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Constructing an Image of a White Teacher


by Alice McIntyre - 1997

This article explores how a small group of white middle?and upper–middle–class female student teachers constructed an image of what it means to be a “white? teacher. Through the use of qualitative participatory action research methods, the participants in this study critically reflected on their understandings of multicultural education and their positions as white student teachers involved in a teacher education program. The participants were invited to be researchers about their daily lives, to pose problems that arose from the complexities of their own racial identities, and to develop realistic solutions for dealing with racism in their classrooms. Through initial one-to- one interviews, and during eight two-hour group sessions, the participants were provided with opportunities to view themselves as “white? an experience that was relatively new to them. It also provided them with a challenging and highly provocative way to view their roles as white teachers. The data presented in this article suggest that by white educators?questioning and confronting their white identities and challenging the meaning of being “white? teachers, they can more effectively pursue teaching practices that significantly alter the way white students are educated about themselves and about multicultural education.

This article explores how a small group of white middle– and upper–middle–class female student teachers constructed an image of what it means to be a “white” teacher. Through the use of qualitative participatory action research methods, the participants in this study critically reflected on their understandings of multicultural education and their positions as white student teachers involved in a teacher education program.


The participants were invited to be researchers about their daily lives, to pose problems that arose from the complexities of their own racial identities, and to develop realistic solutions for dealing with racism in their classrooms. Through initial one-to-one interviews, and during eight two-hour group sessions, the participants were provided with opportunities to view themselves as “white”—an experience that was relatively new to them. It also provided them with a challenging and highly provocative way to view their roles as white teachers.


The data presented in this article suggest that by white educators’ questioning and confronting their white identities and challenging the meaning of being “white” teachers, they can more effectively pursue teaching practices that significantly alter the way white students are educated about themselves and about multicultural education.


Many educators are addressing the importance of self-critique in teacher education programs, recognizing that teachers negotiate their respective pedagogical journeys and become active agents in the shaping of praxis through a purposive and explicit process of self-reflection and critical inquiry (see, e.g., Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; Noffke, 1994; Tabachnik & Zeichner, 1991). This increased attention to the subjective position of the teacher has contributed to a more comprehensive and nuanced perspective regarding the multiple roles of the classroom teacher. What remains relatively unexamined in this area is the saliency of white teachers’ racial identities and the relationship between white racial identity and the system of whiteness, and how both inform teaching practice (see Cochran-Smith, 1995; Lawrence & Tatum, 1997; Roman, 1993; Sleeter, 1993, 1995a, 1995b; and Tatum, 1992, 1994 for exceptions). This is particularly notable given that white teachers currently make up 88 percent of the teaching force in the United States (National Education Association [NEA], 1992)—this at a time when a new majority of students is emerging consisting of African Americans, Latinos/Latinas, Asian/Pacific Americans, Arab Americans, and Native Americans (Campbell, 1996).


Educators like Cochran-Smith (1995), Nieto (1996), Sleeter (1992, 1996), and Tatum (1994)—to name a few—have suggested that universities develop multicultural education programs that make problematic the challenges of being a white teacher teaching to diversity. They stand alongside other scholars who embrace the original goals of multicultural education first set forth by African Americans and other racial and ethnic groups in the early 1960s. During that time, advocates of multicultural education challenged educational institutions to reform their curricula, hire teachers of color, create ethnic studies programs, and give more control to communities over how their schools were structured (Banks, 1993). Supporters of multicultural education saw their work as being antiracist in nature and situated in a sociopolitical context. Thus, their challenges to the educational system were also seen as challenges to the existing ownership of knowledge and to the larger issues of the distribution of power and wealth in our society. Similarly, the call to view multicultural education as a social movement (Sleeter, 1996) included a challenge to white educators to explore their racial locations in hopes of eradicating racism and racial oppression in educational institutions (and in ourselves).1


In this article, I examine the relationship between the type of multicultural education posited by the above scholars and the ways in which white student teachers make meaning of whiteness and of their racial identities as “white.” By whiteness, I refer to a system and ideology of white dominance that marginalizes and oppresses people of color, ensuring privileges for white people in this country. Whiteness is an ideology that refutes the legacy of racism and dismisses the race inequities that exist in our schools and in our society (see, e.g., Frankenberg, 1993; Helms, 1993; Lopez, 1996; McIntyre, in press; Roediger, 1994; and Sleeter, 1996 for further discussions of whiteness). By white racial identity, I am referring “to a sense of group or collective identity based on one’s perception that he or she shares a common racial heritage with a particular racial group” (Helms, 1993, p. 3; emphasis in original).


How can white teachers become more self-reflective about their own understandings of race, racism, and the meaning of whiteness? How do white teachers learn to acknowledge themselves as racial beings actively participating in the education of young people? How can white teachers take action against discriminatory educational practices and for liberatory educational practices?


There is no panacea for the challenges raised by these questions. I suggest that an examination of how white student teachers make meaning of their whiteness and how that meaning informs and influences their beliefs about race, racism, and multicultural education is needed so as to provide teacher educators with new possibilities for developing pedagogies aimed at individual and social change.


This article documents how a small group of white female student teachers and I examined what it means to be white and how that meaning intersects with the ideology of whiteness and the question of what it means to teach from a multicultural perspective. First, I present some of the participants’ group talk concerning the construction of what it means to be white and what it means to be a white teacher. Their discussions provide stark clarity to the muted discussion of racism and whiteness within teacher discourse.


In the second section of this article, I present the implications of this research project for developing pedagogical practices aimed at examining and critiquing whiteness with white student teachers. The data demonstrate that when our teaching fails to illuminate the past, present, and future consequences of white racism, we, as educators, limit the construction of knowledge and privilege the dominant discourse. I discuss the implications of this research experience for white educators who are interested in developing teaching strategies that alter the face of racism and whiteness within education. I suggest that white educators who engage in self- and collective reflection and critique about their racial identities can rework their pedagogy and disrupt racist teaching practices, thereby reinventing teacher education programs.

