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date: 21 September 2018

Teacher Education and Whiteness and Whiteness in Teacher Education in the United States

Summary and Keywords

A litany of literature exists on teacher preparation programs, known as teacher education, and whiteness, which is the historical, systematic, and structural processes that maintain the race-based superiority of white people over people of color. The theoretical frameworks of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Critical Whiteness Studies (CWS) are used to explore whiteness and teacher education separately; whiteness within teacher education; the impact of teacher education and whiteness on white educators, educators of Color, and their students; and cautions and recommendations for teacher education and whiteness.

Although teacher education and whiteness are situated within the current US sociopolitical context, the historical colonial contexts of other countries may find parallel examples of whiteness. Within this context, the historical purposes behind teacher education and the need for quality teachers in an increasingly diverse student population are identified using transdisciplinary approaches in CRT and CWS to define and describe operations of whiteness in teacher education. Particularly, race education scholars entertain the psychoanalytic, philosophical, and sociological ruminations of race, racism, and white supremacy in society and education to understand more fully how whiteness operates within teacher education. For example, an analysis of psychological attachments found in racial identities, particularly between whiteness and Blackness, helps to fully comprehend racial dynamics between teachers, who are overwhelmingly racially identified as white, and students, who are predominantly racially identified as of Color.

Whiteness in teacher education, left intact, ultimately affects K-12 schooling and students, particularly students of Color, in ways that recycle institutionalized white supremacy in schooling practices. Acknowledging how reinforcing hegemonic whiteness in teacher education ultimately reifies institutional white supremacy in education altogether; implications and cautions as well as recommendations are offered to debunk the hegemonic whiteness that inoculates teacher education.

Note: To symbolically reverse the racial hierarchy in our research, the authors opt to use lowercase lettering for white and whiteness, and to capitalize “people of Color” to recognize it as a proper noun along with Black and Brown.

Keywords: whiteness, teacher education, race, emotions, teachers, racial justice, antiracist education


With the advent of compulsory K-12 education in the United States in 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a marked call for highly qualified teachers. How to best prepare teachers to become “qualified” was and continues to be one of the most contentious issues in US education (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2007). For one, the increasing diversity of the K-12 student population has driven the need for teachers trained in cultural and linguistic competence (Lucas & Villegas, 2013; Villegas & Lucas, 2002). As such, institutions of higher education have established specific teacher preparation programs, known as teacher education, in the hopes that college students who are interested in teaching will specialize in the field of teacher education. There has since been a proliferation of teacher education programs nationwide. In the early 21st century, teacher education has not only become a field of its own; it has become an enterprise, so to speak, that encompasses a plethora of worldwide professional organizations (e.g., American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education1), national accreditation committees (e.g., Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation2), testing and evaluation systems (e.g., Education Teacher Performance Assessment3), and international conferences (e.g., International Teacher Education Conference4). Clearly, teacher education has become a global phenomenon.

Yet one major problem of teacher education, specific to the US context and other countries with historical European colonial contexts, is that the fields of teaching and teacher education are replete with hegemonic whiteness (Sleeter, 2001). According to the National Council of Educational Statistics (NCES, 2016) almost 82% of teachers across the US K-12 school systems are racially identified as white and are teaching a student population that is predominantly of Color. This fact, alongside acknowledging that the professors (i.e., teacher educators) who are training the teachers are also majority white has left the ideological, behavioral, epistemological, philosophical, and emotional remnants of whiteness intact. This dichotomy is dangerous in that whiteness ideology, behaviors, and emotions are what support a white supremacist school system (see Matias, 2016a) and lead to white racism (Marx, 2004; Picower, 2009). The impact that white identity politics (McCarthy, 2003) and internalized racism and whiteness has on students of Color (Matias, 2016b), leaves whiteness unchecked, and wreaks havoc on the hopes for antiracist, racially just, and/or racially inclusive teacher education.

In an effort to better support the need for racially just education, an education that acknowledges and seeks to dismantle the institutionalism of white supremacy in education, we, the authors, recognize that the first step is to fully explore the dynamics and implications of the marriage between teacher education and whiteness. As such, our entry begins with literature explorations that define whiteness and teacher education separately, then weaves in the literature of whiteness within teacher education. Next, we detail the mechanisms behind teacher education and whiteness while also presenting subsidiary fields such as the emotionalities of whiteness in teacher education. We also discuss the impact of the mechanisms of teacher education and whiteness on white educators, educators of Color, and their students. Finally, we close with cautions and recommendations for teacher education and whiteness.

