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Smartness as Property: A Critical Exploration of Intersections Between Whiteness and Disability Studies

by Zeus Leonardo & Alicia A. Broderick - 2011

Background/Context: Two scholars who each primarily identify as a scholar of critical race/whiteness studies and a scholar of disability studies, respectively, engage in this article in a purposeful dialogue that responds to the invitation put forth by Baglieri, Bejoian, Broderick, Connor, and Valle to engage with the construct of inclusive education, writ large. Through purposeful engagement with one another’s discourse communities, the authors explore both the challenge and the tremendous promise of more theoretically integrated efforts toward abolishing ideological systems of oppression in schooling.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article explores “smartness” as an ideological system and particularly explores the ways in which it intersects with whiteness as ideology. Using Cheryl Harris’s analysis of whiteness, the authors argue that smartness works as a form of property, with all the advantages that come with membership in the group.

Research Design: Analytic essay.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Analogous to Roediger’s claim about whiteness, the authors argue that smartness is nothing but false and oppressive, and as such, attempts to theoretically rearticulate or rehabilitate smartness may serve to illuminate, but ultimately fail to dissolve, the normative center of schooling.

Baglieri, Bejoian, Broderick, Connor, and Valle (2011, this issue) have invited us to join them in unravel[ing] the myth of the normal child to participate in exploring the ways in which multiple complex ideological systems operate in constituting the normative center of schools and to work with them toward dissolving the normative center of schooling. Thus, as scholars who each primarily identify as a scholar of critical race/whiteness studies and a scholar of disability studies, respectively, we have elected to explore theoretical intersections not between particular issues or groups of people (e.g., students of color and disabled students), but rather, between ideologiesspecifically, the ways that the construct of smartness1 intersects both race and ability as ideological systems. This collaborative article documents but a small sliver of the generative discussions we have shared on this topic in the past several years. We explore the theoretical dilemmas inherent in going it alone in this work from a single critical conceptual standpoint (e.g., whiteness studies or disability studies) and, through purposeful engagement with the other and with one anothers discourse communities, explore both the challenge and the tremendous promise of more theoretically integrated efforts toward abolishing ideological systems of oppression in schooling, and thereby dissolving the normative center of schooling.

In seeking points of intersection between whiteness studies and disability studies, perhaps the most obvious issue to address is the overrepresentation of students of color in special education (Artiles, 2008; Blanchett, 2006; Harry & Klingner, 2006)particularly what Fierros and Conroy (2002) have referred to as the double jeopardy of students of color not only being overrepresented in special education service provision generally, but also being overrepresented in the most restrictive or segregated of special education placements. We acknowledge the usefulness and necessity of the work that has been done thus far in exploring these particular issues; however, in attempting to engage deeply with the intersectionalities of the constructs of race and ability, we hope also to avoid the theoretical pitfalls that are often evident when one approach or the other (foregrounding of race or foregrounding of ability) dominates. For example, the very construct of overrepresentation of students of color has been acknowledged and explored in the literature for over four decades (see Dunn, 1968, for an early, explicit engagement with this issue), within both educational discourse communities concerned with issues of disability, and those concerned with issues of race. We wish to shift our gaze in this piece away from that which is clearly illuminated through this discursive representation, and toward that which is obscured by it. Rhetorically, to conceptualize the problem as the statistical overrepresentation of a particular group of students within the bureaucratic systems of special education leaves unquestioned the legitimacy of that system or the problematic ways in which it operates beyond the question of overrepresentation. Indeed, the very conceptualization of the problem of overrepresentation may rhetorically suggest that if the number of students of color in special education were representative of the percentage of students of color in the educational system as a whole, then a significant part of the problem would therefore have been addressed. By conceptualizing the problem as one of overrepresentation, there is risk of tacit reification and legitimation of the naturalness and neutrality of the bureaucratic system of special education as a whole and, by extension, of the deficit-driven and psychological understandings of ability and disability within which it is grounded. Of course, few, if any, of these scholars would argue that equal racial representation in special education amounts to equitable distribution of power. Many other conditions would need to be met. But our concern here takes a different tack at the issue of representation as we peer into the politics of signification within schooling in response to Baglieri et al.s (2011, this issue) invitation to work to unravel the myth of the normal child.

In short, we examine the meanings underlying the constitution of a central facet of the valued, normative center of schools, particularly the construct of smartness that many otherwise insurgent scholars fail to interrogate. Here we theorize the problem of representation from another angle, arguing that the politics of representation within both whiteness and disability studies function as discourses that regulate the fields under study. In other words, like race, ability is a relational system. In terms of race, the category, White, cannot exist without its denigrated other, such as Black or people of color generally; in terms of ability, constructs such as smartness only function by disparaging in both discursive and material ways their complement, those deemed to be uneducable and disposable. In both cases, the privileged group is provided with honor and investment and capital, whereas the marginalized segment is dishonored and dispossessed. And each of these ideological systems (of whiteness and of smartness) tends to operate in symbiotic service of the other in their mutual (though not exclusive) constitution of the normative center of schools (Baglieri et al.).


Theories about whiteness are making an impact on education and allied disciplines. Strictly speaking, whiteness studies belongs within a larger engagement of race relations. More traditional race studies focused on the experiences of people of color with structures of racism and could be regarded as interventions of color within whiteness or, more accurately, White racism. In contrast, as a form of neorace theory (Leonardo, 2002), whiteness studies is an intervention within race, unmasking the nature of racial privilege. Whereas the former was, by and large, a knowledge production of color, the latter is generally a White-led innovation. In schooling, whiteness studies is conceived as a pedagogy of the oppressor (Allen, 2005), demystifying what passes as educationally natural, normal, and valorized. In effect, whiteness studies is an intervention in race theory; it focuses on the strongest form of investment in race relations (Lipsitz, 1998), namely the protection and perpetuation not only of White myths but also perhaps of raciology itself (Gilroy, 2000). To be clear, minorities also invest in racea certain possessive investment in colorbut this is mainly a defensive posture, a reaction to the power of whiteness. When people of color assert their histories of resistance, pride in their culture, and purpose in life as bound up with a search for freedom, they do so within a logic premised on the first fact of whiteness. Otherwise, such claims to minority power in its own right would be unnecessary. Without injecting more power into whiteness, one is compelled to avoid giving it less.

