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Stereotypes, Images, and Inclination to Discriminatory Action: The White Racial Frame in the Practice of School Leadership

by Judith Toure & Dana N. Thompson Dorsey - 2018

Background/Context: Most educators have had little if any preparation in racial literacy, the understanding of social identity related to race and the ability to recognize and negotiate racism. In fact, they may view race as irrelevant. Yet teachers and school leaders hold deep-seated racial ideologies that shape their day-to-day practice and have implications for their students’ learning and success This study presents an analysis of school leadership in three, predominantly African-American schools, and the constructions of race, learning, and leadership.

Purpose: The authors draw from Feagin’s (2010) conceptual framework, the White racial frame (WRF), to analyze school leadership practice and ways in which racial ideologies emerge and shape leaders’ work with teachers. The WRF consists of five dimensions including racial stereotypes, racial narratives and interpretations, racial images and language accents, racialized emotions, and inclinations to discriminatory action.

Context and Participants: This study took place in three schools in two urban districts in western Pennsylvania. Participants included three White school principals, instructional leaders, and several focal teachers.

Research Design, Data Collection, and Analysis: This ethnographic case study is part of a larger study that took place in three predominantly African-American elementary schools. More than 80 hours of school-based observations took place, by shadowing each principal weekly and observing her in various capacities as she supervised teachers, led walkthroughs and faculty meetings, and attended or provided professional development. Additionally, multiple interviews of the school leaders and focal teachers were conducted to surface beliefs about race, knowledge of culture and learning, and knowledge of teachers’ cultural competence. We developed a coding scheme based upon Feagin’s (2010) paradigm of the WRF to surface leadership beliefs and practice and used a qualitative data analysis software package to analyze our data.

Findings: The school leaders in this study were deeply rooted within the WRF in their daily leadership routines, perpetuating stereotypes and justifying discriminatory actions in the school, ultimately limiting learning opportunities for children of color and for teachers.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The findings underscore the need for critical knowledge of race and racism to be included in teacher and leadership preparation and professional development. The WRF serves as a fine-grained analytic tool for understanding how racial ideologies surface in leadership. The authors recommend that future research explore the role of school leaders in deframing and reframing the White racial frame and develop the concept of racial literacy in educational contexts.

The current demographics of teachers and school leaders contrast greatly with urban student demographics. Although the majority of urban students are Latino/a and African American, the majority of urban educators are White (NCES, 2012); in fact, in 2012, 80% of all public-school principals were White, 10% were Black, 7% were Latino, 0.9% Asian, and 0.7%, Native American. Most educators have had little if any preparation in racial literacy, the understanding of social identity related to race and the ability to recognize and negotiate racism (Guinier, 2004; Horsford, 2011; Twine, 1999). In fact, they may view race as “irrelevant to one’s needs. . . Even taking note of race is seen as an indication of possible prejudice” (Schofield, 1989, p. 50). Yet teachers and school leaders hold deep-seated racial ideologies (Brooks, 2012; Feagin, 2010; Lewis, 2001; Pollock, Deckman, & Mira, 2010), ideologies that shape their day-to-day practice and have implications for their students’ learning and success (Evans, 2007; Sleeter, 2012).

In spite of a growing “consensus that leaders should take as their primary responsibility the improvement of student learning” (Stein & Spillane, 2003), they have not been expected to know much about race and racism and their relationship to student learning (Evans, 2007; Lopez, 2003; Page, 2003). A developing research base examines the practice of school leadership and its intersections with race and racism (Brooks, 2012; Evans, 2007; Horsford, 2011; Page, 2003; Skrla, Scheurich, Garcia, & Nolly, 2004; Tillman, 2004), building upon extant work that has examined leadership response to interracial conflict in schools (Henze, Katz, & Norte, 2000; Ryan, 2003).

In this article, we draw upon Feagin’s (2010) work on “a new conceptual paradigm on U.S. racial matters” that he calls the “White racial frame” (p. 9) to explore ways in which it is enacted through school leadership practice. The White racial frame (WRF) consists of five dimensions including “racial stereotypes (a beliefs aspect); racial narratives and interpretations (integrating cognitive aspects); racial images (a visual aspect) and language accents (an auditory aspect); racialized emotions (a ‘feelings’ aspect); and inclinations to discriminatory action” (Feagin, 2010, pp. 10–11). These dimensions consistently intersect and overlap to form the dominant racist framing that has persisted over centuries in the U.S. (p. 16), and contribute to our analysis.

Although Feagin presents examples of everyday modeling of the WRF within families, he does not offer specific examples from K–12 education. In this study, we attempt to do so by exploring the intersection of school leadership and the White racial frame. In illuminating this relationship, we can begin to reframe the latter in ways that would ultimately improve learning opportunities for students of color and other traditionally marginalized students. The research questions we address are:


How does the White racial frame surface in urban school leadership?


How does the White racial frame shape leadership practice?

We begin with a review of literature that examines the White racial frame, racial literacy (Guinier, 2004; Twine, 1999), and the intersection of school leadership with race and racism. We then present the research design that guided this study, followed by the contexts of the case study and the results of our analysis. On the basis of this study, we argue for the relevance of the White racial frame as a tool for analysis of K–12 leadership practice and for promoting racial literacy in school leaders. We close with recommendations for attention to racial literacy and the deframing and reframing of the WRF in leadership preparation programs and professional development.


This literature review begins with an in-depth presentation of the conceptualization of the White racial frame, its history, and the elements that contribute to it (Feagin, 2010). We then present literature on racial literacy from several disciplines, including sociology, law, and educational leadership, followed by an examination of literature on leadership and race.


Given the historical context of White power, privilege, and superiority in North America (Roediger, 2008), the White racial frame (WRF) has been dominant since the founding of the United States of America (Feagin, 2010, p. 7). The WRF encompasses five key, and often times overlapping, dimensions (Feagin, 2010). The first dimension, racial stereotypes, illustrates how one shares or manifests racial beliefs based on historical societal views of different racial/ethnic groups in this country instead of personal knowledge or experience. The second dimension is racial narratives that rationalize the actions or choices of a particular racial/ethnic group as serving the greater good of the public, while ignoring or downplaying the oppression associated with the actions. For instance, Feagin (2010) describes how American history books and folklore continually tell the story of the U.S. being founded due to manifest destiny and the heroic efforts of White settlers “winning the West” from savage Indians (p. 13). Racial images, another dimension of the WRF, relate to the visual and interpret one’s viewpoint or interactions as colorblind. A fourth dimension is racialized emotions, which expresses one’s feelings about racism as a new and uncommon phenomenon as opposed to historical, deep-seated, or structural. Finally, the fifth key dimension of the WRF is inclination to discriminatory action. This dimension explains the racial norms and discriminatory behavior we, as a society, exhibit on a regular basis, which are constantly learned, reproduced, and tolerated by our families, schools, media and other societal structures. Feagin (2010) provides examples of how we do not consider the White child ridiculing the Black child on the playground, or the White employer refusing to hire the qualified Latino individual as discriminatory, but rather rationalize why these situations occur without attributing them to racism and privilege.

In practice, elements of the White racial frame are accessed “by White individuals acting to impose or maintain racial identity, privilege, and dominance vis-à-vis people of color in everyday interactions” (Feagin, 2010, p. 14). They are transmitted over time to children in familial settings and reproduced and adapted through socialization in everyday contexts such as school and the workplace. Many White people “routinely engage in racial performances and discriminatory behaviors motivated by racist stereotypes, images, narratives, and emotions” (Feagin, 2010, p.123), and combine elements of the frame as they move throughout their daily lives. Racialized performances and behaviors target all racial groups, but according to opinion surveys and psychological studies, there is a preoccupation in the U.S. with African Americans (Feagin, 2010).

