Studying and Teaching Whiteness

Jessica Lee '03

Dear Jessie,

I am intensely gratified that you decided to do the week that includes the books on Asians and females. Honestly, don't you ever move beyond the circle of your personal interests? Isn't this what your classmates expected? You should have let Pei Pei take this one.

I liked you a lot better when you reacted against all things Asian and female, when you actually tried to transcend these race and gender things. Granted, the oppositional identity became tedious at some points, but at least you weren't conforming so easily to societal expectations of the racial identity development. Wasn't being tacitly exemplary more fun than being aggressively collective?

Couldn't you at least choose a higher stage of racial identity development to stagnate at? Does the fact that you were also called "hollow bamboo" validate you? Really Jessie, do you really think you can be an authentic Asian female by writing a seminar paper informed by the readings on Asians and females? Don't you know you do White a lot better than you do minority? Whatever happened to you asserting your difference from the stereotypes that others have of you?

Let's do better next time,
Jessie's Evil Twin

People of color often respond to oppression by redefining themselves, by refusing to adhere to mainstream society's definition of who they are and who they are supposed to be (Kumashiro, 2001, p. 5).

Whiteness, as an identity, a process, a race, a power bloc, a pervading social construct, needs to be centralized in identity research and identity work in schools. All the literature on racial identity development and race hierarchies are ultimately tangential to the issue of school and identity if they fail to communicate with and articulate Whiteness. Historically, educational and sociological studies neglected to explicitly work with Whiteness as a powerful culture concept. In many studies and school practices regarding race, Whiteness is never mentioned, further asserting White as the inarticulate, pervasive, and invisible norm. There is a tension between studying/teaching the dominant (e.g., elite Whiteness) as perpetually focusing on the mainstream culture and studying/teaching the dominated as additive oppression by the privileged researcher/teacher. This tension is largely due to the lack of discourse surrounding the dominant culture. Rather than circumventing Whiteness as the center of identity politics, focusing on Whiteness is the key to a more complete understanding of race identity and the necessity for multiculturalism.

The lack of Whiteness as a concept makes it difficult to understand the concept of race. For example, the practice of African American History Month, by celebrating Black accomplishments and leaders in February, implicitly suggests that the remaining eleven months should not be devoted to Black history. Black History Month is meant to focus educational attentions on the important roles African Americans have played in American history, but because privileged White history is taught for the majority of the school year, this type of Whiteness is reasserted as normative. Concurrently, cultural activities and artifacts that may be related to groups of color become exclusively linked to race. The African American-ness of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X eclipses their experiences with spirituality or poverty. The fact that the story of John Brown, a poor White abolitionist who led the raid on Harper's Ferry, is sometimes taught in the context of Civil War history, but infrequently in Black history, further enmeshes the idea that race discussions are only about people of color. This example shows the limitations of the assumed normativity of Whiteness in that it limits multiple identities that can encompass social class, ethnic histories, and privilege.

The limited definition of Whiteness is the absence of hue; hence I use the capitalized "w" so that White may be recognized as a social construct, a process, a culture, and not just a color. I will use "Brown" as the term for the social construct, created in relation to Whiteness, of having a race, including African, Asian, Latino/a, and Native. As Amira Proweller's (1998) White subjects demonstrate, Whiteness is difficult to articulate in an environment where it is taken for granted:

The power of white liberalism resides in its ability to persuade those at the cultural margins that they are part of a broader, universal identity of humanness that ignores differences. In this process, differences are effectively whited out and those in the cultural center secure the invisibility of their own privilege. (p. 30)

Contemporary White studies scholars recognize "Whiteness" as a term that has disappeared from the concept of race, despite the fundamental concomitant formation of Whiteness and racial domination (Frankenberg, 1997, p. 4). Although centering Whiteness in our schools and studies potentially perpetuates its elevated status, failing to recognize its integral part in the construction of race ignores the power dynamics that structure society. Seeing all facets of race, White and Brown and combinations, as social constructs allows identity to be seen not as merely static, but as individual, collective, multiple, and improvisational. The recognition of the constantly communicating relationship between Whiteness and Brownness elucidates the greater picture of how race shapes identity.

A school culture that ignores the identity crises of its student body places the onus of identity work on individual social groups. Since Whiteness is the pervading norm of society and all identities are formed in relation to the norm, schools that neglect identity issues are also overlooking Whiteness. Historically, "schools, by and large, do not support the development of relational communities but, rather, discourage and block the production of meaningful relationships among school-age youth" (Proweller, 1998, p. 2). In the absence of or lack of coherent communication about identity, both White and Brown students create an identity they perceive as "being somebody." Consequently, identity formation manifests itself in inchoate1 understanding, such as feeling pressured to conform to racial binaries, creating hierarchies that do not recognize Whiteness, and being unable to consider multiple identities.