Given this state of affair, it behooves educators to pin down what they mean by whiteness, lest it become a floating signifier with neither utility nor precision. As we invoke it, whiteness is defined as an ideology untied to certain bodies, but an articulation of disparate elementssome racial, some notin order to build a racial cosmology that benefits Whites in absolute ways and minority groups relative only to one another. Whites recruit class, gender, and sexual interests into the general phenomenon of race contestation and specifically into the logic of whiteness. For instance, White women, working-class Whites, gay and lesbian Whites, and disabled Whitesgroups that suffer in their own right despite their whitenessare consoled by the power and promise of whiteness, what Du Bois (1935/1998) earlier called Whites psychological and public wages (see also Roediger, 1991). As such, there is no essence to whiteness, which is a contingent category that morphs and shifts according to context and history (Prashad, 2000). It has no ultimate loyalty to this or that group belonging to whiteness proper. Its membership changes over time and may include as brethren two groups with longstanding ethnic animosities toward one another, such as the English and Irish within a U.S. understanding. Like capitalism, whiteness has no ultimate sense of loyalty and cares primarily about perpetuating race relations with whiteness at the top of the hierarchy. Whiteness may revoke a groups membership when it is deemed necessary, such as the increasingly anxious relation that Arabs have with whiteness post-9/11.2 It may, as was the case in South Africa, promote a group as honorary White as a way of disciplining other non-Whites to stay in line, and quell large-scale confrontations. In the case of U.S. race relations, Bonilla-Silva (2004) suggested that the nation approaches a tripartite racial hierarchy that mimics the racial structure in Latin America, with a buffer group that stands between the collective White and Black. Whitenesss only stable investment is ideological power and material advantage, synonymous with the continuation of whiteness as long as it remains a social fact.

As Cheryl Harriss (1995) seminal essay on critical race theory argued, whiteness functions as a form analogous to property. First, Whiteness becomes property through the objectification of African slaves, a process that set the precondition for propertizing human life (Harris, p. 279). Whiteness takes the form of ownership, the defining attribute of free individuals that Africans did not own. Second, through the reification and subsequent hegemony of White people, Whiteness is transformed into the common sense that becomes law. As a given right of the individual White person, Whiteness can be enjoyed, like any property, by exercising and taking advantage of privileges coextensive with Whiteness. Third, like a house, Whiteness can be demarcated and fenced off as a territory of White people that keeps Others out. Thus, calling a White person Black was enough reason, as late as 1957, to sue for character defamation; the same could not be said of a Black person being mistaken for White. This was a certain violation of property rights, much like breaking into someones house. In all, Whites became the subjects of property, with Others as its objects.

If our definition of Whiteness as ideology smacks of a certain orthodoxy that flies in the face of recent rehabilitations of the concept of ideology, it is worthwhile to recount ideologys pejorative history. Since Marxs operationalization of ideology as a form of distortion and dissimulation of economic relations, the concept has gone through permutations in efforts to avoid the pitfalls of a mystifying move that claims its opposite: science (see Leonardo, 2003a). Assumed to transcend partiality, a scientific analysis is able to shed contextual embeddedness to arrive at universal laws of social life and history (Althusser, 1971). Much like Thaless discovery of mathematics and Galileos of physics, Marx is said to have uncovered the general laws of history through historical materialism. Scientific knowledge was purported as a possibility while also avoiding being ensnared by ideologys distortive effects. In a more general sense, ideology was not a property of unscientific individuals, but of an entire social formation, such as capitalism (Eagleton, 1991). Since then, ideology has been rescued from its status as a derogated concept and is now often regarded as a generally descriptive term that serves an integrative function (Ricoeur, 1986), a culturally based necessity (Geertz, 1994), and even a source of inspiration for mass mobilization (Gouldner, 1976). In the first moment, Ricoeur suggested that ideology offers society a blueprint, a plan without which a people would be without direction; in the second, Geertz offered anthropological support for ideology as a cultural system of tropes necessary for communication (see also Giroux, 1981; Hall, 1996); in the third, Gouldner recast ideology as having the capacity to galvanize people into action, such as the crusades. We note that Gouldners engagement represents the complete opposite of ideologys pejorative history. From this short account of the concept of ideology, we avoid its reductive definition as something hopelessly caught up in distortion. So why return to theoretical orthodoxy with respect to Whiteness?


As a social grouping, Whiteness does not have essential features. Its hue spans across the palest Scandinavian to brown Semites. Its members have hailed from Europe and parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Its status as a social marker is guided by the common sense of its times, as uncovered by the case of Thind, an Asian Indian man who argued that he was White by the geographical standards of Whiteness as originating from the Caucasus mountains (Lopez, 2006; Omi & Winant, 1994; Wu, 2002). In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Thind, who sued for citizenship. In this case, the court argued that although Thind was indeed Caucasian, he was a non-White Caucasian by the standards of common sense. Thus, the court ruled against the scientific evidence of the time, which followed Blumenbachs racial anthropology that classified people as either Negroid, Caucazoid, or Mongoloid according to their physical traits. The court justified its decision based on the assumption that any reasonable American would deem Thind non-White by virtue of his appearance. Thinds case followed an earlier case filed by Osaka, a man of Japanese descent who, just months before Thind, sued for citizenship on the basis of being more culturally White than many recent White immigrants. He was judged to be non-White by way of geographical considerations; that is, Japan is not a land of White people. So, whereas Osaka lost because of geography, Thinds geopolitics were correct, but his phenotype was not. In Osakas case, science won out over common sense. From this contradictory history, the capriciousness of Whiteness is clear. It is flexible and appropriates commonsensical and scientific arguments to serve its purpose. Many decades later, it is more than a bit of irony that Asian Americans today are being labeled probationary Whites, honorary Whites, or almost White. It is an even crueler irony that the same justice wrote the opinion for both Thind and Osaka, separated by a mere few months. In the case of Mexican Americans, the courts ruled that Mexicans were White in order to observe treaty rights with Mexico (Martinez, 1997). But when, in 1954, the same year as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Hernandez tried to reverse his murder conviction because there were no Mexicans on the predominantly White jury that convicted him in Hernandez v. State, the court asserted his Whiteness and that he was fairly judged by his peers: Through this discourse on the Mexican-American, Anglo Americans also reformulated their white selves. Anglo judges, as we have seen, did the same thing, ruling that Mexicans were co-whites when this suited the dominant groupand non-white when necessary to protect Anglo privilege and supremacy (p. 212).