Feagin (2010) faults traditional social science with pigeonholing racial dynamics in the United States as an abnormal and temporary problem rather than a foundational and deep-rooted blight. For example, scholars commonly portray George Washington as a decent man, yet ignore the fact that the first U.S. president “had enslaved runaways chased down, participated in the callous raffling off of enslaved workers, had enslaved workers whipped, and even had teeth taken from the mouths of those he enslaved for his own mouth” (p. 8). To reframe collective memories and histories that misrepresent and minimize this country’s racial experiences as well as reevaluate contemporary assertions that American society has become colorblind and post-racial, Feagin (2010) draws from cognitive, neurological, and social science research to contribute to a broad conceptualization of the enduring frame of racial oppression.

According to Feagin, “contemporary racial framing . . . views U.S. society as truly ‘colorblind’ or ‘post-racial’ and considers racism to be dead” (2010, p. 8–9). Color blindness implies not only being blind toward the existence of racism, but also toward the existence of privilege (Bonilla-Silva, 2010; Lewis, 2001; Schofield, 1989). It demonstrates a lack of racial literacy. Additionally, the contemporary WRF maintains at its core a pro-White and anti-Black subframe rooted in stereotypes and narratives that glorify White achievement and virtue and vilify people of color. As Feagin describes it:

Whites as a group are considered virtuous people who act on racial matters mostly in colorblind ways and mostly without racial malice. In political, economic, and other social spheres, most Whites manifest a strong sense of personal and group entitlement to what they have and what they prize. (p. 96)

Thus, most Whites, including educators, view themselves as always acting for the common good and as not seeing color (Bonilla-Silva, 2010; Pollock, 2001; Schofield, 1989). However, they would not willingly give up or share the entitlements to which they have access. Understanding race means understanding not only difference, “it is about inclusion and exclusion” (Lewis, 2004, p. X).

The dominant WRF competes with multiple perspectival frames or counter-frames that may be in everyday operation in individuals. Feagin (2010) suggests that most people are multiframers, applying one or more frames based on particular situations and experiences they encounter. For instance, many Americans adhere to the White-crafted liberty-and-justice frame, which is grounded in the language of the founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and highlighted in rhetorical speeches at ceremonies and patriotic holidays (Feagin, 2010). This counter-frame is grounded in the belief that all Americans are entitled to life, liberty, justice, and equality, and systems exist to ensure that these rights are secured and protected for all citizens, thus suppressing acknowledgement of the harms of enslavement and ongoing racial discrimination in the U.S. (Feagin, 2010).

Feagin (2010) addresses possibilities for deframing and reframing the WRF as crucial to the dismantling of racism in U.S. society. According to him, “Deframing involves consciously taking apart and critically analyzing elements of the old racial frame, while reframing means accepting or creating a new frame to replace that old White racial frame” (Feagin, 2010, p. 198). An understanding of counter frames, deframing, and reframing enriches the WRF as a theoretical lens with the potential to support a deeper examination of how racial ideologies are enacted within the practice of school leadership and the possibilities for dismantling racism in K–12 education.


Racial Literacy

Guinier (2004) proposes racial literacy as a dynamic framework for understanding American racism, needed to “decipher the durable racial grammar that structures racialized hierarchies and frames the narrative of our republic” (p. 100). She describes racial literacy within the context of explaining social, economic, and political problems that have persisted in society since at least the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Specifically, she argues that Brown focused on race and overlooked the interplay among race, class, and geography, which allowed White elites to maintain power and orchestrate social, economic and political relations between and among groups of people.

Guinier (2004) makes three assertions about racial literacy: (1) it is contextual and not universal; (2) it focuses on the relationship between race and power; and (3) it does not ignore the intersection of race with class, gender, geography, and is based upon an understanding that racialized hierarchies are not practiced by individuals in isolation but rather within society (Guinier, 2004). Guinier’s conceptualization offers a critical perspective in emphasizing the connection between race and power as well as the institutional and contextual aspects of racism. In promoting racial literacy, she calls for social justice advocates “to make legible racism’s ever-shifting yet ever-present structure” (p. 100).

In a study of White biological mothers of African-descent children, Twine (1999) used the term racial literacy to describe the knowledge that the women slowly gained about race and racism within the context of parenting children of color. She described how they learned to recognize and negotiate racism and acquire “an anti-racist consciousness” (p. 187), and ways in which they supported their children’s identity development by providing home schooling, opportunities to interact socially with people of African descent, and African-inspired aesthetics in the home. Twine’s research provides insights into the practical ways in which “racial hierarchies [are] countered within Black-White families” (Twine, 2004, p. 900) in Britain.

Horsford (2011), in her scholarship on the narratives of African American superintendents on desegregation in education, asserts that “leaders must be racially literate—understanding how race functions in the teaching, learning, administration, and implementation of policy” (p. 97) in schools. Indeed, racial literacy encapsulates the knowledge needed for educators, including school leaders, to function in a multiracial context. In this article, we contend that the development of racial literacy would counter tendencies of White school leaders to be colorblind (Lewis, 2004; Ryan, 2003).

Race and School Leadership

Current scholarship in educational leadership emphasizes the improvement of instruction, acknowledging that such improvement is possible only “with dramatic changes in the way public schools define and practice leadership” (Elmore, 2000, p. 4). School leaders play an important role in creating powerful learning opportunities for students and teachers (Coburn, 2005; Elmore, 2000; Stein & Nelson, 2003), yet rarely have such learning opportunities focused on issues of race and racism. The literature on the role of school leaders in assisting teacher learning has not addressed racial literacy.

When teachers’ capacity to learn is nurtured in well-constructed professional development situated in classroom practice, their beliefs can shift over time, particularly when influenced by a strong instructional leader (Coburn, 2005; Nelson, 1998; Scanlan, 2012; Stein & D’Amico, 2002). Lawrence and Tatum (1997), in a study of professional development to improve “effectiveness in working with Black students” (p. 165), examined the impact of a program that targeted teachers and principals who were predominantly White and working in suburban Boston schools that had accepted Black students from Boston as part of the voluntary METCO desegregation plan (Lawrence & Tatum, 1997, p. 165). The authors selected a subset of the larger group to study whether White educators, including principals, would alter their daily practice to reflect changed attitudes as a result of professional development in which they were presented with the concepts of racism, White privilege, and theories of racial identity development, knowledge that contributes to racial literacy (Horsford, 2011; Twine, 1999). The educators wrote reflective essays on the class readings, discussions, and activities throughout the semester. Lawrence and Tatum (1997) analyzed the essays and found that 57% of the participants reported “specific antiracist actions they had taken during the course” (p. 167), including improving relations among teachers, students, and parents, transforming curriculum, and changes at the institutional level in support services for students of color.

Lawrence and Tatum (1997) also described changes in leadership practice reported by White principals who attended the professional development. In addition to establishing “cultural identity groups” in their schools and becoming advocates for children of color, the principals began “to challenge racist attitudes and behaviors displayed by school employees” (p. 174). There was also evidence of administrators questioning school-wide and district-wide policies, such as tracking, that were detrimental to African-American children. However, this study of short-term professional development was based upon self-report and did not include observations of leadership in context.

In fact, there is little empirical study of the day-to-day responses of school leadership to issues of race or racism, but the work that exists points to the fact that principals do not notice or address racism (Evans, 2007; Henze et al., 2000; Lewis, 2003; Ryan, 2003). The depth of the WRF is important to scrutinize within the context of leadership practice in order to explore its impact on teaching and learning; in particular, it provides a framework for analysis of the leadership of the White principals and other leaders in this study. With more scholars in teacher and leadership preparation addressing the normalization of whiteness (Cochran-Smith, 2004; Dantley, 2005; Delpit, 1995; Evans, 2007; Lopez, 2003), Feagin’s (2010) conceptualization of the WRF provides analytical scaffolding with which to develop a better understanding of this process in K–12 schools and the role of school leadership in maintaining or disrupting it.