Exploring Whiteness

The study of whiteness, according to Bebout (2016), “traces back to key African American intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin” (p. 5). Although DuBois (1903) likens whiteness to a veil which one can choose to see or not, and Baldwin (1985) describes it as “a particular shallowness of mind, an intellectual and spiritual laxness, a terror of individual responsibility” (p. 18), both acknowledge its pervasiveness in U.S. American society. In the 1990s, per Leonardo (2009), whiteness studies burst onto the scene with seminal works from Roediger (1991), Frankenberg (1993), Morrison (1992), Allen (2004), Ignatiev (1995), Lipsitz (1995), McIntosh (1998), and Brodkin (1999), to name a few. Defined as “a historical systematic structural race-based superiority” (Wander, Martin, & Nakayama, 2008, p. 30, emphasis in original), whiteness, regardless of its historical roots, continues to have material consequences today (Haney López, 2015; Harris, 1993). Yet in its material, political, psychological, and emotional accumulation, whiteness is “but very hard to see” (Lipsitz, 1995, p. 369). In order for it to become visible, some scholars argue whiteness must be set in juxtaposition to Blackness. As such, Matias, Viesca, Garrison-Wade, Tandon, and Galindo (2014) define whiteness as follows:

If Blackness is a social construction that embraces Black culture, language, experiences, identities, and epistemologies, then whiteness is a social construction that embraces white culture, ideology, racialization, expressions and experiences, epistemology, emotions, and behaviors. Unlike Blackness, whiteness is normalized because white supremacy elevates whites and whiteness to the apex of the racial hierarchy. (p. 290)

To be clear, whiteness, though a social construction, still has material and political consequences, such that Lipsitz (2006) asserted that we must “see the price we pay for the possessive investment in whiteness” (p. 248). Acknowledging this first and foremost provides the foundational understanding of CWS; that is, because whiteness is said to be so invisible, so ubiquitous that it often goes undetected, the first step to studying whiteness is to acknowledge its existence.

Whiteness, as suggested by Matias (2016a), is interrelated to white supremacy, racism, and white privilege. Describing white supremacy as the overarching institutional body that impacts race, Matias argues that without white supremacy, racism would cease to exist. Because of this argument, she asserts that white supremacy impacts both people of Color and whites, albeit in different ways. For whites, white supremacy allows for whiteness to reign supreme. For people of Color, white supremacy allows racism to oppress. However, whiteness has several elements: white privilege, naturalization, xenophobia, white racialization, and colorblindness, to identify a few (Matias, 2016a). For people of Color, racism has several elements as well: dehumanization, racial battle fatigue, racial microaggressions, colorblind racism, ostracism, and racial violence, to name some elements (Matias, 2016a). Colorblind racism, for example, is simply white people arguing that they do not see race while at the same time normalizing whiteness and white privilege. When white people argues that they do not see race, they also suggest that all the benefits and privileges “earned” by whites are meritorious and all the oppression and misfortune of people of Color are because they did not work hard enough or deserve their freedom (Bonilla-Silva, 2014).

Although whiteness does impact whites, it is not exclusive to them; whiteness impacts people of Color via a different mechanism, which entails such processes as internalized racism, self-hatred, and inferiority complexes (Matias, 2016a). Therefore, white supremacy, racism, and whiteness, despite working in concert—or more specifically, in support of white supremacy—each has a different role within the white supremacist structure. Whiteness works to reify the ideologies, behaviors, emotions, discourse, and epistemologies that uphold white supremacy and thus produce, within the individual who subscribes to such ideology, feelings of entitlement regardless of effort. On the other hand, racism works to belittle and oppress through ideologies, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors that object to naming white supremacy and, in doing so, dehumanizes, ostracizes, and punishes people of Color.

For whites, whiteness impacts them psychologically, emotionally, ideologically, spiritually, and humanistically (Thandeka, 1999). In her argument about white racialization, Thandeka detailed how white children are reared by their white parents into whiteness through a process of conditional love. Specifically, she claimed that when white children bear witness to race in society they are often reprimanded by their white parents, claiming that good parenting is denying the existence of race and opting for an abstract liberal—per Bonilla-Silva and Embrick (2006)—rationale of loving all people, but just not really all people. In this process, Thandeka (1999) noted that whites then, live a lie in pretending not to see race, while they really do see race in order to be accepted into a fictive kinship with the white community. Whites dare not break from this order because if such defiance to whiteness took place, they too would be ostracized and considered, as Ignatiev and Garvey (1996) posited, race traitors—traitors to the whiteness embodied in the white race. Recognizing that this is highly problematic, Ignatiev and Garvey (1996) argued that “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity” (p. 10). Conversely, loyalty to whiteness is treason to humanity. As such, the white individual, per Thandeka (1999), grows up feeling what she coins white ethnic shame because laying claim to human dignity, morality, and ethics has a direct inverse relationship to one’s participation in whiteness. Essentially, how can people consider themselves to be moral if they know they are lying about racial reality (see Baldwin & Peck, 2016)?