WHAT IT MEANS TO BE WHITE


During the 1970s and 1980s, perspectives on racial identity centered on the consequences of racism on the victims. Rarely were the implications of racist attitudes on the dominant group considered. Though there were some scholars studying how white people view themselves as racial beings (Elder, 1974; Katz, 1976; Moore, 1973), it has only been within the last two decades that theorists have begun to investigate white racial identity and propose stage models of white racial identity development (Hardiman, 1982; Helms, 1993; Ponterotto, 1988). These models are investigations into white people’s attitudes, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors toward people of color and attempt to conceptualize the process by which white people come to understand their racial identity. Though the stages and phases may differ in name, the processes are similar in each model. The white person progresses along a developmental continuum where he or she is confronted on multiple levels with the issues of whiteness and its meaning in contemporary society. Through a series of encounters with whiteness these theorists posit that white people can ultimately develop healthy white racial identities—identities that, according to Helms (1993), involve “an awareness of personal responsibility for racism, consistent acknowledgment of one’s Whiteness, and abandonment of racism in any of its forms as a defining aspect of one’s personality” (p. 53).2


Using the racial-identity models is one strategy for examining white racial identity in/with white student teachers. Another method would be to investigate white student teachers’ notions of whiteness in relation to typologies that have been developed by Jones (1972) and Terry (1975). These typologists have presented various white-types attempting to examine how white people construct notions of themselves as white.


In this participatory action research project, I complement the above approaches by examining white racial identity, and the meaning of whiteness, through a different lens. Rather than a developmental model consisting of “levels” (Carter, 1997) and various transitions to the formation of a healthy racial identity, or a model that relies on assessing the types of white people the participants might be, I looked at white racial identity as a social activity that is constantly being created and recreated in situations of rupture and tension (Minh-Ha, 1996). This participatory action research project allowed for moments of rupture and tension and used them as points of departure for examining the relationship between our racial identities and the ways in which we both teach and learn within the system of whiteness. In addition, participatory action research provided the necessary opportunities for the kind of reflection that is focused both inwardly at teacher practice and outwardly at students and the multiple contexts in which teaching practices are situated (Zeichner, 1991, p. 11).


By engaging in a dialectical process of reflection, the participants of this project had the opportunity to (1) investigate whiteness, (2) educate themselves about the relationship between their racial identities and the existence of racism within U.S. society, and (3) take constructive action in the naming of racism and the re-naming of what they can do about it within the context of multicultural education.

PARTICIPATORY ACTION RESEARCH


Participatory action research emerged during the 1960s and 1970s as a social, educational, and political movement aimed at transforming the daily realities of oppressed people in developing countries (Fals-Borda & Rahman, 1991). Since the 1970s, educators and researchers in North America have appropriated the participatory action research methodology in and through multiple projects designed to address a variety of social and community issues (see, e.g., Forester, Pitt, & Welsh, 1993; Maguire, 1987; Park, Brydon-Miller, Hall, & Jackson, 1993). Although there are varying gradations of participatory action research projects, and multiple ways in which they are carried out, the following three principles guide most participatory action research projects: (1) the collective investigation of a problem, (2) the reliance on indigenous knowledge to better understand that problem, and (3) the desire to take individual and/or collective action to deal with the stated problem. These aims are achieved through collective investigation, education, and action throughout the research process. Although not widely used, participatory action research is a powerful strategy for advancing the role of the researcher/educator in the social sciences and has provided an alternative method for illuminating complex social phenomena in a context of change.


Participatory action research is a methodology of collaboration and consciousness-raising for both the researcher and the participant. I entered into this research experience as a doctoral student, an educator, a white, North American, working-class female, who has been afforded multiple opportunities in this society. I lived with my own contradictions as I, too, engaged in understanding my white racial identity. My own assumptions about whiteness informed my thinking and had a profound influence on how I conducted and participated in this research. These contradictions, and the complexities of being a participant-researcher who coordinated and facilitated many of the discussions, were acknowledged and attended to throughout the experience, and surely influenced the direction of this work.3


My choice to conduct a participatory action research project was guided by the writings of Paulo Freire (1970, 1973, 1994) and numbers of feminist researchers who combine research, education, and action in the hope of generating individual and social change (see, e.g., Fine, 1992, 1994; Lykes, 1989, 1994; Maguire, 1987, 1993; Reinharz, 1992). The participants were invited to be researchers about their daily lives, to pose problems that arose from the complexities of their own racial identities, and to develop realistic solutions for dealing with racism in their classrooms and in their individual and collective lives. Through this research experience, the participants were provided with opportunities to view themselves as white—an experience that was relatively new to them. It also provided them with a challenging and highly provocative way to view their roles as white teachers.

PARTICIPANTS


The participants in this participatory action research project were thirteen white undergraduate middle- to upper-middle-class female student teachers enrolled in a teacher preparation program at a private northeastern university. They were all engaged in a prepracticum field experience (practice teaching) during the course of this research project and all volunteered to participate in the project after receiving an announcement informing them about the research project prior to the fall semester, 1994. Twelve of the participants were juniors in the university during this research project; one, Julie, was a senior.4 Four of the participants were majoring in Early Childhood Education. Six were majoring in Elementary Education and three were majoring in Secondary Education.

DATA COLLECTION


In order to explore the meaning of whiteness, the fourteen of us participated in eight group sessions lasting approximately two hours each during the fall semester of 1994. In addition, I conducted semi-structured interviews with each of the participants prior to the beginning of the group sessions. The goals of the research sessions were varied. They were also subject to change, since one of the facets of participatory action research is sharing the construction and the creation of knowledge with all participants. The specific resources that I brought to this project emerged out of my continued engagement with the various aspects of participatory action research. They ranged from readings that stimulated critical thinking about white privilege (e.g., McIntosh, 1992), to structuring group discussions about the students’ field practicum experiences and their daily encounters with race, to discussing the problematic terms that arise in the field of multicultural education. The participants also had opportunities to individually and collectively discuss their interviews, share their own interpretations of that experience, and make meaning of what emerged from their personal and group reflections. Symbolic art (for example, collages and/or visual designs5) was also used as a tool for living out the participatory process.


Even though all the group sessions were organized around a theme, a question, an activity, an experience the students had at their field sites, a problem posed by the researcher or the participants, or an idea that emerged from the project itself, the very nature of participatory action research is one of surprise. Therefore, the “aha” experiences that emerged in the research project oftentimes worked to redirect my predetermined agenda. The topics of whiteness, race, and racism, and the issues they raised for all of us, caused a reformulation of even the best-thought-out exercise or activity. The participants were integral agents in the direction of the discourse and were instrumental in creating the data.


