• What It Takes to Build an Anti-Racist Classroom

    Bree Picower on Disrupting the Power of Whiteness in Education

    Disrupting Whiteness in teacher education requires an explicit, shared commitment among all stakeholders to center race and address racism. By Whiteness, I am not referring to white people per se—I am talking about ways of wielding power and privilege that maintain white supremacy. In teacher education, it can show up from faculty who are opposed to addressing race, mentor teachers in the field who actively enact racism, or administrators who create institutional barriers to advancing racial justice. When Whiteness arises from students in class, it might be in the form of discrediting the existence of racism or asking why they have to keep talking about race. It might be a defensive denial of white people’s culpability in a system of racism, or it might be a direct challenge to experiences of racism named by students of color in class.

    As a way to disrupt Whiteness and advance racial justice in teacher education, justice-oriented administrators and faculty at some universities have found ways to create smaller, mission-driven programs that I refer to as racial justice programs (RJPs). Through external grants, pilot programs, smaller initiatives, or changes in leadership, RJPs tend to operate slightly autonomously from their more traditional teacher education programs. Instead of ignoring race, relegating it to one course, treating it as an afterthought, or giving it one week on a syllabus, these RJPs are spaces that advance racial justice by centering race, disrupting Whiteness, reframing preservice teachers’ understandings of race, and preparing and sustaining candidates for anti-racist action.


    The term white tears has become popular in anti-racist circles in the last several years and refers to the way white people, particularly women, take up space and derail interracial dialogue by exhibiting emotional distress when topics of Whiteness are raised. White tears are a strategic tool of Whiteness to pull the empathy in the room toward their user, positioning white women as the ones who need comfort and attention in challenging race conversations rather than the people of color who are the actual targets of racism.

    To move students forward in reframing race, RJPs complicate the notion of white tears and recognize when crying is derailing versus when it is authentic. As Christina “V” Villarreal, the director of the Teacher Education Program at Harvard Graduate School of Education, explained, “I think there’s different variations of tears. There’s obviously the tears of shame. There’s tears of guilt. But I also see tears of growth, and those are powerful because they’re accompanied by statements like ‘I never thought about it that way before.’ That, to me, is the opposite of a red flag; it’s a green flag.”

    Farima Pour-Khorshid, an assistant professor in the Urban Education and Social Justice Program at the University of San Francisco also teased apart the way some of her white students respond to race content, explaining, “Being connected to feelings is different from taking up space. How you do the work to unpack those feelings matters, your willingness to engage in that deep critical self-reflection and labor to learn and heal makes all the difference.” These professors’ ability to tease apart the different types of tears and emotions their students exhibit goes back to the deep, personal, radical care they put into each of their students, because only that allows them to properly assess where their students’ emotional responses are coming from.

    “That’s another thing that I wrestle with—just feeling like the white folks need some more validation, they are looking for me to say ‘great job.'”

    Kay Fujiyoshi from the Urban Teacher Education Program program at the University of Chicago explains the complicated emotions that white students experience during conversations about race. “Those are difficult for a lot of white folks. There’s a lot of guilt or shame or really feeling scared to mess up. And I think those are good emotions because they show you that you care enough, that you are worried about this, that you’re thinking about it, it’s on your radar. But it’s tiring. Everybody cries.” Creating the relationships that allow for this flow of emotions is part of the work of dismantling Whiteness, and it takes years of experience, empathy, and emotional labor to be able to decipher the source of the exhibited emotion.

    In contrast to the productive emotions described above, Fujiyoshi is able to identify when white students are instead using emotions as a strategy of resistance. “That’s another thing that I wrestle with—just feeling like the white folks need some more validation, they are looking for me to say ‘great job.’ But when the push comes and they’re being challenged in some way, then it becomes, ‘It’s you, Dr. Kay, who’s making me feel like this!’ and then it becomes this externalization thing.” Fujiyoshi’s skill and experience allow her to distinguish when the emotions come from internal reflection versus external resistance. Because of the trust she builds, she can continue to push them forward, despite their resistance. She profoundly responds to her students by asking them, “Do you want sweet poison or do you want bitter medicine? Bitter medicine sucks going down. But sweet poison is just going to kill you in the end. So which one would you rather have?” Through this choice, Fujiyoshi makes it clear that while these relationships are loving, they are also places where unapologetically tough work is going to happen.

