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Learning and Teaching While White: Antiracist Strategies for School Communities by Jenna Chandler-Ward and Elizabeth Denevi is one of the latest entries to the growing market of antiracist education books. With favorites like We Want to Do More than Survive and Cultivating Genius and more recent publications like Teaching for Justice and Belonging and Leading Equity, what does this one have to add? A lot, I’d argue.
As the title suggests, Learning and Teaching While White focuses on the role of White educators in dismantling systemic racism in schools. Authors Jenna Chandler-Ward and Elizabeth Denevi draw from their experience as co founders of the professional development site Teaching While White, which includes resources, workshops, and a podcast for White educators.
There’s growing discussion about the appropriate role of White people leading racial equity work, which is especially fraught if those White people are profiting from said work. Most notably, Robin DiAngelo has come under fire for her profits resulting from work like the best selling White Fragility However, Learning and Teaching While White is a valuable text precisely because it shows how and why White people can take greater responsibility for disrupting white supremacy in classrooms and communities. From the outset, the authors explain their partnerships with and learning from people of color. They assert that “everyone suffers when White people are unaware and uninformed about race and racism.”
Part one, “Preparing for Action–Reflection, Reframing, and New Understandings,” lays out foundational understandings of Whiteness.
To begin, the authors establish that students need windows to learn about others’ experiences and mirrors to reflect upon their own lives. White students need to see authentic, nuanced views of their identities, just as children of color do. When we collectively hide Whiteness, we create foggy mirrors that obscure how white supremacy affects students of color and hides White students’ true reflection as well.
If Whiteness isn’t named, we aren’t telling the whole story and White students’ self view is foggy and nebulous leaving “White identity, unearned privilege, and power” unexamined.
Talking About Whiteness
To clear those foggy mirrors, Chandler-Ward and Denevi assert, we must talk about Whiteness. They move readers through Janet Helms’ stages of racial development, model their own growth in racial consciousness, and apply those stages to our school systems.
The first stages are the abandonment of racism; contact is the unaware stage; disintegration marks an increased awareness full of shame; and reintegration is when we feel pressure from others to avoid issues of racism and victim blame. The second stages move to defining a nonwhiteracist identity; pseudoindependence is when we begin to abandon beliefs in white superiority; immersion/emersion marks actively redefining whiteness; and autonomy is the final stage where we have internalized a positive White racial identity.
I can clearly see how my own school moves between the contact and reintegration stages with claims like, “We are a family; our staff loves all our kids!” and questions of “Is this really about race?”
One tool they suggest to progress through these stages is White antiracist affinity groups. Racial affinity groups for people with shared racial backgrounds are purposefully created to work through shared experiences around identity, including oppression and privilege. Though these groups garner pushback (“Isn’t that just segregation?”), they argue that we need White affinity spaces to give White people the space to learn without further taxing or causing more harm to people of color.
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Rooting & Shifting Curriculum
Echoing the work Teaching for Justice and Belonging, Chandler-Ward and Denevi explore rooting and shifting. In Teaching for Justice and Belonging, the authors describe rooting as the process of building racial competence and understanding. They continue the growth metaphor into blooming into a new normal. Similarly, in Teaching and Learning While White, Chandler-Ward and Denevi remind us that “Being grounded in who we are enables us to shift to understand the experiences of those who are different from us.”
As an English teacher who has fought against the canon since day one, I recognized the resistance to shifting into antiracist curriculum that Chandler-Ward and Denevi describe. Too often, teachers make changes “but only the ones that don’t force them to give up what they love or what has worked ‘all these years.’”
Without rooting, “There is no awareness of their own subjectivity, nor acknowledgement of who they came to believe that certain things are ‘just true.’”
Chandler-Ward actually experimented “shifting” in her middle school ELA classroom by naming White authors and characters as White, just as she would for authors and characters of color. I thought this was brilliant! By NOT naming a race as White, we are defaulting to White as “normal” and teaching students the same.
This is why it’s so important for educators to understand their own subjectivity. Our views are not neutral, normal, standard, or universal, so our unexamined actions should not become the default.
Another “aha moment” for me was around feedback. The authors conducted research analyzing high school teachers’ assignment feedback. In many instances, though the teacher planned to give the same feedback, it was soon clear that “the White teachers gave more specific and directed feedback to their White students.”.
For students of color, they tended to give softer, less directed, and less specific feedback that read more like a suggestion than a demand. They also had more personal, rather than academic feedback.
For example, a teacher wrote, “You need to cite some specific examples from the text that will support your major claim” for a White student versus, “I think you could offer some more supporting details, maybe that would help your thesis, but overall, this is really strong” for a student of color.
Although these White teachers truly believed their feedback was the same, they admitted that they were afraid of being too hard on students of color. They were being “gentle” for fear of being racist. But instead, this gentleness just fed into the cult of low expectations for students of color.
Well Worth the Read
As a teacher leader, my brain is often split between classroom and systems level thinking, and this book does a great job of tackling both.
The section on feedback has been at the forefront of my grading brain this year, something that I have shared with my PLC. The stages of racial consciousness have helped me plan equity professional development, meeting my staff where they are. I have the opportunity to be a part of a training for school leaders, conducted as a White affinity space, and I can already see the benefits of the practice in real time.
Because Chandler-Ward and Denevi cover a wide range of education topics–from self reflection to antiracist leadership and even the role of parents–this is essential reading for White educators across career stages. It’s definitely worth the read for White antiracist educators, so what should be all of us.
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