When I taught middle school social studies, I had a set of questions that I taught to my students to guide how we encountered historical narratives. I called these “The Critical Historian’s Essential Questions” and had them written on a big, handmade poster at the front of the room:
While I taught these questions as a way of engaging students in critical disciplinary thinking (and I’ve written about that as part of my scholarly research here and here), I’ve come to realize that these questions are more than that. These questions are a kind of moral compass, helping to orient us towards voices and perspectives that might be otherwise overlooked. In fact, a few of these questions— Whose perspective does this narrative represent? Whose voice is missing from this narrative? How would this narrative be different if told from another perspective?—have helped me unlearn whiteness, an idea I’m going to come back to in a bit. Suffice it to say when I wrote and taught these questions in my middle school classroom, I didn’t know any of this. I only knew that I had to teach a textbook called The Medieval World & Beyond, and that I knew little about the medieval world but a lot about how to approach curriculum critically (thanks, PhD in Multicultural Education). I also knew that a teacher didn’t have to be an expert in every single fact that they taught, and that it was often more powerful to apprentice students into habits of mind, visible thinking routines, and academic discourse (thanks, Paolo Freire). My students and I could learn the facts together while I modeled what it looked like to encounter those facts as a critical thinker. These “critical essential questions” were how I turned these broad ideas into a concrete instructional practice.
Fast forward to today, when I am voraciously consuming media about whether and when to reopen school buildings. This is a personal question for me: I have two elementary-aged children who have been home with me since last March, and I also sit on the Board of Directors for their public Montessori school. I’m also an academic and social scientist by training, and I teach and write about critical media literacy and, well, let’s just say that it’s a perfect storm for obsessive consumption of news. It’s no surprise to me that when I encounter media, as when I encounter historical narratives, I fall back on these “critical essential questions.” For example, the New York Times recently published an article based on a survey of doctors about their opinions on reopening school buildings. These are medical experts: pediatricians, emergency medicine doctors, and more. Their opinions, as expressed in the article, are that schools can safely reopen now, without widespread vaccinations and even in light of community spread, with good masking and testing. This is hopeful news! But I can’t take it solely at face value. Instead, I find myself asking: Whose perspectives aren’t included in this article? How would the analysis of this data be different if their voices were included? Who benefits from this particular analysis of the data? What I see as I interrogate the article in this way is that these doctors are approaching school reopening as a scientific question only, when in reality it is a scientific question and an educational, sociopolitical, and ethical question. From their position as scientists, they are dismissive of the fears of COVID expressed by teachers and families, many of whom are in large urban districts. While the physicians’ dismissal might be rooted in scientific data and practical expertise, it ignores other competing realities: that COVID has disproportionately infected and harmed Black and Brown communities; that communities of color in the US have long been exploited by science and medicine; that teachers in urban districts have little faith in their cities and administrations to properly fund and carry out mitigation strategies and safety protocols; that urban schools are already over-burdened and under-funded, and that maybe this is a breaking point for the system. These competing realities don’t negate the science or medical expertise underlying the doctors’ professional opinions about reopening school buildings. But these competing realities do raise more questions: Whose voice and perspective should we listen to? Whose voice and perspective hold the most weight in this moment? Can we navigate justly through these competing perspectives? What would justice in this situation look like, anyways?
This is where I want to come back to whiteness, and where I have to do some explaining. I am, without a doubt, a white person. Like, so white that the old website “Stuff White People Like” was basically my autobiography. When I taught in Chicago, my African American students would look at me like I said a dirty word when I acknowledged that I was white. They’d often try to convince me that I wasn’t white, just light-skinned. Now, I’m not saying that they legit thought I was light-skinned, but to them, being white was a bad thing, and how could this teacher that they (mostly) loved be that bad thing? At the time, I smiled about this, just as I smiled when they asked me why white people smelled like mayonnaise: it was cute, evidence of their affection for me and maybe some kind of validation that I wasn’t an oppressive white person or “nice white lady” savior. I was more complex than their stereotypes of a white person, which meant I had to be light-skinned.
