Can We Talk About How Many White Women There Are in Schools?

Tom Rademacher, an English teacher in Minneapolis, wrote a piece that reminded me of questions I have asked about the lack of teacher diversity and the stark imbalance of different voices in our schools. There is much to be said about creating equitable spaces and also working to dismantle the misogynistic culture we are surrounded by. Rademacher’s blog was originally published here.

I’ve got to admit, White women terrify me sometimes.

As a White guy, I am often unduly rewarded for being “brave” enough to talk about race. It’s true if I talk about Whiteness in general, or talk about teacher diversity or specifically about the role White men have played in a whole lot of bullshit that’s gone down in schools.

One thing I’ve tended to stay away from, though, is talking specifically about White women, and that’s because talking about White women is scary. No doubt as a necessary reaction to a lot of that White male bullshit, White women know how to take care of one another, and in my experience react very strongly when labeled, of all things, as White women.

In fact, even approaching this post I sent a draft to a White woman who I knew would be honest with me—you can read my exchange with teacher Hope Teague-Bowling here.

BOTH THINGS ARE TRUE

So, let me be clear about a whole bunch of things.

The abundance of White women in schools does not erase sexism or misogyny in schools. That said, sexism also doesn’t erase the reality that most people working in schools are White women. Both things are true.

As a White man, I bring a bucket of White privilege with me every day, but I don’t leave my guy bucket at home either. As a man at school, I am often viewed as somehow more professional, more capable of leadership, more of an expert than women in my building, including women who have been teaching for three times longer than I have. Also, I am sometimes quieted, mothered or ignored because I communicate in ways that don’t fit neatly into White women culture. Both things are true.

A few years ago, I left the classroom for a year to be an instructional specialist. The job put me on the building leadership team, had me observing and coaching teachers, and had me helping to create and shape building policy.

THERE WAS USUALLY ABOUT 55 OF US IN THE ROOM, AND USUALLY AROUND 50 WERE WHITE WOMEN. THAT IS IMPORTANT. 

The move out of the classroom and into lots and lots (and lots) of meetings and trainings gave me a view into what school is like away from kids, and how building culture is built and enforced by, often, a whole lot of White people (most often White women). When all the people in my position would meet at the district office, I had a habit of making a quick headcount and demographic breakdown of who was in the room. There was usually about 55 of us in the room, and usually around 50 were White women. That is important.

As a straight, cis-gender White male, it takes one whole hell of a lot to make me feel uncomfortable in any space. Those meetings made me uncomfortable. When a group is that homogenous, it’s nearly impossible not to have cultural norms enforced as group norms. This is important when the group is discussing best practices in teaching and in working with other teachers.

I specifically remember one training on listening (yes, a training on listening) that stressed the importance of remaining unemotional in a professional setting, keeping your voice low, even, and calm, and to keep from pushing too hard with any teacher you were talking to. I did speak up and say “this seems a bit like a training on how to talk to White women without making them uncomfortable.” They didn’t like me that much.

CALL IT LIKE YOU SEE IT

No one likes to be labeled, but my experience has been that calling out the over-representation of White women in education spaces is met with particular resistance.

This is odd to me, because it’s such an obvious thing. Walk into just about any school or education conference, and there are lots and lots of White women. I’m not saying White women are bad, or should stop teaching, or that everything bad in the world is their fault. I’m not saying there isn’t historical and cultural reasons why there are so many White women in schools.

All I’m saying is, that, hey, maybe we should address what it means for schools and students that there are so many White women there.

There is a culture of White women in schools, a dominant culture that is invisible, almost aggressively invisible, to many because of its dominance. Whiteness is so dominant that it is too often viewed as the neutral norm, and conversations around race in schools focus on the experiences of people of color and not on what it means that there are so many White people.

As I mentioned earlier, to dig a little further into the abundance of White women in schools, I brought in a real-life, White woman: Hope Teague-Bowling. Hope is a teacher in Washington state, a writer of wonderful things, and co-host of the new podcast, Interchangeable White Ladies.

Read my full interview with Hope Teague-Bowling here.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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