By Emery Petchauer
A 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.
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.