Engagement and Struggle within the “Culture of Nice”
Racism is inside the schools and outside the schools, but we must struggle where we are.
—David Gillborn, Racism and Education
In writing this book, I set out to answer a number of questions. Primarily, I hoped to examine how schools contribute to inequity given educators’ good intentions. This question includes some others: How are popular educational discourses employed in contradictory ways? How do potentially transformative agendas get taken up in ways that run counter to the initial intent? How do individuals with good intentions (re)produce structures that harm children? A simple answer to all these questions is whiteness. And yet, it is also an incredibly complex answer. Whiteness, as a system of ideological and institutional race dominance engaged by everyone to various degrees, composes an elaborate and extensive set of mechanisms that work to sustain and mask dominance. As such, whiteness stands in the way of equity. How does this happen? And specifically, how does this happen in schools? Of any social institution, schools should be the place where fairness and justice are most obvious, most valued, and most sought after. Educators are typically nice people with good intentions of serving youth and communities. But educators are just as invested in dominant American ideologies and institutions as any other individuals in our society. They may even be more invested in things like equality, meritocracy, colorblindness, and politeness because of the way schools are positioned as fundamental to helping anyone—and everyone—achieve the American dream. Schools also worked, and continue to work, for most educators, so educators are understandably invested in this institution that provided an avenue for their own success.
Through the voices, scenes, and texts in this book, I have attempted to illustrate what these investments look like, how they interact with one another, and what their implications are. In doing so, I hope to have made clear how being educated in whiteness works. Central to this understanding is that whiteness often works through nice people and well-intended policies and practices.1
As the stories from the Zion School District highlight, “educated in whiteness” has multiple meanings. In part, it means that we are all surrounded by whiteness daily, and it therefore permeates our learning and experiences even when we are not aware of it. In this sense, whiteness is like the water fish swim in or the air we breathe. Teachers are educated in whiteness, students are educated in whiteness, our schools as institutions are built on foundations of whiteness, and the list could go on. An alternative meaning of “educated in whiteness” refers to the process of coming to see, learning about, and thinking through the implications of whiteness. Indeed, through reading the stories and discussion in this book, I hope we become more aware of how, when, where, and why whiteness is operating in our schools and communities. In other words, we all need to be educated about whiteness so that we do not continue to educate for whiteness.
Being educated about whiteness requires that a particular set of glasses be worn, because it is only with these glasses that we can really see the mechanisms at work in our everyday, well-intended efforts to address diversity in schools. The glasses this book provides include the concepts of niceness, responsibility, colorblindness, powerblindness, politeness, equality, meritocracy, individualism, and liberalism. With an understanding of these theoretical notions, including what they look like in practice, we should be better equipped to see how whiteness permeates our educational system.
Niceness is a critical component to the operationalization of whiteness in schools, and previous chapters highlight multiple ways educators in the Zion School District engaged niceness. But niceness is not always fully subscribed to. In fact, we see a number of instances where Birch and Spruce teachers acted, talked, and engaged in ways that could easily be considered “not nice.” Even when niceness breaks down (e.g., in relation to social class or sexual orientation) at the individual or interactional level, it continues to operate at an ideological and institutional level in service to whiteness.
So even when we witness individuals like the Spruce administrator who explicitly linked poverty with drug abuse, lack of interest in schooling, and a host of other social problems, whiteness is engaged through the ideological investment in deficit thinking and the institutional distancing of the school from holding any responsibility for ensuring equity. In fact, these discourses are commonly justified as being “real” or “the hard truth”—thus positioning the speaker as being helpful through their identification of the problem and willingness to be “honest.” Niceness breaks down when it can be framed as telling “hard truths” about the deficiencies of other people. Niceness obfuscates power, and it absolves individuals from needing to address what are actually deficiencies in the system. While the norms of niceness are acceptably broken in these cases, the influence of niceness to protect one’s in-group (in this case other educators and the middle-class communities surrounding Spruce) and one’s institution (in this case the school) is unwavering. In other words, although an individual’s actions or beliefs toward another individual or group of individuals may not be “nice,” the actions and beliefs are always nice in relation to institutional and structural power because niceness masks structural dominance.
