What does it mean to be antiracist?
What does it mean to pursue antiracist teaching?
People within institutions, including schools and universities, are more deeply engaging with race questions, asking and being asked to scrutinize policies, behaviors, and systems that contribute to discrimination, including racial discrimination and harms.
But the work is fraught, frequently drawing criticism and pushback — from parents, elected officials, and others who question the need for examinations of matters of race and whether teachers and other educators should raise these issues with their students.
Esther O. Ohito, until this summer an assistant professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, grapples with the interplay of questions of race, of discrimination and its harms, of curriculum and teacher preparation, of feminism, and the roles of emotion and lived experience in the lives of students and educators. Among her scholarship, she has studied and written about the role of race, the power of racism, and the effort and practices of educators who are compelled to pursue antiracism work in their classrooms and schools.
Ohito says antiracism is centered around some simple ideas.
“Antiracism is about how you treat other people, how we treat each other as human beings, and how we treat each other as community members,” Ohito said. “It’s how we understand that ultimately we are sharing this world. We’re sharing the Earth.
“What kinds of commitments are we willing to make about how we do that sharing? That’s what antiracist work is about.”
A racial affirmation
Ohito began her education career in 2004 as an elementary and secondary public school teacher in Chicago, an experience that sparked her curiosity about curricula and pedagogies that attend to questions of justice and learning among the dilemmas of Blackness, race, and gender.
Ohito’s personal journey motivated her to explore matters of race in teacher education.
Ohito grew up in the Midwest in a predominantly White community, attending a predominantly White high school — an experience, as a Black woman, she found often painful. Ohito left for Hampton University, an historically Black university in Hampton, Virginia, where she describes discovering that learning can be a “racialized process.”
“At Hampton University, I was comforted by the fact that my favorite professor was a Black woman who had hair like mine which, when kissed by water, shrunk like a shy teenager,” Ohito writes. “The fact that the dark tone and soft texture of yet another cherished Black woman professor’s melanin-rich skin matched my own filled me with joy.” (Ohito, 2019).
After graduating, she moved to Chicago to teach in a school system where approximately 85% of the children were identified as Black or Latino.
“The racial affirmation that I felt as I learned from my professors at Hampton University shaped how I taught the Black children and youth who moved through my classrooms, and who taught me that like learning, teaching, too, is a racialized process,” she writes. “I modeled my teaching after my beloved college professors, and like them, I endeavored to choose curricula and pedagogical practices that accounted for how the racial identities of the children and youth in my classrooms were entangled with their identities as learners.”
Ohito worked as a teacher for six years in Chicago while also earning a master’s degree in middle grades education. She then entered a doctoral program, earning an Ed.D. degree from Teachers College at Columbia University.
From observation to theory to practice
While in her doctoral program, Ohito writes, she saw that many teacher education students — most of them White — were not grappling with their own racial identities, how those identities affect their work as educators, nor exploring how race and racism influences young people in schools.
She has since pursued scholarship exploring those topics. As part of her scholarship, Ohito has studied the practices of teachers and teacher educators, particularly ones who describe their work as being in pursuit of antiracist teaching.
Ohito writes that many scholars of education have pointed to the persistence of both racism and Whiteness infused in the culture of teacher education in the United States. In her work, Ohito says she wants to demystify and make visible the pervasiveness of Whiteness in teacher education and how antiracist educators seek to pursue antiracist practices within that environment.
Racism, Ohito writes, has been defined by the combination of values, beliefs, and actions that uphold the norms and needs of Whiteness (Oyler, 2011). She writes that antiracism is the practice of resisting or opposing racism and/or intervening in ways that subvert its impact and relax its grip on persons, institutions, schools, and other entities in society. Antiracist teaching is the pedagogical application of an antiracist stance (Ohito, 2020).
In other terms, antiracist pedagogy is aimed at counteracting prevailing messages infused throughout our culture that suggest to Black and brown children — including very early in their lives — that they are less than fully human, Ohito said.
“How do we make it so that all children feel like they are human beings?” Ohito said. “How do we create processes and spaces that affirm their humanity, that don’t require them to be anything more than who they are? That’s really what antiracist work is about.”
But what is antiracist teaching in practice? And, how can antiracist pedagogy be taught to future teachers?
Ohito studies these questions. Among her scholarship are in-depth explorations of the work of individual educators pursuing antiracist teaching within the contexts of their own identities and backgrounds — their racial identity, their personal histories, their educations, and other factors they bring to their work.
“I zoom in and try to get an understanding, not just of what they know about antiracism and antiracist teaching and how they enact that antiracist teaching, but also on who they are, and how who they are shapes what they know and what they do,” Ohito said.