    The trust built within these relationships prepares students to understand that when they are called in about something they have said, it is meant as a way for them to grow and learn, rather than as an affront to their character. This work of unlearning racism is not a walk in the park. Pour-Khorshid warns her students, “Don’t be offended if I gently and lovingly let you know what you just said was foul, and we’re going to unpack that together. It’s always a learning opportunity.” Students understand that what they do or say will be held up to them like a mirror—but because of the gentle and loving relationship, the bitter medicine is more likely to be seen as an opportunity for growth and less likely to be read as a personal attack.


    While the RJP team members recognize the vital necessity of this humanizing work, holding these emotions takes a toll on them, particularly on faculty of color, who are navigating the unexamined racism of their white students and supporting the internalized racial trauma of their students of color. For faculty of color, navigating the balance of protecting themselves from the racism of their white students while also simultaneously using the program to push students’ anti-racist development places them in their own space of vulnerability.

    In the UTEP program, Fujiyoshi meets with every student individually in meetings called one-on-ones to check in and help them work through their growth. Fujiyoshi describes the toll of these meetings: “The one-on-ones are exhausting. There are a lot of tears, it’s a lot of time. For me, it’s a lot of headspace and a lot of worrying.” Traditional teacher education methods classes on math or reading instruction are less likely to take on this emotional side. One interviewee described a methods instructor in their department who was “an older white guy, nice as all get out, but I know he didn’t (a) understand, (b) want to understand, or (c) feel the need to understand why issues of racial justice under the umbrella of social justice were important. So we have some folks who would fall under that category of ‘I just want to teach my science methods course,’ which he saw as sort of race neutral.”

    In contrast, the willingness to engage the emotional component of dismantling racism sets RJP instructors apart from others who simply teach required methods or content courses. RJP faculty move beyond a transmission model to a desire to transform teachers’ deeply held beliefs. They engage in critical self-reflection about Whiteness, how to navigate and push in affirming ways, and how to engage in their own self-care. Fujiyoshi describes the challenge of creating warm relationships with students, particularly white students who are resisting or have a lot of need for validation: “We’re trying to talk about building relationships [in our classes] and the importance of having warmth in the classroom, and then I’m caught in this conundrum where I am not doing that with you. But wait, I still have to model this so let me take a step back.” Fujiyoshi makes the commitment to the work by stepping back, reflecting, and pushing herself to continue to build the trusting relationships for students to grow.

    “Those particular teachers are going to be mindful of race in ways that I don’t think they would have been.”

    Pour-Khorshid sent me an article titled “I Was Wrong to Tell You to De-Center Your Feelings, White People,” written by April Dawn Harter, LCSW, a Black anti-racist therapist. Pour-Khorshid explained what appealed to her about the article: “I keep thinking about how it takes a certain type/level of emotional labor that may not be for everyone to do, but as I specifically think about this as a racial justice/healing justice facilitator in particular, I think we do need more effective ways of doing this work and having these conversations and supporting understanding, healing, growth, change.” While it is grueling, Villarreal explains her take on when students have breakthroughs: “I don’t think I could still be doing this every day if I didn’t see people in those moments.”


    The previous sections described how RJPs structure themselves programmatically. This section looks at the pedagogical spaces for engaging racial justice as candidates begin their journey through the programs. I will not go into detail about the specific assignments and syllabi of the RJPs here; rather, I will summarize the goals of coursework and then describe the different programmatic structures of learning in which racial justice is integrated.

    To briefly summarize the goal of coursework in an RJP: The courses are designed to teach topics typically included in teacher education such as methods and content, but this is done while students are simultaneously reframing their understanding of race. Pour-Khorshid describes this in the UESJ program: “This is a program committed to social justice, which means you are going to have to unpack your racial identity. Not just your racial identity; you’re going to have to be unpacking the various forms of privilege and power that you hold.” Both Pour-Khorshid and Villarreal are also trained facilitators with Flourish Agenda, a national nonprofit that provides Radical Healing Workshops, which they have brought into their respective programs. Pour-Khorshid explains:

    We use Shawn Ginwright’s framework of healing-centered engagement that argues that to aim toward social justice, we need to heal from oppression at various levels. So we’re looking at the individual kind of harm we’ve experienced under the oppression that we live in, in society. But then we’re also trying to heal interpersonal relationships, the ways we engage with our students, the ways we engage with our families, the ways we engage with our communities. Ultimately we’re also trying to heal institutions because we understand that institutions are shaped by oppression and perpetuate harm.