As we have seen in the Zion School District, educators are engaged in multiple diversity-related policies and practices in schools that they believe will be effective and useful and will appeal to shared norms around niceness. But the foundations of these efforts, while consistent with prototypical American values, are harmful in their ability to obscure systemic inequity, institutional oppression, and whiteness. Though difficult to locate, whiteness is a public hazard that thrives in our schools.
Superfund sites are the worst hazardous waste sites in the United States, and they offer a poignant metaphor for the patterns described in this book. They exist in communities across the nation. Some are ugly, smelly, and discouraging to visitors. Others are beautiful, perhaps heavily treed, sometimes including slides and elaborate climbing structures. The attractive ones rarely disclose what lies beneath, but their foundation is just as toxic as the obviously hazardous ones. Superfund sites are most often located in low-income, urban communities, and they always pose serious risks to the health and well-being of the people nearby. Although thousands of these spaces have been purportedly cleaned up over the past thirty years, there are still more than a thousand superfund sites waiting to be remediated. One approach to dealing with superfund sites is to cover over them; this solution leaves the toxicity in place but attempts to contain it. Containing the toxic site underground means it is still present, but it is now out of sight and, presumably, out of mind. Another approach to dealing with superfund sites is to remove them, but removing them obviously means that the hazardous waste must be relocated elsewhere. Often paired with either of these approaches is to beautify the site—that is, to develop it into a neighborhood park or some other visually pleasing and potentially useful space for the local community. The usefulness and attractiveness does not, however, negate the toxicity.
Before remediation of superfunds can occur, these sites must be identified and officially recognized on the National Priorities List—a process that is often the result of significant work, lobbying, research, and pressure from concerned community members. The federal government has broad authority to clean up releases or potential releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency is charged with identifying those responsible for superfund sites and compelling them to clean up the site. However, when a responsible party cannot be found, the Environmental Protection Agency cleans up the site itself through a special trust fund. Federal law allows two types of responses to superfund sites: short-term responses that remove immediate hazards to a local community and long-term responses that reduce the risk of anticipated hazards by either neutralizing the toxic waste or preventing the migration of toxic waste. Currently, the superfund trust lacks sufficient funds to address most of the toxic sites across the nation. This trust was funded by taxes imposed on industries that produce pollution, but the superfund tax was discontinued in 1995, and the funds in the trust were gone by 2003. Since that time, the superfund has relied on annual congressional appropriations.
And so it is with whiteness and niceness in schools. There are, in fact, a number of parallels that can be drawn here. The toxicity associated with superfund sites impacts everyone, but the most significant damage is done in communities immediately surrounding the site—that is, in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Whiteness, too, is pervasive and seeps into every place it can, but its most deleterious effects are experienced by people of color. Recognition of a superfund site results in a search for the individual who created the hazard. If that individual is found, he or she is responsible for cleaning up the mess. Once an inequity and injustice associated with whiteness is identified and made obvious—usually only as a result of hard work on the part of individuals and groups—the most common responses are to locate individual culprits. Viewing racism as individually perpetuated and the result of isolated events leads to approaches that attempt to change individual opinions, move individual people from a bounded situation, or otherwise contain the injustice from spreading.
But as I have illustrated throughout this book, whiteness and inequity are structural, systemic, and patterned, and they are located in our ideologies and institutions. Similarly, superfund sites might alternatively be thought of as the result of beliefs and decisions about industry, progress, and capitalism. If, for example, the health of everyone in the nation was equally valued, and if our health was prioritized as a national collective interest, perhaps we would have different laws and regulations in place regarding hazardous waste. The same can be said of whiteness. If every member of our nation and every student in our schools was understood as being important, valuable, and destined for success, we would prioritize equity and justice over all else. Whiteness would no longer be central because we would understand that the investments we make in whiteness are contrary to the investments we need and want to make in equity. The success of certain individuals would not be achieved on the backs of other individuals.