Little attention, thus, has been given to what school leaders understand about the relationship of racism to teaching and learning (Beachum, 2011; Brooks, 2012; Gooden & Dantley, 2012; Horsford, 2011), including their own perspectives. Professional development that addresses race and racism is extremely rare, and when it does occur, it is rarely sustained. We argue that racial literacy is an important qualification for school leaders who have a prominent role to play in assisting teacher development of racial literacy.


This instrumental case study is part of a larger study of school leadership that took place in three predominantly African-American elementary schools in two urban districts in western Pennsylvania over two distinct phases of data collection from May 2006–June 2007 (Stake, 1995). As a research strategy, case study “investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context” (Yin, 2013, p. 13), and is thus appropriate to an inquiry into issues of racial ideologies and K–12 leadership. It allows researchers access to ways in which people experience the world and ascribe meaning to their experience (Merriam, 2009). By examining the practice of three White female principals of schools that predominately serve African-American students, this case study is instrumental to developing an understanding of White school leadership in an urban context (Stake, 1995).

Other methods have been found to be more problematic in revealing information about race and racism; for example, when people have participated in survey research on race, there is often an element of social desirability in which participants respond in ways that may be favorably viewed although they contradict themselves in follow-up interviews (Feagin, Vera, & Batur, 2000). Social desirability presents challenges to uncovering nuances in people’s experiences and beliefs pertaining to race and racism, nuances that a case study design and extended time in the field allow to be revealed.


The first author selected southwestern Pennsylvania as the location for this study because of access to the school districts and principals who agreed to participate. However, the region offered a rich context because of the social and economic shifts that have occurred over the past four decades. With the demise of the steel industry in the 1980s, many families left the region for job opportunities elsewhere, leading to a decline in the overall population. However, demographic diversity has not changed much over the same time period, with African Americans representing 13.2% of Allegheny County’s population, Whites, 81.5%, Asian, 2.8%, and Latinos, only 1.6% (US Census, 2010). Whites and African Americans live for the most part in segregated neighborhoods in the Pittsburgh region, with the latter often “disadvantaged in many quality of life aspects including job and transportation, access, schools, and public safety” (Center on Race and Social Problems, 2007, p. i).

Additionally, several large-scale gentrification projects that occurred in urban areas in western Pennsylvania during the 1960s and more recently, the beginning of the 21st century, have displaced many African American residents living in communities to surrounding smaller towns and boroughs (Thomas & Stankowski, 2002). Although the broader region has transformed to what has been called an “eds and meds” economy with a growing technology sector, communities of color remain isolated. These factors, representative of many former “rust-belt” cities in the U.S., spurred our interest in conducting this study in schools located in this region.  

The two districts in which the study took place offered several strategic contrasts: Riverton was a much smaller district with 1,500 students, compared to Weston with 32,000 students at the time of this study. Both urban districts, located in western Pennsylvania, were undergoing or had recently undergone leadership turnover in the superintendency. In addition, there were demographic contrasts among the schools (see Table 1). In terms of student population, Rosa Parks and Central Schools were nearly 100% African American, while Lenox School presented a more integrated and multiracial context. Lenox School’s student body was 53%

Table 1.School and District Demographic Information


Number of students

Grade levels

Racial demographics: Students

Racial demographics:


% Students qualifying for FRL

Riverton: Small urban district of approximately 1,500 students

  Rosa Parks



98% AfAm;

2% White

10% AfAm;

90% White





97% AfAm;

3% White

15% AfAm;

85% White


Weston: Midsize urban district of approximately 32,000 students




53% AfAm;

39% White;

7% multiracial; 1% Asian

10% AfAm;

90% White


Sources: District 1, District 2, and Pennsylvania Department of Education

African American, 39% White, and 7% interracial at the time of this study. In all schools, the professional community was approximately 85% White and 15% African American (Pennsylvania Department of Education, School Report Cards, 2006).

The larger district, Weston Public Schools, was engaged in reform efforts undertaken by a superintendent in the second year of his tenure. As part of the reform, almost two dozen schools were closed in the summer before this study began. Teachers and school leaders moved to new assignments in other buildings, some due to choice and some due to “displacement” by colleagues with more seniority as determined by the strong teachers’ union. Dr. Schneider was the principal of a school that had been newly reconstituted by the district in 2006–2007 as part of the ongoing reform efforts. Data was collected in the spring of the first year of reconstitution.

A contrasting feature of this case study of leadership is the depth and variety of experience among the principals (see Table 2). Ms. Russo, of Rosa Parks School, had the most years of teaching experience before becoming a principal, and also had the most administrative experience. Dr. Schneider, of Lenox School, had taught for five years before becoming a

Table 2. Principals’ Experience


Debra Russo

Rosa Parks School

Laney Thomas

Central School

Karen Schneider

Lenox School

Years as teacher




Years of experience as principal at time of study




Years at current school




Years as principal at current school




Years in district




mathematics coach in her district for seven years, and had been a principal for seven years at the time of this study. Ms. Thomas, the assistant principal of Central School who became principal when Ms. Russo left the district, was in her first two years as a school leader. All of them had worked in urban districts for most of their careers as educators. The schools and principals were purposively selected with these strategic contrasts and similarities in mind (Yin, 2013).

The principals provided access to others at the site, including assistant principals, subject matter coaches, and consultants, and recommending teachers to observe. In our analysis, we consider school leadership as distributed among these actors, “a product of the interactions of school leaders, followers, and aspects of their situations” (Spillane & Diamond, 2007, p.7).

Observational data were collected by shadowing each principal weekly and observing her in various capacities as she supervised teachers, conducted walkthroughs, led faculty meetings, and attended or provided professional development. Multiple interviews of the principals were conducted to surface beliefs about race, knowledge of culture and learning, and knowledge of teachers' cultural competency, and their understanding of their role in developing culturally relevant pedagogy in teachers (see Appendix). Several questions were adapted from Ladson-Billings (2009) in order to explore school leaders’ and teachers’ familiarity with culturally relevant pedagogy. Subsequent interview questions were designed based upon what was learned in initial interviews and observations (Patton, 1990; Rubin & Rubin, 2005). All interviews were digitally recorded with permission of the participants and transcribed. Pseudonyms are used for all principal, teacher, and place names to ensure confidentiality.

Two or three focal teachers at each site volunteered for multiple classroom observations and were interviewed at least three times about their practice, conceptions of their students, and about school leadership, thus providing insight into how leadership shapes classroom instruction, teacher learning, and teacher constructions of race. Protocols for coach and teacher interviews paralleled those of the principal to a certain degree, with a focus on teacher knowledge of the relationship of race and culture to teaching and learning. In addition, teachers were asked about leadership practices and teacher learning in their schools. Subsequent interview questions were designed based upon what was learned in initial interviews and observations and to follow-up on insights from the participants.


Using a qualitative data analysis software package, we analyzed three interviews of each principal, teacher interviews, and over 80 hours of school and classroom observations. All data were coded for participants and content. Based upon Feagin’s (2010) paradigm of the WRF, we developed a coding scheme to capture school leadership beliefs and practice; codes included racial stereotypes, racial narratives and interpretations, racialized emotions, images, and inclinations to discriminatory actions. Coding was iterative and based upon a constant comparative analysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1997).

We also created matrices to further investigate contextual elements of the WRF. Several emerged in our analysis, such as the use of the WRF, the audience or participants in the interaction, and the response, if any, to its instantiation. In addition, we created reports about each principal and elements of the WRF that surfaced in her leadership practice. In the following section, we begin by describing the broader context of leadership in the three schools and then present our analysis on the presence of the WRF in school leadership practice.


