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Teaching Critical Whiteness Studies

Updated: May 6, 2022

As tools that seek to explain and foster resistance to processes of racial domination, critical pedagogies of race and whiteness have long inhabited a diversity of learning spaces – from classrooms and free schools to homes and prisons. Within the academy, education scholars interested in critically analysing race have long sought to reframe dominant understandings of race that often work to essentialise race or claim a ‘colour-blind’ stance. They have insisted upon addressing what Joe Kincheloe has referred to as ‘power illiteracy’: the tendency amongst students and teachers to collapse power relations when assessing contemporary racial realities (Kincheloe 1999: 8). The pedagogical potential of critical whiteness lies in its capacity to challenge such ‘power illiteracy’. Indeed, at the heart of critical whiteness pedagogies is the study of racialised power, especially the ways whiteness gets reproduced, negotiated and resisted in historical and contemporary, local and global contexts. Students and educators of all ethnicities buy in and out of whiteness through different pedagogic practices; people are positioned in all sorts of relationships to white and black ethnicities. Thus, it is important to emphasise that a critical pedagogy of whiteness is not just about the creation of (white) anti-racist learners.

Attending to the highly contextual nature of whiteness means that critical whiteness pedagogy spans disciplines and operates from an intersectional framework. Whiteness is taken up as a point of departure in historical, sociological, cultural, political and literary studies, and it is also studied in relation to social policy, music, feminist and queer theory, and even STEMs. Increasingly, this pedagogy works from a transnational perspective that, as Zeus Leonardo says, works to ‘link knowledge of whiteness to global processes of (neo-)coloniziation’, for instance global debt peonage, structural adjustment policies, free trade agreements, and immigration restrictions (2002: 31).

While critical whiteness studies teaching practices may, and often do, prompt learners to rethink their own racial identities and relationships to processes of racialisation, such reflexivity is generally neither a starting nor finishing point. This isn’t to say that this pedagogy is unconcerned with the creation of anti-racist learners, but rather that, as with research into whiteness, the teaching of critical whiteness studies must transcend questions of identity (especially about white, anti-racist subjects) and incorporate multidimensional analyses of whiteness’s reproduction, negotiation and resistances. If it doesn’t, as Leonardo says, ‘racial understanding proceeds as the snail’s pace of the white imaginary’ (2004: 141).


Examples of this practice of teaching whiteness as part of a broader social justice intervention across institutional contexts and sectors have been facilitated through visiting collaborations between Dr Hunter and colleagues in Australia, Germany and Vienna and South Africa, as part of the Swiss Doctoral CUSO, and in the fields of social work, in health management and journalism. More sustained whole course interventions in her teaching in Sociology, Social Policy, Women's Studies and Management at the Universities of Lancaster, Leeds and now Leeds Beckett in the School of Education on the MA Race Education and Decoloniality.

It is this ethos of understanding whiteness as an orientation to power which is the hallmark of WhiteSpaces teaching practice. It is carried through into the development of Shona's current teaching in Critical Whiteness Studies as part of the MA Race Education and Decoloniality.

Critical Whiteness Studies module overview

This module introduces ideas from the interdisciplinary field of Critical Whiteness Studies framed through an intersectional, anti-racist decolonial lens. The module roots the lineage of Critical Whiteness Studies in Black radical thought and political resistance from the work of W E B Du Bois and James Baldwin to Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon. It introduces different waves of scholarship on whiteness ranging from ‘first wave’ US Labour Historians such as David Roedigger, W T Allen, Noel Ignatiev, to critical psychologists and sociologists of white racism such as Joel Kovel, Joe, R. Feagin, Janet Helms, David Wellman and feminist historians of coloniality and empire such as Catherine Hall, Vron Ware, Ann Stoler and Anne McLintock. Through ‘second wave’ cultural theorists such as Richard Dyer, Ruth Frankenburg, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, George Yancy and Lola Young to the burgeoning of ‘third wave’ empirical work on white identities’ intersections with class, ethnicity, gender, generation, sexualities; and whiteness in different colonial-settler contexts such as Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. This is done in order to introduce students to the historical, spatial and disciplinary depth and variety of scholarship in the field. The module is structured through the ways in which whiteness manifests globally and locally, in terms of a weekly focus on identities, cultures, nations, imperialisms and institutions, with the last three weeks developing case studies bringing global-local together to explore the lived dynamics of institutional life as it works through global colonial whiteness.

South African based teaching

This association with VIAD also brought the opportunity to work with STAND (Scholarship of Teaching in Arts and Design) on decolonizing the curriculum. This included workshops on Building the Anti-Racist University with Brenden Gray and Tuliza Sindi.


From within this sort of critical approach the pedagogic practices remain in serious tension with learning processes mainstreamed in compulsory schooling and in higher education. A significant part of the ongoing learning within the White Spaces Network is on how to teach in formal institutional spaces in ways that do not reproduce the racial traumatisation and violence of contemporary education spaces.


Joe Kincheloe (1999), ‘The struggle to define and reinvent whiteness: a pedagogical analysis’ College Review 26 (Fall)

Zeus Leonardo (2002), ‘The souls of white folk: critical pedagogy, whiteness studies, and globalization discourse’ Race, Ethnicity and Education 5(1): 29-50

Zeus Leonardo, (2004), ‘The color of supremacy: beyond the discourse of “white privilege”’ Educational Philosophy and Theory 36(2): 137-152

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