Schools can ultimately either engage in practices that reproduce and reify whiteness or engage in practices that undo whiteness. Whether we look at educational attainment, earning power, net worth, crime statistics, hate crimes, infant mortality, or health patterns, we know that there are consistent trends indicating that White people fare much better in this country than people of color. We can choose either to maintain current inequities or to actively work for equity. While schools are certainly not the only institution with a responsibility for ensuring equity, schools do play a significant role. I assume that schools and educators can make a difference in chipping away at patterned inequity, and I believe that most educators share that assumption. I also assume that race and power matter fundamentally in every one of our lives, but I am not convinced that most educators share this assumption. I hope that the stories and discussion in this book have helped illuminate how, and to what extent, they do matter.
What also becomes apparent through the stories and discussion in this book is that whiteness is a significant and important enemy of equity. Over and over, we see that the ways teachers and administrators in the Zion School District understood and implemented diversity-related policy and practice were intimately shaped by whiteness and our investments in whiteness. At the same time, whiteness is reified through the diversity-related policy and practice in which educators engaged.
To be labeled as racist or prejudiced is a significant social disgrace, and perhaps even more so for those who are charged with educating and socializing our nation’s youth. As a result, the language of “diversity,” and at times “equity,” has been embraced by most educators in diverse school settings. Ironically, however, the way diversity is taken up, understood, and even implemented merely serves to maintain the business-as-usual work of schools, which in turn supports and perpetuates the status quo of racialized hierarchies and systems of power and privilege. In other words, typical, well-intended approaches for addressing diversity in educational policy and practice act as allies to whiteness.
In the Zion School District, diversity-related policies and practices were always engaged in nice ways that would not upset the status quo. Powerblindness came to life in educators’ attempts to ignore, silence, or explain away any power-related hierarchies, inequities, or injustices. Specifically, powerblindness was operationalized through appeals to learning styles and varied teaching techniques, human relations and character education, and by politely erasing heterosexism and homophobia. Colorblindness was evident in the ways teachers silenced race talk and racialized issues. When students tried talking about race, they were schooled in—and through—politeness. When confronted with racialized achievement gaps or race inequities at school that could not be silenced, educators turned them into issues related to language, social class, or refugee status. Deficit ideologies were another mechanism at work when explanations for student failure were located in student and family characteristics. In each of these instances, patterned and pervasive racial inequity was left unnamed, unexamined, and unchallenged. At the same time, educators operationalized equality, meritocracy, and individualism in their efforts to build particular school cultures, create conditions for certain students to succeed, and compete in the new school-reform race. All these mechanisms work in service to whiteness. They are also so common and prevalent that they allow whiteness to thrive without much effort.
Grounded in ethnographic data, this book illustrates how people, both individually and in groups, create and maintain the conditions within which whiteness thrives. But individuals do this through institutions and ideologies, so the mechanisms of whiteness are systemic. The fact that whiteness is systemic and systematic goes against the typical way Americans understand our reality. We are staunchly committed to the individual: We believe in individual rights and entitlements, and we value individual merit and reward individual effort. When something goes awry, we tend to look for a singular and individual culprit. This commitment to the individual certainly informs the typical understanding of racism as an individual act of race-related hostility, which then leads to approaches that focus on educating, remediating, or otherwise fixing individual racists. But whiteness must be understood as a patterned, ideological, and institutional phenomenon. As such, addressing and undoing whiteness must entail an examination of dominant ideologies and institutions and then working for change in the foundations of our schools and larger U.S. society.
