Interrogating Whiteness in STEM: A Book Discussion

Whiteness structures our society in ways that I, as a white person, am encouraged to ignore, and that invisibility is a powerful mechanism for the slow violence of dehumanization in our society in general as well as in mathematics in particular.

One way for me to work on countering this invisibility in my worldview is to learn about the historical and ongoing narratives that have been erased or hidden from my awareness (that I have allowed to be erased or hidden). For readers looking for a starting place for this kind of work, I would recommend the challenging and joyful profiles on Mathematically Gifted & Black (https://mathematicallygiftedandblack.com/), run by Erica Graham (Bryn Mawr College), Raegan Higgins (Texas Tech University), Candice Price (Smith College), Shelby Wilson (University of Maryland).

Another way for me to work on countering this invisibility is to learn to disrupt the patterns that sustain me in not seeing. As a white person, it can be tempting for me to fall into patterns of  thinking of racism as a historical event or attributing both the good and bad only to individuals. Similarly, I grew up in a Jewish community, and the story told there repeatedly was: they tried to kill us; we survived. I know this feels glib, but it’s a quote, one repeated often enough that I can’t attribute it to an individual. From my perspective, both of these patterns of meaning-making allow me to avoid looking at structural issues. So for the rest of this post, I’m going to share my experiences reading and leading discussion groups around a book that helped me question structures edited by Nicole Joseph (Vanderbilt University), Chayla Haynes Davison (Texas A&M), and Floyd Cobb (University of Denver) entitled Interrogating whiteness and relinquishing power: White faculty’s commitment to racial consciousness in STEM classrooms. The goal is to help other groups discuss this important book.

It’s my understanding that Interrogating whiteness and relinquishing power: White faculty’s commitment to racial consciousness in STEM classrooms is constructed to challenge and support white readers; moreover, I’m white and most of the people I have read this book with are white. I have seen this as ‘white folks doing the work we need to do to educate ourselves’; there is a lot to learn before most of us can do this work without burdening others with this learning. The scholars of color with whom I’ve discussed the book have been social scientists; they have found the book affirming, both in terms of their experiences and the work of teaching white folks about race and power, but here and in the discussions I outline we opted to focus on challenging the white STEM faculty.

The book has three large Sections. Section I “draw[s] upon the wisdom of seasoned White scholars from interdisciplinary contexts” [p.4]. In these chapters, authors unpack (interrogate!) the ways that whiteness has shaped them and their work, often including the large changes they experienced in their approach to their work as they came to understand their racialized identities in more nuanced ways and as they became more intentional about engaging race and other systems in their teaching and scholarship. The editors call these authors “exemplars” (with caution, in the Conclusion), and I certainly agree that they offer readers compelling examples of white folks who have gotten unstuck from the “racism is individual evil actions” position.

Section II “features ‘up-and-coping’ White scholars” [p.5] who are writing similar reflections as the authors in Section I but from earlier in their careers and earlier in their path to interrogating whiteness and relinquishing power. And in Section III, scholars of color whose work focuses on race or identity in STEM or STEM education respond directly to individual chapters from Section II. Taken together, these pairs provide powerful examples of people learning to interrogate and relinquish as they get loving feedback and challenging guidance.

Reading this book functioned quite differently for the two groups of white readers in my discussions groups, and I think it’s an ingenious part of the book’s brilliance that it was effective for both groups. For my white colleagues who were new to thinking about their own identities, especially new to thinking about identities outside of disciplinary scholars as salient when teaching STEM, Section I functioned as a collection of stories to generate self-reflection, Section II functioned as aspirational but still near-enough peer exemplars, and the critiques from Section III helped them start to notice patterns in their thinking and the larger racial discourse in STEM. For my colleagues who had already spent significant time learning about race and identity (and social science more broadly), Section I provided models while the Section II and III pairs functioned as practice in making visible more subtle ideas about race and identity in complex contexts. If I’m honest, I found Section II the most uncomfortable to read because the critiques being made of them are close to critiques that I and others are making of my recent work.

I hope you are thinking of reading this wonderful book, so I’ll offer three different approaches to organizing a group discussion: one short- and two long-term approaches, for different audiences.

For groups focused on educators newer to discussions of race, power, and identity, I would suggest starting with Chapter 14: “For whom do we do equity and social justice? Recasting discourse about the other to effect transformative change”, by Alberto J. Rodriguez from Section III, because it lays out a lot of key vocabulary that this audience will find helpful. Then I would suggest reading through the chapters in Section I, one or two per discussion, and then moving on to read the pairs of chapters from Sections II and III, one pair per session, including re-reading the Rodriguez chapter with its partner.