For people of Color, whiteness dehumanizes them. As Fanon (1967) claimed whiteness:

… makes me a colonized native, robs me of all worth, all individuality, tells me I am a parasite on the world, that I must bring myself as quickly as possible into step with the white world, ‘that I am a brute beast, that my people and I are like a walking dung-heap that disgustingly fertilizes sweet sugar cane and silky cotton, that I have no use in the world.’ (p. 98)

Others, like critical race scholar William A. Smith (2014), claimed whiteness leads to racial battle fatigue in that “the anxiety experienced by racially underrepresented groups … [takes a] physical and psychological toll” (Mitchell, Fasching-Varner, Albert, & Allen, 2015, p. xvii), such that people of Color feel beaten down by racism. As Matias (2016a) so simply stated, “whiteness hurts people of Color” (p. 14). That is, whiteness denigrates the human body and Colored soul so much and reflects a sad day for the hope of humanity. In fact, Leonardo (2009) argued that “as long as whites ultimately feel a sense of comfort with racial analysis, they will not sympathize with the pain and discomfort they have unleashed on racial minorities for centuries” (p. 90). This sentiment is echoed in Matias (2016a) noticing that “until a [w]hite person truly sees the dehumanization process of investing in their whiteness, standing before them will always be a person of [C]olor who is demoralized by it” (p. 20). That whiteness is so dehumanizing to people of Color is not new. Yancy (2016) prophetically stated, “there is something very peculiar about being human and having to demonstrate that humanity, to announce it, to fight for it to be recognized” (p. 1, emphasis in original). In our current context, to have to protest that #blacklivesmatter is, in and of itself, dehumanizing. Yet, so often overlooked in whiteness studies is that when subscribing to whiteness ideology, individuals not only dehumanize the Other, indeed they dehumanize themselves as well.

Fanon (1967) recognized this concept 40 years earlier when he argued how the white man “has found a poetry in which there was nothing poetic” (p. 129). That is, although Black men have, due to racism, built a dependency complex that embraced inferiority to the white man, the white man has also built a dependency on the Black man in the form of humanness. In order to cash in on an insurance policy on humanness, Fanon (1967) argued that whites “keep Blacks close by, but project onto the Black being all that is bad, negative, and hateful in this world” (p. 129). In fact, Fanon (1967) stated, “Sin is Negro as virtue is white” (p. 139). By constructing Black bodies qua inferior, or, as Yancy (2016) simply stated it, “Blackness as evil” (p. 26), whiteness becomes Blackness’ ontological opposite: goodness, virtuous, moral, and just, regardless of its dehumanizing nature. In this befuddlement, whiteness becomes even more obscure and thus, becomes precisely the reason it must be further interrogated.

Some education scholars like Leonardo (2009) and Allen (2004) argued an abolitionist and reconstructivist perspective:

By disabusing themselves of having to take responsibility for white atrocities, white abolitionists do not face up to whiteness, which sounds too familiar. But if after having participated in recognizing and then reconstructing whiteness, whites realize the emptiness of the category, the abolitionist position may not have started the story but would likely end it. So in the final analysis, there is a way that reconstructionism would provide the entrance into whiteness and abolition its exit.

(Leonardo, 2009, p. 105)

Hence whiteness, despite its initial characterization as invisible, is indeed seeable and, only upon being seen, can we begin a process of debunking it out of the white psyche. Once this debunking process occurs, according to whiteness studies, rehumanization can be realized.

Exploring Teacher Education

Teacher education is tasked with systematizing a process to improve teacher quality for K-12 schools. In this systematization there is a deliberate fusion of theory and practice; yet, as Zeichner (1983) suggested, theory and practice are often characterized by the dominant paradigmatic orientation of the time. Therefore, in order to fully understand teacher education, as Cochran-Smith and Zeichner (2009) affirmed, a “multidisciplinary and multimethodological research approach to studying problems in teacher education is needed because the range of questions that are practically and theoretically important can be best answered by using a comparable range of framing concepts and research designs” (p. 738). This diversifying approach to teacher education is becoming more widely adopted. In fact, Zeichner (1999) outlined the several forms of teacher education research: survey research, case studies, conceptual and historical research, studying ways of teaching, studies on the nature of teacher education, and self studies. Such an array of educational research in teacher education provides the field with greater insights on how to better conceptualize and actualize the processes of enhancing teacher quality.

One such methodological application in teacher education is the tradition of teacher self-reflection. This method has been applied to teacher education research in the hopes of bettering instructional or pedagogical strategies (Bengtsson, 1995). Insofar as these approaches have focused on self-improvement in teaching, they have also been applied to various contents, disciplines, and concepts in teacher education. For example, to improve culturally relevant pedagogy, Howard (2006) called for the need for critical self-reflection. Raymond and Santos (1995) employed teacher self-reflection in the preparation of mathematics teachers, claiming that by drawing from a reflective approach, teachers were able to reconsider their previous math beliefs. Lazaraton and Ishihara (2005) used self-reflection in a collaborative case study approach to reconsider second language teaching. Matias (2016a) used self-reflection to excavate the patterns of the emotionalities of whiteness to improve racially just teaching practices. Clearly, the use of self-reflection is a long-held traditional approach in teacher education research that is being used in various ways today.

