Understanding the “Tools of Whiteness” (Notes from AERA, Part 2)

By Emery Petchauer

petchauerA common figure in teacher education is that roughly 90 percent of public school teachers in the United States identify as White. As the percentage of ethnic minority students continues to rise, teacher training and professional development often include diversity training or a focus on multicultural education. Alternative routes into teaching such as Teach for America, which place teachers most often into “urban” (read: ethnic minority) classrooms, also devote a significant amount of training time to these areas. Though this focus on diversity in professional education is a good starting point, I often think that it is a major error in reasoning to think that the mere existence of it will affect teachers in any meaningful way.

These currents in teacher education, in my estimation, are what make the work of Dr. Bree Picower of New York Universityso important. Her work illustrates how some white preservice teachers actively maintain dominant racial hierarchies in the midst of multicultural training by using what she calls “Tools of Whiteness.” This means that when white preservice teachers encounter ideas, theories, or perspectives that might cause them to re-examine notions of privilege, power, or oppression, there are systematic ways that they can actively resist doing so. 

The phrase “Tools of Whiteness” is particularly revealing when we consider the social mechanisms that buttress dominate (and dominating) ideologies such as white supremacy. Tools such as hammers and screwdrivers are small items with even smaller counterparts (nails, screws), but they are the fundamental units that make sophisticated and towering structures resist forces that might alter them. Similarly, it is unexamined assumptions and taken-for-granted notions that maintain complex ideologies.

In the realm of teacher education, Dr. Picower illustrates through empirical research how Tools of Whiteness generate from three main areas: teachers’ emotional experiences, existing dominant racial ideologies, and performances of identity. In other words, when teachers are challenged to think beyond their current white-normative ideologies, they draw from these three areas to avoid, refute, or subvert issues that would have them do otherwise. Findings such as these illustrate the important point that it is less passive resistance and more active protection that sustain dominant ideologies in teacher education.

It is important to note that it is not the intent of this research to demonize teachers who hold such views nor suggest that all phenotypically white teachers hold them. Essentially, the concern is for both the students and teachers. Paulo Freire reminds us that oppression dehumanizes both the oppressed andthe oppressor. In this way, having a better understanding of Tools of Whiteness helps teacher educators better strategize how to create learning experiences and curricula that will enable their preservice teachers to see the inadequacies and inaccuracies of their views and the need to develop more inclusive ones.

Related Links:

New York Collective of Radial Educators

Social Justice Teacher Plan Book

Dr. Emery Petchauer is an assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; his current research includes teacher preparation for ethnic minority students particularly at HBCUs and how involvement in hip-hop implicates students’ educational approaches, experiences, and lives.


2 responses to “Understanding the “Tools of Whiteness” (Notes from AERA, Part 2)

  1. Merit should be the only criterion for all selections. Color discrimination cause conflicts and deprivations.

  2. Dr. Emery Petchauer , thanks for these provoking thoughts. I would like to use this blog entry as a point of discussion for the courses I teach. Interesting work…

    In response to “tuitionacademylahore”—and her/his comments on “merit.” The idea of “merit” was a fallacious concept in the 50’s and the era in America prior to that, when discrimination was legal. In a sense it is a relatively new construct and concept most often advocated by people who could have benefited from legal segregation during that dark era in American history. The exception being Ward Connerly in the 1990’s and present, who is an African American man who opposes affirmative action here in California. I acknowledge there are many others like him (e.g. Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, Larry Elder etc.). Their objectives on have extended the conversation as well. Based on the data, neither affirmative action, nor merit alone has been the great equalizer in our society. When it comes to educational outcomes from P-16 much has remained the same since segregation, if not worse. See Kozol’s latest work that chronicles these challenges. I agree that color discrimination causes conflicts, however, friction SHOULD occur to change ineffective policies and educational outcomes. We have come a long way but as the Sotomayor confirmation and the Gates arrest have shown recently, we have a long way to go in our society before true equity is achieved and term “merit” can be truly applied to the American education. Again, “merit” is only about 50 years old at best in America. I applaud Dr. Petchauer for making efforts to do address these issues. That is what academia is for to expand our ideas of the possible.

    Peace & Health

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