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The Learning Conference 2003

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Becoming an Anti-racist Teacher: Addressing Whiteness in Learning Communities

Virginia Lea, Erma Jean Sims.

Teacher educators who see themselves as critical theorists, critical race theorists, anti-racist theorists (Sleeter, 2002), interpretive theorists, feminist, post-modern, post-structural and post-colonial theorists (Bennett deMarrais & Le Compte, 1995), often agree that the practice of many teachers and teacher educators reflects deep-seated, hidden, deficit assumptions about low-income students and students of color (Zeichner & Liston, 1996). These hidden cultural scripts or “hidden curricula” that tend to be less-than-conscious have been shown to negatively impact what teachers do in the classroom, even though we may see ourselves as multicultural educators in pursuit of more equitable, democratic approaches to serve our learning communities (Lea, 1998; Spindler & Spindler, 1990). This is particularly the case when the teachers are caught in the waters of mainstream institutions (Geertz, 1973) since the scripts learned in these waters are often in tension with the scripts that students of color and low-income students bring to school. Add to this the fact that most teachers in the United States were raised in the dominant, academic mainstream, and an increasing number of their public school students were not. In fact, a majority of the public school student population in California is of color (California Department of Education, 2002). This mismatch and the associated low expectations that many middle class, white teachers have of students of color and low income students, has been identified in numerous classroom ethnographies (Bean, 1997; Erikson & Mohatt, 1982). Teacher-student conflict and student alienation from academic work in favor of the social and cultural groups in which they find meaning (Steele, 1992) is one of the outcomes.

The research of Ladson-Billings (1994, 2000), Cummins (1996), Bartholome (1998), King (1994), and Delpit (1995) among others clearly indicates that most students who do not fit the white, middle/upper-middle class profile need more than culturally responsive teacher practice to find school meaningful. They also need anti-racist teachers with “political clarity” about how schools work (Bartholome, 1998); and they need critical educators who are able to guide students towards generating their own knowledge and theoretical lenses. With these tools, students can become actively involved in making learning communities work for them. Teachers need to help students understand the “culture of power” (Delpit, 1995), including the corporate culture of power (Giroux, 2000). Teachers need to understand how they are complicit in perpetuating a social system that works, disproportionately, in the interests of a white, upper/middle class elite. Research into teacher reflectivity has made promising inroads into this teacher knowledge and awareness (Cochran-Smith, 2000; Dewey, 1967/1897; Ford, 1999; Greene, 2000; hooks, 1994; King, 1991; Nieto, 1999; Salvio, 1998; Sleeter, 1993, 1996; Sumara & Davis, 1998; Zeichner & Liston, 1996). This session aims to make one more contribution to this body of work.

This session will advance the thinking about how to prepare teachers to become anti-racist, aware of their whiteness. When white educators express whiteness, learning communities fail to provide the conditions for all students to learn. They become places in which we actively reproduce, or at least attempt to reproduce ways of thinking, feeling, believing, and acting—ways of teaching and learning—that work to the advantage of upper and middle class white students and those people of color who buy into cultural whiteness to realize their own success.
For most teachers, this is not a conscious matter. Cultural whiteness is the educational and social mainstream in which we are immersed within the dominant institutions of the United States (Geertz, 1973). In this session, Virginia, a white woman raised in England, talks about the white privilege that she has received from that immersion, and her resulting, less-than-conscious complicity with cultural whiteness. Erma Jean, an African American woman, talks about the ways in which she has been oppressed by whiteness and how she came to internalize some of the norms, values and beliefs of whiteness herself in order to be successful within the United States institutional mainstream. Like ourselves, many educators, who are disproportionately white in the United States, are trying to address their own complicity in reproducing whiteness in the educational system (Howard, 1999), and to identify what enables them to sustain anti-racist practice (Clark & O’Donnell, 1999). However, while we work on identifying our own whiteness, teacher educators must continue to struggle to find effective ways to enable student teachers to overcome their extreme difficulty in really recognizing the colonizing nature of some of their practices in the learning communities in which they work. This session is one contribution to this challenge.
In the session, in addition to sharing our own stories, we will actively engage session participants in some of the activities that we have developed to help our disproportionately white student teachers and their more diverse K-12 students to become aware of the cultural scripts of whiteness that may shape their practice. For example, our poetry and narrative activities encourage our student-teachers to recall and share their own stories from childhood, school days, and professional lives, prompted by categories such as culture, race and whiteness, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Through careful modeling, we try to prepare them for the “culture shock” that the process may engender. The student teachers respond to each other’s poems and stories with questions and comments, raising consciousness about taken-for-granted and potentially inequitable cultural scripts embedded in the narratives. We try to engage the student teachers in co-building a “safe” environment, free of judgment, in which we can share these poems and stories and gain insights. Student teachers learn to affirm the discomfort that is part of any educational or social change process. They learn to be metacognitive and to reflect back on their journeys to greater awareness. They learn to engage in praxis (Freire, 1993)—applying critical academic theory and the cultural theory of their peers, and well as their own revisited cultural scripts to better understand their narratives and the identities that they have at least partially constructed out of the cultural scripts that live within them.
This work should be seen in today’s broader academic context defined by mandatory “accountability” and top-down curricula that poses as objective and neutral. Unless teachers are as aware as possible of their own personal social and cultural “curricula” (Pinar, 1998), it will be hard to remain committed to an activist curricula in the service of social justice.

For the last ten years, we have offered our students opportunities, through poems, narrative and other activities, to come to a greater, on-going understanding of how their personal cultural scripts are shaped by more public mainstream cultural scripts that do not meet the cultural needs of all of their students in the learning communities in which they plan to teach. Evidence from students’ poems and stories indicates that the process has been successful. We hope that this raised consciousness will travel with student teachers into their classrooms. This is always difficult for the critical multicultural educator as many schools expect teachers to look at their students and their work through a theoretical lens that reproduces deficit thinking about some students—that reproduces the existing social structure. Unlike the lens that frames critical, anti-racist learning communities, student failure is seen in many schools as the fault of students and parents. The structure of the school and the content of the curriculum, including our personal “hidden curricula,” are let off the hook. We therefore do not see our activities as sufficient in the preparation of critical, anti-racist, culturally responsive teachers. We need to set up the kinds of support mechanisms that will enable teachers, once credentialed, to sustain their critical, anti-racist positions once they enter learning communities as qualified professionals.

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Virginia Lea  (United States)
Assistant Professor of Education
Literacy Studies and Elementary Education, School of Education
Sonoma State University

Dr. Virginia Lea is an Assistant Professor of Education at Sonoma State University, a California State university north of San Francisco. She teaches courses in Multicultural Education and the Social Sciences, The Reflective Educator, and School and Society. Virginia coordinates “Project Quest,” an alternative, integrated American Multicultural Studies degree and elementary teaching credential program, offered by Sonoma State in collaboration with Solano Community College. Virginia is also the co-founder and President of the Educultural Foundation, a California nonprofit organization that teaches critical thinking about social and cultural issues through the arts.

Erma Jean Sims  (United States)

  • Teacher Education
  • Whiteness
  • Critical Pedagogy
Person as Subject
  • Dr. Virginia Lea Dr. Jean Sims Student Teachers at Sonoma State University

(60 min Workshop, English)