Despite its intended purposes to enhance teacher quality, teacher education has its critics. Most notable is the critique that whiteness infiltrates teacher education precisely because it is dominated by (a) white preservice teacher candidates, (b) white teacher educators, (c) white classroom-based practicum supervisors, (d) white classroom cooperating teachers/master teachers, (e) white school administrators who partner with teacher education programs, and (f) curricula and teaching philosophies created by white scholars in education. As one of the foremost scholars in addressing this problem, Sleeter (2001) claimed that the overwhelming presence of whiteness works in ways that silence preservice teacher candidates of Color. In fact she stated that alternative programs are now being offered to preservice teacher candidates of Color whereby their insights as to what makes a “good urban teacher” are respected, shared, and acknowledged (p. 102). Unfortunately, despite these alternative programs, which often do not get primary funding, 82% of teachers are still white (NCES, 2016) as are the majority of professors in teacher education. Several scholars have alluded to reasons behind this statistic. Firstly, Hudson and Holmes (1994) detailed the unintentional consequences of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. They asserted that although the case acknowledged that separate was not equal (which overturned the U.S. court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson [1896]) and thus Black school children were in need of equitable schooling, the decision did not address why schools were not equal. Ladson-Billings (2006) showed that not only have the promises of Brown v Board of Education (1954) not been realized in that we still see dire segregation and a drastic imbalance of resources, skewed toward whites, but within this imbalance, people of Color, and particularly Black and Brown students, have never actually realized the promise of separate but equal guaranteed under Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). When looking at the achievement gap through the lens of historic racism and disparities, Ladson-Billings (2006) encouraged us to see it for what it is: an education debt to students and communities of Color. This debt is owed by whites who have benefited financially and with higher quality education and resources at every turn to the detriment of students of Color.

Secondly, Matias (2016b) argued that during post-Brown desegregation whereby Black children were bussed into white classrooms, white teachers had racial biases of African Americans. These biases under a racist school system made Black school children feel inferior, just as Fanon (1967) argued of the Black man under colonial racism. Consequently, Black school children, moreover students of Color writ large, developed a distaste for the schooling system, particularly because their white teacher and white school practices embedded hegemonic whiteness both in the curriculum and the teaching of it. Leading Black feminist scholar and author bell hooks (1994) corroborated this when she describes how she had loved school and learning from Black teachers pre-Brown, yet found it difficult to learn under white teachers who had racial biases of Black people:

Bussed to white schools, we [African American students] soon learned that obedience, and not zealous will to learn, was what was expected of us. Too much eagerness to learn could easily be seen as a threat to white authority. When we entered racist, desegregated white school we left a world where teachers believed that to educate [B]lack children rightly would require a political commitment. Now, we were taught by mainly white teacher whose lessons reinforced racist stereotypes. For [B]lack children, education was no longer about the practice of freedom. Realizing this, I lost my love of school. (p. 3)

Thirdly, a litany of research examines the lackluster schooling experiences of students of Color due to predominantly white teachers (e.g., Valenzuela, 1999); racist testing policies and school procedures (e.g., Fine & Ruglis, 2009); tracking (Tyson, 2011); and inherent racism toward communities of Color (Noguera, 2003). As such, as Matias (2016b) argued, why would anyone expect students of Color to become teachers if they, in their own experiences, had racial trauma from lack of safety in their own schools?

Mechanisms of Whiteness in Teacher Education

Defining whiteness and teacher education separately is needed before understanding whiteness within teacher education. “Whiteness in teacher education” refers to the elements of hegemonic whiteness that influence the management, operation, curricula, instructional strategies, foundational philosophies, epistemological stance, and pedagogies of teacher education (see Matias, 2016a). That is to say that without interrogating the hegemonic dominance of whiteness in teacher education, teacher education is similar to Johnson’s (2006) description of power and privilege writ large: that it will move ahead like a treadmill regardless of whether we choose to walk. Therefore, in order to debunk the hegemonic whiteness that inoculates how teacher candidates are selected, what curricula and pedagogies are presented in programs, which partner schools are selected for practicum experience, which exams are purchased and administered to students, which standardized performance assessments are used, which teacher performance standards are imposed, and who are the teacher educators (the professors), there must be an active resistance to the racial norms of whiteness. In teacher education programs, whiteness is liberally disseminated through colorblind racist (Bonilla-Silva, 2014) messages and encouragement of white saviority, perpetuated in Hollywood films (Allen, 2002; Nishi, Matias, & Montoya, 2015; Vera & Gordon, 2003), such as Dangerous Minds (Bruckheimer & Smith, 1995) and white exceptionalism perpetuated through white-washed historical accounts (Thompson, 2003). This encouragement happens particularly for teachers striving to enter “urban education,” wherein “urban” is code for students of Color and low income families. These largely white, middle-class young women are praised for (what whites consider) their selfless outreach to pull their Black and Brown students out of the achievement gap. This trope of deficit thinking blames even the students’ own parents for seemingly not caring for their children’s education. These young, white female teachers quite literally seek to save their “urban” students from themselves and the fate that lies in the teachers’ culturally racist assumptions. Examples of these assumption include Latinos don’t value education or Black people are naturally lazier (Bonilla-Silva, 2014). This savior mentality is a form of whiteness, in that these teacher candidates—the majority of whom are white, middle-class college students—presume themselves to be capable of teaching urban students of Color despite never having been in urban communities, nor having worked with people of Color, let alone having had any meaningful relationships with people of Color. In this erroneous presumption they feel entitled to engage in patronizing ideologies, discourses, and behaviors in which they are saving urban students of Color through their mere presence in the system. This is tantamount to individuals who believe themselves to be fit, apt, and qualified to be medical doctors simply because they watched films about hospital life, but have no previous experience in the medical field.