As qualitative researchers, our social identities and positionality are central to the data collection and analysis process, so it is imperative that we reveal life experiences that have shaped who we are, what we value and think about, and why we are interested in this subject (Glesne, 2010; Goodall, 2000; Sunstein & Chiseri-Strater, 2002; Tatum, 2000). The first author, Judith, identifies as an American-born White woman who spent three years as a Peace Corps volunteer and nine additional years teaching English in Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa. During that time, she became bilingual and bicultural, and gave birth to her interracial sons. She gained an understanding of the ideas, beliefs, and knowledge of Francophone West Africans, learning to live and work productively with them. Her life in Côte d’Ivoire aided her not only in observing, interpreting, and connecting to a new culture, it has also allowed her to analyze beliefs and behaviors in her native culture (Fetterman, 1998, p. 17), including the phenomena of White privilege and racism. After returning to the U.S., Judith’s young children experienced racially based microaggressions in school, so she began studying social identity and oppression in the U.S. to gain a deeper understanding of their intersection with K–12 education, while as a public school teacher, she advocated against racism. Currently, as a university professor, she continues to study and advocate for culturally relevant and antiracist pedagogy, leadership, and policies in public schools.

The second author, Dana, identifies as an American-born Black woman. She has experienced varying levels of racism and microaggressions as a person of color living in the U.S., educated in K–12 schools and higher education institutions, and working in various professional capacities, including as an attorney and in her current position as a university professor. Dana focuses on educating individuals on issues related to race, culture, policy and practice in public schools, so that her young children and others will not have the same deleterious experiences she has had. Additionally, as the researcher who was involved in data analysis but not data collection, she is aware of the possible subjective interpretations and biases that may occur during the analysis and writing process.

The different social identities of the authors, along with personal perspectives and research roles, add credibility and confirmability to the study and enrich their analysis of the WRF in school leadership practice (Guba & Lincoln, 1985; Tatum, 2000).


As an ethnographic case study that attempts to provide a deep portrayal of school leadership, this inquiry is necessarily limited in sample size. The turnover in leadership that occurred at Rosa Parks School proved to be somewhat disruptive. Privacy norms came into play several times over the course of data collection. None of the three principals truly encouraged unscheduled observations or shadowing, even though they had all initially agreed to such an arrangement. In addition, some of the events seemed rather staged. Unless we could triangulate the regularity of an event, we assumed it to be a rare occurrence. Extended time in the field serves to mitigate the sense that leadership practice remains somewhat inscrutable, particularly in regard to race and racism.


In the three predominantly African American schools that were sites for this study, the White principals and instructional leaders faced many issues of race, culture, and learning, yet, in a manifestation of the White racial frame, tended to be colorblind and colormute (Feagin, 2010; Lewis, 2003; Pollock, 2001). Because the principals faced distinct circumstances, we begin by describing the district and school contexts in which this case study took place and situating each principal within their contexts: first, Riverton District, with Rosa Parks and Central Schools, and second, Weston Public School District and Lenox School. The unique district contexts allow a greater depth of understanding how the WRF surfaces and functions within school leadership.

We next present our findings on the White racial frame in leadership practice with illustrative examples of each of the five elements of the WRF. We end with a section on the WRF in principals’ work with teachers.


While Ms. Russo worked toward establishing positive discipline at Rosa Parks, she also attempted to improve instruction with a teaching staff that has had seven principals in seven years. As Ms. Russo said:

I think that this building has really . . . it has a history here that . . . it’s hard to isolate the variables . . . exactly which things affect the way the teaching goes in this building. But they have had a different principal in this building every year for the last seven years. So that’s one thing that impacts this situation here. The people here have done a lot of things without accountability or a real leader in the building for many years. It was very difficult at the beginning of this year, and they’re still not easy. They’re still a work in progress in this building . . . It was not a positive learning environment, was not positive behaviorally, everything was about consequences and excluding children. Kids were in school, out of school, long term suspensions, moved to approved private schools. The teachers rebelled against my positive system of dealing with children at the beginning of the year . . . it still is my biggest challenge ’cause they still want them gone and out of sight, out of mind. And they had a history of being able to do that. They were empowered to do that.          

Ms. Russo’s leadership represented a new regime for teachers who were used to little, if any, questioning of their instructional or disciplinary decisions. In the first year of her leadership at Rosa Parks School, Ms. Russo worked with teachers to establish a program of positive discipline that kept children in classrooms and in school. This represented a major shift from a highly punitive approach to the discipline of children. Students were now rewarded for attendance, good behavior, and good grades with a special field trip every nine weeks, and thus, in the spring of 2006, most students and teachers went to a professional baseball game. Ms. Russo explained:

Most people become teachers because they like children, and they feel a connection with children, and they want to make a difference in a child’s life. But for some reason, the system gets in the way, and they lose contact with that. But when they actually get to go back to that again, and they get positive experiences with children . . . if they’re sitting in a movie with them or going bowling with them or roller skating with them and they’re interacting that way . . . then that brings back how they felt and it ends up being contagious.                     

The principal views these trips not only as a source of motivation for children, but also as an important venue for building positive relationships between teachers and their students. She feels that such relationships lead to higher teacher expectations for children and improved instruction and learning. She painted a picture of the predominantly White teachers at Rosa Parks School as virtuous in their desire to “make a difference in a child’s life” (Feagin, 2010).

Ms. Russo tried to transfer some of the leadership routines and norms that were part of her practice over the previous three years at Central School to Rosa Parks School. These routines focus on school improvement through the use of learning walks and school-embedded professional development, including deeper involvement of subject matter coaches in classrooms, and were supported by collaboration with university-based consultants. They stand in contrast to the long-standing system of classroom autonomy and low administrative involvement at Rosa Parks School that Ms. Russo encountered.


In her early thirties, Ms. Thomas was a teacher for seven years before becoming an assistant principal intern, sponsored by a university program in urban school leadership the year before, and an assistant principal in the year in which data was collected (2006–2007). Because she had taught at Central School for three years beforehand, she knew the teachers and had developed a strong working relationship with Ms. Russo who had been principal at Central for two of those years, as well as her internship year.

After Ms. Russo’s resignation became public in early June and both schools lost their principal, it seemed logical that the assistant principals would be named as principal of their schools and have the entire summer to transition into their new roles. As of early August, however, no appointments had been made. Finally, one week before the school year was to begin, the new superintendent made the official announcement that Ms. Thomas would be the principal of Central School. Despite the late notification, Ms. Thomas experienced an easy move into the role of principal, saying:

I think once the school year started, it was a fairly smooth transition. As of this past June 9th, I actually was given and assumed responsibilities of the principal even though I wasn’t technically appointed into that position. So as far as closing out the building, doing the paperwork, taking inventory, doing ordering, doing your daily routines over the summer, participating in the instructional decisions that would be made for this year, staff decisions that would be made, dealing with parents, the organization of the building, any kind of grounds or maintenances [was] under my responsibility.        

Although most of what Ms. Thomas describes fits within administrative or management routines of school leadership rather than instructional or learning routines, completing these tasks coupled with the strong mentoring relationship she had with Ms. Russo enabled a “smooth transition” into the principalship.

Ms. Green, one of the focal teachers at Central, mentioned that the school no longer had an assistant principal, thus adding stress to Ms. Thomas’ new role as principal:

She has so many jobs. I think she’s spread way too thin. She doesn’t have an assistant. So she has probably three hundred and fifty some students with a lot of needs and a lot of behavior issues. So her biggest role is just to maintain safety in the building and to handle the parents and students. Where other places, they don’t have that role. They have other people. They have more help: Assistant Principals and things. And here she’s pretty . . . spread pretty thin.            

This teacher sees the principal’s most important responsibility in terms of preserving a safe environment and “handling” the parents and students, 98% of whom are African American. Although “spread way too thin,” Ms. Thomas nevertheless established routines described by Ms. Green:

She does learning walks where she invites you to go into another grade to watch other teachers teach where you get wonderful ideas. She has an open-door policy. You’re able to go into her office at any time, for any reason. You’re not intimidated. She now has in-services in the morning at 7:30. From 7:30 to 8:00 she has really stepped up and has a lot of in-services for the teachers.     