What I realize now, nearly twenty years later, is that we were conflating ‘white person’ with whiteness. Remember, ‘white people’ — like all racial categories — is a made-up thing. As so many white folks today love to point out, there was a time when our ancestors weren’t considered white in the US. The Irish, Italian, and Polish were assimilated into this category of white people once they were deemed human enough to be white. White was a category that was created to distinguish humans (English colonists and eventually other European immigrant groups) from non-humans (indigenous people, enslaved Africans). Neither of these groups were monolithic, but the creation of white people as a group distinct from ‘savages’ was a convenient way to delineate between humans and non-humans and thus to build policies, economies, and social structures around those demarcations. This is what we mean when we say that race is a social construct: we made up racial categories to fit the way that we were structuring the world.
But these made-up racial categories have real, lived consequences for the people that get sorted into them—and whiteness is one of those consequences.
Whiteness can best be understood as a way of being, a way of occupying a social position in order to reinforce the structures that have privileged that social position. Whiteness is not a culture in the way that we might talk about, say, Polish culture—the food, customs, sayings, music, behavior, dress, or holidays that make up the visible, performative elements of culture. That’s not what whiteness is. Instead, we can think of whiteness as all of the stuff we don’t see that links together disparate groups into this made-up category of “white people” and that gets those white people to uphold these categories and social structures through their behavior, beliefs, values, and mythologies. In critical theory and sociology and education, we have all sorts of specific language to talk about this: hegemony, ideology, habitus, cultural capital, embodied identities, etc. Those are important ideas, but they are not necessary to understand that whiteness is a particular way of being in the world, and that this way of being developed concurrently with white people’s positions of power and creation of racialized world orders. (Here is where I tell you that, while you’ve probably heard a lot about Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be An Anti-Racist, his first book is far more important. Read Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.)
Whiteness calls on those of us who are white to take up space, to speak authoritatively and eschew humility no matter what. Whiteness is arrogant, confident, loud, logical. Whiteness prioritizes empiricism and science over all other ways of knowing. Whiteness is the guy at a conference who says he has a question and then proceeds to give a twenty-minute speech without ever asking any kind of question. Whiteness is tangled up with mansplaining, that urge to explain things you have no experience of or to correct people about their own lived realities. Whiteness loves standardization and rationality; whiteness loves protocols and perfectionism. It rarely holds itself to these standards, but it loves to weaponize them against others. Whiteness wants rules, criteria, and three-step plans. Whiteness hates to apologize, it hates to be wrong, it hates to share power, it hates to ask questions. Whiteness loves punishment and retribution; it loves rigor and objectivity. Whiteness always knows better what other people need; whiteness saves.
Now, these are not all inherently bad ways of being, and none of these ways of being are solely exhibited by white folks. People of all stripes can be arrogant! Which is to say, there is nothing biological or inherent to whiteness. Rather, whiteness is a learned way of positioning oneself that inadvertently assumes one’s superiority. (This, by the way, is what we mean when we talk about white supremacy. You don’t have to wear a hood to buy into white supremacy; you just have to buy into whiteness.)
In the context of COVID-19 and the school reopening debate, whiteness has been prioritized in our public debates. There have been so many excellent essays recently on the dangers of white saviorism in a pandemic, on the ways that white folks are using concern for equity to get what they need for their own children, on how the loudest members of diverse school communities are silencing the most vulnerable. Whiteness points to the science and tells us that we are being “irrational” if we are still worried about reopening school buildings. Whiteness points out how COVID-19 is affecting the “achievement gap,” how it’s hurting future economic competitiveness, how it’s just widening the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ Whiteness doesn’t listen to the real concerns being raised that challenge some of these assumptions, and whiteness isn’t advocating for the undoing of the social structures that created these problems in the first place.
Let me be clear: It’s not that these assumptions are individually wrong. But when put forward from a position of assurance and arrogance, when put forward without a willingness to wholly listen to opposing concerns, when put forward without any humility or acknowledgement that we all face different levels of vulnerability during this pandemic, it is an inherently oppressive stance. Whiteness is inherently oppressive. It silences dissent. It says “my way or the highway” and steamrolls over questions, complexities, alternatives, and debates.