Acknowledging this lack of racial knowledge, there is a litany of literature that focuses on training white teachers about race (Howard, 2006; Johnson, 2002; Ladson-Billings, 2000; Merryfield, 2000; Sleeter, 2001, 2004; Tatum, 1994). However, most of the literature focuses on studying people of Color. For example, the focus of cultural responsivity (Gay, 2002) is a field where teachers, many of whom are white, can develop cultural competency for their students of Color. Though this is a promising and necessary step, it does leave intact an underlying epistemology of whiteness. That is, white teachers simply need to master a cultural checklist in order to work with Black and Brown students and need not engage in a thorough investigation of the white self and why they, as white beings, have never had cultural competence in the first place. White racial identity scholar Janet Helms (1990) asserted that individuals cannot presume to lead others through the racial identity jungle if they have not gone through it themselves. As such, it is pompous for white teachers, who do not have any training about what it means to be white in a white supremacist education system and society, to assume they can lead Black and Brown students through a positive racial identity development. Therefore, as White (2012) so prophetically wrote in her book Whiteness and Teacher Education, there needs to be authentic ways for whites to engage with race. White’s book looked at how white preservice teachers have adopted a colorblind language that is deemed politically correct, but deeply infused with whiteness, especially when these preservice teachers do not have the opportunity to engage race while in college. She argues that teacher education should be developed to offer rich opportunities to engage with race.

White’s (2012) call for authentic engagements of race, though meritorious, lacks one essential consideration of whiteness: the emotionalities of whiteness. Many other scholars have documented white students’—particularly white preservice teacher candidates’—resistance to learning about race (DiAngelo & Sensoy, 2014; Matias, 2013; Rodríguez, 2008; Schnick, 2000; Solomona, Portelli, Daniel, & Campbell, 2005; Vaught & Castagno, 2008; Williams & Evans-Winter, 2005). As a teacher educator of Color, Matias (2016a) detailed the resistance she faced from white students when engaging race. Gonsalves (2008) described this resistance as “hysterical” when simply teaching white preservice teachers about multicultural education. In fact, so hysterical was the response he experienced when teaching white preservice teachers about multicultural education, his first recommendation was for students to take a mandatory prerequisite course on the psychology of race so that they understand “how socialization and racism affect the psychology of individuals” (p. 23).

Clearly, there is resistance among white teacher candidates within teacher education programs to study race and, moreover, whiteness. However, based on Gonsalves’ (2008) recommendation, the question turns from how is whiteness operating in teacher education to how is whiteness operating psychologically in teacher education? That is, the recommendation to understand the psychology of whiteness as a way to lessen resistance alludes to other dimensions of race beyond learning the institutionalization of racism, individual racial enactments, or past racial occurrences. Indeed, the turn to understand how race, and particularly whiteness, impacts white teacher candidates psychologically relates to other psychoanalytic interpretations of race, racism, and white supremacy. Fanon (1967), for instance, described how colonial racism has for too long produced within the Black mind a sense of inferiority such that the Black man develops a dependency to whites. Conversely, Baldwin (1963), though not employing psychoanalytic terminology, described how racism also impacts the white psyche. In his “Talk to Teachers” Baldwin (1963) acknowledged that most teachers are white, and thus took the opportunity to discuss race:

In order for me to live, I decided very early that some mistake had been made somewhere. I was not a “nigger” even though you called me one. But if I was a “nigger” in your eyes, there was something about you—there was something you needed. I had to realize when I was very young that I was none of those things I was told I was. I was not, for example, happy. I never touched a watermelon for all kinds of reasons that had been invented by white people, and I knew enough about life by this time to understand that whatever you invent, whatever you project, is you! So where we are now is that a whole country of people believe I’m a “nigger,” and I don’t, and the battle’s on! Because if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either! And that is the crisis. (p. 43)

Baldwin’s words required that white teachers reflect on the existence of a psychological attachment between the construction of their white identity to their need to diminish Black identity. He discussed how this inextricable co-tangling of identities impacts teaching:

If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history. And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all. If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself. You are mad.

(Baldwin, 1963, p. 43)

Matias (2016a) corroborated Baldwin and Fanon by employing a Fanonian analysis to understand how whites, under the context of whiteness and white supremacy, have also developed a racialized white psyche similar to how Blacks have developed a Black psyche in response to colonial racism, albeit whites develop an identity through a different process of racial privilege. Now produced, this white psyche and identity—predicated on a sense of entitlement, privilege, centrality, normativity, and morality—then projects itself into the field of teacher education in the forms of savior mentality, fetishizing, and racial silencing, all of which impact students of Color.