Traditional educational literature on race identity that ignores Whiteness inevitably misses the point of understanding the culture of their Brown subjects. In Unraveling the "Model Minority" Stereotype: Listening to Asian American Youth (1996), Stacey J. Lee descriptively analyzes the relationships among different Asian groups at Academic High School and compares them to the Model Minority stereotype. Her analysis of intragroup divisions is radical and progressive in that it recognizes the diversity among a too-often essentialized population. However, it fails to place them within any context outside of school. The Asian groups float in a sea of racial exclusion whereby their issues are individualized to their affinity group without connections to other White or Brown groups, and without an examination of power dynamics.

Lee's study looks at a moment of identity in a specific context. She shows the limits of the racial category of "Asian American." Her multiple categories of identity elucidate the many ways one racial group relate within the group and with other school groups, such as teachers, administrators, and non-Asian students. She succeeds in showing some of the negative consequences of a positive generalization like the Model Minority stereotype. However, in generating hierarchies among the groups by labeling and dividing her study population into Asian American, Asian, New Wave, and Korean, she may be revealing more about herself than her subjects. Kevin Kumashiro (2001) suggests that "labels are not meant to describe the different marginalized groups as much as they are meant to trouble the ways we traditionally think about students and about people of color" (p. 4). While her labels do expand the reader's idea of Asian Americans, Lee's use of the term "Asian American" is problematic, particularly in the title of the book and in her hierarchy that blatantly positions the Asian Americans as the superior group among those directly affected by the Model Minority stereotype.

Lee uses the label "Asian American" in her title, even though within her book she argues that Asian American-identified students are ideologically and politically different from Korean- and Asian-identified students. Her act of classification is tied to a spectrum of liberal progressive politics, as she writes that Asian American-identified students "were articulate critics of racism" (p. 109) and "hoped to use their education to fight racism" (p. 67). At the lower end of the hierarchy, Korean-identified students are portrayed as racist social climbers, with "[positive] attitudes toward whites and [negative attitudes toward] African Americans . . . influenced by their desire to move ahead socially and economically" (p. 102). Asian-identified and New Wave students are largely left out of the criticism of race because they had little contact with non-Asians.

Lee develops this hierarchy of resistance such that the Asian American-identified students' resistance of isolationist racism is privileged over the Korean-identified students' resistance, which might include resistance to economic failure in the United States. Whiteness, in this hierarchy, is pervasive but not in the foreground. The superiority of the top group, the Asian Americans, is justified by their ownership of (White elite) education and their willingness to maintain strong friendships with non-Asians (including White students). The inferiority of the low group, the Koreans, is rationalized by their perpetuation of present (White elite) social order and rejection of alliance with people of color (i.e., indiscriminate relationships with White people). The construction of this hierarchy is especially suspect since Lee, an Asian American-identifying academic, identifies with the highest, most critical group.

The roles of elitism and Whiteness in identity formation are skirted in Lee's study. Lee fails to acknowledge that the students who attend Academic High School are there because they competed and chose to be there. Proweller (1998), on the other hand, places elitism and Whiteness at the heart of her research, largely because her subjects are White females attending an elite school. It is less obvious for Lee to centralize the issue of Whiteness. Indeed, if she were to focus her study of Asian Americans through the lens of White elitism, seminar papers criticizing her circumvention of Asian-ness might abound. However, in order to adequately describe the privilege of her population, and since relations with Whiteness are a barometer of her hierarchy, she must emphasize Whiteness to understand the privilege of her Asian Americans.

Since school practices often have theoretic bases in academic research, the study of Whiteness has strong implications for the implementation of multicultural curricula. Proweller (1998) differentiates the methodological issue of "studying down," in which the researcher looks at populations with less privilege than the ethnographer, and "studying up," in which the researcher examines groups with equal or greater power status. She suggests that educators locate the issues that are taken for granted and use them to create social change:

Continuing to "study down" while neglecting to "study up" sets social analysis back in conceptual development and closes out possibilities for broadening our understanding of youth subcultures and socialization processes in educational contexts. (p. 206)

Her advice for school culture identity work is to place the issues located by the research in curriculum. These issues include debunking the idea of rigid, static identity. By beginning to articulate the norm that shapes all identity, schools may serve as Rosaldo's cultural borderlands in which students can play with their multiple identities. The creation of borderlands will provide safe opportunities to cross cultural divisions, and this will create social change towards a multicultural goal. In terms of a multicultural community, students will understand that identity is not contained, but relationally constituted and that the present-day construct entails people of color conforming to White Western culture.