All the group sessions were audiotaped and transcribed by me. Like the interviews, these transcriptions were presented to the participants for their feedback and critique prior to—and during—the formal analysis.6

ANALYSIS


Exploring the complexities of racial identity, whiteness, and the participants’ perspectives on teaching was extremely complicated and required an analysis that could uncover the concepts, ideas, themes, and beliefs that shaped the myriad experiences that multiple participants brought to the research project. Social constructionist grounded theory (Charmaz, 1990) provides an approach to analyzing the data in terms of those complexities. Throughout the research project, I listened, and relistened, to the session tapes, identifying the codes (i.e., themes) and concepts that I heard each week. I continued to develop and organize preliminary concepts and codes, which began to frame my initial analysis. I then offered these as reflections to the participants and to my advisor during our weekly meetings. They became the basis for helping me to think through the process of meaning-making.


Once the research sessions were over, I transcribed the taped sessions. I am committed to the perspective shared by other researchers (see e.g., Mishler, 1986, 1991; Ochs, 1979; Reissman, 1990; Tannen, 1984) that transcription is an aspect of interpretation—that h o w I transcribe multiparty talk has implications for how I analyze it and what aspects of the talk I attend to. The appearance of words, phrases, and clauses, and where and how they determine lines, was set by the margins on the computer. I was interested in documenting the interruptions, overlaps, and silences. I transcribed every word, nonlexical expression, pause, and demonstrative expression so as to capture the myriad ways the participants engaged in generating group talk that both constrained and facilitated critique.


Following the completed transcriptions, I read, and reread, the texts multiple times. During these initial readings, I defined concepts (e.g., defensiveness), identified codes (e.g., teaching; constructions of whiteness; images of the Other), and described the participants’ talk in the margins of the transcripts. Some of those concepts were descriptive (I would write “fear” if a participant said “I’m afraid”); others were less defined by the participants’ exact words (I used the term “defensiveness” to conceptualize how the participants spoke about the fact that they “shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable about being white”). During numerous read-throughs, I began to link the various concepts and codes that I developed across the session texts. Out of that process, I created a number of categories to represent the concepts and codes that were generated by this analysis. I originally created seven categories, which, after numerous rewrites, I synthesized into three major categories: White Talk, Constructions of Whiteness, and Teacher Image.7 The category White Talk illustrates the ways in which the participants’ talk served to insulate them from examining their individual and collective role(s) in the perpetuation of racism. Constructions of Whiteness describes the ways in which the participants conceptualized what it means to be white (e.g., good whites versus bad whites, white as normative, white equals power and privilege, etc.). In this article, I present a partial analysis of the category Teacher Image so as to illuminate the particular ways in which the participants made meaning of whiteness in relationship to education, teaching practice, and their understandings of themselves as white teachers. By examining the participants’ discourse, we, as educators, can gain a better understanding of how we can work to unravel the complexities of teaching white student teachers about race.

TEACHER IMAGE


The invitation to participate in this action research project stated that we would be discussing the role of the white teacher in multicultural antiracist education. The majority of participants decided to commit themselves to the research project because they were concerned about the difficulties they were having, and might have, teaching students of color. These concerns about “minority students” were twofold: First, the participants worried about whether they could effectively teach students of color; second, the participants worried about how they were being perceived by students of color.


ASHLEY:

My name’s Ashley. I’m in Secondary Ed and I’ve been always like concerned about race and I don’t know why but it’s always just something that’s always bugged me and I wonder as a teacher how am I going to be looked upon with minority students—and I don’t want them to look at me as like a white teacher. I want them to look at me as someone who’s there for them and I hope whether they’re white I mean or black they or Hispanic whatever race they are, they can respect me because of who I am not what color I am. (Session 1)


Similar notions of wanting to be seen as a colorless teacher who is “there for them” regardless of race were shared by others during the first group session.


KERRY:

GERRY:

ELLEN:

ELIZABETH:

I thought it [the research project] might keep me from passing on the stereotypes and the other things to the kids in the class.


It was really difficult to be in my prepracticum [in the inner city] because of where I came from and so I just wanted to do some more things to make myself better, improve what I’m doing.


I thought, “Well, I’m not a minority but I still want to work with minority kids and why am I being rejected [from getting a job in the inner city]? Just because of who I am?”


We’re all going to be white teachers. Um, these days it doesn’t get talked about that much and I think this opportunity will help all of us to be better teachers because we’ll have a better perspective on how to teach minority students.


Faith discussed some of her concerns about her own perspective as a white teacher during Session 6. Her comments resonate with the other participants’ anxieties about how their identities as white teachers would influence their expectations of black students.


FAITH:

I mean I felt, last year I taught in [the inner city] and I was like even then I was so nervous like, “Am I treating these kids differently because they’re black?” And like my teacher . . . had no expectations for these kids. . . . And I was like, “Is that gonna happen to me? Am I gonna be like teaching in the city and am I going to have lower expectations for these kids therefore, lower performance because they’re black? Like would I be challenging them more if they were white? Would I be treating them differently?” And now [this semester] I’m in a white classroom. They, the school as a whole, has different expectations for these [white] kids. (Session 6)


Teaching to diversity was not just about pedagogy for these participants. It was also about their self-image as teachers.8 They want to be seen as good teachers and are concerned that their students of color will respond to them negatively because they are white. They often expressed anxiety about how they were going to teach “inner-city kids” effectively when they had never been exposed to “that kind of environment.” (Teaching “inner-city kids” means the experience of teaching students of color, in particular, Latino/a and African-American students.) Their concerns about being good teachers were articulated throughout the research project. I now present some of those concerns and describe the ways in which the participants conceptualized themselves as white teachers and how they envisioned the role(s) of white teachers in our society.

(RE)PRODUCING THE DOMINANT DISCOURSE


Many of the participants in this research project described multicultural education in their interviews as being about “awareness of different cultures,” “covering every culture in your classroom,” and “getting a basic understanding and acceptance of all the different cultures.” Others used similar descriptions, focusing on the need for all children to interact with each other, for teachers to look at history through a variety of lenses, and for all cultures to be valued in the classroom. Although Michelle mentioned that multicultural education is “better in theory than it is in practice”—a good idea but not always practical, and Christine suggested that multicultural education fails to “deal with the topic of racism,” overall it was difficult for the participants to see multicultural education as a framework for examining racism and white dominance within the U.S. educational system.