This egregious arbitrariness speaks to the moving target known as White ideology. It reserves the right to exclude any person or group for the purposes of racial domination. White is whatever Whites make it to be, using whatever ideological reasoning happens to be available at the time. It confirms Roedigers (1991, 1994) charge that Whiteness, as an ideology, has a violent history.3


As a normative marker, Whiteness exists for the sole purpose of stratification. It led David Roediger (1994) to announce that whiteness is nothing but false and oppressive (p. 13). As fruitful as Descartess statement, I think therefore I am, Roedigers whiteness is not only false and oppressive, it is nothing but false and oppressive has been the subject of generative interpretations. From our perspective, it marks a correct beginning for a critical, if not accurate, understanding of Whiteness. First, Roediger did not write that Whites are nothing but false and oppressive. We are warranted immediately to infer that he is speaking of Whiteness at the plane of ideology. That is, he recognized the distinction that Whitesas peoplehave performed acts against Whiteness; they are what Ignatiev and Garvey (1996) called race traitors. Treason to Whiteness is not only loyalty to humanity, as Ignatiev and Garvey reminded us, but equally, solidarity with color. That is, White race traitors arguably function through an ideology of color to the extent that they act against the distortions of Whiteness. They are bodies that look White but act like people of color. Whites may benefit from Whiteness even as they act against it, which speaks to the power of racial ideology. Second, this distinction disrupts the commonsense notion of Whiteness as equatable with White identity; rather, it is an interpellating system that encourages subjects (most of whom are considered Whites, but not all) to act on behalf of Whiteness. There were no White people to speak of, before the arrival of an interpellation called Whiteness. If Roediger, Ignatiev, and Garvey are correct (and we believe that they are), then White people do not constitute an ontologically real category, but only become social facts with the birth of the ideology known as Whiteness. It took the ideology of Whiteness to turn white bodies into White people. Of course, by ideology, we do not suggest Whiteness as pure ideality, but side with Althussers (1971) insight that ideologys modes of existence are real (see also Leonardo, 2005). Whites are only real insofar as social institutions like education, and formidable processes like common sense, recognize certain bodies as White.

Third, that Whiteness is nothing but false and oppressive means that it exists only as a tool for oppression. When Whites act against racism, they do not reconstruct Whiteness through their action. Whiteness does not reappear as virtuous because Whites behave differently. When this happens, as an ideology, Whiteness is not resignified into something, but nothing; it ceases to exist. Just as it is difficult to reimagine fascism, the history of Whiteness betrays it as violent and bogus. The more frequently Whites act against racism, the more they increase the chances that Whiteness may disappear. When Whites fight against racism, they are not just dismantling racist relations; they are arguably abolishing Whiteness, whose existence depends on maintaining racial stratification. That is, the end of racism foreshadows the end of Whiteness as we know it. It undercuts the lifeline of the otherwise abstract category of Whiteness, which was created for the sole purpose of denigrating and dispossessing people of color. It was an invention that turned white bodies into White people roughly 500 years ago. What are Whites but people who think they are Whites (and therefore better), as Baldwin once provoked (as cited in Roediger, 1994)? Synthesizing Descartes, Roediger, and Baldwin, we may say that for certain subjects, it is accurate to recast the cogito as, I think I am White therefore I am. Although we do not have to rehearse the limitations of Cartesian dualism between the mind and body here, a case can be made that Whites exist because they, along with people of color, believe certain bodies are White; furthermore, the reification of Whiteness into a social fact positions Whites as superior. As Baldwin further noted, as long as Whites think they are White, there is no hope for them. We would like to extend this insight by including the idea that as long as people of color also think that Whites are White, there is no hope for any of us. Having established this perception, it follows that socioeducational arrangements ensue, from the naturalness of Eurocentric curricula (despite challenges from multiculturalism), to the assumption of White smartness, and finally, to the purging of most race-conscious analysis of the educational system from official knowledge (Apples phrase, 1979/2000). That we think some people are White often goes without saying, and saying that this or that literary character is White actually becomes a form of transgression, whereas people of color become known precisely because books signify them as such (Morrison, 1993). Moreover, what does it mean to be White sans the racial privilege? Just as capitalists who fail to exploit workers are no longer the bourgeoisie, Whiteness that functions contrary to its modus operandi withers away. The circle between ideology and material practice has been broken.

To the extent that racial supremacy is taught to White students and to students of color, it is pedagogical. Insofar as it is pedagogical, there is the possibility of critically reflecting on its manifestations in order to disrupt them. The hidden curriculum of Whiteness saturates everyday school life, and one of the first steps to articulating its features is coming to terms with its specific modes of discourse (Leonardo, 2004). There is thus a good deal of compelling scholarship that explores the ways that Whiteness operates as an ideology in curriculum, in educational policy, and in broader social and cultural life (Gillborn, 2005, 2006; Leonardo, 2009). We wish now to explore the ways that a particular facet of dis/ability ideology, smartness, operates simultaneously to construct a center of normative privilege and domination as well as a periphery of nonnormative marginalization and subjugation within schools and society. Of particular interest to us are the ways that the ideology of smartness operates in the service of the ideology of Whiteness and vice versa. The discourse of minority overrepresentation in special education frames the issue as a racial problem, and we attempt to advance it by interrogating the additional ideological layers of the bureaucratic system in which these racial inequities are embeddedthe ideological systems of ability and disability, competence and incompetence, smartness and not-so-smartness. This is where we turn next.


