Critical Whiteness Studies in Education: How White Identity Informs Racism in America

The University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD)is focused on improving the lives of children, families, and communities by forging research-driven solutions to complex problems. These solutions come from our brightest minds and from decades of real-world experience across eight departments and 25 research centers and institutes. Timothy Lensmire, associate professor in the Curriculum & Instruction Department, brings us this post.

While race remains a much discussed topic, it’s rare that we think of white racial identity and how it informs racism in America. Through my work in critical whiteness studies, I hope to expand our ideas regarding “whiteness,” how white identity is formed and the consequences of that identity.

I was raised in a small, rural town that was nearly all white. As I progressed through my education and career — moving to Lansing, Michigan, to St. Louis to Minneapolis — I grew accustomed to living in more diverse environments. As a competitive basketball player, I often found myself as one of the few white people on the court, leading me to think about race and my identity in new ways.

At the same time, my work in education revolved around progressive politics and radical democratic values. However, even as I explored issues of social class and gender, I found myself shying away from issues of race. When I accepted a position in CEHD at the University of Minnesota in the early 2000s, I decided that I needed to look seriously at race and how I might be able to advance anti-racist causes. I didn’t want to be yet another white person writing about people of color, a pursuit that often repeats white supremacist assumptions. I thought my contribution could be looking seriously at whiteness and white racial identity, helping us think more powerfully about how to work with white people on social justice and anti-racism.

Learning to Be White

For the last few decades, anti-racist work in the U.S. has been largely dominated by a white privilege framework. I think that framework, while it helps us understand certain aspects of being white, may create more problems than it solves for us pedagogically. I’ve been looking for a different starting point for how we think about anti-racist work with white people. One part of this alternative starting point is conceptualizing white people differently. White people are often imagined as the smooth embodiment of white privilege. However, as is often the case with the history of white identity in America, it is a good deal messier than it’s often portrayed.

The author Thandeka has been a large influence on my work. Her book Learning to Be White: Money, Race and God in America is an insightful study of how white identity is formed. She also examines the fluidity of the concept of “whiteness” and how, historically, certain ethnic groups who were not considered white eventually were given a white identity.

Thandeka asserts that children are not born white, but become white when they realize that, according to their parents and other white adults, there is something wrong with their desires to have friendship and love outside of the white community. Initially, that desire does not recognize the racial hierarchies and separations of our society. Young children realize that they might lose the love and support of their parents and community if they persist in wanting to be friends with, be in love with, and stand in solidarity with people of color.

Thandeka talks about this as a form of abuse and thinks it is the beginning moment of white racial identity. She believes this leads to white adults experiencing a great deal of confusion and shame when they are put back in a situation where race is somehow important. They are returned to their early experiences; they know there is something wrong in relation to race, but they don’t know quite what it is.

Scapegoating Rituals of Race

White racial identities can also be explored in relation to scapegoating rituals. Legendary American author Ralph Ellison, in his collection Shadow and Act, argued that white racial identities were grounded in scapegoating rituals in which white people put people of color down in order to feel better about themselves and America.

Interestingly, Ellison thought that white people often were sincere in their valuing of equality. However, we also know that our society is rooted in deep inequality. Instead of dealing with this contradiction between our idealized image of our society and the reality, we scapegoat the victims of racism in America in order to maintain our belief that our society is just.

While Shadow and Act was published in 1964, we can still see these same rituals play out today. I recently contributed a chapter to a book about Trayvon Martin. The murder of Trayvon Martin wasn’t a lynching, but what happened after was a lynching ritual. Right after he was killed, it was condemned by people and politicians of every ideological stripe. However, things soon began to change. Trayvon Martin started becoming something different. He started becoming represented as older and more menacing in the media and in our minds. This scapegoating ritual took Trayvon Martin, who was one of us, and made him into something “other.” I would say he needed to become menacing so we could preserve our sense of America as a just place.

Dealing with White Identity in Anti-Racist Pedagogy

I’ve been building on the works of people like Thandeka and Ellison to create an alternative conceptualization of who white people are. This alternative conceptualization doesn’t deny the white supremacist society that we exist in, nor does it dispute that white people have racist leanings and feelings inside of us. Instead, I think that a different account of who we are as white people might be a better starting point for our pedagogy.

While people of color are often the most insightful writers about race and white identity, it’s important that white people also take up this work. By understanding how our white racial identity is formed, we can better join the fight against racism in America. Here’s a few ideas for getting started:

Study. There are many insightful, impactful books on race. To start, I’d suggest people read Thandeka’s Learning to be White for the powerful way it helps us understand how white racial identities are formed and how this impacts our lives and the lives of others.

Work with others. Forming discussion groups with other people who want to explore topics of race is essential for learning. Along with my wife, Audrey, and other anti-racist scholars and activists, I formed the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective. This group and the discussions we’ve had have been crucial to my learning process.

Take action. Working with others has also emboldened me to take action in anti-racist efforts. After educating yourself, figure out what you can do within your sphere of influence, in the places you work and live. One example in my life is my involvement with the Recruiting Teachers of Color group, which began in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and now includes people from across CEHD.


Originally published at cehdvision2020.umn.edu on February 19, 2016.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.