This inability to situate racism and whiteness within multicultural education distanced the participants from thinking that we, as whites, are implicated in the kind of educational system that continues to privilege white students. The participants in this project experienced a duality between seeing themselves as individual white student teachers and seeing themselves as individual white student teachers who are members of the larger dominant group and who are advantaged by and implicated in the maintenance of an educational system that advantages them and students who are like them. It is easier for them to see themselves as individual teachers who are going to create safe classrooms where they will “love kids” and where their students will have, as Marie suggested, “six hours a day [where] it’s not a racially charged classroom. The students can come and they can work and be themselves without having that pressure of society. In the classroom, they don’t have to experience that racial bias.” Envisioning teaching as a neutral and solitary act, individualized and removed from societal and cultural pressures, makes it difficult for the participants to grasp “the legacy of racism that follow[s] them into [their classrooms]” (Lawrence & Tatum, 1997, p. 341). This uncritical acceptance of themselves as white teachers untainted by white racism resembles the contact phase of Helms’s (1994) model, in which whites simply pay no attention to their membership in the dominant racial group. Ignoring and/or denying their racial group membership makes it easier for the participants to close themselves off in their classrooms where, on their own, they will “teach open-mindedness” (Elizabeth) and create classrooms where “everyone will be treated equally” (Ashley).


In addition to seeing themselves as set apart from other whites, the participants also see themselves as set apart from their students of color. The participants view themselves as coming from very good backgrounds and “having” good values, good parents, a good education, and a good sense of what they need to do in the classroom in order to teach effectively. In contrast, they see their students of color as “not having”—as somehow deficient. These perceptions of whites “having” and people of color “not having” were unsettling for the participants. One way for them to cope with their concerns, and to alleviate the discomfort of being advantaged, was for the participants to fix racism in their own classrooms and “share what they have.”


ELIZABETH:

OTHERS:

ELLEN:

MARY:

ELIZABETH:

MARY:

ELIZABETH:

GERRY:

ELIZABETH:

MARIE:

GERRY:

MARY:

ELLEN:

I think it’s like shocking. I mean we’re all just sitting here like thinking you know, we’re all just, what do we say, you know? But I don’t think like any of us have to be you know, I don’t know. It’s just I mean I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s like I almost feel like I should feel guilty for being white.


Yeah. Yeah.


Yeah, . . . like like the guilt of being white.


[We] had no control over it.


Well, so we’re white, you know?


It’s like you [don’t have] any control about our families.


Right.


Like how can you feel guilty about that?


Right. But it’s frustrating.


It is. It’s very frustrating for me.


It’s like why did I get all this and that person doesn’t have it?


Like there’s nothing you can do. Like obviously we had no control over who we are or how we were born but it’s almost like you wish you could do something now but there’s really nothing.


It’s the kind of thing where I can say, “Why couldn’t I have shared my wonderful family?” Like I have such an awesome family. (Session 4)


The participants reproduce a common refrain in the white American discourse—namely, “we had no control over who we are and how we were born” and “like there’s nothing we can do.” This myopic perspective lends itself to the further reproduction of a discourse that disclaims individual and/or collective responsibility for current racism in this country. In addition, reproducing this kind of stance fosters the acceptance of a watered down version of multicultural education that eliminates a focus on white teachers as mediators of educational policies and practices.


The participants felt confused, defensive, and guilty about “get[ting] all this.” These conflicting feelings produced contradictory experiences for the group. The participants’ discovery of “how much their lives and the lives of people of color have been affected by racism in our society” (Tatum, 1994, p. 464) resulted in the kind of cognitive dissonance associated with the disintegration stage of Helms’s (1994) model. This collective dissonance made it possible for us to begin a conversation about the racial inequities in white society, at the same time that it generated a level of discomfort that made it almost impossible for us to sustain such a discussion. The participants became (re)producers of the dominant ideology at the same time that they were fervently trying to construct images of themselves as dedicated and committed white student teachers.


Like most of us, these participants learned the history of race relations in this country in ways that foster constructing a discourse that mirrors the dominant ideology of whiteness. The participants find it difficult to deal with information that sheds light on the fact that racism is not a past sin belonging to some anonymous white people. This realization challenges them to take a good hard look at the implications of what it means to be white teachers—something they both faced up to and hid from during our group sessions.

TEACHERS AS “WHITE KNIGHTS”


Whites acting like “white knights” was particularly salient in the participants’ discussions about teaching inner-city students. The participants enter their classrooms complete with a history of white dominance, privilege, and advantage that many times they are completely unaware of. Like Cochran-Smith’s (1995) students, “no matter how much or how little they had already acknowledged the role race played in their lives and the lives of others, there had still been too little acknowledgment of it and too much silence about it” (p. 548). The participants’ difficulty with understanding the interrelatedness of education and their own whiteness resulted in the participants’ viewing inner-city students of color as passive recipients of white teachers’ good will. Their discussions about teaching in inner-city schools have this going-native quality about them that is reminiscent of some historical anthropological writings in which the researcher entered a foreign culture and met the culturally deprived Other (see, e.g., Rosaldo, 1993).


Following is a rather long exchange that took place during Session 3, which provides a partial glimpse of the complicated ways that the reproduction of whiteness and teaching intersect. The participants reify the (re)production of myths and stereotypes while simultaneously sustaining the image of the “good white knight teachers” rescuing students from bad lives and from bad white classroom teachers who are part of “the problem” (Gerry).


MARIE:

LYNN:

[teaches young children] Um, I was my placement this year was in [the city] and they were all Haitian students in my class. They were all black and it was a white teacher and myself and there were two students. They were twins and they came from a really, really big family like they were in third grade and they had all younger brothers and sisters but they had like eight of them and some were still in Haiti and um, their father worked two jobs. The boys would come in and they wouldn’t have eaten. They weren’t um, showered. Their uniforms weren’t clean. They were very like unkempt. They were slow learners and my cooperating teacher would make comments about like the way they were dressed and she didn’t expect them to do much in the class because of where they came from—and because Dad dropped them off and he brought them McDonald’s at lunch and she just was like, “If they sit in the corner and they are quiet all day and they do this, I’m happy.” And I tutored with them one on one and they loved the attention. They were like craving it, you know? And it was like it was like as long as they were quiet and they didn’t throw a temper tantrum, she was like happy—and it was such a shame to me and it was an all black classroom so it wasn’t like she was just segregating them because they were black. It was because of other things but I think too that she saw that the fact that they were black played a role in her actions and how she treated them.