    Pour-Khorshid illuminates how the work of understanding how oppression operates on multiple levels is addressed as part of her RJP. The following section examines all of the spaces, in addition to coursework, where the RJPs rely on the humanizing relationships they have developed to further their racial justice goals.


    Once programs select students with the most potential to become critically conscious, anti-racist teachers, RJPs organize students in ways that develop the kinds of humanizing communities that build the trust for racial justice work. Every one of the RJPs in this chapter used a cohort model. Cohorts are small groups of students placed together for the scope and sequence of their coursework and fieldwork. While not exclusive to RJPs, traditional programs often have large numbers of candidates, and it becomes more efficient for students to register for classes that fit their individual schedules, rather than try to coordinate them into particular groupings that meet together. The benefit of cohorts, however, is that they allow students to have a community of peers in which to build relationships, share experiences, reflect on new knowledge and feelings, and engage in challenging conversations. For advancing racial justice, the cohorts become a space where the work is furthered through peer discussion, and it can be particularly powerful when the cohorts are made up of racially diverse candidates with different life experiences.

    While each RJP is structured differently in terms of how much time and when in the program sequence students are in their cohorts, each uses the cohort as a home place for key experiences and learning. Fujiyoshi reflects on some of the benefits of the cohort as a space to address racial justice: “It’s a great bonding experience for the cohort. It creates moments to really grow together, to be vulnerable, to listen, to empathize, to express compassion, but also to call things out. To be shocked, to be pissed.”

    By building relationships in cohorts, opportunities for cross-racial dialogues support greater awareness and understanding across difference. Annamarie Francois, the executive director of UCLA’s Center X, said, “What’s important for us is that they learn together side by side and that they have courageous conversations with one another, because by separating them, the conversation is going to stay safe, particularly for our white students, and we don’t want that.” As she implied, the mixed-race nature of these dialogues pushes the students, particularly the white students, to understand their future role in classrooms with students of color. “We’re really trying to push the envelope and transform the way we talk to one another about teaching, the way we understand the students that we’re serving, and the way that our identities impact that.”

    Because the RJPs recognize the importance of increasing the number of candidates of color, the white students are often the minority within their cohorts. This creates opportunities for learning from people of color that many white students have never had. As Tyrone Howard professor and director of the Black Male Institute at UCLA, explains, “In our courses, unlike most other programs in the country, white students are in the minority. And I think that dynamic lends itself to a host of different things that happened in terms of the interactions.” Tanya Maloney, with whom I co-direct the Newark Teacher Project at Montclair State University, expanded on what some of those different things are for the white students: “They are learning to teach in an environment that is intended for teachers of color, so they are learning perspectives and hearing perspectives that they have not likely heard—certainly not fronted in other aspects of their teacher education.” She believes that because of this, “those particular teachers are going to be mindful of race in ways that I don’t think they would have been.”


    Reading, Writing, and Racism- Disrupting Whiteness in Teacher Education and in the Classroom

    From Reading, Writing, and Racism: Disrupting Whiteness in Teacher Education and in the Classroom by Bree Picower. Used with the permission of Beacon Press.

    Bree Picower
    Bree Picower
    Bree Picower is an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Montclair State University. She is the codirector of the Newark Teacher Project and the Critical Urban Education Speaker Series. Picower has previously published Practice What You Teach: Social Justice Education in the Classroom and the Streets and coedited Confronting Racism in Teacher Education: Counternarratives of Critical Practice and What’s Race Got to Do with It? How Current School Reform Maintains Racial and Economic Inequality. Connect with her at breepicower.com.

    More Story
    Reading Women’s Most Anticipated Books of 2021 In this episode of Reading Women, Kendra and Joce talk about their most anticipated books for the first half of 2021. * Eds....
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.