The Emotionalities of Whiteness

Knowing that there is a psychological attachment to racial identities such that one may resist learning about race, let alone whiteness, the question becomes what does one do to lessen resistance? Returning to White’s (2012) assertion of needing authentic ways to get at this resistance, teachers can be most effective when they focus their “energies on helping teacher candidates move past this resistance” (p. xx). This approach is often employed in so-called “diversity training workshops” wherein whites are instructed to merely “get over,” “move past,” or deny their deeply rooted feelings regarding race—precisely those feelings that undergird an individual’s need to resist learning about race. But, as Matias (2016a) asserted, this system creates “somnambuliacs, walking through life asleep” (p. 2). Instead, Matias argued, white teacher educators must confront these emotions and understand from where they stem—hence, the study of the emotionalities behind whiteness can be a much more realistic, constructive, and effective tool.

As an example of the emotionality of whiteness, shame is a deeply rooted feeling that does not surface based upon nothingness. According to Thandeka (1999), white ethnic shame stems from whites’ experiences with race during childhood. White children bear witness to racism and white supremacy, yet are told, mainly by white parents, to deny seeing such a reality in order to be accepted into a fictive white kinship; this creates a white person who feels like “someone who is living a lie” (p. 34). When the lie of a colorblind society is exposed, it surfaces deeply-rooted feelings of the original shame one feels for exacting the price to be white (Thandeka, 1999).

Since whiteness in teacher education is so pervasive, and because that whiteness operates psychologically on one’s identity, any teaching, curricula, and/or pedagogy that counters whiteness—like multicultural education, CRT, or CWS—is resisted precisely because whites have intertwined their identity to colorblindness. By exposing the falsity of colorblindness some whites will also feel as if such exposure will also falsify their identity. As such, they will feel emotions. Yet, the study of the emotionalities of whiteness is not preoccupied in characterizing these emotions (see Matias, 2016a). Instead, studying the emotionalities of whiteness is about exploring how these emotions are racialized within a white supremacist society and how they can be deracialized—namely, how are these feelings learned and how can they be unlearned? Therefore, rendering these emotions as “benign” inadvertently ignores how racial power works, especially when these feelings undergird one’s decision to resist whereas not learning about race would result in enacting more racism upon people of Color. That is, when acknowledging that whiteness, a subsidiary of white supremacy, inoculates teacher education such that its enactments are rendered invisible, routine, and/or commonplace, any emotions, behaviors, and/or beliefs used to justify whiteness are questionable.

To be clear, acts of whiteness in teacher education are so prevalent that there are routinely performed emotional resistances whenever a professor attempts to deconstruct race, white privilege, let alone whiteness itself. As such, these very emotions are worthy of study, because if not examined, the study of race gets operationally shut down by white tears, guilt, defensiveness, anger, shame, and/or emotional frozenness (Matias, 2016a). Emotionalities of whiteness do not only reference the surface sentiments one feels when discussing race. They also reference the racial power structure of white supremacy in education that not only caters to these emotionalities, but punishes those whose teaching and/or research might cause them to surface (de Jesus & Ma, 2004; Dixson & Dingus, 2007; Matias, 2013; Williams & Evans-Winter, 2005). Hence, if teacher education truly seeks to be racially equitable, then it should not only acknowledge the prevalence of whiteness, it should also recognize how the emotionalities of whiteness are being strategically used to keep whiteness at the center.

Implications and Cautions

When we understand the macro- and microsystems that affect and work within education (Bronfenbrenner, 1994), we can see the microsystems of support for whiteness in education that support the macrosystem of white supremacy. Few of these microsystems are as powerful as whiteness embodied and propagated by teachers. In this way white teachers, immersed in whiteness, produced by teacher education programs that are also saturated with whiteness ideology, play an important role in facilitating the continued racism and white supremacism of our schools. These teachers, often unknowingly, are groomed to produce the next generation of gifted and talented (GT) white students, while students of Color see white success across the chasm that is the achievement gap, even when the achievement gap between white GT students and students of Color is imaginary (Montoya, Matias, Nishi, & Sarcedo, 2016).

As shown, whiteness is at home in the college classroom, and specifically in teacher education. There are administrators and leadership who guard the curriculum and block CRT and CWS from having any real impact on students, preventing preservice teachers and teacher educators from even engaging in such race conversations (Matias, Montoya, & Nishi, 2016). When a critical race perspective is presented by faculty members in teacher education, they are usually confronted with white emotionality (Matias, 2016a); white fragility (DiAngelo, 2011); colorblind racism (Bonilla-Silva, 2014); and other forms of symbolic violence (Bourdieu, 1991; Leonardo & Porter, 2010).