[teaches high school] There was a girl in my class last year who . . . was doing a preprac, [with] high school kids and there was this individual in the class who was I guess it was an English class. He was a senior. He was minority. I forget what and could not read or write and she went up to the teacher and said, “What are you going to do about this?” The teacher says, “I can’t do anything about him. Just let him just do whatever and he’ll get by. . . . That’s a lost cause. Forget it.” . . . She was just appalled. The teacher just said, “Let it go,” you know? She’s going into this profession to teach and a teacher was telling her just forget it.

ELIZABETH:

MARY:

OTHERS:

MARY:

GERRY:

ELIZABETH:

MARY:

FAITH:

MARY:

[teaches young children] It’s so much harder especially like all the legal stuff like can you actually hug the kid, you know? I mean my prepracticum last year was in [the inner city]. I don’t know who’s from around here but you hear [the inner city] you think black, gang, killing everything, you know and I’m from [a white suburb] which is like the all suburban [school] everyone in there is white and when I first got the placement I was like, “Wow. This is gonna be so different than what I grew up in” and I was a little scared just because I didn’t know what to expect—but going in there it was like so amazing how much more the kids need, you know what I mean? This little girl everyday at recess or like when I was there, I mean she might have done it on other days, but I’d be like, “Why don’t you go play with the kids?” And she’d just wanna sit and like not necessarily tell me her problems but she just like wanted a friend to talk to—that was just gonna listen or give her a hug and it was just like when I was growing up, I mean you like totally ignored anyone older, you know, like superior to you, you know what I mean? Like the lunch lady, the teachers, you totally like blow them off. (laughter) You wouldn’t wanna go sit and talk to them all, you know what I mean? It’s like they need so much more. And I don’t know.


[teaches young children] These little kids they like look at you. I was in this school. They watch you go around the room and talk to all the kids then when you come to them they’re like, “Yes” and they’re so psyched and they show you what they’re doing. I’d be like, “Oh, God. Like I hope I’m doing this OK.” They were just like, some of them just didn’t even have a clue. They just looked at you like, “Please talk to me.”


“Yeah.” “It’s sad.” “Yeah.”


I went in there into the school thinking, none of them are gonna have what I had when I was growing up and none of them do, but they don’t know that they don’t have it. So it’s like kind of like you’re caught in the middle. Like some of them come to school in like November, no coat like they don’t even realize what’s going on and like I just look at them like, “Oh, my God.” But kids are kids and they just came and played and did whatever but I don’t know. It was a really difficult situation ’cause I didn’t know whether or not I should just be like, “I wanna take them all home” but they didn’t know like I don’t know—it was a very strange situation to be in at first—I didn’t know how to relate to them.


[teaches young children] Um, but it was funny ’cause I taught in [the inner city] as I said and I had no idea what to expect and I did a run just to see how far it was the day before I was going to school and it was smack dab in the middle of the projects in [the inner city]—and I sat there with my roommate and I was like, “What do I do?” . . . And it was really hard ’cause my teacher the very first day that I got there looked at mer and she goes, “These are all really needy kids. Distance yourself. Don’t let ’em get close to you ’cause you’ll hurt ’em in the end.”


She was a great teacher, huh?


A lot of things probably come and go out of their life.


[teaches young children] I think it’s funny how when we talk about little kids, it’s like they need you so much and like I taught in [the inner city] last year and it was awesome. Like these kids would just sit on your lap and play with your hair.


Look at your earrings.

FAITH:

Look at your jewelry. Love the earrings. Talk about their moms. . . . and they loved it and then you talk about the kids who are in high school who look at you. They have no idea what I have, you know what I mean? They don’t miss it because they don’t know it but when they’re in high school, they know what they don’t have and they look at you and they’re like, “You jerk.”

OTHERS:


“Yeah.” “They’re pissed.” (Session 3)


The observations that are made by the participants reveal several stereotypes about students of color (e.g., unkempt, violent, unprepared). Confounding that is the fact that the participants’ perceptions of themselves as caring and benevolent teachers make it difficult for them to even recognize those stereotypes. The caretaking paternalism exemplified in Mary’s suggestion that “I wanna take them all home” resonates with what many of the white teachers in Sleeter’s (1993) research suggest—namely, that students of color come from “dysfunctional families and communities, and [they] lack ability and motivation” (p. 162). Thus, the participants feel compelled to rescue their students and give them “what I had when I was growing up” (Mary).


The participants’ talk, embedded in a caring and sharing storyline, propels them further into the maintenance of myths, while simultaneously it distances them from thinking more radically about themselves in a system wherein they contribute to sustaining such gross inequities in our schools. Rather than expressing anger and rage at children coming to school with no coats and “not having” what “they have,” the participants’ discourse lacked a sense of urgency about the need to restructure educational institutions. The participants conceptualize the problem as being internal to their students. The solution then is to “save” them.


As a participatory action researcher working with future teachers, I attempted to demystify the multiple myths that seemed to permeate our discussions. I also struggled with how to engage in that demystification. This participatory action research project emphasized the transformation of individual and collective consciousness by providing a context for the participants to critically examine their lives, and to research our collective roles as white teachers in U.S. society. This methodological commitment to self- and collective critical inquiry required that we work collaboratively to make room for both engaging each other in discussions about our white identities and critiquing the ideology of whiteness that informs and influences our educational theories and practices. The dilemma, and ensuing risk for me, was being a white participant-researcher negotiating the boundaries of engagement and critique. If the research was to be dialogical, I had to participate in creating a forum for sharing knowledge and life experiences. Concurrently, that shared knowledge and those life experiences had to be challenged and problematized so as to provoke an indepth critique of the participants’ white worlds. Moments of contestation arose as I struggled to balance engagement with critique. The experience of engaging and critiquing, and the resultant exploration of the intersection between whiteness, racism, and teaching, was a constant source of frustration—and insight—as I moved in and out of the group discussions.


