Teaching White Supremacy

About a week ago, I attended a lecture entitled Discussing White Supremacy in Academic Classrooms. White supremacy is far from new in the United States, but the topic has taken on a renewed vitality given the current level of national discourse. I’ll summarize the lecturer’s key points below, then talk a bit about the implications for classroom teachers.

The lecturer, Adele Norris from the University of Waikato, talked about the problems she and others members of her university’s sociology faculty had when discussing race with students. She identified two main tensions, experienced both in faculty planning meetings and in the classroom:

  • Epistemic Exploitation (Berenstein, 2016). According Nora Berenstain, the theory’s originator, “Epistemic exploitation occurs when privileged persons compel marginalized persons to educate them about the nature of their oppression.” Educators and students of color are often expected to do additional unpaid labor teaching white teachers and students how not to be racist. In addition, women and people of color are often expected to hold specific roles at schools based on the assumptions of others.
  • White Fragility (DiAngelo, 2016). White people often do not grow up with the discourse of race and are therefore uncomfortable with it. Teachers must help students understand that the goal of discourse is not to make people feel bad, but to, in Norris’ words, “change the racist system in which we are all drowning.”

Norris made a couple of suggestions for the future:

  • White supremacy is not widely theorized. If we are to end its influence on U.S. American society, it needs to be actively studied and productively discussed in academic circles.
  • Institutions must be consciously organized to limit epistemic exploitation. At Waikato, the sociology department reflected on its practices, then went through a reorganization to ensure lecturers did not lead courses assigned to them based on externally identified characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality.
  • We should not look at racism as a binary either/or. To be called out for being racist is a difficult thing, but it should not be the end of the world. If someone calls you racist, it is probably because you said or did something racist. It is a call to personal reflection and action. The trick is to learn from the experience instead of resorting to feelings of outrage and despair.

What implications does this have for classroom teachers in the United States? We need to familiarize ourselves with the discourses of race and racism and become comfortable talking about them with students. It is abundantly clear that many students in the U.S. are not critically engaging with topics on race and racism while at school, and this negatively impacts their ability to deal with them as adults.

What’s more – epistemic exploitation is a demonstrably real phenomenon. I’ve seen it in schools in the U.S. and in New Zealand, where African American, Maori, and Pacific teachers are often expected to go far beyond the classroom requirements of their job for no additional pay. Beyond the additional stress and pressure this can cause, it’s plain not fair. Schools need to critically examine how much they ask of their faculty, and ensure the workload is evenly distributed.

The resources exist for us to learn – all we have to do is prioritize finding them. Norris, Berenstain, and DiAngelo are just part of a long tradition which seeks to help Americans learn to love one another.

The stakes could not be higher. If we are to remake the U.S. as an anti-racist society, we must actively reflect on what we contribute to that society. We must actively counter racism in all its forms.