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Disrupting Whiteness in the Classroom

How teachers can tackle the difficult work of countering racism in education.
Bree Picower

Teachers called out for racist lessons in the classroom has grabbed the attention of social media, but associate professor at Montclair State  University Bree Picower says it’s more than just a few bad teachers. Racism in our classrooms and curriculums reflects the systemic racism that exists in our schools. Picower is a teacher educator who examines how curriculum choices perpetuate white supremacy and the strategies educators can use to disrupt them.

“When we see the racist curriculum, we think we need to change that racist curriculum, but that racist curriculum is just the tip of the iceberg. It's a product of everything that's underneath it,” Picower says. “If we just tweak the curriculum, that teacher's going to figure out another way to teach dominant racial ideology. What we really need to do is help people examine their deep-seated beliefs about race, and that will do more than treating it as a curriculum or a content issue.”

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Picower talks about how teachers can tackle the difficult work of disrupting racism in education.


  • Find a network of educators focused on antiracist teaching and curriculum. Picower advises that you don’t have to do this work alone and shouldn’t, especially if you’re a white educator. “You need to be in conversation with other people as you do this,” she says.
  • Collaborate with an ally in your school or community. “Even if the majority of your school does not seem like it’s open to this, there’s probably a teacher there who’s feeling similarly to you,” Picower says, advising to look around and check out the books on people’s shelves, the posters on their wall, as a good place to start to understand people’s values.
  • Check your lesson plans before putting them in action. Share it with a buddy or check your work against a book. Look at examples of anti-racism in social media. Be open to feedback so you’re not teaching a racist curriculum. “There are places that you can go to see what some of this could look like, but you need someone who can give you that tough feedback and you need to be able to receive that tough feedback,” she says.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

You don't need to look hard to find recent racist actions in the classroom. An eighth-grade teacher in Texas who asked his students to list the positive and negative aspects of slavery. In New York, another teacher has Black students lie on the classroom floor while putting a foot on their backs to ask, how does it feel to be a slave? Racist curriculums have gone viral through hashtags like #CurriculumSoWhite. Educator Bree Picower, says it's more than just a few bad teachers and that whiteness is deeply embedded and reproduced in our schools. She's working to push back by helping teachers to reframe their understandings of race and to disrupt whiteness in schools. Knowing social media has raised awareness to how racism plays out in classrooms, I wanted to know more about the response to these incidents.

Bree Picower: There's often outrage, that's why these examples go viral. They spread, they get retweeted, they get spread across Facebook, and people are outraged, people are angry. But the problem happens that people are outraged and angry at the individual teacher that has taught this particular lesson or this egregious example of racist curriculum, and so the retribution that people are often looking for is for something to happen to that teacher, for that teacher to be disciplined. Usually, that's what the district will do. The district will discipline that particular teacher, maybe put them on leave, perhaps bring in someone to do a training, a one-time training.

I think the problem with that is that it assumes that this is an individual problem and that this is just one bad apple teacher, but the reality is, is that this is an institutional problem. These examples are embedded in the curriculum. Sometimes it's created by teachers, but it's also part of textbooks and the legacy of textbooks to have these kinds of examples. To just treat this one teacher as the source of the problem is ignoring the way in which racism is embedded not only throughout all of the curriculum, but in every aspect of schooling.

Jill Anderson: Are teachers really aware of this being in the curriculum?

Bree Picower: I think it depends upon how racially literate teachers are. I think teachers who have more sophisticated racial analysis can see it and recognize it, but teachers who haven't had the opportunity to develop that skill, kind of like media literacy, racial literacy, if they don't see it, they're not necessarily aware of the depth of the problem, or they may see these examples that go viral that are so egregious and so obvious and, "This is something someone else would do, I would never do this," but then they don't see the way in which other examples are actually embedded in their own curriculum.

Jill Anderson: Right, and so some of the work you've done helps pave the way for figuring out how to evaluate the curriculum you're using. Can you talk a little bit about the tools of whiteness?

Bree Picower: Tools of whiteness are ways in which white people maintain racial hierarchies. They're used to derail conversations on race, to avoid talking about race. They're used in all the different ways in which we maintain racial hierarchies by obscuring the way race operates. Curricular tools of whiteness are also tools that maintain racial hierarchies or maintain white supremacy, the system that keeps those racial hierarchies in place. Curricular tools of whiteness are particular types of racist curriculum that function to maintain white supremacy and to teach the next generation of students these racial stereotypes.

They're not directly tied to a evaluation system. I think that what happens is that, depending upon whoever's using that evaluation system, what is the role of tools of whiteness in what they're seeing? There's no perfect evaluation system because there's a human evaluator behind it. Depending upon what their understandings of race are, it makes it complicated.