Prior to the above discussion, which occurred during Session 3, I made a firm decision to be more of a silent, observant participant-researcher. That decision stemmed from my engagement with the tapes from Session 2. After listening to the session tapes, I felt that I had taken over the latter half of Session 2 by “teaching” the participants about racism. In a participatory action research project, that is clearly acceptable and an important aspect of knowledge construction. Nonetheless, I felt that I was a bit overbearing and therefore, I decided to try a new strategy for Session 3—I was not going to teach and I was not going to direct the discussion. In my journal that evening, after Session 3, I was quite proud of myself when I wrote:


I only asked 2 questions the whole session! Sat on my feet. Crossed my arms. Moved a little more than usual I would say, but I kept my mouth shut. I told them that I was a little freaked out last week when they raised their hands and I apologized for having set up the discussion so that that would seem to be a normal response from them. I reminded them—and myself—that this wasn’t a class and they needed to facilitate their own discussions and feel free to speak up and comment at any time. . . . I haven’t figured out yet . . . how much they should direct the flow and how much I should. (Sept. 30, 1994)


After my advisor and I listened to the tapes from Session 3, I didn’t feel so proud. Obviously, I was more interested in m y role and m y anxiety than I was in critiquing very problematic group talk. During the next session, I felt that I needed to respond to the participants’ comments and focus the discussion on us, as white people, and the need for us to engage in self-reflection and critique. Having grown up in a town next to the “part of the inner city” that was described as a place where “you think black, gang, killing everything,” I shared a realistic picture of that community with the participants. Having been a classroom teacher for many years in that very same community, I questioned the participants about why they thought inner-city kids “don’t even realize what’s going on.”


ALICE:

MARIE:

ELLEN:

Why do you think black children and children of color don’t know that they don’t have?


I don’t think that’s true in all cases. I think that um, that some black kids do realize that . . . I think that they do make comparisons with white people and I think some of them get really angry and um, and maybe that’s why there’s so much tension because they see what most white people have and maybe as a black person, they put themselves in like, they say all white people and then me, I’m all black people. I represent my race and then they start to get angry. So, I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say.


I think that for them it’s normal and it’s accepted. They don’t expect their life to be any different because “Well this is what I’ve got and I can’t imagine life any differently. But look at what they have.” So, I agree with you but I also think that they don’t really come to realize that they could actually have that, had they been born into a different situation or had they been born in a different social class but they see that everyone else or not everyone else, but other people have certain things and they wish they could have it but I don’t think they ever kind of realize that they could have it. And that’s what comes under the encouragement thing is maybe because they haven’t been encouraged they don’t ever realize that it could be theirs. (Session 4)


This idea that students of color “do not know that they don’t have” was a thread throughout many of our discussions and a way of thinking about the Other that reifies stereotypes and continues to view students of color as “needing” and “wanting” what “we, as whites, have.” The participants saw themselves as “white knights” alleviating this need by encouraging students individually at the expense of discouraging the collective systems that maintain and sustain educational inequities in our schools.


Similar discussions took place during the research project and were disconcerting and highly uncomfortable at times, and reveal the complexities of trying to unravel our racial positions within the discourse of teaching and racism. As Cochran-Smith (1995) suggests, talking about race with white student teachers generates an “unsettling discourse”; like her, I wonder “about how this discourse informs beginning teachers” (p. 545). It was evident that the participants are concerned about issues of race and racism and that they wanted to be seen as antiracist teachers. What was not so evident to the participants was their inability to see their complicity in the (re)production of knowledge, values, beliefs, and racist myths that have their genesis in a white, Eurocentric, class-based system of privilege and authority.

WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A “WHITE” TEACHER


There is an interdependency between whiteness and reproduction, between whiteness and control of discourse, and between whiteness and teaching. Throughout the research project, the participants dabbled in those interdependencies. They talked about themselves as being white student teachers (and soon-to-be full fledged white teachers). I heard the participants discuss the tension they felt as they entered unfamiliar environments and interacted with unfamiliar students, particularly in inner-city schools. They entered into these experiences with a perspective that is consistent with Britzman’s (1986) observations about teachers: They think they have to know everything and they think they have to be experts on school culture. What becomes problematic for them is their lack of knowledge—not only about the Other’s racial and cultural identities, but about their own as well.


Marie shared the story of how aware she was of her whiteness when she was in a classroom of students of color. The contradiction arises as she discussed how convinced she was that the children she was teaching were unaware of her color and that “it didn’t matter to them.”


MARIE:

I have a quick story to share about something like that. The students in my class are Haitian. They all had brown eyes. My teacher had brown eyes and she did this one . . . lesson with them. She put them in pairs like boy and girl and she said, “I want you to write down all the things that are the same about you that you share, have in common” and she asked them to write down all their differences and then she got us back into a big group. One of the kids said, “Everyone in here has brown eyes” and my cooperating teacher was like, “No, Miss Wilson [Marie] doesn’t have brown eyes. She has blue eyes.” Every single one of those kids came running over to me and they never noticed that I had blue eyes. Like they never noticed that my eye color was any different from theirs and to me it was like, “Wow” because I noticed that I was this white teacher in front of all these black kids. They didn’t even care that I had blue eyes and it didn’t matter to them. I was Miss Wilson who came in, who was a teacher, and it didn’t click to them that I was white and had blue eyes and that I was physically different you know, until she said it. Until she made a comment about it. (Session 3)


Marie shared the above story with me during her interview. At that time she said,


I was just a teacher and the color of my eyes didn’t make a difference which felt good to me—which was nice because that’s the way I felt about them. That they were just kids and or least that’s the way I try to approach them teaching and didn’t—didn’t really think about the fact that [color] was an issue. (Sept. 14, 1994)


While reviewing her interview, Marie added a comment to the above story. In the margins of her interview, she wrote: “It sounds like I’m thinking of ‘them’ in one way and then ignoring that and trying to teach in another way. That’s not what I mean. I do feel that kids are just kids and that in the classroom skin color shouldn’t matter.” Marie’s story, and her later comments, are understandable in light of the participants’ conceptualizations of the nature of racism as well as how they frame “being a teacher.”


