Whiteness, Diversity, and Educators’ Good Intentions
Most educators are nice people with the best of intentions regarding the schooling they provide to students every day. Despite their good intentions and the general niceness among educators, most schools in the United States contribute to inequity every day. How does this happen? And what about the multitude of diversity-related efforts in schools that are supposed to help educators achieve the American ideals of “equality and justice for all” (Brayboy, Castagno, and Maughan 2007)? This book tells the story of educational policy and practice related to diversity in one urban school district in the western United States. Grounded in ethnographic data from a range of teachers and administrators, I build on current conversations about schooling in the United States by examining how well-intended policies and practices related to diversity actually maintain the status quo and entrench racial inequity. By going inside classrooms at two very different secondary schools, listening to teachers and administrators, and following policy as it gets implemented, we come to learn how popular educational discourses get employed in contradictory ways, how potentially transformative educational agendas get taken up in ways that run counter to the initial intent, and ultimately, how individuals with good intentions can produce structures that harm children. It is through knowledge of these patterns that we might come to the place of humility and genuine service that Derrick Bell (1992) suggests is necessary.
In one of my first interactions in Salt Lake City’s Zion School District,1 an administrator handed me a video that had been produced for the district earlier that year called “We Teach the World.” As I listened to her describe the “diversity in our district” and the various ways the district addressed that diversity, I also observed the standard educator décor on the surrounding office walls—posters about “every child’s ability to learn and succeed,” knickknacks of apples and pencils, youth artwork, and quotes about “leaders who inspire.” There was a clear undercurrent of what another district leader called a “culture of nice” in the stories she shared with me. When I watched the video at home later that evening, I was greeted with a similar storyline: differently raced youth smiling and laughing for the camera, White students counting to ten in Spanish, Mexican mariachi music, and Polynesian dancing and drumming. The feel-good video, the administrator’s proud description of the diversity in the district, and the optimistic office décor were all mimicked over and over again during the following year—indeed, they are indicative of the nice ways diversity is taken up by educators across the nation. Educators’ engagements with diversity, and especially with race, have become so inconspicuous, so normal, that they often elude critical examination. Through ethnography, this book problematizes dominant discourses of diversity and race in U.S. schools and illustrates how the well-intended, nice ways schools engage diversity-related policies and practices solidify inequity and reinscribe whiteness.
Some readers may wonder why this book is framed around the notion of “diversity”—especially since this word is usually taken up in nice ways and used as a nice cover for oppression and injustice. My response is that diversity offers an important entry point for an examination of equity in schools. Although the United States has always been a diverse nation, racial diversity has been a hot-button issue for at least the past thirty years. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) spurred a frenzy of activity around the racialized achievement gap. Work like that of Jonathan Kozol has added fuel to the fire by making obvious the “savage inequalities” present in our school system. Policy makers, districts, schools, educational leaders, and teachers across the nation have been buzzing about with multiple and various answers to these problems. Lost in much of this work is a clear understanding of the way race, power, and whiteness form the foundation of our educational system and, indeed, our society.
Diversity is, of course, a buzzword that means different things to different people. For example, it can mean race, or culture, or all forms of diversity. Diversity also has various political attachments; it can mean diversity in a nice colorblind way or in an antagonistic way. This ambiguity is part of what I am drawing on in framing the book around “diversity.” Diversity is taken up, addressed, and sometimes discarded in very particular ways in schools. Like many other sites across the United States, in the Zion School District, diversity is engaged in nice ways that fail to work toward equity and that ultimately reify whiteness.
The Zion School District sits in a relatively large urban area in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States. Serving about 25,000 students, more than half of whom are students of color, the district has long subscribed to common discourses about equal educational opportunity, providing a high-quality education to all students, and closing the proverbial achievement gap. Alongside this “normalcy” is a peculiar reputation that the larger community holds among outsiders as a very White, conservative, and unusual place. I was familiar with the district since I grew up in the area, knew a handful of educators in the district, and consistently read the local newspaper. When I had an opportunity to design a school-based ethnography around diversity and equity, the Zion School District seemed like an interesting locale.
Like most school systems around the nation, the Zion School District had a policy statement on multiculturalism that was intended to guide educators’ efforts around diversity and equity. The policy statement offered a definition of multicultural education as “a philosophy stating that all students regardless of the groups to which they belong, such as those related to gender, ethnicity, race, culture, social class, religion, or exceptionality, should experience educational equity in the schools.” The policy outlined categories of knowledge that “educational staff” should know and understand, such as the “similarities and differences among culturally diverse groups”; the culture, history, and contributions of various cultural groups; how “cultural factors” influence the development of students and their various “learning styles”; and the “background and rationale for current government regulations regarding desegregation, civil rights, equality of educational opportunities, and equity issues.” The policy statement also outlined a number of action items that were supposed to be carried out by particular groups of people within the district, including that teachers would “adapt” curriculum and pedagogy to “include culturally diverse groups” and “use various teaching strategies to address differences in learning styles,” and that schools would “develop strategic plans to address diversity.”
The entire two-page policy offered a particular framework and guidance for the Zion School District’s diversity initiatives. Specifically, the policy relies on neutral concepts (e.g., similarities and differences, cultural factors, learning styles) and open directives (e.g., adapt curriculum, various teaching strategies, strategic plans) to purportedly address an issue (inequity) that is specific, concrete, and pervasive. This nice approach to diversity is consistent with, and also reifies, whiteness. As such, it cannot possibly tackle the inequity it is meant to address. This policy is a poignant example of educators’ good intentions, and as such, we might applaud its very existence. Indeed, leveling a critique at the policy—or any other attempt to address diversity, for that matter—risks appearing antiequity or, at a minimum, hostile to diversity-related efforts. But not leveling a critique is just as damaging, since nice approaches like this not only fail to address inequity but actually make the inequity harder to see and, thus, change.