Jill Anderson: The whole thing is complicated. I imagine there are teachers who set out thinking they're making a good decision to try to do some of this work in their classroom and it maybe goes awry or it doesn't come out the way that they had planned. How do you differentiate among racist pedagogy or implicit bias or just making a bad pedagogical decision? Or are these all sort of the same thing?

Bree Picower: Hmm, yeah, that's a really good question. The consequences are the same thing. Regardless of what the teacher's intentions are or how well-meaning they are, they are going to experience racist curriculum and they're going to either internalize racial superiority or racial inferiority, depending upon who they are on the receiving end of this curriculum. But as a teacher educator, it does make a difference what's going on with that teacher. There's a lot to learn in being a teacher who teaches from the lens of anti-racism. You need to learn how to teach, just the art and craft of teaching, and you need to learn what to teach. A lot of it is not really having the historical understandings about race, never having received that education themselves, so sometimes it's a content problem, but most often it's a socialization issue. It's how teachers have been socialized to understand difference, to understand race, and never having an opportunity to examine that. Whatever the subject, we teach what we believe. As educators, we teach what we believe. If we haven't examined those incoming socialized, dominant ideologies around race, then we're going to reproduce those in our curriculum.

All that to say, I think that part of the problem is that when teacher educators want to do something about this, they often will confine it to curriculum because curriculum is what we can see. When we see the racist curriculum, we think we need to change that racist curriculum, but that racist curriculum is just the tip of the iceberg. It's a product of everything that's underneath it. If we just tweak the curriculum, that teacher's going to figure out another way to teach dominant racial ideology. What we really need to do is help people examine their deep-seated beliefs about race, and that will do more than treating it as a curriculum or a content issue. Although, it is also a content issue.

Jill Anderson: Right, I mean, you have textbooks being produced that, I don't know if we want to use the word outdated because that might not be true, it just might be the systemic racist society we live in and that's the way the books are being produced, but that might be a whole separate conversation.

Bree Picower: Absolutely, but it makes a difference how a teacher then engages that. For example, I was working with a student teacher who was using their district's curriculum and had plans, a very thoughtful lesson, on Native Americans and different governmental land acts. This is a man of color who's very committed to racial and social justice, who applied to being a program that that's what it's about. As I'm reading the curriculum, I'm thinking, "Wow, this lesson, who is being framed as the hero in this lesson?" This lesson was teaching about how the US government helped Indigenous people. What story, what version of history is this lesson now backing up? When we look at what actually happened to Indigenous people under the US government, it is not a story of help, but this lesson now is a story that frames the US government as the helpers and Native Americans as passive recipients of that help, nothing about Native American resilience, resistance. Ultimately, this falls in the category of racist curriculum, but from such a well-intended person.

With that example, it's a matter of historical content knowledge and not necessarily knowing the actual history of what happened to Indigenous people under colonization. In that example, it does matter because when it was brought to his attention there was no resistance, there was no, "But that's not true," or fighting through whiteness or any of the things that might come up if it's coming from a different place. It does matter in terms of how we, as teacher educators, are trying to intervene.

Jill Anderson: That's a really interesting example to illustrate that. To get back to something you mentioned a little bit earlier was about teacher education programs. Where are we with that? Are teacher ed programs starting to change and embrace tackling this issue in their own curriculum?

Bree Picower: I think that we are. I think that there are some programs that are centering racial justice and are taking a programmatic approach. I think those are the exception to the rule. I think for the most part, there are dedicated teacher educators who are committed to anti-racism, who are trying to do this work on their own in departments that may or may not support it. Teacher education is a predominantly white institution and they're part of institutes of higher ed, they're often the least prestigious in institutes of higher ed. It's definitely an uphill battle because, like any other subsection of the population, there's resistance there or there's a willful ignorance around issues of race.

There are people who are committed and want to change it, but it's like anything else, very complicated in how those changes are brought about and who is positioned as leaders to drive that work. Oftentimes, it's untenured faculty of color who are most committed to moving their departments towards anti-racism, which puts them in a really challenging position because they don't have the power and are most likely to be targeted for that kind of work from white faculty who aren't interested in that kind of work.

Jill Anderson: Hearing that is scary, in a way, because that's one of the huge ways to make some inroad into what's happening in classrooms. For those educators listening who want to do this work, how do they get started?

Bree Picower: Yeah, well, they're not alone. There are teachers all over the country who are trying to do this work. Just as we started the conversation talking about the role of social media, social media is huge right now in progressive education and anti-racist education. There's so many teacher accounts and organizations that are committed to anti-racist social justice and abolitionist teaching. I think that's one of the easiest ways to start to network and to realize that you don't have to do this alone, and nor should you do this alone. Particularly if you're a white educator, you might be getting into that danger savior area, so you need to be in conversation with other people as you do this. There's lots of accounts that you could start following, for one.