This sort of change is difficult because of the way educators protect their investment in whiteness. In fact, we all do. Of course we do. It would be absurd to not keep, shelter, and cultivate that which one has and that which is such an important aspect of one’s personhood. There is a general consensus that individuals should diversify their investments so that if some of the investments do poorly, one’s entire portfolio does not suffer significantly. A wise investor has money in various stocks, bonds, real estate, and mutual funds; a wise investor trusts that this strategy will yield high profits and minimize loss. In a similar way, most educators invest in colorblindness, powerblindness, meritocracy, equality, individualism, and niceness. We count on these investments to collectively produce a meaningful, high-yield, and consistent return. The return is that our daily work in schools and with youth makes sense, feels good, and hopefully helps students succeed. But the return is also more of the same status quo—consistent patterns of inequity and persistent whiteness. This is why whiteness works so well; it is also why the arguments I have tried to make in this book are so difficult. I am asking us to look at the foundation of our schools, which is also the foundation of how we understand the world around us and our place in that world. Equality, meritocracy, colorblindness, powerblindness, niceness, individualism—these are so taken for granted that it is almost impossible to see how and why they might be problematic. But the usefulness and attractiveness of whiteness does not negate its toxicity.
We cannot allow niceness, and indeed whiteness, to stand in the way of equity and justice. Although in theory most diversity-related educational policies and practices promise to bring about greater equity, too often in practice they actually maintain, legitimate, and thus perpetuate whiteness. This book has illustrated multiple disconnects between the promises and practices of diversity-related initiatives but also some understanding of why the disconnect persists. As one of the teachers in the Zion School District eloquently noted, “I just think probably most teachers in schools pay lip service to multicultural education and diversity. . . . So multiculturalism is real, but I think it’s hard to deal with because there’s a giving up of some things that maybe you don’t want to give up.” Indeed, it is expected for teachers to “pay lip service” to diversity and equality—to not do so would be neither nice nor professionally acceptable. But “giving up” things one has and/or believes is not only asking a lot, it is also generally understood as unfair. Being nice does not entail inviting discomfort or unfairness on oneself, but this may be necessary for achieving equity.
The Zion School District is, of course, a singular place with its own history, context, nuances, actors, relationships, and culture. Birch and Spruce are similarly uniquely positioned secondary schools that cannot be equated to any other schools in the nation. But these places serve as windows through which to view larger patterns operating in other places. In this way, the data in this book should be read as an illustration—though not an exact replica—of how, why, and to what effect diversity-related policy and practice works in other communities throughout the United States.
Although the Zion School District has adopted the language of equity and has implemented a multicultural education policy and in-service opportunities that address diversity, like other districts across the country, there is clearly much work to be done if the goal is to disrupt whiteness by improving the schooling of all students and ultimately bringing about educational equity. District leaders, principals, and teachers need clearly articulated plans for learning about and practicing power-related and race-related discourse alongside equitable resource distribution. Curricular and pedagogical changes alone will not change schools, but that does not mean such changes should not be encouraged. Educators must come to see issues of power as structural and systemic rather than individual. This is not to say, of course, that individual people do not act in oppressive ways—certainly we all do at times. It is to say, however, that by shifting the emphasis to the ways in which systems of power work, we might be more successful in addressing the pervasive and continual inequities in schools. Understanding race as a structural phenomenon will help us make better sense of educational inequity, achievement gaps, and whiteness. We need education that combines critical investigations of whiteness, race, and equity with an affective component in order to address the discomfort, guilt, and embarrassment that is likely to ensue from these investigations. Teachers especially need to be supported in this work, which will include mistakes, parental discontent, and community discomfort. This ongoing process is not easy work, but it is both necessary and long overdue.
I have made, and continue to make, my own mistakes in this work. After completing the first year of ethnographic research for this book, I was invited back to the district to share the results. I embraced this opportunity since I hoped that the things I learned would be actually useful to teachers, educational leaders, and students in the Zion School District. I was invited to join central office leaders and principals over a two-day period to report on what I had learned and to facilitate conversation. I initially envisioned also engaging teachers in these conversations, but leadership in the Zion School District decided that it was best to let the principals think through how to share and address the research within their school communities. In framing my comments, I drew on the district’s own use of the term equity and framed my comments around “providing an equitable and excellent education to all students” since I believed that this was language to which they could relate. My presentation and the ensuing conversation looked very similar to what has ultimately ended up in this book, but with one major difference.