Whiteness compels us to embrace diversity-related policy and practice uncritically and to praise any effort tagged with words like multicultural, diversity, and equality. But these are often tropes for policies and practices that do very little to advance equity or stop injustice. For example, although the crux of the Zion School District policy is that all students “experience educational equity,” nowhere in the policy is “equity” defined. Reading through the rest of the policy and seeing how the policy gets translated into practice, it seems clear that equality (i.e., sameness) is truly what is meant. Furthermore, what is meant by the terms “culture” and “cultural group” used in this and other district communications? By framing these issues in terms of “culture,” what is the actual way that these policy directives get taken up and implemented? And finally, how does the policy highlight differences among various groups of students, families, and communities, and what meaning and significance does the focus on difference hold for educators?
As later chapters illustrate, these concepts of culture, equality, and difference echo throughout the district. Tracing these themes and others from the central office to professional development and school leadership and into classrooms and teacher discourse illuminates their appeal and potency but also their toxicity. Within schools, niceness often defines appropriate—and even good—behaviors, interactions, norms, and policies. The power of niceness to shape daily phenomena is far reaching. Diversity and niceness are so intertwined that any engagement with diversity is necessarily, almost by definition, nice. This is not the case with engaging inequity and whiteness. But diversity in schools has been framed in such a way as to require a stance of inclusion, optimism, and assimilation. These concepts are, in turn, constitutive of the niceness we see in schools.
I grew up learning how to be a nice person, and I am generally quite good at it. The few times that I did not act in ways that were consistent with the niceness that was expected of me, I was quickly brought back into the fold. I can remember questioning an administrator in high school about what I perceived to be inequitable treatment based on the families to which students belonged. I can also remember being told that I was not simply wrong but also disrespectful and inappropriate in my accusations. For me, school was not the place where I learned about equity, oppression, or injustice. It was not until my early adult years that I started noticing these things. And it was only through explicit exposure to potentially uncomfortable concepts, relationships with people who were willing to challenge my worldview, and compelling evidence that injustice and unfairness were rampant in my community that I was able to see what was previously invisible to me. Once I started paying attention, I quickly became angry that my schooling was so inadequate. I was academically prepared to be very successful in college and beyond, and I had the critical thinking and writing skills that served as a helpful foundation, but I was never asked to think critically or write about things like racism, institutional oppression, homophobia, or social-class injustice. To have engaged in these kinds of issues would have been inconsistent with the nice White girl who I was and who I was expected to be.
When I spend time in schools now, I see the same patterns. When I spend time with my current students who are aspiring and practicing teachers and administrators, I see the same patterns. When I interact with my colleagues, who are seasoned educators charged with preparing future educators, I see the same patterns. And why wouldn’t I? These norms of niceness are powerful motivators for educators in particular. Whiteness provides a fruitful context for these patterns, and whiteness is further reinforced by the recurrence of these same patterns.
Whiteness refers to structural arrangements and ideologies of race dominance. Racial power and inequities are at the core of whiteness, but all forms of power and inequity create and perpetuate whiteness. The function of whiteness is to maintain the status quo, and although White people most often benefit from whiteness, some people of color have tapped into the ideological components of whiteness for their own financial and educational benefits. Whiteness maintains power and privilege by perpetuating and legitimating the status quo while simultaneously maintaining a veneer of neutrality, equality, and compassion. Understanding the links between whiteness and diversity-related educational policy and practice is, therefore, an important, and yet relatively unexplored, task for educators.
To understand whiteness, it is helpful to step back and consider the meaning of race and racism. Race is primarily a socially constructed phenomenon, which means that people create race and give it significance. Race comes to matter through our language, our relationships, the places we visit, the things we do, the institutions we inhabit, the policies we enact, and the knowledge we share. But the fact that we make race does not negate its reality, its importance, or its implications. Race, in fact, produces real, patterned, and lasting material effects.
In this book, race is analytically, materially, and ideologically salient. I do not mean to suggest that race is the sole form of dominance in schools, but the project of this book is to center race and racism as analytic tools, as institutional structures with material effects on both individuals and groups, and as ideological constructs that shape how we understand diversity-related policy and practice in the Zion School District. Critical race theory treats race as central to law, policy, history, and culture in the United States. Centering whiteness as an analytic tool facilitates analyses of racial power working with, through, and against other axes of dominance. The varying mechanisms of power that maintain inequity cannot easily be teased apart, but this book centers race and racism while simultaneously locating spaces where other “isms” operate. So while race is the primary axis of dominance within the context of this book, that is not to say that other forms of dominance are less important or damaging.
Racism is not simply, or even primarily, individualized prejudices, stereotypes, or negative thoughts about particular groups of people. Racism produces structural hierarchies of domination; it is pervasive and it is patterned (Bell 1992; Delgado and Stefancic 2001; Omi and Winant 1994). Prior research has meticulously explained the multiple ways in which institutional racism influences schooling (Abu El-Haj 2006; Frutcher 2007; Gillborn 2008; Gittell 2005; Ladson-Billings and Tate 2006; Lee 2005; Leonardo 2009; Vaught 2011). Racism works with and through other forms of dominance and injustice to make up whiteness. Whiteness is a foundational component missing from most studies of difference and power in schools. This book centers the notion of whiteness, illustrating how it works and what it means for youth, teachers, educational leaders, and efforts to achieve equity.
This book shifts the focus from the “underachievement” of individuals to the inequitable nature of institutions and the ways systems and structures of power may be contributing to the educational outcomes that have become so naturalized in the United States (Fine 1997). Rather than achievement gaps, we should be concerned with the educational debt (Ladson-Billings 2006). A focus on the “education debt” rather than the “achievement gap” highlights the structural and cumulative impact of centuries of educational inequities related to funding, curricula, resources, teachers, and segregation. “The education debt is the foregone schooling resources that we could have (should have) been investing in (primarily) low-income kids, which deficit leads to a variety of social programs (e.g. crime, low productivity, low wages, low labor-force participation) that require ongoing public investment. This required investment sucks away resources that could go to reducing the achievement gap. Without the education debt, we could narrow the achievement gap” (Ladson-Billings 2006). This education debt is composed of historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral components and, therefore, requires a more holistic, historic, and comprehensive analysis of schooling than that implied by the focus on achievement gaps. Seeing how whiteness functions similarly encourages a comprehensive understanding of diversity and inequity in schools.
