Book Review: Reading, Writing, and Racism

Picower, Bree. Reading, Writing, and Racism: Disrupting Whiteness in Teacher Education and in the Classroom. Boston: Beacon Press, 2021. 202 pp. ISBN (Hardcover): 9780807033708

By Phitsamay S. Uy, University of Massachusetts Lowell

The ubiquitous nature of social media has played a pivotal role in educating consumers about issues that were once hidden (Greenhow & Lewin, 2016). The #CurriculumSoWhite movement brought to light how whiteness has centered many decisions in U.S. schools. In Reading, Writing, and Racism, Bree Picower analyzes #CurriculumSoWhite within the larger historical and structural racist milieu and provides concrete strategies to disrupting the focus on whiteness. This book is an essential read for K-12 teachers and teacher education programs and their faculty. Similarly colleges and universities have intensified efforts to become more diverse and inclusive in curriculum decisions.

For the K-12 educators, the first two chapters discusses curricular tools of whiteness and racial ideology. The author begins by acknowledging that as a “White person with racial and economic privilege” she has been socialized to have “mainstream understanding of race as a young person” (p.14). Picower and her colleagues at the Newark Teacher Project (NTP) have expanded John Bell’s Four Is of Oppression (i.e., ideological, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized) to Four Is of Oppression and Advantage to acknowledge that “[for] all the ways that the Four I’s negatively impact those marginalized by oppression, there is an equal and opposite privilege assigned to those advantaged by that identity marker” (p.11).

In Chapter 1, Picower notes that 82 percent of US K-12 teachers are white and have benefitted from racism. In fact, white teachers have been taught to hold racist ideas and have been upholding whiteness without even knowing it. Picower highlights seven curricular tools of whiteness: White Out, No One is to Blame, Not That Bad, All Things Being Equal, White Gaze, Embedded Stereotypes, and Racist Reproduction. She provides useful classroom examples that demonstrate how each tool manifests in schools. For instance, an All-Things-Being-Equal example was when an African-American mother of a fourth grader shared her son’s classroom assignment. His white teacher asked her students to provide “three good reasons for slavery.” The mother argued “You wouldn’t ask someone to list three good reasons for rape or three good reasons for the Holocaust” (43). Picower posits that this reasoning is an insidious reach of whiteness since the reasoning behind All Things Being Equal equates all forms of oppression on the same level i.e., sexual violence, ethnic cleansing, slavery or colonization. The racial percentages of college and university faculty are also skewed toward whiteness. Picower’s seven curricular tools of whiteness can be used by post-secondary faculty to assess their teaching content and practices as well.

In Chapter 2, The Iceberg: Racial Ideology and Curriculum, Picower argues that “teachers’ racial ideology affects what they choose to teach” (p. 63). Unfortunately, many teachers are not given opportunities to examine their own ideas of race. In this chapter, Picower offers case studies of four former students, all white teachers who have examined their racial identities. She illustrates the relationship between each teacher’s understanding of their racial identity and their curricular decisions. These teachers’ experiences varied from protecting whiteness to being open-minded, questioning, and transforming themselves. All of the teachers had undergone racial literacy professional development training on understanding the history of racism and oppression and its impact on their teaching. These case studies provide examples of how college and university professors should embed racial development to help their students’ move from a defensive stance to a transformative one that impacts both their personal and professional life. But it also assumes that the college and university professors already have developed their racial and ethnic consciousness to be able to model and teach racial literacy to their teacher candidates.

In Chapter 3, Reframing Understanding of Race Within Teacher Education, Picower discusses how teacher education programs can transform teachers’ racial ideology as an “essential strategy for not only addressing curricular Tools of Whiteness, but also for disrupting racism writ large” (p. 84). She uses the framework of the Four I’s to identify new thinking (i.e., frames of seeing the world). These new racial frames are situated within ideological, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized domains. For example, helping white preservice teachers understand that current inequality is shaped by historical racism is an ideological reframe and one of the most impactful shifts that Picower has experienced with her NTP students. This chapter along with the last two chapters can be especially valuable for colleges and university faculties. They provide theory-based and practical material that apply not only to curriculum but also to admissions and student advising.

In Chapters 4 and 5, Disrupting Whiteness in Teacher Education Programs and Humanizing Racial Justice respectively, Picower draws from her interviews with teacher-education program faculty and staff whose programs focus on racial justice (see list of programs on p.112). These two chapters provide structural advice from how to center race in the admission process and classroom discussions to counseling students who do not have the proper disposition to addressing faculty and/or supervising “mentor teachers who actively enact racism or administrators who create institutional barriers to advancing racial justice” (p.110). Picower acknowledges the complexity and difficulty of implementing change and creating and sustaining a justice-oriented teacher education program. It requires “additional work in finding and vetting mentors to ensure ideological and pedagogical fit” (p.140). One successful strategy is to provide critical professional development (CPD) around racial justice. Unlike traditional PD, CPD “frames teachers as politically-aware individuals who have a stake in teaching and transforming society . . . [it] develops teachers’ critical consciousness by focusing their efforts towards liberatory teaching” (p.141). CPD opportunities can also be advised for college and university faculty. One interesting point of discussion is that Picower notes that faculty of color have additional emotional labor they expend when engaging in this work with their students and colleagues. This has implication for college and university faculty to not overtax their faculty of color in their quest to train justice-oriented teachers. In addition, college and university faculty would do well to know more about the educational programs and systems that influence their students before they arrive on campus.

In conclusion, Picower argues that all teacher education programs and post-secondary faculty need to help their teacher candidates understand racism and oppression as part of their teacher development training. We must “attend to transforming foundational beliefs rather than tinkering with curriculum, which is what typically happens through methods and curriculum design courses” (p. 65). Picower’s insightful analysis of the current state of whiteness in U.S. schools behooves us all to push back against racist pedagogy when we see it. This approach is relevant at all educational levels. As a Lao American teacher educator, I also hope that future teachers and scholars would contribute to future texts that document the multiple and varied experiences of racialized bodies in U.S. schools (i.e., examples from our Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander communities). Picower has provided us with a foundational framework and concrete examples of how to dismantle whiteness after reading this book. It is now up to us to commit to building our capacity to work towards a more racially just education system from elementary to post-graduate.

Works Cited

Greenhow, C., & Lewin, C. (2016). Social media and education: Reconceptualizing the boundaries of formal and informal learning. Learning, Media and Technology, 41(1), 6-30.