While the learning walks and classroom visits may represent a continuation of leadership routines developed during Ms. Russo’s tenure, Ms. Thomas had also committed to a new series of workshops for teachers on examining student data from the first benchmark assessment of the school year, reflecting a district priority at the building level.


The community of Lenox is predominantly White, and is situated between two neighborhoods that are predominantly African American. In recent years, gangs from the two surrounding communities have engaged in several shootings, mostly targeting each other (City News, May 2007).

Lenox School is housed in two geographically separate buildings, and this one houses kindergarten through second grade; the more modern building that houses third through eighth grades is located several blocks away. Lenox is a newly reconstituted school created by a policy decision of the Board of Education of Weston Public Schools. The midsize urban district was facing a declining enrollment and a budgetary crisis which the Board felt could be partially alleviated by closing many neighborhood schools.

The district administration chose America’s Choice as the reform model for Lenox. Each AC school is expected to have a Leadership Team, consisting of assistant principals, subject matter coaches, several teacher-leaders, and the family liaison, that works closely with the principal to monitor implementation of the reform elements. At Lenox, the team met on a weekly basis over the course of this study (March through June 2007). When the first AC Quality Review was conducted at Lenox in December, it showed that implementation was not on schedule, and that little progress had been made in meeting program goals. Consequently, Dr. Schneider decided to spend most of her time in the K–2 building, focusing on instructional improvement.

As a new school at the time of this study, Lenox had a population of students who had never gone to school together, and a new professional community of teachers and school leaders. The school had previously existed as a neighborhood school in a community that was predominantly White. In the fall of 2006, it was reconstituted (City News, August 2006) by combining it with Lincoln School, a closed school with a student population that was predominantly African American. The latter had been housed in a newer building with a swimming pool and other amenities, including a kitchen for the preparation of hot school lunches, unavailable in the reconstituted school. The district-wide closings and reopenings created many new schools made up of new communities of school leaders, teachers, students, and parents. With the addition of Lincoln students, Lenox School’s demographics shifted from 70% White and 30% African American to 60% African American and 40% White (district documents). As Dr. Schneider stated:

It was a huge shift. Lenox proper is a very . . . am I allowed to say this? A very racist community and they did not like those kids coming into their school. So we had to deal with a lot of racial stuff and the irony of it is it really wasn’t kid motivated. It was adult motivated.              

Several months after the school’s opening, the principal described the surrounding neighborhood as racist, an assessment that had not changed since the beginning of the year. Although the school district envisioned the arrival of the new students from Lincoln well in advance of the first day of school, its policy of reconstitution did not include any plans for efforts in community-building among families and their children.

The district wide plan was to reopen several “new” schools with extended hours and an extended school year, implementing America’s Choice (AC) reforms as previously described. The district anticipated the need for professional development related to AC but did not anticipate the need for community-building. District documents reveal that teachers from the AC schools received eight days of professional development on the reform model in the summer of 2006 while principals and coaches were offered a few additional days. However, the school’s professional community was together for only a week before classes began, with no time spent on the blending of two racially disparate communities of students and families.

Even before school began, the teachers had preconceived notions about the children from Lincoln, predominantly African American, who would be attending Lenox. According to Sarah, a first-grade teacher who was one of the focal teachers of the broader study:

I always heard a lot of bad things about Lincoln. And even just in the teachers’ room and the way we talked between each other. It was, “Oh, Lincoln. It’s a rough school.” So we knew that those kids that were in Lincoln were going to be fed into Lenox. And I never really heard . . . Lenox always seemed like it was neutral territory, so to speak. But at the very beginning of the year, we got kind of a warning letter from our [guidance counselor] that there were some problems with the kids saying that there were people from Lincoln that came here to their school and they hated them, or the families hated them. But I really didn’t experience that too much at the primary level. I think that was more at the intermediate building. And I haven’t heard much about it lately, so I think everyone just kind of accepted it.                  

In terms that embed racial imagery, Lincoln is described as “rough” while the former Lenox population is described as “neutral.” In referring to a school-wide letter from the school guidance counselor to advise teachers to be aware of tensions, this first grade teacher matter-of-factly described children talking about “hating” the Lincoln children coming to Lenox. At the same time, she distances herself, locating most of the racial problems within the 3–8 building and not within the K–2 building where she teaches.


In this section, we present findings on ways in which the principals and other instructional leaders in this study perpetuated the White racial frame. We provide illustrative examples of Feagin’s (2010) categories as instantiated through leadership practice in often overlapping ways (see Table 3), highlighting connections to teaching, learning, and leadership.

Table 3. Instantiations of the White Racial Frame


Racial Stereotypes

Dr. Schneider described her relationship with the concerned Lenox community after the reconstituted school reopened with new student demographics, quoting an angry White father who complained, “Lady, I don’t want my kid going to school with those kids.” When Dr. Schneider responded, “Excuse me,” the parent hung up. She used this as an example of racism, stating, “We do bump against it a lot and again, story after story more at the beginning of the year because there was just a lot of tension and these people were . . . in Lenox were afraid.” She accepted the White community’s normalization of fear of African Americans, and sought neither to question it nor name it. Furthermore, she did not address racism in children because “you have to be kind of careful because I don’t really know what he’s being told at home.” Dr. Schneider made allowances for the father’s statement and attributed it to the general fear in the community. She also appeared to accept the possibility that racism may be taught in children’s homes, in which case she did not see it as her place to address children’s behavior. Thus, through her (in)actions and justifications of stereotypical attitudes steeped in this country’s school segregation history, Dr. Schneider, while recognizing racism within the school community, maintained and reproduced the White racial frame.

Dr. Schneider illustrated her understanding of and experience with African-American people with a depiction from her family: “My niece got pregnant by an African American, twenty-seven-year-old drug dealer who was shot and killed.” Her description of her niece’s boyfriend reinforces a view of Black men rooted in a criminality stereotype (Feagin, 2010). Presenting herself as fair and virtuous, she stated: “My sister and brother-in-law adopted two African American children and I was raised in a very accepting, open, probably not what I look like kind of thing.”  

Dr. Schneider expressed a belief that coming to the reconstituted school in Lenox changed the Black children’s attitude about school as well as their behavior, saying “[T]he Lincoln kids used to say going to school was like going to the mall. They give you food in the morning, you walk around for a little bit, get something to eat and go home. So now those middle school kids line up in a straight line . . . They wanted that structure.” The principal foregrounds structure as an educational need of African-American children instead of scaffolded, cognitively demanding, and culturally relevant instruction.

In the small urban district, Ms. Russo expressed a stereotype reflective of the WRF in discussing families:

Kids don’t have a lot of resources at home, so the classroom has to be a really rich classroom. The teachers have to provide a lot of experiences for the children because they might not go home to a house where somebody’s going to read a library book or somebody is going to study for a test with them. So they kind of have to build those experiences into the day here.        

Reading a book or studying are already built into the day at school; such experiences are hardly extraordinary in terms of learning opportunities and may represent this principal’s low expectations.


Racial narratives. The three principals in this study shared beliefs that were deeply rooted in narratives of the White racial frame. One narrative that surfaced holds that poverty is a more salient factor in the lives of children than racism. Ms. Russo, principal of Rosa Parks School, gave voice to this narrative when asked about culturally relevant pedagogy:

There are a lot of issues related I think more to the poverty issue than the cultural issue. Although there are cultural issues definitely, there are just so many issues here related to poverty . . . Like the trailer parks in the suburb [where I worked] very much resemble what goes on in the inner-city here, the same dynamics, the broken homes, the substance abuse, the lack of money to send in, and the children taking things from each other because they want so desperately to have something or kids with no supervision at home.              