Studying and teaching Whiteness require careful identity work by the researcher and teacher. In the same way my evil twin scoffs at me in the intro, I wonder why I find myself raising a skeptical eyebrow at Lee but not so much at Proweller. By bolstering the group she identifies with, Lee and her argument lose some credibility. She does not explicitly state whether she is "studying up" or "studying down," and this lack of awareness of her relations to privilege and Whiteness weakens her argument because the reader lacks a clear sense of her vision of race relations and positionality. I wonder, however, if I am too critical of Lee. Just because she has lived the group she is studying, does that mean that her analysis has to be 60 times better than an "outsider?" Is she really an "insider?" And in anthropological research, has not the stereotypical White Banana Republic-clad ethnographer been banned from the ethnic group scene? Sociologists have been taught to be wary of dominant academics imposing their presence on less powerful communities.

This may be an issue of relating credibility to authenticity: who has the skills, the background, the objectivity, and the subjectivity to "keep it real?" If we want Asian Americans to study Asian America and African Americans to study Black America, but academics are inherently White-washed, then how do researchers and teachers reconcile the tension that their education has privileged them into a category that dominates their group of origin? The academic status of the researcher and teacher bestows power and privilege that will keep them tied to Whiteness. The ethics of who is allowed to study certain subjects revisits Richardson (1997) and is much more complicated than the questions I have listed. However, the construction of race hierarchies increases the pressures of authenticity, legitimacy, and credibility. These issues all hearken to the need for the researcher/teacher's acceptance of multiple identities.

Richardson's notion of the collective story, however, suggests that writing the stories of oppressed people is an empowering act that leads to collective action. The purpose of sociological work is to "give voice to silenced people, to present them as historical actors by telling their collective story" (Richardson, 1997, p. 14). Richardson may have written an empathetic criticism of Proweller's study rather than Lee's. Still, Richardson also acknowledges that the collective story is multi-vocal and a story of the oppressed will necessarily include the voice of the oppressor, whether loudly or softly.

This discussion of Whiteness has the goals of changing society's notion of identity from disparate to multiple and easing the identity work of students through research and teaching focused on identifying the invisible norm. Within the classroom, problematizing the dominant will hopefully mitigate past "efforts to challenge one form of oppression [that] often unintentionally contribute[s] to other forms of oppression [and] . . .embrace[s] one form of difference [that] often exclude[s] and silence[s] others" (Kumashiro, 2001, p. 1). Kumashiro proposes the strategies of "racializing queerness" and "queering race" to recognize that there are multiple identities at work within members of the queer community and people of color. The recognition of our different identities as all in relation to the norm, the shaping force of everyone's identity, may be the commonality that coheres the concept of multiple identities.

Acknowledging the place of Whiteness in our society is different than perpetuating its elevated status. Recognizing the dependencies of the categories of White, Brown, and combinations of the two as social constructs allows identity to be seen not as merely static, but as taxonomically and temporally dynamic. Whiteness is central to the construction of ethnic groups, race, and "other." By some cunning and/or ironic move, Whiteness has maintained its lofty status on the hierarchy and its central place in identity development by masquerading as invisible, transparent, and the absence of race. A tension exists between illuminating Whiteness as the invisible relational force pervading race discussions and inadvertently concentrating all attention on Whiteness such that colored categories are ignored. Granted, negotiating this tension requires a clear understanding of the interconnectedness of Whiteness and Brownness. However, researchers and teachers reclaiming White as a powerful identity-shaping force will open and revamp the discussion and issues surrounding school and identity.


1 I recognize that identity formation may be a lifelong process that is dynamic and inexpressible. Ellsworth claims that understanding the space-in-between will always be inchoate J. My argument, however, is that educators must recognize that the absence of Whiteness from conversations about race; acknowledging Whiteness will inform their concepts of positionality.


Frankenberg, R. (Ed.). (1997). Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kumashiro, K. (2001). Queer students of color and antiracist, antiheterosexist education: Paradoxes of identity and activism. In K. Kumashiro (Ed.), Troubling Intersections of Race and Sexuality. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Lee, S. J. (1996). Unraveling the "Model Minority" Stereo type: Listening to Asian American Youth. New York: Teachers College Press.

Proweller, A. (1998). Constructing Female Identities. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Richardson, L. (1997). Fields of Play. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.


Jessica Lee '03 is a Special Honors Major in Education and Sociology and Anthropology.She plans to increase awareness of racial dynamics, especially interactions with Whiteness, in the fields of medicine and public health. This paper was written for Professor Lisa Smulyan's Education 131: Social and Cultural Perspectives on Education.