A substantial part of the ideological work of schooling constructs and constitutes some students as smart, while simultaneously constructing and constituting other students as not-so-smartthat is, some students are taught their intellectual supremacy and concomitant entitlement to cultural capital, whereas others are taught their intellectual inferiority and concomitant lack of entitlement to both an identity as a smart person, and the cultural and material spoils that such an identity generally affords. Analogous to our earlier claim regarding Whiteness, we likewise argue that to the extent that intellectual supremacy and inferiority are taught, they are pedagogical. Insofar as smartness is pedagogical, there is the possibility of critically reflecting on its manifestations in order to disrupt them. And, as is the case with Whiteness, the hidden curriculum of smartness saturates everyday school life, and one of the first steps to articulating its features is coming to terms with its specific modes of discourse. We next review two bodies of literature that explicitly engage in theoretical critiques of smartness, and explore their theoretical potential as tools for supporting the work of dissolving the normative center of schools. Each of the bodies of workone grounded more firmly in race studies, and the other in disability studieswe argue, is theoretically inadequate to the task before us, each offering tools to rehabilitate or rearticulate, rather than dissolve, smartness as an ideological system at the heart of the normative center of schooling.


We are all undoubtedly familiar with the myriad ways that schooling practices, from a very early age, construct, and therefore constitute, some people as smart while similarly constituting others as not-so-smart. Teachers routinely characterize some students as bright, smart, a real star, academically gifted, and so on, and the academic opportunities afforded to students so constituted are rarely commensurate with the opportunities afforded to their peers who are alternately characterized as dull, slow, lazy, or simply not very bright or smart. Hayman (1998) argued that we make some people smarter than others, by rewarding the smartness of some people and ignoring the smartness of others. We make some people smart, in short, just by choosing to call them that (p. 26). Drawing an analogy to an earlier point in our analysiswhat is smartness absent of privilege? Just as Baldwin once complained, What are Whites but people who think they are Whites? so, too, might we ask, What are smart people but people who think they are smart? We argued earlier that, as a normative marker, Whiteness exists for the sole purpose of stratification, a point that led David Roediger (1994) to announce that Whiteness is nothing but false and oppressive. Indeed, Hayman would seem to be making an analogous point to Roedigers assertionthat smartness is nothing but false and oppressivewhen he asserted that, except as a tool for promoting hierarchy, it is hard to see the utility of the concept [of intelligence] (p. 272). We may thus offer a synthesis of Descartes and Hayman by recasting the cogito as, I think I am smart, therefore I am. But what is smartness in the absence of its stratifying privilege? What are smart people sans their advantage? Indeed, like our analysis of Whiteness, when we interrogate smartnessas an ideology and material practiceit withers away as a conceptual category.

Hayman (1998) and others (Gould, 1981/1996; Kincheloe, Steinberg, & Villaverde, 1999) have offered cogent critiques of the general constructs of intelligence and IQ, particularly in the wake of Herrnstein and Murrays (1994) The Bell Curve. All these critiques have made explicit the problematic relationships between cultural constructs of intelligence, as a reified form of ability, and cultural constructs of race. Hayman pointed out that in America . . . the cultural construction of intelligence . . . has been inextricably intertwined with the construction of race. Intelligence was defined by one race and defined in racial terms; race, in turn, was defined in substantial part through intelligence, through intellectual inferiority and superiority (p. 294). Similarly, Kincheloe et al. suggested that

One of the key ways to rethink intelligence is to expand the boundaries of what can be called sophisticated thinking. When such boundaries are expanded, those who had been excluded from the community of the intelligent seem to cluster around categories based on race (the nonwhite), class (the poor), and gender (the feminine). (p. 7)

It is curious that Kincheloe et al. did not notice what for us seems a another obvious, and significant, group of those who have often been excluded from the community of the intelligent: the disabled. Hayman made no such omission when he observed that white men without disabilities, it seems, are almost always in charge of everything. They must be really smart. Smarter, on average, than black folks or other racial minorities. Smarter, on average, than women. Smarter, on average, than people with disabilities (p. 220). Disputing and rejecting the mythology of intelligence requires, according to Hayman, a determination to dispute the peculiar ideology of intelligence (p. 262).

Although a comprehensive review of this literature is beyond the scope of this article, there is nevertheless a compelling body of extant literature that critically explores smartness as ideology, and indeed that critically implicates Whiteness as ideology in the mutual constitution of those subject positions. Nevertheless, despite Haymans (1999) observation that people with disabilities are less likely than nondisabled people to be characterized as smart (a clear indication of how smartness operates ideologically), he nevertheless excepted a particular group of disabled people from his analysis when he asserted that

some people are less smart than others for identifiable physiological reasons. Neurological disorders often have direct effects on cognitive ability; sometimes these disorders may so affect a cognitive ability that we will say that the person is cognitively impaired. If the impairment is spread among a wide enough range of cognitive abilities, it may be possible to say thatin most cultural contextsthe person will be less smart than the norm. Here, however, a certain note of caution is in order: in some discrete contexts, our cognitively impaired person may be quite smart after allsmart, that is, at some things, if not at most. (p. 21)

Although Hayman (1999) put forth the proposition that intelligence and smartness operate as ideologies, he simultaneously used constructs such as cognitive ability, cognitive impairment, and even cognitively impaired person, suggesting that there may be a certain point at which smartness may be more reflective of a realist ontology than an act of ideology (despite his urging of caution in such cases). Most critical thinkers who have critiqued ideologies of intelligence or smartnessindicting the ways that they intersect with ideologies of Whiteness and urging their expansion to become more inclusive and democratichave failed to engage at all as it concerns the experiences of people who have been judged to have significant intellectual disabilities, and they seem to leave open the possibility that there are exceptions to their treatment of smartness as ideological. Thus, we may applaud Hayman for acknowledging the theoretical conundrum posed by the notion of intellectual disability (the corollary construct of intellectual ability, or smartness), even if we remain disappointed at his retreat from the realm of ideological critique in this instance, citing this exception to his analysis: that rare instance in which some people are really less smart. Thus, the ultimate suggestion of Hayman, Kincheloe et al. (1999), and others seems to be to rehabilitate theoretically the concept of intelligence, to democratize it to be somewhat inclusive of other kinds of abilities (yet still exclusive of those judged to be really [biologically, neurologically] not smart). They did not appear to consider our proposed corollary to Roedigers assertion about Whiteness: that smartness is nothing but false and oppressive, a move that aligns them with the argument that rearticulates Whiteness in an apparently analogous attempt to rearticulate smartness or intelligence.