Ms. Russo compared poor families in the suburbs to poor families in her district, concluding that “the same dynamics” exist for all children of poverty. This analysis fails to consider systemic racism in schools as a barrier to learning and academic success for children of color.

However, there was also evidence that Ms. Russo was engaging in reconsideration of the WRF. When asked how the school built upon African American culture in teaching and learning, she replied:

We try to have African American celebrations. The art program has a lot of crafts that are African crafts. In the music department, we have steel drums. We’ve partnered with local universities. We’ve had professors who have come over and taught the steel drumming. We encourage the staff to bring in and share and parents things that are related to the African American culture. Black History Week is a really big celebration every year. The first step in kind of knowing who you are racially is being able to talk about it, go through yourself the different steps of understanding racial differences, and I don’t think we do that for teachers.

In this quote, Ms. Russo represents the school’s focus on Black History as a week rather than a month, and describes the celebrations as focused on heroes, heroines, and holidays (Banks, 2003). Yet she suddenly makes a bold statement about the importance of knowing who you are racially, noting that teachers generally do not have opportunities to gain understandings of whom they are racially. In acknowledging the salience of teachers’ racial literacy, she is countering the racial narratives of the WRF. 

Racial Images and Language Accents

Discussing the predominantly White neighborhood where Lenox is located, Dr. Schneider emphasizes that although it may be low/middle class, it is a working community with political power:

People from Lenox have typically lived here their whole life, for generations. So it’s one of those kinds of communities. They have an active civic organization. They have a political presence in the city of Weston. They have political presence in the school district. They’re predominantly a low/middle class working community, but as I said we also have half of our population coming from the Lincoln section of town, which is a predominantly lower class part of the socio-economic tank.

This description displays a pro-White subframe that is central to the WRF and reflects Dr. Schneider’s appreciation for the political power of the White residents. In contrast, she presents an image of the predominantly Black neighborhood as a “lower class part,” offering no additional comments on the value of their social or political capital, something she ascribes to the White community.

Dr. Schneider does not believe that the demographic disparity between teachers at Lenox and their students holds consequences for student learning:

I’ve seen really great African American teachers that have worked great with African American kids and great with White kids. I’ve seen African American teachers who didn’t give two craps and were the worst of the worst. I’ve seen White teachers work incredibly well with African American kids and not.

Dr. Schneider uses harsher imagery and more emotional language for Black teachers than for White teachers. She conveys a view of herself and other White educators as virtuous by working in Black schools with Black children:

I’ve never taught in a predominantly White school. I think that for teachers, it’s those who have the desire to teach and that’s truly their passion and their calling. I don’t care what you put in front of them. They can get a turnip to read.

In this expression of the WRF, Dr. Schneider presents herself as colorblind, metaphorically comparing a child who may encounter reading difficulties to someone in a vegetative state. Such a negative image may be interpreted as likening Black children to victims in need of saving or being brought back to life, and the White educators as their saviors.

Ms. Thomas, the least experienced of the three principals, also maintained a colorblind stance, referring often to an image of the “whole child,” a concept promoted by a popular professional organization for educators. In the following excerpt, the short term, novice principal discusses children’s needs:

Really, when you think of the Central School student, I think of the whole child. I think that when I reflect on them, that’s what I think about them. I mean that they have so many different aspects and sides to them, but when I think of their needs and how to address them, I look at them as a whole.        

This firm colorblind stance does not acknowledge the relationship of children’s funds of knowledge or their home culture to teaching and learning. In fact, Ms. Thomas’ efforts to be colorblind may mask a dysconscious racism that ignores the unique assets each child brings to the classroom and hesitates to question the status quo of underachievement of students of color.

Racialized Emotions

When asked about the degree of outreach that the district provided beforehand to the African American and White communities that would constitute Lenox School, the principal pointed out that no community building efforts were undertaken by the district or the school’s leaders:

No heads up. And I’ve not worked in multicultural schools. I’ve really . . . my experience is predominately with African American schools and so it was shocking to get here and pinch myself, remind myself that it’s 2006 back in August. So [the racism] was shocking and it was shocking for a lot of the staff. It was certainly shocking for my two assistant principals and we’ve slowly stopped dealing with those issues. Did the district do anything? No. Did I share that knowledge with them? Yes.                           

In fact, little attention, if any, had been accorded to the reconstitution of a community of families and learners at Lenox before the opening of school. In a shallow counter-framing of the WRF, Dr. Schneider recognized racism among the White families at Lenox and finds it “shocking.” She expresses shock at this encounter, implying that racism was nonexistent in her previous experience as a school leader. For this principal and the two assistant principals, racism was something they have “slowly stopped dealing with.” This emotional response to the presence of racism may reveal a lack of understanding of systemic racism in American society and schools, its relationship to teaching and learning, and its persistence. For communities of color, racism is not something that they can simply choose to stop dealing with or pretend is nonexistent; however, educators operating within the WRF may choose to feel either burdened or unaffected by racist experiences.

Inclination to Discriminatory Action  

In this section, we share a vignette from an observation of a professional development session at Lenox School to show how the White racial frame impacts learning. As part of instructional improvement efforts at Lenox, a consultant from Everyday Mathematics was scheduled to present a demonstration lesson for three first-grade teachers on a May morning. In addition to the consultant, the district mathematics coordinator was also visiting. There was some tension in the room due to scheduling problems: The teachers were originally told that the lesson would take place second period. But on the morning of the visit, they were informed that the demonstration would begin immediately during first period, and two of them had to quickly prepare plans for the substitute teachers who were covering their classes. After objecting to the building mathematics coach about the last-minute notification, the teachers settled into the first demonstration lesson which lasted one period.

Soon after the lesson ended, the children left for art class. The consultant began to debrief with the teachers, telling them that “the idea is to flesh out more student engagement and involvement.” She commented that these children were used to a lot of teacher direction so trying to get them to be more independent was new for them. The consultant suggested that “the slate boards should be used more routinely.” One of the teachers, a White woman named Mary, responded dismissively, saying, “I can tell you that I don’t use slate boards because my kids use them as weapons.” The consultant persisted in her advice by saying, “But one thing I can tell you is that the more the kids use slate boards, the more accustomed they become to them.” In fact, personal slate boards are an integral part of implementing Everyday Mathematics and recommended as a tool for efficiently assessing student learning.

But Mary would not acquiesce to the idea of having her students access slate boards, saying, “But they will truly hurt each other.” The consultant, the district mathematics coordinator, and the coach seemed surprised and taken aback at this condemnation of first-grade children. The consultant agreed, adding that there might be:

some disruption if this was new to the kids. I haven’t seen slate boards in the routine. They would allow for more student engagement in the routines, and different ways to engage them. Change up some routines. Use base ten blocks, use straws, but vary it so students become thinkers of the routine, not parrots. And try to stay within a more 15–20 minute routine. The research base says less amount, but more frequently. Kids need smaller time blocks.               

When the Everyday Mathematics consultant unambiguously states in the debrief session that here in Lynn’s classroom, “it’s a lot of teacher direction,” the teachers do not object. Her learner-centered message that children must be allowed time to work on their own and that morning routines should be kept to short periods of time is clear. Later, the discussion centers on formative assessment, and ways to do alternative assessments, including the use of slates. In supportive and reassuring tones, the consultant promises to show the teachers how to do small group assessments with slate boards, but still, Mary insists, “I don’t do slates.” The consultant and the instructional coaches do not respond to this comment.

As seen in this excerpt from an observation of instructional leadership practice with a focus on teacher learning, a teacher who expresses strong deficit thinking toward children of color and economically poor children in her classroom refuses to fully implement the mathematics curriculum. For Mary, the children’s behavior is borderline dangerous in that they would “truly hurt each other.” She may resist instructional improvement because she believes that the behavior of the children cannot change; after all, this observation takes place near the end of the school year and Mary is still complaining about her class.

