White studies became popularized in the mid-1990s as an effort to understand and critique the role of White identity in society and across disciplines. The groundbreaking work of Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (1993), explored and defined Whiteness in relation to White women’s experiences with power and privilege. It was the first study that examined Whiteness from the perspectives of Whites. Previously, notions of race were primarily explored and discussed by scholars of color, in particular Afro-centric (Black critical) scholars of color as a way of legitimizing experiences of oppression in relation to Whites. White studies has its roots in social sciences and has been engaged more recently as a tool for understanding the continued racial inequities in education.
Whiteness in education became popularized in the late 1990s with the release of such edited books as Off White: Readings on Race, Power, and Society by Michelle Fine, Lois Weis, Linda Powell Pruitt, and April Burns, and Critical White Studies: Looking Beyond the Mirror by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Since then, the topic has been explored in a multitude of areas in education, including educational leadership, language and literacy, adult education, and curriculum and instruction. A fairly new ideology, the concept of Whiteness in education is still emerging and growing as scholars continue to explore and define the concept and how it operates within education.
Whiteness can be defined as a system of privilege based on race whereby White ideology is viewed as a reference point from which all other identities are compared. Whiteness is the act of silencing the discourse about race as nonexistent through a “colorblind” consciousness that often serves to normalize White experiences. A colorblind perspective attempts to transcend race by claiming not to see race as a factor; however, this inadvertently undermines the lived realities that individuals experience across race lines. The term Whiteness refers to the ideology that White identity has become the ideal and is viewed as the norm, whereby other identities such as African American, Native American, Hispanic, and Asian are viewed as multicultural subcultures within society.
White ways of knowing are seen as natural and taken for granted rather than as a construct that often undermines and dominates those from identities other than White. Whiteness can also include the notion of White supremacy, which serves to legitimize a racial hierarchy. A central concept in White studies or the Whiteness literature is the notion of White privilege, which is privileges or the preferential treatment afforded to those who are White in relation to nonWhites. However, it is important to note that even White individuals can and do experience oppression in relation to the ruling class of Whites.
Antiracist studies, critical race theory, and Whiteness studies work together to dismantle the power and privilege of White identity by exploring and legitimizing its prevalence in an effort to shift the power structures that have historically gone uncritiqued, unquestioned. Such scholars and theorists are working to unmask the naturalization or taken for grantedness of race in knowledge construction and the process of teaching and learning. This consciousness allows educators to examine the role that race plays and how it privileges so that society can work toward shifting these power structures. For example, the continued disproportionate representation of students of color within special education, referral to remedial programming, dropout rates, and positioning of such students as at risk and predisposed for failure are all ways that legitimize unequal treatment by race. Within this system, achievement or success is contingent upon mastering White ways of knowing. As a result, it is quite possible that biases in education used to sort and categorize individuals based on “ability” may be a privileging of race and culture rather than a universal truth about ability and knowledge construction.
Educators in the field of White studies often experience much resistance to the notion of Whiteness because of its complexity and the emotional response. Whiteness is often misunderstood by those in the mainstream as a racist ideology because it confronts the realities of race, which are often unspoken or silenced. However, the aim of Whiteness studies is not to legitimize race as a tool to perpetuate racism but to use it as a tool or lens to recognize and understand how race is constructed from a cultural, social, and political standpoint so that a space is provided for dialog to create a more just society and, in particular, a more eclectic understanding of teaching and learning.
- Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (Eds.). (1997). Critical White studies: Looking behind the mirror. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Fine, M., Weis, L., Powell, L. C., & Wong, L. M. (Eds.). (1997). Off White: Readings on race, power, and society. New York: Routledge.
- Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Parrillo, V. N. (2001). Understanding race and ethnic relations. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
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