Social Constructionist Critique of Smartness (Sans Critical Perspective on Race)

There is another body of literaturelocated within the tradition of critical disability studiesthat disputes and challenges notions of intelligence and smartness, primarily through direct critical engagement with the corollary construct of mental retardation (or intellectual disability, or cognitive impairment). Blatt, as cited in Taylor and Blatt (1999), referred to mental retardation as both a myth and a metaphor, as well as an unnecessary story that is always abusive (p. 86; cf. Roedigers assertion above). Borthwick and Crossley (1999) asserted that the time may be approaching when the burden of proof will . . . shift from those who cast doubt on the explanatory power of the concept of intellectual disability to those who wish to justify it and that mental retardation may be, both in any given case and in its wider conceptualization, inadequate as an explanatory concept, undefinable as a scientific entity, and unhelpful as a clinical diagnosis. Similarly, scholars such as Kasa-Hendrickson and Ashby (2008) have suggested that we completely discard the idea of mental retardation as it is not a useful way to capture human intelligence (p. 15).

The bulk of this scholarship is conducted within the theoretical tradition of social constructionism and argues that dominant notions of ability, competence, and intelligence (and their corollaries of inability, incompetence, and mental retardation) are socially constructed and thus are not real (ontologically), objective (epistemologically), or useful (clinically). This scholarship is largely informed by a body of qualitative research that actively solicits and foregrounds the testimony and experiences of individuals who have been regarded, labeled, and therefore materially constituted as mentally retarded or intellectually impaired (Biklen, 1990; Biklen & Burke, 2006; Biklen & Kliewer, 2006; Bogdan & Taylor, 1989/1992; Broderick & Kasa-Hendrickson, 2001, 2006; Kasa-Hendrickson & Ashby, 2008; Kliewer, 1998).

Despite this originating focus on critical analysis of the organizing construct of mental retardation or intellectual disability, much (though not all) of this work has logically and necessarily evolved into a more general, and much more radical, critique of the corollary construct of intellectual ability, or smartnessa critique that is somewhat marginalized even within the discourse community of critical disability studies. Indeed, Biklen and Kliewer (2006) noted,

At this point our analysis becomes radical, for it directly questions not simply degrees of intelligence or degrees of literacy, but the very definition of intelligence and mental retardation. Here we enter into an area about which the Disability Studies field has not been very vocalwe suspect that critical academics relative silence on matters of mental retardation relates to concerns about their own claims to smartness. (p. 177)

Indeed, though we concur that collectively, this body of work is politically quite radical, we argue that the critique it offers is nevertheless theoretically insufficient to our task of dissolving the normative center of schooling.

First, Biklen and Kliewer (2006) offered what they called a social constructionist way of thinking about competence:

Neither autism nor mental retardation, and not any perceived combination of the twothey are often conflatedis natural or real. They are, rather, socially constructed. This is by way of saying that disability categories are not given or real on their own. Rather, autism, mental retardation, and competence are what any of us make of them. (p. 182)

Similarly, Kasa-Hendrickson (2005), in a qualitative study designed to document the ways in which teachers do come to recognize competence in their students officially designated as incompetent, noted, It was my desire to emphasize the socially constructed nature of reality, keeping in mind that ideas like autism, ability and mental retardation are understood not to exist in an objective state, but are understood only through societys cultural, historical perspectives, and in practices that create and reproduce them (p. 57). By locating mental retardation, competence, or smartness primarily as social constructions rather than systems of ideology that operate to constitute and sustain unequal relations of power, there is an as of yet incomplete exploration of the oppressive and mystifying ways in which power and privilege operate. Like Whiteness, these notions exist in their modes of practice, or, as Althusser (1971) may suggest, in their ideological state apparatuses (Leonardo, 2005). Likewise, smartness may be socially constructed, but this fact alone does not explain how the relation exists in real and institutional forms. Abdicating the critique to the weak moment of social construction (at once helpful and insufficient) does nothing for the stronger moment of ideology critique. Although these differences are not real on the ontological plane, they are real on the existential plane of lived experiences, and we argue that ideological critique is necessary to begin to dissolve these complex systems of oppression.

Second, although the bulk of this work does explicitly and critically engage with the broader constructs of smartness, ability, and intelligence, there are some data within this body of literature that would appear to reify traditional conceptualizations of intellect, smartness, or competence even as they attempt to disrupt, destabilize, and discard the notion of mental retardation. For example, Broderick and Kasa-Hendrickson (2006) critically reflected on their own normative ideological assumptions in the process of engaging in inquiry with students who had been previously regarded as retarded or incompetent or not smart as these students managed radical shifts in their own and others perceptions of them in the process of gaining access to complex expression through typing. Among the students stories related through the data, we heard Lucy Harrison describe her experience:

I used to be retarded but I am real normal now and I am being treated as a believable talker. I want to explain the retarded girl I was and I was not thinking I want to be real and I want to tell you that I am smart but I was thinking no one would ever know I was smart. (p. 180)

Similarly, Franklin Wilson deftly described the ways in which the ideology of smartness manifested materially in his own experience:

I was thought to be retarded and I was not and when I was typing the people said I was smart and I am. So each time we do it and was smart it was good and bad. It was bad because I got angry how some assholes thought I was retarded. (p. 181)

The authors did frame Franklins story as an example of agency and resistance to the powerful cultural and ideological assumptions that contributed to constructing, and indeed constituting, him as retarded for so many years (p. 181). Nevertheless, although the authors4 did point to the ideological and discursive basis of the construct of retardation, they failed to fully extend that ideological analysis to the construct of competency, intelligence, or smartness.