Although the subject matter coach, the consultant, and district mathematics coordinator in the room object to the teacher’s reluctance to incorporate slate boards into her teaching and offer to assist her in doing so, they do not object to her view of the children in her first-grade classroom. When asked later about this lack of response, the building mathematics coach said

Well, I’ve not spent enough time in her classroom, but I see her as making—and her type of teacher—as making excuses for everything. Everything that’s outside of their comfort zone, their excuse is “the kids can’t because . . .” And then you can just fill in the blank: “They’ll throw them, they’ll break them, they’ll steal them, they’ll play with them.” But the way you deal with that is you give kids, even if they’re like that, you give them lots of opportunities to work with manipulatives.

The subject matter coach and the other two instructional leaders related Mary’s resistance to a lack of understanding of developmentally appropriate mathematics instruction. This acceptance of Mary’s inclination toward discriminatory action by instructional leaders was witnessed by three teachers who are learning not only about mathematics instruction, but also about norms of expression of the WRF within their professional learning community. The instructional leaders masked the teacher’s behavior, reflective of the WRF, with a focus on curriculum implementation.


As shown in this study, the instantiation of the White racial frame impacts efforts to improve K–12 instruction, learning, and leadership. The degree to which White school leaders in particular engage issues of race, whiteness, and privilege themselves may determine the degree to which they engage teacher learning in these areas of racial literacy. We first develop connections between the WRF and racial literacy in educational leadership as a way to begin deframing and reframing the WRF (Feagin, 2010) and follow with implications of this study.

Among the school leaders at Rosa Parks, Central, and Lenox Schools, the WRF was a strong presence, with evidence of the pro-White subframe (Feagin, 2010). Ms. Thomas did not waiver in her colorblind stance toward African American children. Ms. Russo made tentative attempts to counter-frame in referring to the importance of teachers understanding their own racial identity. Dr. Schneider showed an awareness that racism should be addressed in schools, but did not do so.

This study extends Feagin’s (2010) theoretical work on the White racial frame to the practice of school leadership to more deeply understand the overlapping and complex ways it gets expressed and transmitted in schools. The three White principals of urban schools in this case study were deeply rooted within the WRF, expressing racial stereotypes, narratives, images, emotions, and inclination toward discriminatory action rooted in their day to day work, ultimately limiting learning opportunities for children of color. They were uncomfortable in discussing or confronting racism in the school and community, with Dr. Schneider expressing concern about contradicting parental belief systems that endorsed racism. Nevertheless, they saw themselves and White teachers as virtuous people who have answered to a higher calling in order to teach in urban schools, reflecting a long held moral framing by White people toward other Whites (Feagin, 2010).

In expressing the White racial frame, the school leaders in this study interpret the needs of African American students and families at a rudimentary level, foregrounding structure and order rather than instructional improvement and enrichment. These interpretations justify discriminatory actions, such as the closing of predominantly African American schools and the relocation of Black students into schools in hostile, predominantly White neighborhoods. Instructional leaders showed some persistence in advising a first-grade teacher to use slate boards to enrich her teaching of mathematics, yet remained silent about her strong deficit thinking and its negative impact on learning (Valencia, 2010). Through their silence, these instructional leaders accept the dominant WRF and allow it to not only stand unchallenged, but to limit teachers’ instructional repertoires and children’s opportunities to learn.

This study reaffirms that school leaders are agents for either stasis or change in practices that perpetuate racism (Evans, 2007; Lopez, 2003). It contributes to literature that examines how whiteness and other racialized ideologies surface within the context of educational reform efforts (Evans, 2007; Lewis, 2003; Lipman, 1998; Sleeter, 1993; Tillman, 2004). Ultimately, those who engage in sustained examination of the WRF are better situated to interrupt it (Feagin, 2010); this is particularly salient in instructional leadership with a goal of the development of teacher capacity (Stein & Nelson, 2003) and critical consciousness (Ladson-Billings, 1995). School leaders model narratives of the White racial frame that may influence classroom instruction. The implicit modeling and reproduction of the WRF by principals and teachers also shape how children internalize it (Feagin, 2010). When educators actively question the WRF, children, too, could learn to question and reject it.

We argue that racial literacy is a seminal part of leadership content knowledge, knowledge necessary for the practice of instructional leadership (Stein & Nelson, 2003) particularly in urban schools that tend to have a high proportion of racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse students. In their study of a second-grade class that included a focus on racial literacy, Rogers and Moseley (2006) found that children learned to dissect texts and question whiteness and privilege in them and more broadly, in society. Racially literate school leaders would be better situated to support such teaching in K–12 classrooms.  

Schools of education are well-positioned to provide solid information to counter racial stereotypes and narratives or to question racism and engage teacher and principal candidates in critical thinking about the WRF in K–12 schools. Moreover, they could become prime sites for deframing and reframing the WRF, and for the development of racial literacy in prospective educators.

This study provides empirical evidence of racial illiteracy, for example, when Dr. Schneider failed to refute White parents’ demands to move their children into classrooms with fewer Black children. School leaders were reluctant to speak about issues of race or racism, thus ignoring situations that could have served as sources of teacher learning and a reframing of the White racial frame. These examples illustrate the need for racial literacy in schools to provide a better understanding of racialized events and a more informed, appropriate response to these occurrences. Racial literacy would allow educational leaders to interpret racialized narratives and hierarchical structures as they surface in school contexts (Guinier, 2004; Horsford, 2011).

The school leaders in this study do not hold uniform beliefs and biases (Fine, 1998). As we have shown, they possess varying degrees of racial literacy or illiteracy with some evidence of competing perspectival frames (Feagin, 2010). For example, Dr. Schneider identified racism in her school but did little if anything to counter it. Ms. Russo acknowledged the value of teachers understanding who they were, racially, yet did not discuss racial identity with them. The mathematics consultant and coaches understood the negative impact of a teacher’s deficit perspective on children’s learning opportunities, but did not question her beliefs. Nevertheless, as White female leaders, they possess privilege and power within their school communities (Tatum, 2000), status that could be used to reframe the WRF. However, they were hampered by the limits of their own knowledge and preparation in educational leadership and racial illiteracy.

Professional development that engages school leaders and teachers in examining their own racial identities could also contribute to deframing the WRF (Feagin, 2010) and the elaboration of racial literacy (Guinier, 2004; Horsford, 2011; Twine, 1999). If Ms. Russo had had a knowledgeable colleague with whom to discuss her significant realization that “knowing who you are racially is being able to talk about it,” she would have had an opportunity to develop her thinking around race, racism, and teaching, i.e., racial literacy, and begin to link it to her role in assisting teacher learning. A growing body of literature examines subject matter teaching and learning as connected to “the everyday nature of racism in students’ . . . experiences” (Martin, 2009); content focused teacher learning is strengthened if it includes an examination of racial ideologies and narratives that may otherwise sabotage attempts to improve instruction (Diamond, Randolph, & Spillane, 2004; Greene & Abt-Perkins, 2003; Gutstein, 2005). New teachers in particular learn a “repertoire of racialized and ‘cultural’ comparisons” (Pollock, 2001) as a key component of belonging to their professional community, a repertoire that knowledgeable and racially literate school leaders could begin to disrupt through efforts to assist teacher learning and development toward an anti-racist frame.


This study has implications for educational policy, practice, and future research. For example, policies first implemented under the No Child Left Behind Act that require disaggregation of testing data by subgroups including race imply that conversations on race and academic achievement will occur in schools (Freeman, 2005; Pollock, 2001). This study of the White racial frame in the practice of school leadership contributes to an understanding of the complexities of such an assumption: Educators who are colorblind and colormute, reflecting values embedded within the WRF, may not be racially literate or have the inclination to engage in such conversations (Feagin, 2010; Pollock, 2001).