Although most people agree that whiteness is intimately connected with power, there is less consensus regarding what whiteness is exactly (Kincheloe and Steinberg 1998). Multiple scholars have written about whiteness as a set of unearned privileges enjoyed by White people, a normalization of what is right, and a norm against which everything else gets measured (Fine, Powell, Weis, and Mun Wong 1997; Frankenberg 1993, 2001; McIntosh 1988; Roediger 2000; A. Thompson 1999, 2003). Other scholars have provided illuminating historical analyses of whiteness—particularly how whiteness has been conflated with property and individual rights through the law (Harris 1993), how whiteness has been possessively invested in by groups throughout history to secure their own interests and guard those interests against the encroachment of others (Lipsitz 1998), and how whiteness has evolved and taken on new forms depending on time and context (Duster 2001). Clearly, history and the law have conspired to veil the fact that whiteness grants privilege and allows supremacy. They have also allowed White people to claim, and genuinely believe, that equality exists (Blanchett 2006; O’Connor and DeLuca Fernandez 2006; Reid and Knight 2006).
One helpful explanation of whiteness is provided by Michael Dyson, who argues that whiteness is an identity, an ideology, and an institution (Chennault 1998; Dyson 1996). As an identity, whiteness refers to the racial characteristic of being White. Although some good work has been done on whiteness as an identity in various contexts (Helms 1995; Perry 2002), this book focuses on whiteness as an ideology and an institution because of the ways this informs schooling and issues of educational equity. White people certainly have a central role in the maintenance of ideological and institutional whiteness, but whiteness is not just about White people. All of us engage dominant ideologies; sometimes it is in our interests to do so, and at other times it is not—but that is the nature of dominance. Whiteness serves as a “pervasive ideology justifying dominance of one group over others” (Maher and Tetreault 1998, 139). The ideology of whiteness also serves as “a form of social amnesia” that allows White people to forget or ignore how we are implicated in the maintenance of systems of privilege and oppression (McLaren 1998). The function of whiteness as an ideology is illustrated throughout this book.
As a system of ideologies and material effects (privilege and oppression), whiteness is also a well-entrenched structure that is manifested in and gives shape to institutions. It has thus become a norm against which others are judged and also a powerful, if sometimes unconscious, justification for the status quo. As a location of structural advantage, whiteness serves as “a discursive regime that enables real effects to take place” (McLaren 1998, 67). Michelle Fine highlights an important aspect of whiteness as an institution: “Whiteness was produced through the exclusion and denial of opportunity to people of color. . . . Institutional leadership and seemingly race-neutral policies/practices work to insure white privilege” (Fine 1997, 60). Thus, in examining and illustrating the structural and systemic nature of whiteness, it is important to highlight the exclusion and oppression it produces, reproduces, and maintains.
Most discussions of diversity, race, and equity tend to focus on individuals, interactions between individuals, and the identities of individuals, but this book asks readers to shift the focus to institutions and ideologies. Whiteness is not just attached to White individuals; whiteness is an umbrella system that organizes and coordinates multiple and various sites of power and dominance. What is essential to this system of whiteness is that dominance becomes normal, expected, and rationalized. Racial dominance is central to the mechanisms of whiteness, but whiteness is bigger than racism. So while the majority of data in this book center on race and racism, the inclusion of data that are not always centrally about race is essential for a more complete rendering of the system and mechanisms of whiteness.
A strategic element of whiteness that has yet to be explored in the literature is the notion of niceness—that is, being nice is intimately tied to engaging whiteness, and whiteness itself is aligned with niceness. School systems and the state of Utah provide two key intersecting contexts for exploring the role of niceness in the perpetuation of inequity. A central claim of this book is that whiteness works through nice people. The dictionary definition for nice is consistent with conventional understandings of the word: To be nice is to be pleasing and agreeable, pleasant and kind. What counts as nice is determined by people individually or in communities. Thus there is nothing factual about niceness. We construct the notion of niceness, and we connect it to particular behaviors, interactions, and discourses. A nice person is not someone who creates a lot of disturbance, conflict, controversy, or discomfort. Nice people avoid potentially uncomfortable or upsetting experiences, knowledge, and interactions. We do not point out failures or shortcomings in others but rather emphasize the good, the promise, and the improvement we see. Niceness compels us to reframe potentially disruptive or uncomfortable things in ways that are more soothing, pleasant, and comfortable. This avoidance and reframing are done with the best intentions, and having good intentions is a critical component of niceness. In fact, as long as one means well, the actual impact of one’s behavior, discourse, or action is often meaningless.
Assets-based approaches to education, to working with youth, and to interventions are typical of the niceness so prevalent in education. Focusing on one’s assets is supposed to facilitate greater resilience, optimism, and confidence in the person. It is also an individualistic approach to understanding people; it focuses on an individual’s good qualities—not necessarily in a broader context or in relation to others or a larger community. A common phrase associated with assets-based approaches is to “change the way you see things”—in other words, wear a “new” pair of glasses that compels you to see the positive, the promise, and the good. These new glasses often obscure inequity, whiteness, and any aspect of the larger context that may hint at a disturbance in the status quo. Being nice provokes a sort of unspoken pact, or a tacit agreement, between people: If I am nice to you, I come to expect that you will also be nice to me in return. You will give me the benefit of the doubt if you notice something potentially problematic, because I have been nice in our previous encounters.
Although there are certainly different ideas about what counts as nice in different communities, there is also a sort of popularly understood, dominantly ascribed to understanding of what is universally nice. And what is universally nice is also conceptually and practically linked to whiteness. Being nice encourages us to gloss over ugly, tense, or otherwise hurtful things—and to do so carefully and precisely.
