White on White

Summer 2004

By Elizabeth Denevi

INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS COMMMITTED to the development of a multicultural community find they can't progress without confronting the question of white racial identity and privilege. As a white woman who has spent a great deal of time working with schools on this subject, I know the importance and value of this process. The work I've seen in schools has never included guilt sessions or the pummeling of school administrators. The process has never been about criticizing schools into paralysis. Rather, the work I have seen is firmly rooted in the research on identity development and social justice initiatives. It involves critical analysis so that we can understand systems of privilege and racism. It requires reflective practice so participants can reference their own experiences. And it includes extensive dialogue, especially about early encounters with racial difference and current attitudes towards diversity.


 Order "Technology and the Culture of Learning," the Summer 2004 issue of Independent School magazine.


Yet I also know that community work on white identity can be profoundly uncomfortable, and many who begin the work quickly pull away as soon as it becomes too painful. Janet Helms, a leading researcher on identity development, calls this pulling-away process "reintegration." Reintegration comes after a white person has developed a growing awareness of racism and white privilege and needs to resolve the tension between noticing and not noticing behavior that may contradict previously held notions of social equality. Instead of trying to abandon his or her racist attitudes, a white person in the reintegration phase may blame or fear people of color. White people who speak out against racism know how hard it can be, and the temptation to return to silence and collusion is very real. So, schools need to develop opportunities for whites to talk about race, whiteness, and privilege in order to create more white allies. In a professional development seminar program I co-facilitate, most of the white participants and many people of color cite our exploration of white identity development as the most revealing and important work they have done as teachers. During the last ten years, an explosion of research on this topic has created a wealth of materials. What is needed now is the will to work in a systematic way — not only for the benefit of people of color, but for everyone in independent schools.

Robert Carter's (1990) research on white college students has shown a direct relationship between racism and racial identity development: white students with a more developed sense of their own racial identity tended to espouse fewer racist beliefs. In her work with white youth, Patricia Marshall (2002) unfortunately found that most teachers are unaware of the importance of racial identity development, especially for white students. She notes the naivet√© of assuming white students are neutral about their contacts with people of color: "Through racial-group socialization," Marshall writes, "many white youths (similar to many white adults) experience some degree of anxiety vis-√†-vis the current and imminent demographic shifts resulting from increases in the population of people of color." Many white youths have been taught — albeit unconsciously — that their way of living is the American way and often feel a need to defend their culture against "them," creating animosity and fear of interaction with others and locating whiteness as "rightness." The point is clear: schools emerge as a critical place where we can educate white youth as racial beings. "Without teacher intervention," Marshall says, "these students are unlikely to recognize the inherent racial-group hierarchy manifest in the mainstream focus of traditional curricular content and the marginalization of people of color through add-on units in February or any other time of the school year…. Educators need to create deliberate learning opportunities that promote healthy racial identities."

What is true for white students is also true for adults. In her anthology entitled White Privilege, Paula Rothenberg (2002) writes:

Once I began to recognize how much of my success is a consequence of unfair advantage, I cannot help but begin to seek ways to make amends. This does not mean that I am not smart nor does it mean that I have not worked hard — I have worked very hard in my life to accomplish my goals — but it does mean that I recognize that there are others equally smart who worked equally hard and who have a great deal less to show for it simply because they are not white.
This concept of making amends is a critical aspect of becoming antiracist. Instead of wallowing in guilt or denying the impact of slavery because "my family never owned slaves," white teachers and students can recognize their relative privilege and work constructively to use that privilege to develop, implement, and learn anti-bias curricula.





