,’” presents ideas for activities and exercises that can be used across content areas to help students bridge potential divides between themselves and those whom they see as different. Examples of such activities include engaging students with identity activities that go beyond the often surface-level takeaways of “we are all different.” Instead, the starting place for Nurenberg is having students write down their identities as they understand them (his own would be “male, father, teacher, American, Jewish, baseball fan,” p. 37), and asks students to share the top four that they feel are most important and central to who they are.

The critical last step that Nurenberg takes, which many educators miss, is asking how many of his students included race in their top four. If doing this activity in a majority-white class, chances are few to no students included their race. He then asks students to write an exit ticket/reflection about why they think that might be, and how the results might have been different in a more racially diverse classroom (p. 38). This exercise is a stepping-stone to other activities throughout that reach for the goal of helping students to develop their self-awareness and understandings that, counter to what they may have been socialized to believe about whiteness being the “default” or “norm,” they possess a racial identity, and it plays a significant role in their lives.

Another example of an activity that leads towards this goal is having students read an excerpt of Horace Miner’s classic (1956) Body Ritual Among the Nacirema, a satirical take on Americans’ habits from an outsider perspective that offers critique of Western anthropology that historically otherizes and exoticizes cultures positioned as different. After reading and debriefing the excerpt, students are prompted to create their own “Nacirema” narratives about their daily habits from the perspective of an outside observer from a vastly different culture. As Nurenberg says, activities such as this one can help students begin to question their assumptions about what they consider “normal,” which is a prerequisite for understanding those who we see as different from us. All of the activities in this chapter encourage students to think outside of the box, which can be challenging for white students for whom the box is specifically designed (p. 70).

In Chapter 4, “What Does Injustice Have to Do With Me?” the author continues to provide examples of activities to use with privileged white students as entry points for understanding. He shares personal anecdotes of how he has tried to make these topics relatable to them since, in order to care about a topic, we need to be able to connect it in some way to our own lived experiences. He identifies the importance of teaching students that history is never neutral but is constructed from a specific point of view. He gives examples of ways to anchor students’ understandings of complex, abstract concepts—like privilege—to in-class activities such as the “wastepaper basket toss,” in which three students are asked to make a shot into a trash can from three very different positions: one right next to the basket, one at a middle distance, and one very far away. The teacher gives dramatic congratulations to those who made the basket successfully, and then debriefs the fairness of this activity with the class given students’ relative advantages in positioning (p. 86). This activity and the subsequent debrief provide students with a foundational schema for understanding and putting into context deeper concepts of privilege and injustice that will come up later in the class.

Chapter 5 (“Privileged Victims”), Nurenberg evokes the binary of “beneficiary” versus “victim” (p. 102) and identifies this as a potential key to helping students understand the ways in which privilege is not actually in their best interest. In line with the Frereian notion of liberating ourselves from the shackles of our own making, Nurenberg argues for a self-interested approach to dismantling privilege and refers to conversations with students about times they have been put in a position of power and found themselves acting meaner than they intended—for example, as a camp counselor or a babysitter (p. 113). These conversations can invite students to consider the ways in which being in positions of power and privilege can limit our freedom as opposed to widening it, which may promote greater investment with the work of social justice.

In the final chapters, “Struggling to ‘Be the Change’” (Chapter 6) and “Choosing Between What is Easy and What is Right” (Chapter 7), Nurenberg outlines methods for helping students work towards practicing active allyship rather than defaulting to problematic “benevolent benefactors” (p. 122), as often occurs when privileged white people attempt social justice work. The author identifies the potential traps of service learning to repeat oppressive societal patterns and offers alternative project-based learning that may be more conscientious, collaborative, and generally respectful of the communities being “served.”

Throughout this book, Nurenberg actively acknowledges his positionality in this work as a cisgender, heterosexual white man, and he often references and leans heavily on the work of scholars of color that predate and inform his own work. He addresses his responsibility to address his own blind spots throughout the work and acknowledges that there may be times in the book when he falls short of his own mission. He also acknowledges the tensions present in wanting to teach for social justice and recognizing that education is never neutral, while also operating within and being limited by the existing system.

Despite these challenges, Nurenberg writes, “to not engage students in exploring alternate narratives [besides the default narrative of meritocracy] is to promote...one political position to the exclusion of all else” (p. 11). By teaching other viewpoints and engaging privileged white students with the teachings of social justice, we are expanding their lenses of understanding the world around them and are developing their critical thinking. The efforts of this book are worthwhile, and it will constitute a helpful part of educators’ social justice “toolkit” for reference and inspiration to do what is right rather than what is easy.


Goodman, D. (2013). Cultural competency for social justice: A framework for student, staff, faculty, and organizational development. https://dianegoodman.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/CulturalCompetenceforSocialJustice.pdf

Kay, M. (2018). Not light, but fire: How to lead meaningful race conversations in the classroom. Stenhouse.

Miner, H. M. (1956). Body ritual among the Nacirema. American Anthropologist, 58(3), 503–507.

Nurenberg, D. (2020). “What does injustice have to do with me?”: Engaging privileged white students with social justice. Rowman and Littlefield.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 15, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23672, Date Accessed: 5/14/2021 2:52:15 AM

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About the Author
  • Leah Mortenson
    St. Johnís University
    E-mail Author
    LEAH MORTENSON, Ph.D., is a clinical instructor in the department of Curriculum and Instruction at St. Johnís University, and she also teaches part-time in teacher preparation programs in universities around New York City. She has been working with diverse learners for ten years, domestically and internationally, and in her current role as a clinical faculty member working with teacher candidates, her research and teaching focuses on engaging students with social justice teaching in the context of a PWI.
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