Niceness is illustrated throughout the stories in this book. But what is also illustrated through these same stories is the inequity that is produced and reproduced, and the whiteness that is engaged and protected, in these nice engagements with diversity in the Zion School District. Thus this book turns niceness on its head to highlight the ways in which niceness is not actually nice, good, or healthy for individuals and communities. The niceness running through diversity-related policy and practice in schools is only good for whiteness. As such, it may be “nice” for those who benefit from whiteness, but even those who benefit from whiteness do so only partially. Niceness is incredibly attractive and, at the same time, difficult to critique. But it is precisely this critique that this book engages. Nice people are educated in whiteness daily, and we, in turn, continue to educate in and for whiteness daily.
Being nice is not the same thing as being ignorant or having a lack of awareness. And whiteness is not the result of mere coincidence (Gillborn 2008). Within a frame of niceness, oppressive actions are not actually oppressive; they are just hurtful. They are assumed to be the result of individuals who have made bad choices or who just do not know any better. This framing diverts attention away from patterned inequity, structural oppression, and institutional dominance. But a structural phenomenon cannot be addressed with individual explanations (Vaught and Castagno 2008). Whiteness thrives when we limit our understanding of inequity and dominance to individual intentions, knowledge, instances, and interactions.
Central to making whiteness work is the way niceness connects to neutrality, equality, and compassion. Like niceness itself, neutrality, equality, and compassion are key qualities of whiteness. They are also qualities most of us would ascribe to good teachers. Indeed, the ties between education, niceness, and whiteness are so interwoven that they can be difficult to identify, locate, and pull apart. These ties are even more seductive because they appeal to our sense of fairness. While appearing fair because it centers equality and neutrality, whiteness also maintains a face of compassion. Importantly, “these frames form an impregnable yet elastic wall that barricades Whites from the United States’ racial [and power] reality. The trick is in the way the frames bundle with each other—that is, in the wall they form” (Bonilla-Silva 2009, 47). These elements of neutrality, equality, and compassion are woven throughout the stories in this book, and they give whiteness its power in schools and among educators.
Talking and writing about whiteness is inherently difficult. Whiteness is systemic and systematic, which means that individual people engage whiteness and have some responsibility for acting against whiteness. But saying that we have a responsibility for whiteness is not meant to be a critique of particular people. There is a tendency for White people who encounter whiteness to feel threatened and to then occupy a defensive position against what we hear as accusations against us and our personhood. When I described my work on this book to a family member, his response was to ask if I could use a word other than “whiteness” to describe what I was talking about, since “whiteness just seems to say that White people are all bad” and “makes you feel like you’ve done something wrong.” Part of my response to this is that we have, in fact, done a number of things wrong if we genuinely value equity and justice for everyone in our communities.
But there is a complicated set of factors that contributes to these wrongs. They are not the result of independently acting people with horrible intentions. But they are also not the result of passive or ignorant individuals being duped by the system. In addition, there is a tendency for people of color either to distance themselves entirely from discussions of whiteness because they assume the conversation is about White people, or to personally reflect on how they engage whiteness but to keep those reflections safe from other’s scrutiny. Whiteness works on all of us, and we all engage whiteness. Ethnography is a useful tool for making this phenomenon more accessible.
The stories—that is, the voices, observations, interactions, and texts—that I rely on to illuminate whiteness come primarily from an educational ethnography I conducted in 2005 and 2006 in an urban district in the state of Utah. My ethnography included immersing myself in the classrooms of twenty-four teachers in two different schools; attending as many board meetings, professional development offerings, assemblies, and other district events as possible; examining documents related to diversity as well as the everyday texts that teachers encounter (e.g., handouts, notes to parents, exams); and interviewing more than forty teachers and administrators. More recently, from 2010 to 2012, I conducted an additional thirty-seven interviews with teachers in one of the two schools while serving as an external evaluator for a federally funded turnaround grant the school received. Although I have not lived in the local community since 2006, I grew up there and return multiple times each year for both family visits and professional obligations.
Given my interest in examining diversity, and especially race, I purposefully designed this research to include two schools in the same district but with very different student demographics. I assumed that I would find significant differences between the ways the teachers at each school understood and addressed diversity. I did, in fact, uncover some important differences, but more important, I ended up finding remarkably similar patterns across the two schools. This similarity tells us much about the ways whiteness works and its consistent yet flexible nature.
We all have an incredible bank of racial knowledge. This book is centrally concerned with examining the ways educators engage racial knowledge, how they talk about and around diversity, how they make sense of the racial patterns they witness daily, and how their work with youth reflects what they think and know about diversity. Although the data are primarily about White teachers and administrators, this book should not be read as an indictment of individual White teachers or even of teachers in general. I am sympathetic to the challenges teachers face, the difficult work they engage, and the increasingly scripted context of schools. I am also deeply concerned about inequity and the impacts of whiteness on all communities. Each of us, individually and collectively, needs to be held accountable for the role we play in maintaining and reinforcing injustice. Listening to teachers, observing what happens in schools, and following policies as they hit the ground will help us better understand how whiteness is institutionalized and creates lasting patterns in our communities. Sabina Vaught (2011, 209) articulates the issue, and also the urgency, well: “The issue at the heart of racist schooling is not whether or not there exist individuals who are dedicated, talented, and successful. The issue is that our educational institutions, policies, and practices are structured by White supremacy, and as such they deny Black and Brown youth the myriad resources necessary for equitable schooling. It should not be an accident or a stroke of good fortune that a Black or Brown child receives a good education. It should be a systemic, structural guarantee.” This call for a systemic, structural guarantee is made very difficult because we are educated in, and thus often educate for, whiteness. As a result, educators reify the very structures we are being charged with dismantling. Through this book, educators will come to see where, why, and how this occurs, so that we can begin to undo these patterns.