The long legacy of white privilege/racism has come at a huge price for both whites and people of color, but it is usually the effects on whites that have remained absent from our consideration. The writer and poet Wendell Berry states it unequivocally in The Hidden Wound(1989):

If I had thought it was only black people who have suffered from the years of slavery and racism, then I could have dealt fully with the matter long ago; I could have filled myself with pity for them, and would no doubt have enjoyed it a great deal and thought highly of myself. But I am sure it's not so simple as that. If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compunction to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown, the more deeply he has hidden it from himself.
One way of looking specifically at white identity development is through the establishment of white racial affinity groups. "Affinity group" refers to a gathering of people who all share a similar experience: in this case, being white. This does not mean that everyone shares the same experiences, but rather that participants recognize that their racial identity has an effect on the way they move through the world. Affinity groups don't take the place of multiracial dialogue, but rather add to cross-racial communication. They give whites a space to reflect on what being white means to them. In my experience, cross-racial dialogue is usually enhanced by affinity group work because participants have an opportunity to be clear about their own racial experience before trying to understand another's.


Initially, participants may say, "I already know what it means to be white. I want to hear what the black folks are saying," or "Dividing us up won't make anything better. Self- segregation is just as bad as imposed segregation." In multiracial settings where there may be several affinity groups meeting, it is interesting to watch as whites often walk hesitantly to their meeting space as if they don't really want to go, while people of color walk intently to their dialogue groups. There is almost a palpable fear, and sometimes expressed resistance, against coming together explicitly as white people. To respond to this resistance, I use two strategies. One is to have participants read a piece of literature before we begin that will set a context for our work together, perhaps a contemporary work such as Julia Landsman's A White Teacher Talks about Race or a classic text such as James Baldwin's introduction to The Fire Next Time, "My Dungeon Shook." A second strategy is to include in the group some people who have participated in affinity groups before. They can often allay fears, helping new participants understand the importance of acknowledging their racial group membership. Many whites say they feel uncomfortable identifying as "white" because when they hear the term, they think "racist." They may have no conception of whiteness as a shared perspective.

Affinity groups signify an important area of development for white people. Using a clear set of guidelines for dialogue, white educators can come together explicitly around whiteness and look at strategies for moving through discomfort. I often begin with expectations and ask participants what it is like to be with a group of white people. Are they comfortable? Uncomfortable? There is usually a range of responses that help to break the ice, enabling the group to explore their roles as whites committed to challenging racism. Participants spend some time finishing the phrase: "Being white in my school means…." This exercise can help them understand why being white may be an important identity in schools. Some talk about their frustration with other white colleagues and the desire to just write them off as racists. Others remind the group that it is the responsibility of whites to challenge racism, and how can this happen if whites avoid other white colleagues? The group tries to openly acknowledge prejudices and develop strategies for challenging racist messages by creating new messages not based on stereotypes and misinformation. Ultimately, the dialogue reduces tension and diminishes the taboo of talking explicitly about race. Whites have a place they can ask questions, struggle with issues, and gain support from allies in a similar position.

In addition to white affinity group work, there is also a need to talk explicitly about whiteness and privilege/racism in larger school communities. With the support of the local association of independent schools in greater Washington, DC (AISGW) and the Eastern Educational Resource Collaborative (East Ed), a group of colleagues conducted a panel discussion entitled "Whiteness: Identity, Privilege, and Accountability." About 175 educators came to the presentation, one of the best-attended events the association ever hosted. Moderated by an African-American equity agency director, the panel consisted of myself, a white head of school, an African-American director of diversity, and a white professor of multiculturalism from a local university. Our purpose was to increase awareness and understanding of the role of white identity and development, and to highlight our accountability as educators committed to academic excellence, student achievement, and a healthy school environment. For us, it was critical to name and describe the workings of white privilege so people could begin to identify and challenge both subtle and overt forms of racism and denials of racial privilege.

As part of my presentation, I referenced Alice McIntyre's (1997) research on "white talk," a coded language of avoidance. McIntyre describes this language as "talk that serves to insulate white people from examining their/our individual and collective role(s) in the perpetuation of racism." It is a way for whites to distance themselves from the difficult task of engaging in an exploration and critique of whiteness. White talk, McIntyre says, manifests itself as the uncritical acceptance of biased comments through avoidance, interruption, dismissing counter-arguments, silences, and/or colluding with each other to create a "culture of niceness" that makes it very difficult to discuss the white world. By identifying white talk, the goal is to recognize the price whites pay for this kind of collusion and begin to see how privilege is maintained.