I was speaking with one of the participants recently and she was telling me that she still struggles with the definition of racism and “has a hard time” admitting she is a racist even though she understands that racism is a “white problem.” She explained to me that calling herself a racist “can’t be the right terminology” because she is “doing everything in my power not to be.” “Doing everything in my power not to be a racist” was a common refrain shared by other participants during the research experience. One way for the participants to prove to themselves that they are not racists is to deny skin color in their classrooms. Helms (1994) refers to this phenomenon when she describes white people who “claim to be color-blind and think it is a positive attribute” (p. 304). Being colorblind allows the participants to think positively about themselves while dismissing the life experiences of their students of color—experiences largely shaped by their racial group membership. For these white participants, their classrooms become a microcosm of the larger society, which needs to believe that skin color is not an issue. By minimizing the importance of their students’ skin color, the participants accept the fallacy that kids are just kids. Unfortunately, the participants’ way of thinking negates the essentiality of recognizing and valuing the lived experiences of their students, and understanding the relationship between those experiences and the bifurcation of racial equity in our schools and in our society.


In addition to minimizing their skin color as a factor that might mediate their notions of teaching, and their assumptions about their students of color, the participants speak about teachers in very dualistic terms. These dualisms serve specific purposes for the participants as they try to gain a better understanding of their own racial and social locations. When the participants reflect on their positions as white teachers, they recognize the possibilities they have to make a difference in the lives of their students—possibilities that have a great deal to do with the intersection of their racial, gendered, and classed identities. In contrast, when being a member of the white race requires that the participants reflect on the history of white racism and the consequences of racism for people of color and for their own individual and collective white psyche, they separate themselves from “those whites” and stress their individuality. Race then becomes problematic and, therefore, ignored or deemphasized as a factor in their lives.


The participants are white student teachers but they are good white student teachers. They see themselves as embodying an understanding of the highest principles of teaching: caring for students, increasing students’ self-esteem, and creating safe places for students to learn. As Ellen commented during Session 6, “We’re all optimistic teachers who plan on not having racism in our classroom.” Not having racism in their classrooms meant not succumbing to the pressures of teaching, not colluding with the “bad white teachers” who have given up on students of color and who treat them like they are “just there” (Faith). The following is just one of the stories the participants shared during the research project that illuminates the dualism they experience as white teachers.


GERRY:

OTHERS:

GERRY:

MARY:

GERRY:

I was in [the inner city] with first graders and . . . we had one black girl in our class um, and most of the kids were bussed in. Everybody had a messed up family life. It wasn’t like just this black girl had a messed up family life. I mean every single child in that classroom had seen more in their six years than any of us probably have seen in 20. Um, and she [the cooperating teacher] just singled this one girl out. Her name was Evelyn and she was trying to get Evelyn removed from the school. And she would say to me every week (whispering) “Well you know how they are?”


“Oooh.” “Oh, God.”


And I was like what can you do ’cause you are so powerless as the student teacher there for one day a week. And she got her removed. . . . She got her removed in the middle of February, from the school and she said, “I don’t think it was the best thing for her to be here. There’s only one other black girl in the school. She needs to be with her kind.”


They told that to like her family?


No. They covered it up and said that it was like behavioral problems and all this stuff. But I mean, how do you expect a kid not to behave that way when you’re sitting there and ostracized in the class? Obviously she’s gonna act out for attention. She threw her desk one day. Doesn’t that tell you something? Like she’s mad at you. (laughter) Like nothing clicked though. . . . Like if you would just give her the time of day and treat her the same way that you’re treating the 19 other students in this class, maybe she wouldn’t throw the desk so that she would get your attention—’cause then all it does is it gets her sent to the principal and she knew where she was going but it was better than being in the class and being treated like she was being treated. It was so bad. It was a great experience but like to hear things like that being said in the classroom you’re just like, “Wake up. Go to new seminars or something.” (laughter) (Session 3)


The participants couldn’t believe some of the things they heard and saw their cooperating teachers saying and doing. After listening to a group of veteran teachers discussing students from an urban high school Lynn came to a group session and said:


You would be appalled at what they say and how they talk about their students and the relation to race or groupings or um, academic level or whatever. . . . My fear is going into these schools and after 26 years of that, is really developing um, a low expectation of students. I don’t want to. I don’t think it’s the best way to go about your teaching. I think you should have all these high expectations for your students but there’s the fear that because you’re in an urban setting, there’s a lot going on in these kids’ lives, that it drains you and it gets very discouraging. I think that’s what I fear. (Session 6)


That is not to say that every cooperating teacher they encountered was what the participants called a “bad influence.” There are many cooperating teachers who are superb role models for student teachers. Yet the participants of this project, who are armed with idealism, youth, intelligence, and a clear willingness to work hard, came into the student teaching experience with a refreshing optimism that some of their veteran cooperating teachers lacked. They are eager to enter the field of teaching and want very much to make a difference in the lives of students they teach. At the same time, they want to avoid becoming “hardened” and insensitive to their students, especially their students of color. As Ellen stated during Session 6,


You hope so much for these kids and you’re so close to these kids but you know, some of them are gonna fail and some of them aren’t gonna make it to the second grade and some of them are gonna drop out of school and it hurts. It hurts to see these people that you love because you—I love my students and . . . it would break my heart to see any of them fail but I know that some of them are going to. You know and I think that after 20 years you kind of get hardened. (Session 6)


Unfortunately, Ellen’s comments—and others like it—create a caring without critique discourse that sounds good, feels good, but unfortunately accepts the status quo that is rigidified in our educational institutions. Participants, couched in uncritical caring, had difficulty staring at the discriminatory practices that are played out in our school systems. Like the teachers engaged in Lawrence and Tatum’s (1997) professional development program, the participants were unaware of the pervasiveness “of racist policies and practices within schools and other social institutions” (p. 337). They failed to realize that no amount of caring—if it is not linked to some “possibility of change” (Tatum, 1992)—is going to dismantle the foundations of racism that hold our schools intact. The participants’ paternalism, along with some of the teaching they observed, mutes a critical discussion of racism and teaching. As Van Galen (1993) suggests, they


may want to ask themselves whether they can be willing to settle for a warmth and pleasantness when such “caring” renders invisible the inequitable treatment of . . . minority students and excludes from discussion the unpleasantness that permeates the realities of many students’ lives. (p. 22)

CONCLUSION


The data presented in this article lead me to conclude that how these participants make meaning of whiteness is highly disturbing and definitely should be attended to by white educators who are committed to developing strategies for understanding how whiteness relates to educational practice.