As a young person, I attended predominantly White, though economically diverse, Catholic schools in the Salt Lake Valley. Being nice was commonly understood in my community as caring for others and being likeable, a team player, mild-mannered, and respectful. Being nice was never linked to justice or the pursuit of equity. This norm of niceness was powerful, pervasive, and so obvious that it hardly needed explanation or articulation. But there is something ironic about being in an overtly Christian space (i.e., a Catholic school) where niceness is expected and yet disconnected from justice. This irony similarly characterizes the research setting for this book.
Having been trained as an educational ethnographer, I am inclined to highlight the unique local context within which my research occurred. Indeed, Utah and the Zion School District are particular places with cultural elements that are not generalizable to other states and districts. Utah is in many ways a unique setting because of the dominance of the Mormon religion and the influence it exerts over politics, the economy, and social norms. At the same time, however, there is an increasing trend nationwide of conservative religious communities having an impact on national politics and norms; in this way, Utah is not that unusual. Having lived and studied in various other places around the country and having paid particular attention to the ways whiteness operates in these different contexts, I am also inclined, therefore, to articulate the common threads that my research setting shares with plenty of other settings across the United States. It is important to understand the local and culturally specific ways that educators in the Zion School District are engaging policy and practice related to diversity, and it is also important to think about how these patterns may be relevant in other contexts. Schools, like other social institutions, are situated within particular places, and those places significantly impact what occurs within the school walls.
The two most common associations with the state of Utah in the public imagination are most likely the words Mormon and conservative. And indeed, for the state as a whole, these are largely accurate characteristics, although they are beginning to wane slightly as Utah’s population becomes more diverse. Still, in 2005, 62 percent of Utah residents were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS or Mormon). Further, one national study found that Mormon teens are “the most intensely religious teens in the nation” (Hollingshead 2005, C9).
The Mormon Church has a somewhat paradoxical reputation among non-Mormons. On the one hand, it is viewed as a weird religion that allows polygamy, tries to “fix” gay and lesbian people, and ascribes to a number of outlandish beliefs. But on the other hand, it is viewed as being family oriented, generous, and helpful to both individuals and larger communities in times of need. This paradox was evident in Mitt Romney’s 2012 run for president of the United States and the multiple ways in which he was portrayed by the media and perceived by the general public. Like the broader Utah context, Mormons are a particular kind of community, and yet they are not an entirely unique one within the United States. They have a specific history and worldview based on their shared identity as LDS members, and yet we can find similar patterns and trends among other conservative religious groups across the county.
Although the Mormon Church boasts twelve million members worldwide, only about one-third of them are considered “active members” (Fletcher Stack 2005). But within Utah, the dominant culture is overwhelmingly shaped by and tied to the Mormon Church. As one local newspaper reported, “For as long as that church is vibrant, Utah culture will always be tied to it” (Canham 2005, A1). Illustrative of this connection is the fact that as I was writing this book in 2012, the local NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City, KSL, which is owned by the Mormon Church, refused to air a new “family comedy” called The New Normal. The sitcom was about a gay couple attempting to have a child via a surrogate mother, and the station offered the following comment: “As a communications company, we make decisions every day regarding our programming, and we made a decision to not broadcast this program because we feel it had a number of issues including sexually explicit content, demeaning dialogue, and inciting stereotypes. . . . We care about and value all members of our community, including LGBT people and their families, and are grateful when there can be . . . cordial and respectful dialogue” (Stanhope 2012). According to KSL, the broadcasting ban had nothing to do with the station’s own potential disregard for queer families and issues pertinent to their daily lives; instead, it was about maintaining the compassionate, neutral, and generally nice position that it claimed as a local media outlet. The rationale offered here flips accusations about the station being antigay by claiming to actually be “protecting” the community from stereotypes, disrespectful dialogue, and sexually explicit content. Appealing to “cordial and respectful dialogue” is another way to leverage niceness and, thus, to reify whiteness. KSL’s position—as operating from a place of concern that is simultaneously void of any relationship to power, oppression, or marginalization—is indicative of patterns seen across White, Christian religious communities in the United States.
These appeals to neutrality, equality, compassion, and niceness run deep in the state of Utah as well as in its schools and school districts. In 1999, the local community was outraged when the Gay Straight Alliance at a Salt Lake City high school sponsored a six-minute slide show that defined terms such as gay, lesbian, and bisexual and identified symbols and events of importance to the queer community. The slide show was part of the annual multicultural assembly, but community pressure caused school officials to publicly announce that future multicultural assemblies would “only include groups representing particular geographic areas and cultures and, thus, the gay club would not be allowed to participate” (McCormick 2000, 273). Administrators in the Zion School District remembered this incident vividly, and one explained to me that she believed the framing of the ban was “indicative of a culture of nice we have here.”
Rather than the “new normal” potentially represented in this particular television show and the presence of student groups allied with the queer community, the “normalcy” of Utah and its close ties to the Mormon Church is captured in the state slogan that claims, “This is the place!” This phrase can be seen on license plates, on large billboards along the highway, and in countless other marketing efforts across the state of Utah. The phrase has its roots in history; the story goes that Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley and exclaimed that “this is the place!” after a difficult journey. The phrase now frames Utah’s official state song:
Utah! People working together.
Utah! What a great place to be.
Blessed from Heaven above,
It’s the land that we love.
This is the place! . . .
Utah! With its focus on family,
Utah! Helps each child to succeed.
People care how they live.
Each has so much to give.
This is the place!
Throughout every verse, the state song evokes a number of images central to American identity. These verses highlight the cooperative, hardworking, and family-oriented aspects of both American and Utah cultures. These are nice cultural elements that evoke feelings of pride, belonging, and optimism. The song also appeals to ideologies of patriotism (“the land we love”), Christianity (“blessed from heaven”), determination in the face of adversity (“they kept on going”; “the trials they had to face”), success (“they reached the Great Salt Lake”), hard work (“farms and orchards”; “pioneer spirit”), manifest destiny (“across the plains”), and the American dream (“the place where dreams come true”). This song, the images it evokes, and the social imaginary to which it appeals are constitutive of whiteness. There is an overarching message about what is good and right conveyed here, but it is conveyed without explicitly naming it as such. You just know. And so it is with the goodness and rightness implied in most educational policies and practices related to diversity. And so, too, it is with the niceness, compassion, equality, and neutrality implied by whiteness.