One of the main forms of white talk is minimization, signaling that achievement depends on personal ability and that racism is not really prevalent. Another manifestation is defensiveness disguised in disclaimers such as, "I'm not racist. I have friends who are people of color. I don't see color. I went to a workshop on white privilege." Providing other examples of white talk, Paul Kivel (2002) writes about the tendency to blame the "angry" person of color, attacking her or him for her or his anger as opposed to asking what has happened for it to take so much outrage to get our attention. Another insidious form of avoidance is "if only" statements, declarations that set conditions on one's commitment to racial justice: "If only people of color weren't so angry; if only people of color realized that I am different from other white people; if only people of color would give white people a chance; if only people of color didn't use phrases like ‘all white people'; if only people of color didn't ask for special treatment; if only this student of color would just try to get along." These kinds of statements shift the responsibility from those in power to those who are marginalized and oppressed by white privilege. There is also redefinition of the issue by stating that there is "reverse racism" because people of color attack white people or that everyone is prejudiced. This is a counterattack that offers competing victimization: "She took my slot at Harvard; they're taking away our jobs; white males have rights, too; white people are under attack." When faced with issues of white privilege and racism, I often hear whites say that they didn't mean to hurt anyone. Their actions were unintentional or




  • Explore your own whiteness; become firmly rooted and aware of your own ethnic identity; think about what it means to be white in your school.
  • See yourself as diverse; make sure that "multicultural" is not synonymous with "other than white."
  • Distinguish between individual and group identity.
  • Understand the social, political, and historical role of teaching:
    • We will teach the way we were taught unless we learn another way.
    • Teachers are not neutral; teaching strategies and methods are not objective.
    • We all speak from a particular standpoint based on our experiences.
    • There is no essential, observable single truth; rather, there are multiple truths.
    • Everything is not relative, but rather we recognize that cognition, the way we think and learn, is dependent upon experience and context.
  • Understand and implement multicultural teaching strategies; design a curriculum that is explicitly anti-racist; be committed to raising issues of identity development in my classroom.
  • Learn the distinction between speaking for someone and speaking with someone; be committed to dialogue, as opposed to discussion, when appropriate.
  • Recognize the difference between intentions and outcomes. As Ellis Cose writes in The Rage of the Privileged Class (1993), schools are full of people "who, without intending to, create racial hurdles or hostility, manage to create a fair amount of both. That they cannot see what they have done is due partly to the fact that they meant no harm and partly to a disinclination to examine whether the assumptions they hold dear are in accord with reality."
  • Practice "distinguishing" behavior: interrupting prejudice and/or racism, advocating for social justice, being an ally, using your privilege to dismantle systems of oppression.
"It was just a joke." Finally, there is also a great deal of paternalism in schools, "This student of color will benefit so much from being at our school; we can do a lot for this kid." All of these examples of white talk further entrench white power by impeding authentic discussions of whiteness and privilege and the consequences of racism for everyone.


In the face of these tactics, white allies need to have responses ready so they are not caught off guard by stereotypical or racist comments. One tactic I use is to ask more questions: why do you believe this to be true? With more information, I can tailor my response. I try to share my own experiences as a counterbalance, not as an attack, so at least I know the person has different or additional information. In schools, time is often cited as the barrier to all meaningful discussion, implying that we would talk about these issues if we only had the time. My strategy is to set the time, as contrived as that may sound. The most important piece of the interaction is to mark my discomfort. If I am very upset, I will often say, "I am not comfortable with the comment you just made." At the very least, I have given the person something to think about. I then try to follow up, either immediately or later. One key point is to remember that it is never too late to go back to someone and relate your experience. One time I approached a colleague after months had passed since she made a subtle yet racist comment. I prefaced the request to meet as best I could: "I know this is very awkward, but I have been thinking a lot about something you said and would like to respond more thoughtfully." If the situation is too charged, I look for a third party to help facilitate. My goal is to have a range of responses by developing strategies for interrupting bias that work for me. Silence, denial, and/or avoidance are all forms of collusion, and one of the best ways to begin to be antiracist is to develop a mode of personal resistance.