When consulting with one central office leader who was not part of my study but knew the results well, I decided to not frame the research around the term whiteness when I shared the results in the district. As a young scholar and an outsider to the district, I thought this was the best approach at the time. I was nervous about how my ideas—and, by extension, me as a person—would be received if I talked about whiteness. I did not want to close people off to the conversation. I did not want to cause White people in the room to get defensive or guilt ridden. So I played into whiteness and, in turn, added to its power by not naming it. I substituted “the status quo” for “whiteness.” This strategy was at least partially successful. Nobody walked out of the room, nobody attacked me, and nobody got visibly upset. I succeeded in maintaining a nice conversation. My effort and strategy was reinforced when a handful of leaders of color shared that they appreciated my research, they agreed with it, and they hoped “others would hear it” coming from me. I understood what they meant. I was not sharing anything groundbreaking for them, but my White identity sheltered me in ways that they could never access.
Although more than five years have passed since those two days I spent sharing my research with the district, I continue to think about the experience and have conflicting feelings about it. Indeed, in my current teaching with preservice and practicing teachers and administrators, I often encounter the same dilemma around how best to say what needs to be said about inequity, race, and whiteness in schools. We are all educated in whiteness. It is impossible not to be because the norms around niceness and whiteness are powerful. But White scholars, educators, policy makers, and leaders have a responsibility to engage those around us in ways that shine a light on those norms and the implications of subscribing to them.
Niceness is a key mechanism of whiteness among educators, but a simple reversal of niceness would not necessarily educate against whiteness any more effectively. Indeed, there were plenty of instances in the Zion School District where niceness at the individual and interactional levels broke down. In these instances, whiteness was actually strengthened. While there are instances where niceness breaks down in relation to social class, sexual orientation, language identity, and refugee status, it is extremely rare to witness a breakdown of niceness related to race. This is true even at the individual and interactional levels that at times permit digressions related to other power-related categories. Whiteness helps make sense of this pattern. Whiteness must allow some ideological flexibility to maintain its hegemony, but the consistency around race illustrates its centrally operative status. Niceness functions to at once neutralize dominance and maintain it. Dominance, inequity, and fundamentally whiteness are neutralized through niceness because educators’ nice diversity-related efforts gloss over and thus obscure the very presence of whiteness.
What, then, are educators to do? Part of the answer lies in David Gillborn’s call to “struggle where we are.” This struggle will surely look different for different people and in different contexts, but at a minimum it must entail struggling with the reality of inequity, racism, dominance, and whiteness. Whiteness and the various mechanisms of whiteness illustrated throughout the previous chapters make it very difficult to keep this reality in view. Keeping whiteness in focus for ourselves, in collaboration with others, and for those who are otherwise resistant to seeing it requires both vigilance and an ability to name whiteness in ways that are able to be heard.
I try to remember Derrick Bell’s (1992) call to be strategic and outmaneuver policies, practices, and systems that appear neutral but actually result in persistent inequity. In fact, the stories in this book suggest that this outmaneuvering may require difficult ideological and structural work. If our allegiance to equality, meritocracy, colorblindness, and powerblindness results in patterned inequity and the reification of whiteness, perhaps we need to let go of those ideologies. If our schools are built on assumptions that equal opportunity exists and meritocracy is fair, perhaps we need to restructure our schools for the obviously unequal society in which they operate. The only way to get to equity is through unequal means. It is impossible to get to equity through equality. And it is only through equity that we might actualize our ideals of “equality and justice for all” (Brayboy, Castagno, and Maughan 2007).
This is why equity ought to be what drives our work in schools. Currently, whiteness drives our work. Sometimes this is purposeful, and sometimes it is more of a default position. When we continue to make the same investments and operationalize the same ideologies, we allow whiteness to do the driving. It requires vigilance and strategic engagement to ensure that equity drives our work. With equity driving our educational policies and practices, we would be staunchly committed to every child in our schools. We would set up structures in which every child could succeed. We would not see the kinds of losses we see under whiteness. These losses are explained, justified, and even expected as long as whiteness frames our education. Only by educating against whiteness and investing in equity can we expect change.