According to the 2010 census, Salt Lake City proper (as opposed to the entire Salt Lake Valley, which includes Salt Lake City suburbs) is home to approximately 188,000 people, 75 percent of whom identified as White, 22.3 percent “Hispanic” (primarily Mexican or Mexican American), 4.4 percent Asian, 3.7 percent multiracial, 2.7 percent Black, 2.0 percent Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and 1.2 percent American Indian or Alaska Native.
As I will elaborate, the Zion School District is even more racially and ethnically diverse in terms of its student population. Furthermore, within Salt Lake County, 16 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home; within Salt Lake City, that number jumps to 25 percent. Although close to one hundred languages have been identified in area census reports, Spanish is by far the most widespread non-English language spoken. Approximately 60 percent of those who speak an alternative language speak Spanish (Sanchez 2005). This language diversity is particularly prevalent on the west side of Salt Lake City, where in two zip code sectionals more than half the residents speak a language other than English at home. Racial and ethnic diversity among young people in the Salt Lake area is even higher than it is among the elderly population, so ten years from now, this diversity will be even more apparent.
The divide between the “west side” of the city versus the “east side” is particularly salient and part of the shared discourse among local residents. The social geography of the Salt Lake Valley mirrors patterns seen in other urban spaces. The valley is surrounded by mountains in every direction, but the highest and most picturesque mountains are the Wasatch Range on the east side. These granite peaks and tree-covered slopes house the area’s popular ski resorts. Although some high-end neighborhoods are tucked into the mountains, the most populated high-income areas sit in the foothills of these mountains. These are highly sought-out areas for those who can afford them: Homes range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to multimillions, and they feature exquisitely landscaped yards with green grass. Parks are also plentiful. Moving down the foothills, one eventually enters the downtown area, with older homes that have been remodeled; newly developed urban condominiums; and artsy, hip neighborhoods that are more modestly priced and interspersed with cafes and locally owned shops. Continuing west, one abruptly runs into the primary interstate that cuts through the valley and a maze of railroad tracks that mark a clear divide between east and west. Here, too, are many industrial buildings, a few homeless shelters, and the beginning of neighborhoods with homes that are less expensive and mixed with apartment buildings, convenience stores, and payday-loan shops.
At least two superfund sites sit along the Jordan River that runs through the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. These spaces have been covered with clay to contain the hazardous waste and then nicely “beautified” with landscaping and park benches. Because of their appearance, it is easy to miss the fact that the sites contain toxic materials. Moreover, they are only blocks away from west-side schools; no such sites encroach on the east-side communities of Salt Lake City. These geographic divides also mark clear distinctions along racial and social-class lines. Like its urban sisters across the nation, the Salt Lake area houses patterned gentrification and segregation—both of which are evident in the local public schools.
Schools in Salt Lake City fall within two of Salt Lake Valley’s many districts, all of which are nestled between two large mountain ranges. Just as Salt Lake City is far more demographically diverse than the rest of the state, the Zion School District is also the most demographically diverse school district in the state. During the fall of 2010, the district served more than 24,000 students—40 percent of whom were designated as English-language learners (ELL), 56 percent of whom were students of color, and 60 percent of whom qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches. This diversity is a fairly recent phenomenon that has occurred over the past three decades. As in most diverse school districts, however, teachers, administrators, and those with decision-making power are still largely White, middle class or upper class, and English speaking. In the Zion School District, they are also frequently Mormon.
The Zion School District’s history and context are more fully described and analyzed in the following chapter, but here I want to introduce readers to the two schools that are the focus of this book. Mirroring the gentrification across the city, schools in the Zion School District were largely divided by race.
Walking through the parking lot and into the front doors of Birch Secondary School in 2006, visitors were greeted by a large sign at eye level that read, “Welcome to [Birch Secondary] School—where failure is not an option, and success is the only option. Together We Can.” This theme of “together we can” was also displayed in other parts of the school, including on flags in the auditorium and on banners over some of the stairwells. Immediately next to this large colorful sign were two smaller wooden signs that announced Birch’s “countdown to excellence.” In the middle of the wooden signs there was a mirror at eye level with the inscribed statement “I can do it!” and on either side of the mirror, there was a countdown sign for language arts and math that indicated the number of days until students took the district’s standardized tests in these subjects. Students were reminded of the “countdown to excellence” almost daily during the morning announcements as well. Before every late bell at Birch, the theme music from the television game show Jeopardy played over the loudspeaker, which indicated that students had only a few more seconds to make it to their next class on time. From the main entrance, visitors could proceed down a maze of hallways or up the stairs to the second floor. Each of the halls was lined with student lockers and classrooms. The walls displayed signs in English, Spanish, and Tongan as well as numerous poster-size photographs of multiracial youth engaged in various activities.
The students at Birch were the most concentrated group of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds in all the district’s ten secondary schools. In 2005, students of color represented approximately 86 percent of the student body at Birch; 77 percent of the students were designated English-language learners (ELL), and 96 percent qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches. Most ELL students were native Spanish speakers, but there were also growing numbers of students from Somalia and Sudan who spoke native tribal languages. Of the students of color at Birch, 62 percent were Latino (primarily of Mexican descent), 13 percent were Pacific Islander (primarily Samoan and Tongan), 4 percent were African American, 4 percent were Asian American, and 3 percent were American Indian or Alaska Native. Just 14 percent of students were White.
Standardized test scores at Birch were consistently low compared to east-side schools in the district, and achievement gaps were evident between White students and students of color. On the language arts exam, for example, the highest percentage of students scoring in the lowest percentile bracket were Black students, and only half of the school’s Latino students, who constituted the majority of the school’s population, earned proficient scores. Thus, while Birch test scores were slowly rising, they did not differ substantially from patterns seen in other urban schools across the nation in terms of achievement gaps according to race and language.