Nishi, Matias, Montoya, and Sarcedo (2016) found that within their education classroom, even at the graduate level, white students projected whiteness using a variety of semantic moves (Bonilla-Silva, 2014) posed as questions, or whiteness frequently asked questions (FAQs). Because these thinly veiled questions by white students derailed, redirected, and shut down critical conversations about race and whiteness in the classroom, Nishi et al. (2016) recommended strategies that budding critical race students can use to support each other’s critical perspectives and continue the conversation. These strategies included “flipping the question” (p. 24) where when confronted with a whiteness FAQ, the respondent digs into the motivations behind the question instead of assuming a defensive posture. Also, Nishi et al. (2016) suggested that critical race students use “echoing and islanding” (p. 25), meaning to repeat critical perspectives and group together in the classroom with other critical students, to affirm and support each other rhetorically and physically. To this end, resisting whiteness in teacher education programs is not ignoring the reality of racism in education, but actually training teacher candidates to reinforce that reality through these productive semantic moves. Teacher educators must be able to identify and describe how whiteness operates in the classroom so that they can work with preservice teachers to dismantle it.

It is worth noting that, as teacher educators, our goal is the welfare of our students, particularly those who are of Color, because it is students of Color that these white preservice teachers will ultimately impact in their classrooms. However, also important is the experience and marginalization of the college faculty and students of Color who are forced to work within and against the normalization of whiteness in their classrooms. When a haven of whiteness has been created within a teacher education program, those people of Color, students and faculty, who are a part of that program, are relentlessly exposed to racial microaggressions (Yosso, Smith, Ceja, & Solórzano, 2010). These microassaults, insults, and invalidations (Sue et al., 2007) make tiny cuts and sizeable slices into the mental and emotional well-being of people of Color. Yet when these are compounded, as they always are, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, year after year, students and faculty of Color succumb to racial battle fatigue (Smith, Hung, & Franklin, 2011). Examples of these microaggressions include whites denying that white privilege exists, engaging a colorblind ideology, and asking students of Color to represent their entire race in classroom discussions, which of course denies the experiences of people of Color and ensure their continued marginalization. Matias (2013) described her trauma as a teacher educator of Color when her white students accuse her of racism and sexism because she dared broach the topics of race and gender in a class designed to explore those very topics.

Thus there are far-reaching implications of whiteness in teacher education. We can trace whiteness through teacher education and see the damage left in its wake, from the college curriculum, to the classroom interactions, to the end product of white teachers confident in their white righteousness (Dyer, 1997), affirming white students in the classroom, and serving their students of Color with continued microaggressions. This is happening while whites not only ignore it, but actually self-congratulate on their purportedly selfless service to education. In the end white supremacy, the ultimate institutionalization of racial oppression, gets recycled through the well-intentioned white teacher who does not deeply investigate her racial biases and whiteness ideologies.

Returning to Bronfenbrenner (1994), whiteness within the college classroom as a microsystem serves to promote and sustain whiteness in teacher education in terms of classroom norms and curricula, and thus in the public school classroom. Whiteness in these classrooms and curricula then serve to support and promote white supremacy as a macrosystem operating within education. The significance of these systems lies in the way they feed off of each other and manifest in what Bell (1992) recognizes as the permanence of racism.

The reinforcement of white supremacism is certainly the biggest implication for whiteness in teacher education, because of its human costs. All around the United States, students of Color walk into a classroom every day, and many of them are greeted with a slew of stereotypes and racist assumptions that work to dehumanize and remind them of their subordinate place in a racialized society. White students are given opportunities in their classrooms and tracked into GT and honors courses where they’re affirmed as smart and gifted, while Black and Brown students are often overlooked for the same consideration. Yet, white students are also paying a price as they come to embrace whiteness. For all these opportunities, they also give away pieces of their own humanity, as we return to Ignatiev and Garvey’s (1996) idea that loyalty to whiteness is indeed treachery to humanity.

Recommendations and Further Studies

In order to improve teacher quality we provide some recommendations that are worthy of consideration when dealing with teacher education and whiteness. Further, we include these recommendations to juxtapose where we are in regard to whiteness in teacher education and where we need to go.

  • Teacher education needs to explicitly address whiteness. That is, although Sleeter (2001) articulated the overwhelming presence of whiteness in teacher education over 15 years ago, there must be honest, rigorous, and serious exploration of whiteness inside teacher education. A focus on white privilege is not enough to capture the vastness of whiteness. Indeed white privilege is relevant but it is but one element of whiteness that impacts teacher-student relationships.

  • Teacher education programs must explicitly address race and racial justice in their mission statements and visions. Too often does the phrase “social justice” get loosely incorporated in a mission, vision, or philosophical statement for teacher education programs. Although commendable for its inclusion, citing a phrase is not enough. In fact, literature shows that in discussions of race and social justice, whites often deflect to topics of class or gender (see Allen, 2009 and Nishi, Matias, Montoya, & Sarcedo, 2016). Instead of avoiding race discussions, which tend to be the most emotional (see Matias, 2016a), racial justice must be specifically mentioned in mission and vision statements.

  • Teacher education needs tenured and/or tenure-line faculty who focus on whiteness, CRT, and CWS. The focus on diversity and inclusion is not enough for teacher education programs that are heavily reliant on whiteness rhetoric, discourse, ideology, and emotionality. Therefore, there must be a concerted effort to bring faculty with critical approaches to whiteness to help both identify how whiteness operates AND how to strategically uproot its stronghold. Focusing too narrowly on diversity and inclusion without focusing on dismantling white supremacy and hegemonic whiteness often leads to “band aid” programs (e.g., teachers of Color groups) that, although necessary, are not enough to enact a structural change.