Reviewing the literature
In a review of literature on the topic of antiracist teaching, Ohito has found that the majority of the research and other writings has focused on questions around questions of who is being taught — studies that are limited primarily to describing the Black and brown children in many classrooms (Ohito, 2019).
Ohito also summarizes other scholarship examining antiracist teaching in which scholars have explored additional questions around
• How we teach
• What we teach
• Why we teach
How we teach. Studies have shown that teacher educators seeking to prepare students for enacting antiracist pedagogies most frequently: 1) give lectures; 2) assign writing tasks aimed at prompting critical reflection about race and racism; 3) structure discussions; and 4) design experiential learning opportunities.
Lecture is often used to address gaps or misunderstandings in students’ knowledge about race, racism, and history. Writing and discussion is typically used to prompt critical reflection. Experiential learning is often used in attempts to build bridges between typically predominantly White universities and communities of color.
What we teach. Ohito cites a study by Kerri Ulluci of Roger Williams University in which she found that teacher education programs depended heavily on novels or other narratively rich texts rather than methods books or textbooks to help students gain deeper understandings of racism. Among the texts were fiction, auto/biographies and nonfiction works such as “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and “We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools” (Ulluci, 2010).
Why we teach. Teacher educators have described various goals, including deconstructing Whiteness; fostering White students’ introspection of their racial stances; positioning White students as allies to others; framing and re-framing awareness of race, socioeconomic class, and other identities in relationship to educational opportunities made available to racially marginalized children, youth and communities; and ensuring that students’ teaching practices are responsive to racial inequity (Case & Hemmings, 2005; Matias & Mackey, 2015; Moss, 2008; Picower, 2009; Solomon et al., 2005)
Ohito has built on examinations of antiracist teaching by giving close attention to the classroom practices of educators who describe themselves as seeking to pursue antiracism in their work. Their experiences hold lessons for others.
She’s done a series of studies of individual faculty members who work in teacher-preparation settings and who espouse to pursue antiracist teaching. Ohito’s studies seek to illuminate aspects of their work and also aspects of their personal identities and backgrounds that might play a role in how and what they teach.
“There’s a relationship between who you are, what you know, and what you do,” Ohito said. “What I think folks can do is really struggle a little bit with what that is.”
‘The body tattles’
In one of her studies, Ohito observed the classroom practices of a White teacher educator — identified by the pseudonym “Walker” — who described herself as continuously questioning her own performance as she struggled to enact antiracist pedagogy in her work (Ohito, 2020).
Walker tells Ohito that she has become more open to talking about and examining her own Whiteness.
“Why do White people not talk about their Whiteness?” Walker says to Ohito, adding that she’s frustrated that Whites are “colorblind about their own Whiteness.”
Walker describes that in her work preparing future teachers she seeks to make visible the privileges and the other “invisible things” from which Whites benefit. But, Ohito writes, Whiteness is difficult to shed.
In many moments, Whites turn away — figuratively and literally — when feeling challenged or threatened by discussion or manifestations of racism.
Ohito observes such a moment in Walker’s work. The moment included the interaction between Ohito, Walker, and a Black student who had noticed a children’s book the teacher planned to use in a classroom exercise. The student, who had learned about the book in another class, told Ohito and the teacher: “Um, it’s kinda racist.”
Ohito describes Walker’s reaction as appearing flushed and talking over the student while trying to explain why she uses the book. Then the teacher turns and walks away.
The brief moment, Ohito writes, offers lessons about how to unlearn Whiteness, including the need to be aware that our bodies tattle and sometimes reveal our feelings, telling tales of our discomfort, shame, fears (Barthes, 1978).
“What is yielded by Walker’s unwillingness to listen to bodies speak — or bodyspeak — reinforces the fact that a turn toward the junction of enfleshment and pedagogy is a sine qua non if teacher educators are to tackle antiracist pedagogy in ways that meaningfully refine social and racial justice-oriented teacher preparation,” Ohito writes.
“Ultimately, inattention to embodiment and intercorporeality may undermine the practice of what is theorized as antiracist pedagogy, ironically (re)configuring pedagogies that are rhetorically labeled as antiracist into actual impediments to achieving the aims of antiracism.”
Swimming in a river of knowledge
Ohito also has published a study in which she describes the practices of a Black male teacher educator who describes himself as a “pedagogic provocateur” (Ohito, 2021).
“Steve” — a pseudonym — is a Black man who teaches in a teacher education program at a university in the Northeast. His work is grounded in his own experiences as a Black man growing up in Black communities. Ohito uncovered a set of lessons learned from watching Steve.
