Disrupting hegemonic whiteness in the higher education classroom
55 Kustatscher

Cross-posted from Centre for Education and Race Equality in Scotland – Blog post by Marlies Kustatscher, Moray House School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh, UK

There is currently revived interest across disciplines and educational institutions to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ (Arshad, 2020). There are many layers to this, from diversifying reading lists to unpacking racist underpinnings of key concepts, from deconstructing representations of history to hiring more Black and Minority Ethnic staff. Another important dimension of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ is to acknowledge and disrupt power imbalances in the classroom, and this includes talking about hegemonic whiteness.

By whiteness, I refer to “that political project to defend and enforce the racialised social order of white supremacy” (Emejulu, 2016). In academia (and elsewhere), whiteness is encapsulated in (unnamed) social practices that define the social world, and is based on collective and deliberate ignorance and avoidance to acknowledge the conditions for the re-production of race (Mills 2007, cited in Emejulu 2016). Joseph-Salisbury explains:

The whiteness of the teaching staff reinforces the whiteness of the curricula, which both work to reinforce the association between whiteness and intellect. All this contributes to the conditions that make racism possible in higher education (Joseph-Salisbury, 2018).

Most of my teaching takes place on an early childhood degree, where the cohort of students tends to be mainly white and female. Students can be on quite different journey points in terms of their racial literacy. For some white students, it can be a revelation that they too ‘have’ an ethnicity/race, because they have never experienced racialisation. Another important learning point is that racism does not only happen when a person belonging to a racialised minority enters the room. The fact that racism is systemic and institutionalised, rather than reduced to racist name-calling, is often a new idea for white students.

Conversations about anti-racism enter our higher education classroom in different ways. Students may recount incidents from their workplaces, which lead to a discussion about racism, or talk about racism explicitly in relation to certain class topics. There is often a tendency to locate racism ‘elsewhere’. However, micro-aggressions do happen in the classroom, and small remarks can expose racist prejudice, for example when students mention ‘poor children in Africa’ or make generalising comments about children belonging to minoritised groups.

Such moments can be an opportunity for transformative learning to happen (see Fakunle (2020) for a more detailed discussion on this). They are sensitive and it is important to get the tone right for everyone: the student who may be directly affected by a comment, the student who made the remark, and all the others in the room.

It is important not to wait for such incidents to arise, but to proactively create spaces for learning and discussion. When teaching a Social Justice module, I asked students to develop a set of principles about how they wanted to relate with each other. This brought up interesting discussions on concepts such as ‘freedom of speech’ (and its implicit meanings).

White students often wanted to ensure that they would not be judged or reprimanded if they ‘accidentally’ or ‘unintentionally’ said ‘something racist’. These can be teachable moments to talk about white privilege and white fragility (Di Angelo 2018), and how not to get stuck on fear, guilt or shame. There are many educational tools we can use for bringing up conversations on whiteness and racial prejudice (see some resources below).

As a white female lecturer standing in front of a class, I am aware of the particular power positions I inhabit. Through my role as a lecturer, I hold what Bondi (2004) calls ‘institutional power’ – the authority to assess students’ work and influence their degree results, whilst bearing an academic title which legitimises my position of power, conferred by that very institution. This institutional power is linked to, and enacted by me, through my social identities as a white, straight and middle-class woman.

To talk about whiteness, as a white person, from a position of ‘expertise’ perpetuates entrenched power relations. Rather than imparting knowledge, or positioning myself as someone who has acknowledged and therefore ‘solved’ the implications of their whiteness, I am trying to share my own learning journey. For example, I reflect on who I include when I use the term ‘us’ or ‘our’ (often, whiteness is implicit). I will not always get it right and I am willing to learn from and with students.

White feminism, in academia and beyond, has come under a lot of justified critique (Johnson, 2020). Equally, confessionalism or self-flagellating are not helping anyone and re-centre the conversation on white people. Especially at a time in which talking about Black Lives Matter and hegemonic whiteness receives a lot of backlash, I see it as my responsibility as an educator to highlight these issues to my students, and to continue my personal learning journey.

Tools and resources for discussing whiteness, white privilege and racial prejudice in the higher education classroom:

  1.  The ‘hypothesis game’: this works well in a first class, and if students do not yet know each other. Students are allocated into groups of three. Two students make ‘hypotheses’ about the third student in the group, about everyday topics (from musical taste, to how they live etc.). The person who is being talked about should keep silent, not confirm or deny any hypotheses (even after the game has ended). The game has three rounds, so each person in the group experiences being ‘hypothesised’ about for a few minutes. It is followed by a whole classroom discussion about what it felt like, which topics were considered sensitive, and why. It is a great game for highlighting how most of our assumptions about people are loaded with stereotypes. It requires careful moderation to ensure everyone feels safe and to critically unpack what is being said.
    Source: Werkmeister Rozas, Lisa and Garran, Ann Marie (2015) Utilizing faculty’s hidden and complex social identities to teach anti-oppression: An intersectional approach. Presentation at CERES International Conference 2015, Edinburgh.
  2. The Social Identity Wheel exercise: students are asked to fill in the social identity wheel individually, and discuss the question prompts in groups.
    Source: LSA Inclusive Teaching at Michigan University, shared with me by Reed Swier.
  3. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (by Peggy McIntosh). This list is a good starting point for reflective discussions on whiteness and white privilege.
  4. Lots of social media accounts provide opportunities for students and staff to keep educating themselves, e.g. @theconsciouskid, @nowhitesaviours.

Arshad, Rowena (2020) Decolonising and Initial Teacher Education. CERES blog available at https://www.ceres.education.ed.ac.uk/ceres-blog-decolonising-and-initial-teacher-education/
Bondi, Liz (2004). Power dynamics in feminist classrooms: making the most of inequalities?. Geography and gender reconsidered, 175-181.
DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press.
Emejulu, Akwugo (2016) The Centre of a Whirlwind: Watching Whiteness Work. Verso Books Blog available at https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2934-the-centre-of-a-whirlwind-watching-whiteness-work
Fakunle, Omolabake (2020) Learning from a critical incident in an internationalised classroom. University of Edinburgh Teaching Matters Blog, available at https://www.teaching-matters-blog.ed.ac.uk/mini-series-learning-from-a-critical-incident-in-an-internationalised-classroom/
Johnson, Azeezat. Refuting “How the other half lives”: I am a woman’s rights. Area. 2020; 00: 1– 5. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12656
Joseph-Salisbury, Remi (2018) Whiteness characterises higher education institutions – so why are we surprised by racism? The Conversation. Available at https://theconversation.com/whiteness-characterises-higher-education-institutions-so-why-are-we-surprised-by-racism-93147
Mills, Charles (2007) White Ignorance. In Shannon Sullivan & Nancy Tuana (eds.), Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. pp. 11-38. Available at https://shifter-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/mills-white-ignorance.pdf

Marlies Kustatscher is a Lecturer in Childhood Studies at the Moray House School of Education and Sport and the Deputy Director of CERES. Her research interests include children and young people’s experiences of intersectional inequalities, children’s rights and participation. She is a Co-Programme Director of the BA Childhood Practice.