Education, Personal Reflection

A pedagogical reflection on the coddling of white ignorance


This is another ‘guest post’ from Dr Kevin Talbert, an Associate Professor in Education at The College of Idaho in Caldwell, ID, USA. In this post, Kevin writes about his experience of engaging in critical, pedagogical self-reflection inspired by conversations with his students about race and whiteness in teacher education classrooms.

Dr Kevin Talbert
Kevin M. Talbert, Associate Professor, Education, The College of Idaho

 In a recent campus event, some students of color who are from places of origin outside the United States shared some of their experiences in our classes. Their perspectives constitute a lived curriculum (Marsh and Willis, 2007) of sorts, an articulation of their everyday encounter with our teaching via both the explicit, hidden, and null curricula (Eisner, 2002). Among the many resonant insights these students shared, one that I find most stark, and that convicts me most, regards the coddling of white ignorance/ innocence. The students noted the ways in which white students get a wide measure of grace for their ignorance of history, their ignorance of racism and its effects. Often, white students are excused from racial conversations and, instead, the entire burden for discussions of race falls onto students of color who, often, are expected to speak as the sole and universal authority on race.

As a white teacher of classes predominantly composed of white students, in a field (teacher education) predominantly composed of white women, these students’ words challenge me. I am a product of white ignorance–I have reflected elsewhere (Talbert, 2020) on not having a sense of whiteness that was more coherent than “not black” until I was nearly 30 years old. White ignorance is fundamental to the colonial project, the “color that need not name itself” (Willinsky, 1998). My own ignorance was neither unique nor surprising given that I grew up in the heartland of American empire– a child of the Reagan ’80s, reared in the tenuous middle-class of the U.S.’s “rust belt” Midwest. Growing up, even though I had non-white classmates, I had no real sense of the legacies of race and racism aside from the commonsense of my community, namely: racial division only exists because some of “those people” benefit from “playing the race card.” Race only exists because we keep focusing on it; and racism is only complaining. My knowledge of black experience in the US was all filtered through my own whiteness, though I neither knew it at the time nor had a language to explain, and thus excused away. I was bred in white ignorance grounded in racial denial.

“Because a loving teacher aims to help students flourish, they must also turn attention towards space for improvement, such that the student may come to acquire the types of habits and practices that can lead toward both greater human connection and continued intellectual growth”

Noel Smith and Hewitt, 2020, p. 194

Now, as I teach (future) teachers, I am grateful for mentors in my life who graciously, but directly, challenged my racial ignorance and initiated a trajectory of self-reflection to which I remain committed (Talbert, 2020). Those teachers were neither dismissive of my ignorance nor did they allow it to remain unchallenged. Even when, in my hubris, I rejected what they were teaching, they remained steadfast in their commitment to telling the truth about racism, including my own, while also steadfast in their commitment to my growth. Theirs was a pedagogy of grace, a word that in my faith tradition indicates unearned redemption extended through the power of love. “Because a loving teacher aims to help students flourish, they must also turn attention towards space for improvement, such that the student may come to acquire the types of habits and practices that can lead toward both greater human connection and continued intellectual growth” (Noel Smith and Hewitt, 2020, p. 194). The model of gracious teaching these teachers demonstrated grounds me now as I teach a course for pre-service teachers that foregrounds issues of race, social class, gender and sexuality, and language.

The righteous frustration some students of color at my institution expressed at the ways white students continue to be coddled in their ignorance compels me to vigilance about my own teaching. I am heedful of my own ignorance, not merely as a relic of the past, but as an instrument of hegemonic whiteness that continues to seduce. I am cognizant of the ways in which whiteness affords grace to some bodies and not others. Thus, I recognize the necessity to ensure that a pedagogy of grace remains firmly rooted in a commitment to racial justice, that it not “let students off the hook,” that it challenge us to confront the racism we embody and do the difficult work to transform ourselves as one small step toward transforming the world. It is no easy task, but I am thankful to the students for the challenge.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What are some of the ways students from socially advantaged groups are “let off the hook” in our classrooms? What might we do to cultivate transformation?
  2. In what ways does teacher preparation continue to coddle white teachers of teachers? What sorts of transformations are warranted?

REFERENCES:

Eisner, E. (2002). The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs, 3rd edition. Pearson Education, Inc.

Noel Smith, B.L. and Hewitt, R. (2020). Conclusion: Teaching (and Learning) through Despair with Philosophy and Love as Hope. In B. L. Noel Smith, and R. Hewitt (Eds.), Love in Education and the Art of Living (pp. 187-199). Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Talbert, K. M. (2020). Who am I? or Condemned by speaking and damned by silence: A decades long currere journey. Currere Exchange Journal, 4(1), 30-37.

Willinsky, J. (1998). Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End. University of Minnesota Press.