This research may be useful to policy makers and professors of educational leadership in encouraging a reexamination of requirements for leadership preparation. Prospective school leaders would benefit from preparation which includes racial literacy: education in the history of racism in American education and the presence and influence of racialized ideologies, including the White racial frame, in schools. A focus on racial literacy (Guinier, 2004; Horsford, 2011; Twine, 1999) develops critical consciousness, a tenet of culturally relevant pedagogy that foregrounds the legacy of race and racism in American education, and the presence and influence of racialized ideologies (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Such an approach to leadership preparation simultaneously addresses student learning and cultural identity while “developing critical perspectives that challenge inequities that schools (and other institutions) perpetuate” (Ladson-Billings, 1995). It considers the complexities of race and racism essential to any examination of teaching and learning, and, as this study contends, instructional leadership as well.

Although there is a growing number of theoretical articles on educational leadership for social justice (Capper, Theoharis, & Sebastian, 2006), it remains a rather abstract construct in practice (Brooks, 2012; North, 2006), in part because of its typically broad focus on all traditionally marginalized learners. Moreover, the concept of leadership for social justice has only recently been connected to instructional leadership in subject matter teaching and learning (Theoharis & Brooks, 2012; Touré, 2008). Gooden and Dantley (2012) have proposed a framework for leadership preparation that centers on race, including “a prophetic voice, self-reflection serving as motivation for transformative action, a grounding in a critical theoretical construction, a pragmatic edge that supports praxis, and the inclusion of race language” (p. 241), suggesting curriculum that develops racial literacy in prospective school leaders.

Previous scholarship has shown that preservice students of color contribute “a richer multicultural knowledge base to teacher education than do White students” (Sleeter, 2001) and are often dedicated to multicultural teaching, social justice, and providing an academically challenging curriculum (Ladson-Billings, 2009). The current study shows a need to redouble efforts to diversify not only the teaching population but also the population of school leaders. In addition, ongoing professional development that increases current principals’ knowledge of the social construction of the WRF and its relationship to instructional leadership could contribute to deframing and reframing it in schools. Research examining the development or deframing of the WRF within teachers’ professional communities is also warranted; social network theory may be a particularly fruitful tool for such an examination (Daly, 2010).

Future research on school leaders who have successfully developed racial literacy in teachers, or who are interesting in learning, would contribute to a theory of culturally relevant leadership (Beachum, 2011; Touré, 2008). Greeno, Collins, and Resnick (1996) discuss design experiments in which researchers and practitioners collaborate in designing, implementing, and analyzing changes in practice within a school or classroom setting. Such iterative research designed in concert with school principals and other school leaders would offer insights into the development of culturally relevant leadership that addresses racial literacy in subject matter teaching and learning.

Continued research into the knowledge that White school leaders bring to bear on their practice in schools that are predominantly African American or Latino is also warranted. The White racial frame as a theoretical lens supports a fine-grained examination of how racial ideologies are enacted within the practice of school leadership. Only through ongoing analysis of racism in schools can scholars and practitioners begin to deframe and reframe it.

In contrast to the WRF, African Americans and other Americans of color created their own resistance counter-frames to fight against racism and for simple survival (Feagin, 2010). There are two prevailing counter-frames drawn from the experiences and cultural backgrounds of oppressed American people of color: (1) the anti-oppression counter-frames; and (2) the home-culture counter-frames that people of color have drawn on in establishing their counter-frames (Feagin, 2010). The anti-oppression counter-frame, also known as the anti-racist counter-frame, is reflected in examples of abolitionists battling against slavery in the 1850s and 1860s and civil rights leaders and organizations marching and protesting in opposition to Jim Crow laws and segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, and more recently, the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Illustrations of the home-culture counter-frame are found in Black people infusing African culture into religion, art, and music to maintain the heritage they had to sacrifice while enslaved and forcibly immersed in White American culture (Feagin, 2010).

According to Feagin (2010), deframing consists of a conscious fine-grained analysis of the elements of the WRF and reframing involves the building of something new to replace it (p. 198). This study contributes an analysis based upon deframing the WRF within the practice of school leadership. Future study of K–12 leadership may offer insights into reframing the WRF in schools to allow meaningful progress in improving instruction for African American and Latino children and thus, closing the achievement gap, or as Ladson-Billings refers to it, the “education debt” (Ladson-Billings, 2006).

Scholarship exploring how school leaders of color work through the WRF would broaden understandings of reframing and counter-framing it in K–12 education, and also begin to foreground their needs for support. Research on the presence of counter-frames in K–12 contexts would also contribute to greater understandings of ways to disrupt the WRF. As Feagin (2010) theorized and as this study affirms, schools remain fertile sites for reproduction of the White racial frame.


We would like to thank Joe Feagin for comments on an earlier version of this article.


1. The first author collected the data analyzed in this article.


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Principal Protocol

Initial Interview

INTRODUCTION: Information about the Principal and school


Please tell me a little bit about your background.

How long have you been a principal?

How long have you been at this school?


How long were you a teacher prior to becoming an administrator?

 What grade level/positions? Where?


Tell me about the children at this school:

Probe: race? any English language learners? students with special needs? socioeconomic backgrounds represented?

What does that mean for instruction?

What does that mean for your work as principal?


How would you describe the neighborhood in which this school resides?

Probe on given characteristics: Can you give me an example?

What does that mean for teachers’ approach to instruction?

What does that mean for your work as a principal?


What kinds of things have you done at _____ School to facilitate the academic success of African American children?


What kind of role do you believe parents play in the academic success of children?


How would you describe the relationships you have had with parents of students?


Could you talk about the school’s status in regard to NCLB?

Probe: How has it been going?


Could you please tell me about the teachers you work with?

Probeà racial demographics

Probeà years of experience, educational background, community involvement


How, if at all, does this contrast in demographics between students and teachers affect teaching and learning at _____ School?

Your leadership?


How would you describe your own racial and cultural heritage?

How, if at all, does it influence your work as principal?


Introductory script: I am interested in your understandings of the relationship of race and culture and learning, and how these understandings affect your leadership if at all.

Some questions adapted from Ladson-Billings (1994).


How have your experiences at this school been different from your experiences at your previous school(s)?


In your experience, what characteristics do African American children as a group bring to the classroom?


How does the school incorporate these characteristics into teaching and learning?


How do you think the schooling experience of your students differs from that of White students?


How, if at all, does the school build upon African American culture in teaching and learning?


If you could revamp teacher education so that teachers would be more effective with African American students, what changes would you make?


If you could revamp leadership education so that district and school leaders would be more effective with African American students, what changes would you make?


I am interested in understanding if any components of what Gloria Ladson Billings calls “culturally relevant pedagogy” are being adapted in schools. What do you think of when you consider culturally relevant pedagogy?


Who do you go to when you have questions about culturally relevant pedagogy?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 2, 2018, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22019, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 9:09:56 AM

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About the Author
  • Judith Toure
    Carlow University
    E-mail Author
    JUDITH TOURE is Professor of Education at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA. She has been a teacher her entire career, beginning as a Peace Corps volunteer in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, and then, as a public-school teacher in Ithaca, NY, and in Pittsburgh. Judith’s research draws from theories of culturally relevant pedagogy and sociological understandings of race and racism to examine the role of school leadership in assisting teacher learning. Her most recent publication appears in Pennsylvania Educational Leadership.
  • Dana Thompson Dorsey
    University of Pittsburgh
    E-mail Author
    DANA N. THOMPSON DORSEY, JD, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Urban Education and the Associate Director of Research and Development at the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Education. Her research and teaching focus on education law, policy, and race and culture. She concentrates on critically examining school laws, policies, and practices and their influence on educational equity, access and opportunities for students of color and marginalized groups in urban and rural educational contexts. Dr. Thompson Dorsey is published in numerous scholarly journals and most recently in Peabody Journal of Education and Educational Policy.
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