Fourteen Birch teachers and administrators participated in my research. The total group included five men and three people of color, which represented about one-third of the classified staff at Birch. The teachers I worked with taught every grade level of mainstream, special education, and English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes, and they taught a range of subject areas, including math, language arts, physical education, fine arts, science, and social studies. Some of the teachers had been at Birch for more than ten years, and others were just beginning their careers the year I collected data. Although most of this book focuses on teachers, I also interviewed the administrative team and spent time observing them at faculty meetings and assemblies.
Birch’s principal, Mr. More, was a White man who had been a teacher, assistant principal, and principal throughout the district at the elementary, middle, and high school levels before coming to Birch as principal in 2003. He was extremely hopeful about the direction Birch was going and emphasized the goal of becoming a “90/90/90” school. Mr. More talked about the 90/90/90 research every chance he had. He noted that 90 percent of the Birch population already consisted of students of color and low-income students and that the school was working hard to achieve 90 percent in high academic achievement. In collaboration with other staff, Mr. More guided the faculty toward emphasizing reading and math during the year I was collecting data, and he planned to incorporate a “writing across the curriculum” element the following year. He was also instrumental in hiring an additional full-time administrator to focus exclusively on student behavior.
Overall, Mr. More believed that “our primary focus at [Birch] is closing that achievement gap. That has to happen.” His focus on academics was evident during morning announcements, faculty meetings, assemblies, and reports to the district as well as in the décor around the school. Being new to Birch but a veteran of the district, Mr. More recognized and willingly admitted that Birch “has a tremendous amount of baggage associated with it” in terms of its poor reputation and image as a “toxic environment.” He was, however, quick to note that “that is changing in major ways.” Mr. More waged a focused “PR campaign” of changing Birch’s image within the district—an agenda that centered around improved academic performance (the 90/90/90 goal and emphases on reading, writing, and math) but also on discipline (hiring a new administrator and “setting clear boundaries”), a clean school (“this place might be falling down around us but it’s going to be clean”), and a welcoming environment when someone called or visited the school (the school phone greeting was always “It’s a wonderful day at [Birch]!”).
At Spruce Secondary School, a large colorful banner hung outside the school’s front door that announced Spruce’s exemplary status as a “community of caring.” The front doors opened into a foyer with the library, auditorium, and main office all within view. Spruce had long been considered a “good” school within the Zion School District, and its annual performance on the state standardized tests had been consistently high. In any given year, approximately 80 percent of Spruce students post proficient scores on the state standardized exams. When Spruce’s test score data are disaggregated by race/ethnicity and language status, achievement gaps are evident, but they are not as disparate as those among Birch’s students.
Spruce sits in the east-side foothills, just below the mountains, and in an older but highly desirable neighborhood. The school’s immediate community was largely White and middle to upper-middle class, but the enrollment boundaries included areas farther west that served working-class and lower-income families. The student body at Spruce was still more than 70 percent White, but almost 50 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches, and 25 percent of students were classified as English-language learners. These students, who were almost entirely Spanish dominant and newly immigrated to the United States, spent more than half their day in segregated classes with a small group of ESL teachers who were White and monolingual English speakers.
Of the fourteen educators at Spruce who participated in my research, five were men, two were people of color, and two were administrators. The twelve teachers with whom I spent the most time taught all grade levels and both ESL and mainstream classes; like the research participants at Birch, they composed about one-third of the teaching staff at Spruce. The subjects they taught included math, science, social studies, fine arts, language arts, world languages, and health. Because Spruce had very low teacher turnover each year, none of the teachers with whom I worked were new to the school. The amount of time they had been teaching at Spruce ranged from five to twenty-five years. Some had taught for a number of years before coming to Spruce—in other words, they could all be considered veteran teachers.
The classrooms of the teachers I worked with at Spruce had a similar feel to them. Every room had classroom rules and consequences, the five Community of Caring values (respect, trust, family, caring, and responsibility), and the school’s mission (“empower every student”) and vision (“every student achieves”) posted prominently around the room. The shared spaces around the school had a similar emphasis on school rules and values.
Spruce’s principal, Ms. Smith, was a White woman who had occupied her position for more than seven years. She lived in the community surrounding Spruce and clearly perceived Spruce as an east-side school that commanded high expectations from students. In our formal interview, she talked at length about how Spruce used to be the district’s ESL magnet school and how “the bar was lowered” during that time because “teachers accepted poor-quality work.” She explained: “At one time, they [teachers] did lower the grading scale, and we need to readjust that, which is why our goal is high-quality work.” When the district moved away from the magnet model and reverted back to being a neighborhood school, the enrollment boundaries changed and Spruce began to enroll fewer students of color because ELL students went to their neighborhood schools on the west side. The new boundaries, however, did bring a sizable population of lower-income White students to Spruce. Whereas Birch’s principal was focused on “closing the achievement gap,” Ms. Smith did not feel that a focus on the achievement gap was what her school needed. She believed that focusing on closing the achievement gap resulted in the “high-end kids” being ignored and “losing percentage points”:
Generally, when you bring your lower-end students and your higher-end students [together], your lower-end students progress and your higher-end students come down several percentages. That happened. That happened here. I started watching the neighborhood Caucasian scores drop—1, maybe 2, percent. So what’s happening is, and this was a conversation in the school, we are spending so much time on closing the achievement gap, are we still working on those on the cusp and the high-end kids? And we did, we spent hours and hours looking at data and the lowest percentile. Well, I can tell you who my lowest percentile kids are. I can tell you by their name, and I can tell you maybe eight or ten of their reading scores. And they do not change. They do not. You have a certain percentage of kids, and it is so sad, but no matter what you do, we can’t make a difference. And we’ve tried everything. We’ve tried calling parents and saying, “We’ve got a special class to get them caught up. We have a special reading class. We need them to do this.” The parents refuse: “No, they are not giving up an elective to take another class.” There will always be a percentage in society [who] are going to bottom out. And so, we look at those kids, who are the rough kids, who are the kids [who] are suspended. Caucasian—White, I mean, African American . . . um, you know, it’s not particularly one or another. Race has nothing to do with it, but a lot of it is lack of family support.