When I first began this project, I had high hopes that by the end of the semester the participants would have been so transformed by the group sessions that they would automatically want to develop a collective action project aimed at addressing racism on campus. Although Michelle made an attempt to do just that during one of our last sessions together, the participants resisted taking any collective action. Nonetheless, shortly after the research project ended, the campus where this project was developed experienced a level of racial unrest that resulted in the formation of several new undergraduate student groups committed to addressing racism within the university. The public identification of racist behavior on campus, coupled with the raising of consciousness experienced within the project, led five of the thirteen participants to join in the formation of undergraduate student groups to address racism at the university. Since then, many of the participants have shared with me some of the changes they have made in their individual lives since the project ended. Marie commented that “I can have conversations about race—something I just couldn’t do before without feeling uncomfortable.” Gerry explained to me that she has experienced a shift in how she thinks about her whiteness. “The first word that I would link with being white now would be privilege and before, I don’t know what I said.” Faith commented on the fact that the research project had “done a lot” for her. “It’s gotten me to . . . be more aware. It’s kept me awake at nights, too.” Ashley stated that she was much more aware now of institutional racism and her “part in it,” something she was unaware of prior to becoming a participant in the project. She added that “I think it’s given me a lot more responsibility as a white person that I didn’t know I had.” Michelle discussed how she now sees whiteness as something “real and concrete.” Whereas before the research experience she had never heard the word, Michelle now believes that whiteness is “very alive as opposed to being invisible. . . . I’ve come to the conclusion that I am privileged and I need to act on that knowledge.”


These are incremental, individual steps that may appear to be insignificant when we see how firmly established racism is in the United States. Yet these shifts in thinking and being keep the conversation alive and are significant reminders to the participants that they c a n take action in their personal and professional lives to alleviate various forms of racism. They continue to struggle with their whiteness and realize that they are only just beginning to unravel the complexities of their racial locations. As Ashley remarked: “I also think I have so much further to go.” Nonetheless, their conversations with me suggest that some of them have “come a long way” (Gerry) in understanding the multiple dimensions of whiteness and the multiple ways in which their racial locations give them access to resources and opportunities that are not readily available—if at all—to people of color.


My engagement with these participants strongly supports the ideas posited by many antiracist educators and scholars—many of whom I have referred to in this article: the need for multicultural antiracist curriculum in our schools; populating the teaching force with people of color; planning long-term learning and teaching experiences that expose white students to the lives of people of color; rewriting the history of race and whiteness into our texts; and requiring that white teachers develop awareness of their racial identities so as to support, challenge, and (re)educate their students.


In addition, the data from this project suggest that schools of education should “interrupt the multicultural silences existing in the student teaching experience” (Grant & Zozakiewicz, 1995, p. 269). Grant and Zozakiewicz argue that student teachers, cooperating teachers, and supervisors have been silenced—and themselves silence a multicultural education orientation that “encompasses democratic principles such as equality, justice and equity” (p. 269). They suggest a number of strategies for making “social justice noise,” such as a more systemic focus on multicultural education throughout the teacher education program as well as in the larger institution, short-term and longitudinal research that measures the effectiveness of multicultural education in the student teaching experience, “professional development time to foster . . . awareness, acceptance and affirmation of multicultural education” (p. 271), and more effective screening and interviewing of cooperating teachers and supervisors.


It has also been my experience that white student teachers from homogeneous backgrounds need some type of “structured immersion experiences” (Sleeter, 1993, p. 169) in inner-city schools with diverse populations for more than one semester. Long-term, extended contact with diverse groups on their “own turf” (Sleeter, 1995b, p. 26), accompanied by cooperating teachers and supervisors who are committed to politicizing their pedagogy and reimagining their praxis, is integral to teacher preparation programs dedicated to restructuring inequitable systems of teaching and learning within our country’s schools (see Cochran-Smith, 1991).


One of the limitations of this research project was the short period of time the participants and I spent together. Teaching a college-level course for only one semester becomes problematic as well, making it difficult to implement long-term processes that lead to self- and collective reflection and action. Thus, it would appear that we need to think more holistically about our teacher education programs and work collaboratively to design interdisciplinary courses under the rubric of multicultural antiracist education.


Like some of the participants, I, too, experienced a reconstruction of my own meaning of whiteness as a result of participating in this project. It was a transformative experience for me and one that continues to impact my life in important ways, both personally and professionally. I am engaged in ongoing formal and informal dialogue with white colleagues and colleagues of color continually looking for ways to deal with the avoidance of and resistance to self- and collective critique that is so representative of many white students—and faculty—who recoil from examining whiteness and racism (see, e.g., Ahlquist, 1991; Cochran-Smith, 1995; Roman, 1993; Sleeter, 1996; Sleeter & Grant, 1988; Tatum, 1994). I also hold a position in the university where I can make “real and concrete” changes in the curriculum and in the ways the predominantly white student teachers that I work with engage in the teacher education program. I believe that is one of the greatest challenges—and benefits—of being a white teacher educator: to address my own complicity in issues of educational racism and institutional silence a n d to be accountable for my own pedagogy. It is unwise for us, as white educators, to theorize and reflect on the need to teach multicultural antiracist education if we ignore our own construction of what it means to be white and if we refuse to examine the ways in which we are implicated in the continued oppression of people of color in white society. I believe that white educators must take responsibility for our actions—and inactions—and ask ourselves: What is our responsibility as white teachers? What can we do “with the privileged positions we currently occupy” (Sleeter & McLaren, 1995, p. 22)?


Finally, I suggest that we, as white educators, should make our whiteness public and join white colleagues and colleagues of color in self- and collective dialogue about the multiple meanings of whiteness and its relationship to education. White educators should generate a white discourse on white racism in the university (Scheurich, 1993) and link that discourse to developing teaching practices that “bear witness to the reality that our many cultures can be remade, that this nation [and our educational system] can be transformed, that we can resist racism and in the act of resistance recover ourselves and be renewed” (hooks, 1995, p. 7).


The author wishes to thank M. Brinton Lykes and Tracey Hurd for their comments on a draft of this article.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 98 Number 4, 1997, p. 653-681
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9601, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 12:06:08 AM

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