Admittedly, peoples need to assert their intellectual competence is hardly surprising and is quite understandable in the face of their experience first of having been regarded and oppressively treated as mentally retarded for years, sometimes decades, and subsequently of having professionals continue to doubt their competence even after they have finally gained independent access to a sophisticated system of augmentative or alternative communication. In some ways, it is difficult to understand the vehemence and vitriol with which some professionals have continued to deride many of these individuals as retarded, failing to even grudgingly admit to the ideologically conservative interpretation of these individuals experiences as exceptions to the rule. The fervor is more easily understood when one explicitly recognizes (as many of these professionals apparently seem to) the ideological critique at work. This is no mere social construction; each assertion that I am smart, too contributes to the dismantling of an ideological state apparatus. Borthwick and Crossley (1999) documented one such example of the vehement professional opposition to recognizing the competence of individuals who have been described and regarded as mentally retarded: People are trying to brainwash us into believing, as they seem to, that there is no real difference between the mentally handicapped and the rest of us, but there is. . . . How do we combat these seductive but pernicious ideas? (Rimland, 1993, p. 3, as cited in Borthwick & Crossley, 1999). Rubin cogently sized up this pernicious idea when she stated, simply, They think we are not as smart as they are (Rubin et al., 2010, p. 427).

Notwithstanding this good faith effort, it nevertheless can be understood as a case of what Audre Lorde (2007) called dismantling the masters house with the masters tools, of validating as smart people who have been derogated by the same concept. This is similar to the limitations of asserting the humanity of people of color within the standards of a White-centered hierarchy that recognizes what it means to be human. The standards are set by the masters terms. In these examples, one is reminded of Harriss (1995) theoretical treatment of Whiteness as property, enjoyed by its subjects who have enough privilege to be granted keys to the house, and it seems that smartness can likewise be regarded as property, asset, and commodity. Similarly, we argue that smartness functions as a form of property that its owners exercise to their enjoyment and privilege. The contradiction becomes clear when we understand that smartness and Whiteness are relations with a denigrated portion: the unintelligent and people of color, respectively. This property only has value as a commodity if there are others who continue to be denied access to its possession.

Parents habitually tell their children how smart they are. In a stratified society, who could blame them, particularly those from oppressed communities? It is understandable that people who have been denigrated as retarded would desire to accrue smartness as property, capital that has historically been vehemently denied to them with dire material consequences (including complete exclusion from mainstream schooling experiences). It is equally understandable, for example, that a colleague of ours, who is a parent of a male child of color, would welcome her sons schools initiative to label her son as gifted and talented, particularly given that his previous school had sought to label him emotionally disturbed and to exclude him from mainstream classroom membership. Despite her own misgivings about the antidemocratic nature of the gifted and talented educational program at his school, diverting resources and rich academic opportunities and experiences to a select few that she felt deserved to be distributed among all the children in the school, she nevertheless accepted this piece of smartness of property as some small measure of protection for her son, a talisman for growing up in a racist educational system.

But our concern here includes the costs that marginalized communities bear when appropriating such benign-seeming tropes. As a fact of the matter, just as Whiteness is parasitic on blackness or colorness, smartness requires its dialectical opposite and cannot exist without the cursed population of so-called low intellect. For smart students to buoy themselves above the general population, their dialectical alibi of not-smart people has to be denigrated. Like the derogation of people of color under White supremacy, smart supremacy derides the intellectually disabled figure. The discourse of derision is daily for both marginalized groups. In race terms, the preference for lightness within communities of color is a well-documented phenomenon (Hunter, 2002, 2005). The upshot is that people of color distinguish themselves within their group according to skin tone to establish distinction while approximating Whiteness. Similarly, disabled people (as well as nondisabled parents, teachers, and members of society in general) often perform hierarchies whereby they denigrate certain exceptionalities as having lower status and in the process valorize others, such as the cultural preference for Asperger over autism, or high-functioning over low-functioning autism (generally accepted popular cultural codes for smart and not-so-smart autistics). Often, these strategies develop as learned defensive responses against the larger and threatening presence of Whites in the case of race, or the normate in the case of ability. That being said, they unwittingly reproduce the system of stratification responsible for their degradation.

A final critique of this body of literature relates to a theoretical conundrum posed by its central, and most politically radical, pedagogical maxim: the presumption of competence (Biklen, 1990, 1999, 2000; Biklen & Burke, 2006; Biklen & Kliewer, 2006; Kasa-Hendrickson, 2005). Simply stated, in presuming competence,

the observers obligation is not to project an ableist interpretation on something another person does, but rather to presume there must be a rationale or sympathetic explanation for what someone does and then to try to discover it, always from the other persons own perspective. Thus the presumption of competence does not require the teachers ability to prove its existence or validity in advance; rather it is a stance, an outlook, a framework for educational engagement. (Biklen & Burke, p. 168)

This stance is not unlike the stance of culturally relevant pedagogy, in which students interests, experiences, desires, and cultures are understood to be relevant, rich, and valuable resources, and the onus is placed on the educator to enact curriculum and pedagogy in culturally relevant ways. According to Rubin et al. (2001), Our view is that competence should always be presumed, with the burden upon teachers and others around the person to find ways of helping the person communicate (p. 427). If one cannot imagine capacity in a child, one is unlikely to endeavor to educate that child. In this very basic sense, then, a presumption-of-competence stance may be understood as a necessary precondition for educating all children.

Our concern lies with the theoretical difficulty of presuming that everyone is competent. As discussed previously, if competence or smartness is understood as cultural capital, commodity, or property (rather than as some objective cognitive or neurological state), it is theoretically untenable that everyone could attain access to these material spoils of such an ideological systemjust as in a capitalist system, everyone cannot, by definition, be wealthy (and if they are, the conditions cease to be capitalist). Competence, or intellect, or smartness are but halves of conceptual binariesthe haves require the have nots, or they become meaningless constructs. What is Whiteness sans privilege? What is smartness sans a denigrated not-so-smart Other? Conceptually, the category withers away.