Provoke and reveal. Steve talks, walks, and dresses as an unapologetically Black man. He says he does so as he intends to reveal what he considers his authentic self to his students — Black and White.
“His embodied and emplaced theorizing directs us to think about how we use language corporeally — that is, how we employ body language — to speak up, about, and against anti-Black racism in antiracist teaching,” Ohito writes.
Evoke and engage affect/tion. Steve doesn’t hesitate to use Black vernacular terms, such as “sista” when talking with a Black woman student.
“The deliberateness of Steve’s oral language use is a demonstration of his care for and care-full consideration of Black women who are students in his classroom,” Ohito writes. “It is indicative of his pedagogic embrace of the BIPOC students who motivate his practice of antiracist teaching.”
Reclaim the curricular center from Whiteness. Steve works to explicitly honor and respond to the lived experiences of Black students. He works to make Blackness itself at the center of curriculum.
Steve tells Ohito: “Over the course of my academic career I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve been deliberate about forcing those who are not from where I’m from to purposefully feel the discomfort that folks of Color from where I come from feel when they enter into spaces like these. …
“My owning of my Blackness and my cultural background, and the discourse, and the language, and the attire, and being comfortable in expressing that, is a way to say [to White students]: ‘You might have to go do some research, and you might have to second guess yourself and see whether or not this is the place for you.’ … And that pushes them to have to learn about me and others who are like me.”
Where to from here?
As part of her work, Ohito says she hopes to make Whiteness visible. She hopes that by grappling with the fact that White attitudes, expectations and norms have gone unquestioned will help educators begin to shed Whiteness, enabling them to better serve all students.
“Walker and Steve are very different cases,” Ohito said. “The place where they come together is that ultimately what they do, their pedagogy, their teaching around antiracism, is very much influenced by who they are, their family histories, their memories, just their lives.
“My work asks people to understand themselves as integrated beings and to always think about the roots of their actions in relation to their histories and their lives and their lived experiences,” Ohito said.
Examining practices of educators such as “Walker” and “Steve” create entry points for transforming teacher education, drawing on the knowledges of Black teacher educators and explicitly addressing the needs of Black teacher education students, Ohito says.
That raises questions about how a new curriculum can be created and sustained, both within environments long dominated by Whiteness, Ohito writes, while also meeting the strains of standardization and testing measures used in teacher education programs.
Ohito writes that delving into the experiences of antiracist educators and their attempts at antiracist pedagogy, even when halting with missteps, can help create a world where Black and other students of color can more fully access motivation, affirmation, and a sense of belonging.
Barthes, R. (1978). A lover’s discourse: Fragments. Trans. Richard Hurley. New York: Hill and Wang.
Case, K. A., & Hemmings, A. (2005). Distancing strategies: White women preservice teachers and antiracist curriculum. Urban Education, 40(6), 606-626. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042085905281396.
Matias, C. E., & Mackey, J. (2015). Breakin’ down Whiteness in antiracist teaching: Introducing critical Whiteness pedagogy. The Urban Review, 48(1), 32-50. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11256-015-0344-7.
Moss, G. (2008). Diversity study circles in teacher education practice: An experiential learning project. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(1), 216-224. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2006.10.010.
Ohito, E. O. (2016). Making the emperor’s new clothes visible in anti-racist teacher education: Enacting a pedagogy of discomfort with White preservice teachers. Equity & Excellence in Education, 49(4), 454e467. https://doi.org/10.1080/10665684.2016.1226104
Ohito, E. O. (2019). Mapping women’s knowledges of antiracist teaching in the United States: A feminist phenomenological study of three antiracist women teacher educators. Teaching and Teacher Education, 86, 1e11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2019.102892
Ohito, E. O. (2020) Fleshing out enactments of Whiteness in antiracist pedagogy: Snapshot of a White teacher educator’s practice. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 28:1, 17-36. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681366.2019.1585934
Ohito, E. O. (2021) How to be an antiracist teacher educator in the United States: A sketch of a Black male pedagogic provocateur. Teaching and Teacher Education, 98, 103235. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2020.103235
Oyler, C. (2011). An examination of urban teacher education and the public good: Which public? What good? The missing curriculum of racial literacies. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans.
Picower, B. (2009). The unexamined Whiteness of teaching: How White teachers maintain and enact dominant racial ideologies. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 12(2), 197-215. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613320902995475.
Solomon, R. P., Portelli, J.P., Daniel, B., & Campbell, A. (2005). The discourse of denial: How white teacher candidates construct race, racism and ‘white privilege’. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 8(2), 147-169. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613320500110519.
Ulluci, K. (2010). What works in race-conscious teacher education? Reflections from educators in the field. Teacher Education Quarterly, 37(2), 137-156.