  • Teacher education needs to weave racial justice throughout the entire program and stop putting race into a single diversity course. The literature on multicultural education is replete with discrediting the need to put all things diverse into one mandatory diversity course. Instead, the focus on racial justice must be woven throughout each course, activity, community or school internship, and practice. If, for example, racial justice is woven throughout every facet of teacher education, then a math education course should also be deconstructing how Eurocentric mathematical concepts provides an avenue that upholds whiteness.

  • Teacher education needs to account for how whiteness operates in acceptance interviews. Too often in teacher education, acceptance interviews conducted by white faculty, white teachers, and white administrators from partnering schools conducting the interviews produce more white teachers. In fact, in our experiences as teacher educators, teacher candidates of Color who have strong beliefs and/or a sense of racial identity are considered “too rough around the edges” and are thus denied a spot in the program. If teacher education truly wants to diversify and let go of whiteness, it needs to start shifting its acceptance practices.

  • Acknowledging how the educational system is wrought with institutionalized white supremacy, teacher education needs to factor in other aptitudes for teaching beyond grade point averages (GPAs) and test scores. That is, educational research has already proven that standardized testing is racially biased against students of Color, thus students of Color perform lower than their white counterparts. Additionally, Ladson-Billings (1998) and Lewis and Manno (2011) clearly outlined how white supremacy so embeds itself inside curricula, funding, teaching practices, and teacher-student relationships in schools that students of Color do not perform well. Therefore, by narrowly using high GPAs and standardized test scores to determine eligibility, teacher education filters only those who most benefited from a white supremacist school system: white students. If teacher education seeks to be inclusive, then other academic considerations must be incorporated.

  • Teacher education needs to radicalize and push back on standardizations that do not address the issues of racially just education. For example, teacher education is constantly under the pressure for standardization, yet preaches differentiation for K-12 students. Standardization of teacher performance exams often overlooks the specific focus on each teacher education program. If a program seeks to be racially just then it should resist the temptation to use standardized testing and processes or assessments or both to determine what a quality racially just teacher should look like, especially when such standardizations more often than not do not account for race.

  • Teacher education needs to stop being ahistoric when it comes to talking about race. In early 2017, there was a social media circulation of a political cartoon depicting the new US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, being denied entrance to a Washington, DC K-12 school. This picture was juxtaposed to a historical portrait of six-year-old African American student Ruby Bridges having U.S. marshals escort her into an all-white school in 1960 to desegregate it. The message behind the political cartoon was that DeVos’s being denied admittance to the school was one and the same as Bridges being denied entrance to the white school. Although the cartoon attempts to parallel the two scenarios, they are not remotely the same (Powell, 2017). Too often educators, many of whom are white, liken any sense of loss of white privilege to the racial oppression of people of Color. This, according to Mills (2007), was “white refusal to recognize the long history of structural discrimination” (p. 28). And in this “mystification of the past [so that it] underwrites a mystification of the present” (p. 31) all that is being done is a willful ignorance to history that generates a collective amnesia. To avoid this, talk about race, racism, whiteness, or white supremacy cannot be done without historically and politically situating the topic.

  • Teacher education MUST teach about the emotionalities of whiteness since the field is dominated by such feeling. As Matias (2016a) described, teachers cannot begin to be antiracist or even racially just if they do not investigate their own emotional reactions to studying race. In diversity work, instructors often tell whites to “get over” their shame, guilt, defensiveness, sadness, and general sense of discontent and “get on board” with antiracist teaching. In doing so, these individuals bury their sentiments about race even more deeply without ever addressing them. As such, they harbor resentment to racial justice and, as white racial identity scholar Helms (1990) so cogently argued, revert back into whiteness. If teacher education is truly committed to preparing racially just teachers then they need to be prepared to investigate the emotionalities of whiteness that routinely surface when teaching about race—and, in their surfacing, often shut down learning about race. Until these teachers face their own white emotionalities and understand from where they stem, they cannot wholeheartedly invest in racial justice.


Although there is much to critique of teacher education, it is nonetheless necessary to ensure quality preparation of preservice teacher candidates. So vital is teacher education in the preparation of future teachers that it becomes even more imperative that further explorations look into how deeply whiteness has embedded itself within teacher education. To overlook this invisible marriage between whiteness and teacher education is to engage in an ahistorical romance that has and continues to wreak havoc on our K-12 systems, and, ultimately, our K-12 students. Additionally, turning a blind eye to whiteness leaves teacher education at a loss in how best to prepare teachers, most of who are white, for a more racially equitable education system. In the hopes that education, via quality teachers, can truly be the great equalizer in US society, especially with respect to its widening racial achievement gaps between students of Color and white students, deconstructing whiteness in teacher education must become a commonplace topic.


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