As progressive and politically radical as the stance of presuming competence is, we nevertheless believe that this stance can be read and enacted in a potentially problematic way. If the presumption-of-competence stance is not coupled with an explicit critical engagement of the ways in which smartness (or competence) is inextricably bound up with other oppressive ideologies (such as Whiteness), it runs the risk of operating at some level as a mystifying mythology. Materially, there is more at work in the constitution of people as incompetent than ableist ideologies; there are also racist, classist, sexist, and so on, ideologies that come into play. Likewise, there is more at work in the constitution of people as competent, or smart, than ableist ideologies, and these must be explicitly interrogated with an eye to their abolition for the presumption-of-competence stance to become an emancipatory narrative for all, and more, to work as an effective tool in the dissolving of the normative center of schools.

For example, it can be observed that when the individuals with significant disabilities in this body of research, who have historically been regarded as mentally retarded, successfully contest their relegation to this category, many, if not mostthrough no small amounts of political and legal advocacydo manage to secure for themselves more equitable access to opportunities in both school and the wider society. However, the roles of ideological privilege (such as Whiteness and class privilege) are rarely discussed in documenting such individuals resistance to the oppressive ideology of smartness, and this undertheorization remains a significant limitation of this body of work. As Freire (1993) may suggest, they become suboppressors in an oppressive system, and rather than challenge it, they are content with sharing in its spoils. We must realize that oppression is a bundled set of relations that reinforce one another, so there is little to suggest that advantages in terms of one relation necessarily contradict the enforcement of another relation. There has been very little explicit engagement within this body of literature regarding the ways in which these educational success stories, although perhaps resisting and transgressing ideologies of smartness, may nevertheless actually rely on ideological acts of Whiteness and of class privilege in the process. Erevelles (2002a) pointed to the class privilege at play, without explicitly engaging in the possible acts of Whiteness that such success also may rest on:

It could be argued that . . . the users of Facilitated Communication enjoy class privilegea distinction that also separates them from most persons with disabilities who often live under conditions of abject poverty. In fact, it is because of their class privilege that this populations [sic] of persons labeled autistic had access to the sophisticated technologies as well as facilitators to enable them to communicate. (p. 32)

It could also be argued that many (though not all) users of facilitated communication who have successfully gained access to academic curricula in their schooling also enjoy White privilege and therefore benefit from White ideology. Similarly, Blanchett (2006) explicitly noted the ways that White privilege and racism operate in concert with the bureaucratic structures of special education to ensure that students of color with identified disabilities are much more likely to be placed in segregated classrooms and schools, whereas their White peers with identified disabilities are much more likely to have access to inclusive, or at least integrated, classrooms and schools. It would seem likely that, for many White students considered to be significantly disabled, efforts at transgressing and resisting ideologies of smartness so as to escape the impoverished curricula and segregation of special education may actually be aided by the ideological work of Whiteness, of what Du Bois (1935/1998), and later, Roediger (1991), once called the public and psychological wages of whiteness.


Thus, we argue that both of these extant bodies of literature that critically engage the construct of smartness have made significant contributions to the project of working to illuminate the normative center of schools. Nevertheless, although we take theoretical and political strategies from each, we argue that the work of either discourse community on its own is theoretically and politically incomplete. The first engages critically with race and locates smartness as ideology, rather than a mere social construction, but leaves the experience of severely disabled individuals outside the realm of their theoretical analysis. The analysis leaves open the position that there are limits or exceptions to this analysis and that some [severely disabled] people really are not smart, thus retreating at the most pivotal moment from the emancipatory potential of a radical ideological critique. The latter engages critically with the experiences of the significantly disabled who have been regarded as mentally retarded, but framing intelligence and mental retardation, competence and incompetence, and smartness and not-so-smartness as social constructions largely fails to engage with smartness/ intelligence as an ideological system and further largely declines to engage with the ideological system of Whiteness (and in many ways actually may rest on ideological acts of Whiteness and of class privilege in order to free some significantly disabled people from the oppressive positioning of mental retardation). Hence, both a whiteness studies critique of smartness (in the absence of a disability studies critique of smartness) and a disability studies critique of smartness (in the absence of a whiteness studies critique of smartness) are inadequate and incomplete, and the theoretical pursuit of each in isolation may actually (however unwittingly) continue to rest on and reify other ideological systems of oppression, and therefore continue to contribute to the oppression of certain groups of individuals. It unwittingly reinforces an oppressive relation and betrays a conciliatory posture toward a bogus ideology.

That Whiteness is nothing but false and oppressive means that it exists only as a tool for oppression. Likewise, that smartness is nothing but false and oppressive means that it, too, exists only as a tool for oppression. Whites and smart people are only real insofar as social institutions like education, and formidable processes like common sense, recognize certain bodies as White and certain people as smart. Historically and materially, these ideologies have operated not in isolation from one another, but as inextricably intertwined systems of oppression and exclusion. Theoretical and political efforts to address one system of oppression without simultaneously addressing the other (as well as other inextricably interwoven oppressive ideologies, such as patriarchy, capitalism, and heterosexism) are incomplete at best and actively (however unwittingly) oppressive to others at worst. Thus, we join with scholars such as Erevelles (2002b), Erevelles, Kanga, and Middleton (2006), Baker (2002a, 2002b), Ferri and Connor (2005a, 2005b), Kliewer, Biklen, and Kasa-Hendrickson (2006), and Baglieri et al. (2011, this issue) who have called for more integrated efforts to transgress and dismantle interlocking ideologies of oppression in schools and in society. As challenging as such work is, we argue that such theoretically integrated efforts to act in material solidarity against oppression of all kinds is nothing less than an ethical imperative.

