Zeus Leonardo is an Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Studies in Education at University of California, Berkeley.   Dr. Leonardo’s work is guided by an attempt to capture “the real experiences of race, both by whites and people of color.”  He argues that whiteness has not been historically marked by a certain sense of rigidity, but instead, has the ability to flex, change, and morph in order to ensure its survival. Moreover,  Dr. Leonardo argues, the construct of whiteness continues to shape global cultural identities even as it  fragments our total understanding of race.  By embracing a new, if not uncomfortable understanding of race and race relations, Dr. Leonardo believes that a more genuine sense of multiculturalism can be fostered.

Since the late 1980s, education has witnessed the creation of a new subfield of study called “Whiteness Studies.”  Since the arrival of Peggy McIntosh’s (1989) essay on white privilege, David Roediger’s (1991) documentation of the history of the white working class in the U.S., and Ruth Frankenberg’s (1993) interviews showcasing white women’s vacillation between evading and recognizing race, a veritable explosion of writings centering whiteness gives educators a new arsenal for analyzing schooling.  Overall, the innovation of Whiteness Studies has helped educators focus on the contours of racial privilege, or the other side of the race question that has long been neglected.  Rather than the usual, “What does it mean to be a person of color?” it asks, “What does it mean to be White in U.S. society?”  Traditionally, race analysis focused on the experiences and developments of communities of color, their struggles with racism, and hopes of one day ending it.  In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois (1904/1989) posed the question to African Americans: “How does it feel to be a problem?”  Partly ironic in the sense that African Americans were on the receiving end of racism, the question was nonetheless profound in extrapolating what life is like when you are perceived to be a problem within the audacious assumptions of American democracy.  The turn to whiteness, which is now in full swing only two decades after the initial works, perhaps asks Whites the same question without the implicit irony: “How does it feel to be the problem?”  This time and coming mainly from White scholars writing about whiteness, the tone is more literal, even accusatory.  How do we scaffold educational leaders to adopt the study of whiteness in a critical way?

There are some immediate challenges to implementing a “pedagogy of whiteness.”  Immersed in multiculturalism, many school leaders have taken minority studies seriously.  We can hardly find a school that does not, in some form or another, take up the cultures and histories of people of color, from additive approaches that incorporate a teaspoon of ethnic studies and stirs the pot, to more transformative approaches that revamp the curriculum and entire school culture.  In a word, multiculturalism has become hegemonic; it is the common sense.  It does not suggest that we are somehow “doing it right” but that most educational initiatives now have to contend with diversity even superficially.  These victories notwithstanding, it is problematic to focus solely on the margins, which negates a critical look at the center, reinforces the ostensive invisibility of whiteness, including Whites’ racial investments and general process of racialization in schools.  Once again, they escape critical scrutiny, historical accountability, and moral culpability.

The turn to whiteness disrupts the focus on minorities, indeed re-centers Whites once again.  Certainly educational leaders might do well to suspect that whiteness is up to its old tricks again.  In fact, Whiteness Studies arrives on the scene precisely at the moment when minorities have gained a legitimate foothold in curricular, instructional, and cultural reform of education.  There are workshops on raising race consciousness for Whites, videos showcasing the White mindset, and conferences on White privilege.  In short, Whiteness Studies has become an industry.  That said, if Whiteness Studies centers whiteness, it places it in an atypical, even uncomfortable position.  It puts whiteness on trial without indicting White people as individual embodiments of an ideology called whiteness.  When Roediger writes that whiteness is nothing but false and oppressive, he was careful to distinguish between whiteness and Whites.  A focus on whiteness surely centers Whites in an analysis of racism, but this is not the same as saying that Whites themselves are only false and oppressive.  There have been examples of Whites who fought and continue to fight on the side of justice, the abolitionist John Brown being an obvious instance, but as an ideology whiteness has no redeeming characteristics because it has functioned primarily to stratify society.  This leads David Roediger to suggest that it is nothing but false.

What does it mean to be critical of whiteness?  In schools, first this means that leaders would encourage locating whiteness.  Passing as unremarkable and even unmarked, – from which books count as “the canon,” to whose perspectives are legitimated and whose voice is relegated to “special interests,” to the hidden racial referents of policies like NCLB, to the implicit norms of “safety” (whose safety?) in public dialogue about race – the ideology of whiteness must become familiar and then made strange.  Familiarizing students and educators on the codes of whiteness allows them to understand the taken-for-granted, or whiteness passing as simply good values or a universal human nature, when in fact it is particular and partial.  It is partial in two senses of the word: part of the whole and a form of investment.