The other is finding someone in your school or in your community that you think could be someone that you could collaborate with. There's probably someone. Even if the majority of your school does not seem like it's open to this, there's probably a teacher there who's feeling similarly to you. I often tell my students, look at the books in their bookshelves, look at the posters on their wall. That's where you're going to start to see people's values and start to find allies or co-conspirators to engage this work with. Sometimes that's really how it starts.

There's also, across the country, different teacher activists groups that teachers can join and find support in as well. There's a few national ones as well, like the Education for Liberation Network and the Abolitionist Teaching Network, as well as local grassroots organizations, like the New York Collective of Radical Educators or Teachers for Social Justice in San Francisco, The People's Education Movement. These are vibrant groups that have been growing for 20 years in different cities and provide networks to teachers who are committed to this kind of teaching and that are isolated in their schools.

Jill Anderson: We have almost a whole generation of teachers who have been essentially raised in this racist, very white lens of the world. Is there a way to check yourself before you go forth?

Bree Picower: You need a buddy. You need someone that is your thought partner that you're doing this work with. There was certainly a rush on anti-racist book clubs this summer, and that's great as long as you're doing something with that knowledge from the books that you're reading. As teachers, this is one of those ways that you can put that knowledge into action and share your lesson plans with someone, use a book that talks about anti-racism and check your work against that book. Look at examples of anti-racism, like I was saying, in social media, and how does your work compare to that? There's a lot of resources out there, like Black Lives Matter in Schools is another amazing network and they have a huge curricular database of lessons. There are places that you can go to see what some of this could look like, but you need someone who can give you that tough feedback and you need to be able to receive that tough feedback. Both are hard to do.

It's hard to tell someone, even me, after all this time, I don't want to hurt my students' feelings when they're presenting me with lesson plans that they've worked really hard on, but sometimes I have to work that muscle to say, "This is racist as hell and you can't teach this," and help them realize why. You, as the receiver of that feedback, have to be able to be open to that kind of feedback so that in the name of anti-racism you're not teaching a racist curriculum.

Jill Anderson: I was really struck by some of the examples that you've written about and just the opportunities for even relatively young, I think it was fourth graders, really taking some ownership of their own education and being critical and analyzing, and how smart they were. It was really impressive, where this work can lead in a classroom. It's not necessarily what you would maybe set out thinking it was going to go, but it opens up almost this whole new world, it seems like.

Bree Picower: A hundred percent. I'm an elementary educator. Young children are almost always not given credit for their sophisticated intellectual power and what they can handle. Young children and anyone who's been anywhere near a young child knows that one of the first things that they're going to tell you, if they don't think something is fair, is that it's not fair. That's a sense of justice, they know it. They know what's fair and not fair and they have no problem telling you. We can tap into that. A hundred percent not only can they handle it, they thrive.

Oftentimes, my newer teachers become leaders in their schools because they are able to engage students that other teachers weren't able to engage because the students are so interested in these topics of social justice and anti-racism. It becomes a classroom management tool, it becomes a relationship tool because you're also communicating to the children that I care about you and I want things to be fair for you. It's an extraordinarily powerful way to teach and it shows up in more than just the curriculum.

Jill Anderson: Parents are also important in this, and in a lot of these cases have either heard from lessons that their kids have been a part of in school that maybe were upsetting or see something that they recognize as not being appropriate. What should a parent do in that circumstance, where they see something? Other than obviously getting on social media and putting a hashtag on it, but what should they do?

Bree Picower: We wouldn't know about these examples if they don't do that. I highly encourage parents who want to do that to continue sharing their outrage. It's hard, because oftentimes the parents that are doing that are parents of color. As a white person, it's not my place to tell parents of color how they should handle their outrage around the racism that they're exposed to, but it definitely gives those of us who are concerned about this evidence and tools to work as allies on their behalf within the system to try to create some of these changes. But oftentimes the labor of alerting us to these problems ends up falling on, in this case, parents of color, and it's not their responsibility to make the curriculum less racist. It's the institution's responsibility. We need to step up and not let these things go when we see them within education, and teacher education need to be really carrying the burden.

I think it's also when parents do decide to share this with us, that we honor that by not continuing the cycle of just disciplining a single teacher, but seeing this as endemic to the institutions that we're part of and working to create institutional change that isn't just throwing away a teacher who has taught an egregious lesson.

Jill Anderson: Bree Picower is an associate professor at Montclair State University in the College of Education and Human Development. She is the co-director of the Urban Teacher Residency and the Newark Teacher Project. Her latest book is Reading, Writing, and Racism: Disrupting Whiteness in Teacher Education and in the Classroom.

I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.



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