How, exactly, do we propose to proceed with such work? We are not convinced by efforts from within our respective discourse communities to rearticulate either Whiteness or smartness. For instance, efforts to reform or rearticulate Whiteness are correct to argue that its abolition will not win over many Whites to join the cause. The abolition of Whiteness faces grim prospects for success; for many Whites, it is a nonstarter. That said, its proponents are convinced that reinventing Whiteness is a coping strategy with an oppressive category that has known no other way to exist; it is doomed from the start. Rearticulating Whiteness has greater chances for success if by success we mean that more Whites will buy into it. But if the history of race has taught us anything, it is that the actions of Whites are not a reliable gauge for combating racism. Likewise, efforts from within the field of disability studies that have sought to rescue the construct of intelligence through Gardner-esque, relativistic calls for a celebration of multiple intelligences similarly fail to adequately address that some forms of intelligence are still more highly culturally valued than others and thus continue to be used as (perhaps less thinly veiled) mechanisms of oppression (see Kincheloe, 2004, for a cogent critical discussion of multiple intelligences theory and its ideological functions). We suggest, rather, a different strategy: the abolition of both Whiteness and intelligence.


We acknowledge that this position is not very intuitive for many scholars and activists. To suggest a strategy of abolition of Whiteness is to simultaneously suggest an abolition of a racial identity, and such a move is likely to encounter almost equal opposition from people of color and from Whites. It is not an illogical conclusion to suggest that this move implicates race abolition, which in turn involves non-White identitiesfor the abolition of Whiteness is the repudiation of an entire social relation, something extending well beyond the problem of what it means to be White, but equally what it means to be a racial being (Leonardo, 2010). Similarly, to suggest an abolition of smartness as an ideological system is likely to encounter equal opposition from both those who currently enjoy the privilege of that status, and from those who have historically been excluded from those privileges yet who may aspire to attain them and thereby benefit from the very ideological system that actively marginalized and oppressed them (such as those previously labeled as mentally retarded). We concur with Biklen and Kliewers (2006) assertion that not very many academicseven those in the field of disability studiesseem particularly eager to engage in this conversation, nor even seem to imagine engaging in it.5 Academics are almost exclusively people who have identities that are fairly solidly bound up in being smart people, and it is not an aspect of their identity that they are eager to part fromnor are teachers, in our experience, particularly open to interrogating the ways that their classroom discourse serves to actively constitute some students as smart and other students as not-so-smart. We already know that they constitute who is White and who is not.

Yet this is precisely why this interrogation needs to take place at the locus of cultural ideology; smartness is not an inherent physical feature of individual brains, not a stuff or a quantity that some people have more of than others, no more so than Whiteness is an inherent physical feature of white bodies. Yet the ideology of smartness is inextricably intertwined in the creation of Smart people (as an identity), just as the ideology of Whiteness is inextricably intertwined in the creation of White people (as an identity). We understand smartness to be a performative, cultural ideological system that operates in the service of constructing the normative center of schools and of societies, an ideological system that is nonetheless materialist not in any biological or neurological way, but rather in that developing an identity as either smart or not-so-smart is to have very real material consequences vis-à-vis ones access and sense of entitlement (or not) to opportunities, privileges, and myriad forms of cultural capitalto smartness as property.

We would like to return to one of our previous assertions. To the extent that both racial and intellectual supremacy are taught, they are pedagogical. This is the great promise of this workthat of pedagogical possibility for the disruption of oppressive ideological systems such as smartness. However, as we hope we have begun to illustrate in this analysis, meaningful disruption must necessarily involve complex interrogation of multiple, interlocking ideological systems of oppression in schools and of exploring the complex ways in which, for example, cultural ideologies such as smartness (as well as other ableist ideologiesof goodness, beauty, sanity, and so on) may be performed as intersecting acts of Whiteness, of class privilege, of heterosexist privilege, of patriarchy, and so on. We offer the purposeful and deliberative unpacking of the ideologies of smartness and Whiteness as one possible avenue through which to forge alliances with other radical educators seeking more inclusive, and hence more socially just, cultural practices of schooling.


1. We argue that there are multiple ideologies operating within the broader umbrella of ableist ideologies, including ideologies of smartness, of beauty, of physical ability, of goodness, and of sanity, among others. Interestingly, the ideology of Whiteness intersects with each of these ideologies of dis/ability in compelling and underexamined ways. Nevertheless, the focus of this essay will remain on the intersections between the ideologies of whiteness and of smartness.

2. According to the U.S. Census, Arabs are classified as Whites.

3. Here we use ideology not in the terms of a pure ideality, but as having material modes of existence. Ideas are not mental categories as such, but exist in institutional forms (see Leonardo, 2003b).

4. Note that the first author of this cited piece (Broderick & Kasa-Hendrickson, 2006) is the second author of the present manuscript. Thus, much of the critique being levied is self-reflexive.

5. Indeed, at the AREA session where we first publicly shared these ideas with colleagues (Leonardo & Broderick, 2009), one of us metaphorically likened the experience of an early attempt to have critical discussions about the abolition of smartness with academic colleagues to poking a stick in a beehive and swirling it around.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 10, 2011, p. 2206-2232
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About the Author
  • Zeus Leonardo
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    ZEUS LEONARDO is associate professor of social and cultural studies in education and affiliated faculty of the Critical Theory Designated Emphasis program at the University of California, Berkeley. He has published many articles and book chapters on critical educational theory, race, and Whiteness studies. He is the author of Ideology, Discourse, and School Reform (Praeger), editor of Critical Pedagogy and Race (Blackwell), and coeditor (with Tejeda and Martinez) of Charting New Terrains of Chicano(a)/Latino(a) Education (Hampton). His articles have appeared in Educational Researcher; Race Ethnicity and Education; and Educational Philosophy and Theory. Some of his essays include: “The Souls of White Folk,” “Critical Social Theory and Transformative Knowledge,” and “Pedagogy of Fear: Toward a Fanonian Theory of 'Safety' in Race Dialogue” (with Ronald Porter). His recent books are Race, Whiteness and Education (Routledge) and the Handbook of Cultural Politics and Education (SensePublishers), and he is working on Critical Frameworks on Race and Education (Teachers College Press) and Education and Racism (Routledge).
  • Alicia Broderick
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    ALICIA A. BRODERICK is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her work is grounded in commitments to pursue inclusive schooling from a collaborative stance informed by disability studies in education (DSE) and other criticalist perspectives. Her research and teaching interests include critical explorations of cultural representations of dis/ability (particularly autism), and the role of DSE in pursuing socially just and inclusive schooling.
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