Once whiteness is made familiar, then it must be made strange.  No longer able to disguise itself as normative, whiteness becomes peculiar once it is located.  However, unlike ideologies of color, which are not only false and whose history has produced rich legacies of resistance to educational inequality, whiteness has had a bad track record.  As Roediger said, it is a bad idea.  It has no cultural content other than the enforcement of racial hierarchies.  Students would learn that the strange machinations of whiteness include the law, which rejected Takao Ozawa’s 1922 plea for citizenship on the basis that he may have claims to be White through culture (defined as “American”) but in no way is he Caucasian based on scientific evidence of the time that traces whiteness to the Caucasus Mountains (see Lopez, 2006).  A mere three months later, the same Justice wrote the decision against Bhagat Thind who claimed Caucasian status based on his origins in the Caucasus region of Indo-Asia.  This time, the court ruled that Thind may be Caucasian but common sense says he is not White.  Where the court ruled on the side of science in the first and thwarted Ozawa, it rules on the side of common sense in the second and frustrates Thind.  Strange indeed.  The upshot is that “White” is whatever Whites and whiteness say it is.  Whiteness has no essence and shape shifts according to the whims of whiteness as long as its overall interests remain intact.  Education that takes whiteness seriously is a schooling worth the name.

Dialogue is key in moving toward this type of education; these dialogues can be the first steps in building trust and openness among White and non-White colleagues, and ideally broadening consciousness of the legacy of White privilege.  Here are some examples of dialogue “starters” that can open the door to critical examinations of Whiteness.

–  Why do so many Whites find it uncomfortable to talk or think about their own racial identity?

–  What would change about Whites’ lived experience if they recognized their own racial conditioning?

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4 Responses to “Whiteness Studies and Education: Making the Familiar Strange by Zeus Leonardo”

  1. Jeni Huber on 9/29/10 12:45 AM US/Eastern

    I’m so glad to see a blog about this because I think it’s really important information. I am a white special educator interested in issues of equity and inclusive settings, and I often struggle to know what to do with my own privilege as a white person. Further, I believe I have a responsibility as an educator of preservice and inservice teachers to foster commitment to equity and that begins by understanding your own identity deeply and constructively.
    This is hard for many white educators and it is my duty to mediate these difficult dilemmas in ways that promote growth. Thank you for your timely discussion of such an important topic!

  2. Christopher G. on 9/29/10 1:43 PM US/Eastern

    Your first question, “Why do so many Whites find it uncomfortable to talk or think about their own racial identity?” might be answered using a question that you pose earlier in your essay, which powerfully illustrates both the traumatic and deconstructive potential of Whiteness Studies: “How does it feel to be the problem?”
    As Kimberlé Crenshaw writings on intersectionality have demonstrated, however, race is one among several identity-based ideologies that, in an slight modification of your phrasing, “has no cultural content other than the enforcement of [race, class, gender, etc.] hierarchies.” If our communities might ever hope to work toward the broadened consciousness that you’ve described as resulting from a process of familiarization and estrangement, it seems that each of these ideologies must be made similarly subject to interrogation.
    When I try to consider consequent restructuring of social meanings (which is unimaginable to me), I think of your phrase: “Whiteness Studies has become an industry” and worry that, in the semiotic freefall, many of the same old vested interests might take the opportunity to more easily reconfigure even their own “master’s tools” (I look with suspicion to the prevailing, “postmodern” emphasis on “the individual” in popular culture). How might we ensure that this does not happen?
    Moreover, as a white/male/middleclass/heterosexual, what can I do to participate in a more equitable restructuring of society when prevailing ideologies might automatically position me in an undeserved position of authority? That is, how do I resist the often-unconscious temptation to build in my own image?

  3. Mike Silver on 9/29/10 1:53 PM US/Eastern

    Consideration of this topic is especially timely as we endure an election cycle characterized by nefarious rhetoric shrouding racist undertones and overt pandering to “grassroots” conservation of the central tenets of whiteness(by both major parties on certain issues like education). Unfortunately, in the current climate, re-centering the conversation is a daunting proposition in the face of an increasingly vocal scapegoating focused on the “other” (e.g., the immigrant, the indigent, the gay, the Muslim, and incredibly, the President). This pessimism having been aired, I undoubtedly agree that we cannot heal the body by splinting its extremities. That is, as Dr. Leonardo aptly points out, acknowledging the ailments of our central structures (built on the falsehoods of whiteness) is a vital step to support remedies on the margins. Uncomfortable as they may be in the near term, discussions of privilege are essential.

  4. Andrea Rodriguez D. Ed. on 4/13/12 6:43 PM US/Eastern

    Whiteness is hard to see when it is a part of one’s daily experience. When it is the norm, it’s easier to look at the other as being unusual non-desirable or strange. Perhaps as white privilege is more concretely defined in relationship to how it enhances one’s access and status daily within one’s life and work and institutions, people can see how institutions are formed from the basis of one group’s power over others.

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