As this work expands and more discussions of white privilege occur in school communities and classrooms, educators will need to talk explicitly about the costs of white privilege to white people. At his presentation during the 2003 White Privilege Conference, Tim Wise, a leading white activist, referred to this as the "holy grail" of white privilege work. Wise talked about how the lives of white people were diminished because of racism: denial of family histories because of assimilation, segregated lives, lack of knowledge of others, and a lessening of one's own humanity because of complicity with a system of oppression. A woman of color once asked me pointedly: "Why would white people want to give up their privilege? I wouldn't if I had it." This is a critical question and one that deserves our attention because once white people can feel the impact of racism on their own lives, they may work harder to end it.

Tobin Shearer (2002) examines "White Spaces," places where racism situates itself in whites because of a pattern of internalized superiority: "how our whiteness hurts us, how it holds us back." The first space he examines is isolation, a space where white people cannot see themselves as part of a group. To counteract this space, whites need to connect with other whites who may be struggling to recognize their privilege. Another space is control, where white people want a solution to racism. They want to fix the problem because they are so used to being in control and able to determine outcomes. Here white people need to understand that they are caught in a larger web of forces beyond individual control. A third space is loss, the fact that whites do not recognize or grieve what they have lost because of racism. In the process of becoming white, they gave up significant parts of their culture, history, and stories. To challenge this space, whites have to reclaim who they are: "When these tasks of reclamation are undertaken with full knowledge of how the dominant society tries constantly to shape white people into racists," Shearer writes, "the journey of reclamation can be joyful and life-giving. It can also become a profound act of resistance to racism." The final space Shearer discusses is loathing, the active distaste and mistrust of other white people that can be seen when white people lash out at other whites. To fight against these feelings, whites must meet others where they are and accept themselves, despite the challenges.

I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of independent school teachers, students and parents on issues of race, and the vast majority really want to do the difficult work of exploring white identity and addressing privilege. Educators who are struggling to come to grips with their white identity know that there is no way to avoid the hard discussions if they really hope to eradicate racism. Whites and people of color are having profoundly different experiences in independent schools. By pretending we are all the same under the skin and that color doesn't matter, we are denying a fundamental social experience not rooted in biology, but in the history of this country. Our responsibility is to understand how larger systems of oppression may be functioning in our schools, despite our best intentions. We can create opportunities to do racial identity development work in racial affinity groups or in cross-racial settings as long as the ground rules and outcomes are explicit. Finally, if we are clear about who we are, and if we can both name our commitment to equity and recognize how white privilege works, our institutions will better serve everyone.


Berry, Wendell. (1989). The Hidden Wound. New York: North Point Press.

Carter, Robert. (1990). "The Relationship Between Racism and Racial Identity Among White Americans: An Exploratory Investigation." Journal of Counseling and Development, Vol. 69.

Cose, Ellis. (1993). The Rage of the Privileged Class. New York: Harper Perennial.

Kivel, Paul. (2002). Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice. New Society Publishers. Lee, Enid. Presentation for Teaching for Change, Washington DC, 2003.

Marshall, Patricia L. (2002) "Racial Identity and Challenges of Educating White Youths for Cultural Diversity." Multicultural Perspectives, 4(3), 9–14.

McIntyre, Alice. (1997). Making Meaning of Whiteness. Albany: State University of New York Press.

McLaren, Peter. (1994). "Multiculturalism and the Post-Modern Critique: Toward a Pedagogy of Resistance and Transformation." Between Borders: Pedagogy and the Politics of Cultural Studies. Edited by Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren. New York: Routledge.

Perry, Pamela. (2002). Shades of White: White Kids and Racial Identities in Schools. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rothenberg, Paula S. (2002). White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism. New York: Worth Publishers

Shearer, Tobin Miller. (March/April 2002) "White Spaces." The Other Side.

Elizabeth Denevi

Elizabeth Denevi is a director of diversity at Georgetown Day School (Washington, DC).
Denevi is also the author of “White On White: Exploring White Racial Identity, Privilege, and Racism,” which appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Independent School.