Ms. Smith expressed a firm commitment to serving the “high-end” students at Spruce, and this commitment was evident in the numerous advanced and honors classes the school offered and the recent decline in ESL and remedial offerings. She also made it clear that, in her mind, “race has nothing to do” with success and failure.
The themes of neutrality, equality, and compassion already come to life in these short introductions to Birch and Spruce. We can also begin to see the various ways niceness is engaged by the two principals. Despite very different school contexts and the different philosophical emphases of the school leaders, whiteness—that is, a system of material and ideological race dominance—is employed and reified. I hope that by looking closely at diversity-related policy and practice at both Spruce and Birch secondary schools, we can learn something about how schools and educators across the nation are engaged in these issues. Indeed, it is important to see how a particular school district is educated in whiteness, so that we can begin to examine our own schools and consider how we might educate against whiteness.
With critical race theory and whiteness studies as a foundation, this book employs concepts like interest convergence, liberalism, meritocracy, and colorblindness to better understand diversity-related educational policy and practice. This sort of theoretical framework and the resulting analyses are not nice. Gloria Ladson-Billings highlighted this tension in 1998 when she asked, “What is Critical Race Theory doing in a nice field like education?” (Ladson-Billings 1998). But niceness is a White construct and, as such, works to reify whiteness.
Although this book is grounded in ethnographic data, it is organized around concepts and theory rather than data. As a conceptually driven ethnography, I am trying to do two seemingly different things here: First, I hope to provide rich and detailed data that describe one district’s diversity-related work and the impact of that work. Second, by examining two schools in the state of Utah, I hope to offer a nuanced theoretical discussion of whiteness as it relates to schooling in the United States. I use stories and narratives to see how theory is enacted every day, and I use theory to unpack and make sense of the stories and narratives. In an effort to capture both the rich stories and the power of theory, the chapters are organized thematically. Each chapter introduces two key concepts that are illuminated through data; each of these concepts is central to the operation of whiteness in U.S. schools.
Chapter 1 discusses interest convergence and responsibility. Chapter 2 discusses colorblindness and powerblindness. Chapter 3 examines silence and politeness. Chapter 4 examines equality and meritocracy, and chapter 5 highlights individualism and a critique of liberalism. These concepts are clearly interconnected, so it is impossible to completely separate one from another. But by focusing each chapter on two distinct elements of whiteness, I am better able to both fully explain the ideas and paint a picture of them on the ground.
The chapter organization also allows a close examination of the various contexts that make up the stories in this book. Chapter 1 examines the Zion School District from the district, or central office, level. Within the district, central office leaders claimed equity as a priority but simultaneously claimed that the responsibility for failed attempts at equity resided in individual schools. When there existed a convergence of interests, some progress was made around diversity, but this progress was always narrowly defined and limited by the possessive investment in whiteness. When no such interests converged, responsibility for equity was consistently displaced elsewhere. It becomes difficult to hold anyone accountable when no one is really “at fault.” Having set up the district context, the remaining chapters go inside Birch and Spruce and offer close encounters with a range of teachers.
Chapters 2 and 3 discuss and analyze patterns that were similar in both schools. Chapter 2 examines the ways teachers at Birch and Spruce understood and engaged multicultural education as either “powerblind sameness” or “colorblind difference.” Although these framing concepts appear to be logically inconsistent with one another, educators subscribed to both simultaneously. These two frameworks of sameness and difference serve as a dual system of support for whiteness.
Chapter 3 discusses some of the meaningful silences around— and silencing of—race and sexuality in schools. Even though done with the best of intentions, efforts at maintaining politeness end up maintaining the status quo rather than facilitating social change. This chapter also highlights three teachers who served as exceptions to these norms of silence and, therefore, provide some insight into what classrooms might look like where issues of race and sexuality are not silenced.
Although the ways teachers engage multicultural education and enforce polite silences were patterns shared across Spruce and Birch, there were certainly differences between the two schools. These differences are the focus of chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 highlights how schools differently engage diversity and, specifically, the notion of equality. At Spruce, a powerblind, colorblind understanding of equality shaped the ways educators understood excellence and the efforts they made to provide a high-quality education to Spruce students. At Birch, however, educators engaged a more race- and power-conscious form of equality, but they were so constrained by the pressures of standardized accountability that their diversity-related efforts were also limited and ultimately failed to approximate what was needed to advance equity.
Chapter 5 examines current federal efforts to “turn around the nation’s worst schools” through targeted School Improvement Grants. Birch received one of these grants in 2010, and this chapter considers how the immediate and short-term influx of resources impacted the school, what it meant for teachers and students, and how it is yet another iteration of whiteness in schools. With a foundation in individualism and classical liberalism, this school-reform model results in the loss of students, teachers, and actual schools. The resulting neoliberal transformation exacerbates inequity and reifies whiteness.
The concluding chapter suggests that while whiteness shapes what diversity-related policy and practice look like, the resulting policy and practice, in turn, further strengthen whiteness. Thus whiteness operates as an almost perfect system. It is effective and efficient at what it does. But there are spaces of possibility within this system. There have to be. The challenge, then, is to locate those spaces of possibility, pry them open, and use them to dismantle the system. This is where educating against whiteness comes in. Teachers have an opportunity to facilitate the kind of education that would highlight inequity and dominance and then encourage action that brings about equity, chips away at whiteness, and ultimately creates more space for even more action. This sort of work is not consistent with the niceness found in typical diversity-related policy and practice in schools. This niceness, in fact, stands as a seductive obstacle for educators. As a key element of whiteness in schools, niceness makes educating against whiteness very difficult, so we must be awake, vigilant, and strategic. Being educated in whiteness increases the challenge before us; it also increases the stakes.