There are two main challenges to this approach. The first is that a significant number of the chapters use a math or science teacher-education context for their discussions. Depending on your group make up, you might want to spend a little time up front talking about how to connect teacher-education and the rest of the work in the discipline. Similarly, some chapters focus on mathematics and others on sciences. In my experience, mathematician readers are familiar enough with the issues in doing and teaching science that there is no significant barrier for them, but science readers might struggle a little with the mathematics chapters when the nature of mathematics is under critique. Pulling some of these ideas out in an early discussion should set readers up for more success. The second challenge is that the chapters are written using social science lenses and framings. The Rodriguez chapter should help with the individual terms, but this audience might need help understanding how social scientists do their work and attending to the places where the authors are being careful for these reasons. In practice, in my discussion groups I often ended up serving as a broker from STEM to social science in the discussions, and this role was really important. I suggest that you bring a social scientist into your organizing leadership and perhaps discuss the differences in disciplines explicitly early in the life-cycle of the book discussion group.

Perhaps you would like to host a single session of a portion of the book rather than an extended book discussion over a semester. Last semester, I had a single session with a group of STEM faculty who had been discussing inclusive practices but not from a perspective of attending to whiteness. Here’s what I gave them to read, and how I framed it:

“Here’s what I’ve included:

  • The very short Foreword by Danny Martin.
  • The short Introduction by the book’s editors. This frames the book’s goals and contextualizes each essay a little.
  • Section I: Chapter 1, “Learning to work while white to challenge racism in higher education” by Sleeter. Of the pieces in Section I, I think this is clearly the best introduction to the ideas for this group.
  • Section II: Chapter 6, “Seeing the world with a new set of eyes: (Re)Examining our identities as white mathematics education researchers of equity and social justice” by Kalinec-Craig & Bonner. Similarly, I think this is the best fit in Section II because it’s about the move from general “diversity” work to interrogating whiteness.
  • Section II: Chapter 7, “Interrogating whiteness: The intersection of race, ethnicity, and science education” by Martin-Hansen. This is less focused for us, but I wanted to include something specifically discussing science for people who want that. The other chapters are general or focus on math. [Editorial: Rodriguez’s chapter speaks back to this one, so that is also a good pairing idea.]
  • Section III: Chapter 15, “Nesting in nepantla: The importance of maintaining tensions in our work” by Gutiérrez. This is the chapter that speaks back to Chapter 6.
  • The short Conclusion by the editors.

I suggest that we all read Chapter 1, 6, and 15 for the discussion. I think it will help if you read the Foreword and Intro, which are both short.”

The discussion went well, but as facilitator I did a lot to help us consider our terms and give examples from my own experiences. If your group has a goal, I would suggest offering a question related to that goal for readers to consider as they prepare for the live discussion and engage the text.

For groups focused on educators with experience discussing race, power, and identity, I would suggest starting by reading pairs of chapters from Sections II and III, perhaps two pairs per discussion if reading four short chapters is appropriate for your group. Then you could go back to Section I and apply the critical lenses that were expanded by working through the Section II-III pairings to dive deeply into the exemplars from this Section. For the less experienced group of readers, the text does an excellent job in helping them interrogate whiteness; I think this approach to applying the ideas from Section III to Section I would be a bridge to making active plans for also relinquishing power. The challenges identified above are less likely to impact this audience, but if you are all mathematicians (or scientists), you could pick the chapters that focus on your discipline to make this work fit more easily into a single semester.

 

As editor Haynes Davison and Cobb summarize in the book’s Conclusion, white educators are structurally encouraged to slip back into a state they label white innocence. The focus of this book and a discussion group around it challenges readers to commit to “creat[ing] a counter frame (Feagin, 2009) for what it means to be both racially conscious and an effective teacher, to the benefit of all students” [p.284].

 

 

References:

  • Graham, E., Higgins, R., Price, C. & Wilson, S. (2020). Mathematically Gifted & Black
    https://mathematicallygiftedandblack.com/
  • Joseph, N. M., Haynes, C. M., & Cobb, F. (Eds.). (2015). Interrogating whiteness and relinquishing power: White faculty’s commitment to racial consciousness in STEM classrooms. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
    https://www.peterlang.com/view/title/22727

Readers may also be interested in the following:

  • Other profiles of Black mathematicians:
    Childs (2020). Black Mathematician Month
    http://kristopherchilds.com/black-mathematician-month
    On Twitter
  • A summary of research on race, culture, and identity in mathematics education over the last century: [Suggested to BK by Andrews-Larson, Aly, and Tang]
    Langer-Osuna, J. M., & Nasir, N. I. S. (2016). Rehumanizing the “Other” race, culture, and identity in education research. Review of Research in Education, 40(1), 723-743.
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