Beyond Race Awareness: White Racial Identity and Multicultural Teaching

By Lawrence, Sandra M. | Journal of Teacher Education, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview

Beyond Race Awareness: White Racial Identity and Multicultural Teaching


Lawrence, Sandra M., Journal of Teacher Education


White teacher education students often distance themselves from racism (Sleeter, 1995a; Tatum, 1992b, 1994). White people can easily say, Racism has nothing to do with me; I'm not racist (Frankenberg, 1993, p. 6). Wellman's (1993) case studies of White racism support this view. The White women and men he interviewed tended to believe that racism was synonymous with personal prejudice, and because they did not feel prejudiced, racism must be someone else's problem. Whites can seem to remove themselves from racism, but they cannot escape their Whiteness. It is impossible to say, as Frankenberg (1993) notes, Whiteness has nothing to do with me, I'm not White (p. 6).

The concept of Whiteness, like the concept of race, is socially constructed and can have several layers of meaning. One layer, Whiteness as description, encompasses the characteristics of light skin and Western European physical features. Another, Whiteness as experience, describes the state of being race-privileged, the daily experience of receiving unearned privileges from which Whites benefit. A deeper and more influential layer, the ideology of Whiteness, refers to beliefs, policies, and practices (often unarticulated) that enable Whites to maintain power and control in society (Thompson & White Women Challenging Racism, 1997).

Many White college students readily recognize themselves as White by description but often fail to acknowledge or understand the privileges their white skin grants them. Their White privilege is often invisible to them; so is their participation in the ideology of Whiteness.

Some teacher educators and teacher education programs have responded to White students' need for greater understanding of race-related topics by providing opportunities for learning about multicultural education (Gollnick, 1995; Grant & Tate, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 1995). Research involving White undergraduates in antiracist teacher education courses suggests the courses can help students recognize racial oppression in schools (Bennet, Niggle, & Stage, 1990; Bollin & Finkel, 1995; McCall, 1995) and help them gain insight into their Whiteness (Lawrence, 1996; Lawrence & Bunche, 1996; Tatum, 1992b; Valli, 1995).

These studies of race-focused multicultural education courses suggest they can be influential in changing expressed attitudes and convictions during the course. They provide little information on whether or how students' new learning or heightened awareness translates into teaching action once that class is over. I wanted to know for my own teaching whether teacher education students' changed attitudes about racism and themselves would carry over into classrooms with their students.

Multicultural Education as a Catalyst for Racial Identity Development

In a previous study (Lawrence & Bunche, 1996), I utilized interview and writing sample data from five students to illustrate how a multicultural education course was a catalyst facilitating racial identity development of White undergraduates. Data analyzed in accordance with Helms's theory of White racial identity development (1990, 1995) revealed that some students made slight changes from their previously held color-blind views, while others made more profound shifts in their thinking about racial privileging and the injustices of institutional racism.

Helms (1990, 1995) theorizes that all persons undergo a process of racial identity development characterized by different statuses extending from those least developmentally mature to most developmentally mature (1995, p. 184). White persons experience a developmental process involving six statuses: contact, disintegration, reintegration, pseudoindependence, immersion/emersion, and autonomy. These developmental statuses are not rigid and exclusive; one status may be more dominant during one period of time; others may be also be operating.

White students exhibiting dominant contact status characteristics are typically unaware of racism and its effects and often claim to view all people through a color-blind lens. …

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