Here’s the thing: you can be a white person and not embody whiteness. (And you don’t have to be a white person to embody whiteness, but that’s a topic for a different time.) But most of us white folks have to actively unlearn whiteness; we have to actively unlearn arrogance and certainty and control and instead learn anew humility and questioning and solidarity. Which is what those social studies questions were teaching my students, even though I didn’t realize it then, and what they were teaching me. Those critical essential questions were a way of pausing deeply ingrained patterns of whiteness—so painfully visible in K12 history curricula. These questions were an acknowledgement that there are multiple ways of knowing and experiencing the world and that the dominant perspective is not always the one we should listen to. These questions try to teach us how to listen humbly, how to look for the flows of power, and most importantly, how to privilege otherwise silenced narratives.
At a recent community meeting about whether to reopen our school building, several families (predominantly white) spoke up about the need to open our building. It is safe, they said, and we know this because surrounding suburban districts are opening safely. It is healthy, they said, because our kids are suffering emotionally, academically, and physically. It is necessary, they said, because we have to get back to work. It is pragmatic, they said, because school can’t stay closed forever. All of these things are true. But our school community is diverse, and I couldn’t help noticing that those speaking up represented only the most privileged slice of our purposely integrated community school. And so I fell back on those critical essential questions: Whose voices aren’t we hearing right now? How would this debate be different if their voices were included? Who benefits from this lop-sided discussion, and who is harmed by it? We didn’t get to the answers in that meeting, but just asking the critical questions put a pause on our lopsided deliberations.
If you have attended racial justice protests or racial justice organizing recently, you may have noticed that there are often rules for participation specific to white people: Pass the mic. Use your privilege to protect. Be quiet and listen. Show up and do the work. Come get your people. These are what communities of color are telling us white folks they need from us if we are actually going to act in solidarity, if we are actually going to be co-conspirators for justice. Each of these rules, like the critical essential questions, is really just a concrete way of unlearning whiteness.
Each of these rules is a reminder of how to disinvest ourselves from whiteness, especially when we think we are committed to justice: Listen. Act with humility. Privilege the voices of people of color. Recognize that discomfort is not the same thing as oppression.
It reminds me, too, of what I’ve been learning from Catholic social teaching and liberation theology, where we often talk about “preference for the poor.” Liberation theology grants “epistemic privilege” to those who have experienced oppression: our commitment to prophetic justice is enacted, in part, by listening to those who have lived injustice. It is a commitment to listening to the most vulnerable, and working alongside them—accompanying them—in a journey for justice. It reminds me of the idea of counter-narratives from Critical Race Theory, the idea that people living at the racialized margins of society speak with a special power about racial structures and that one important way of upending those structures is amplifying and listening to their counter-narratives. What all these ideas get at is that, when you occupy a social position of power or privilege, sometimes you have to sit down and shut up. Sometimes you just have to listen. Sometimes you have to be uncomfortable, suffering a little so that others can suffer less. Sometimes you have to accept that the stories and perspectives you are used to knowing are not the only stories and perspectives and that people more vulnerable than you have a moral claim to being listened to.
Which brings me back to opening school buildings. I do not know the right thing to do. I do know that pretty much everyone who has kids in virtual school is suffering, and I’m a working mother so I feel like working mothers are suffering most acutely. I know that I am going to cheer and cry and have an Old Fashioned the day I finally bring my kids back to school. But I also know that, while this is hard and feels downright impossible on some days and that is real and needs to be acknowledged, I also know that my desperation to get back to school cannot take precedence over the real life-or-death consequences of COVID that are so disproportionately affecting Black and Brown and indigenous communities. I also know that I have been hearing lots of white folks who have disinvested from urban schools and public schools decrying ongoing building closures as the ultimate racial inequality and as the reason more white folks are going to bail on diverse public schools. I am hearing a lot of disdain towards vulnerable communities who have been trying to tell us that, despite what the science says, they are still vulnerable.
I am not sure what the right thing to do about schools is, but I do know that letting whiteness run amok is not going to get us to the most just answer. And so I’m falling back on my old moral compass, and asking: Whose voices are we hearing? Whose voices aren’t we hearing? And how would this discussion be different if more vulnerable voices were included and listened to? I’m asking who should have the mic right now, and I’m trying to get my people to quiet down and listen.
Because, while I might be a white person, I don’t have to be whiteness.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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