Why College Educators Who Care about Critical Thinking Need to Pay Attention to White Privilege and the Tucson Unified School District
“I don’t know if I should be saying this right now,” sophomore Allie stated, her eyes making a cautionary sweep of the room, even though except for us it was empty, and the door had long been shut. White and well-off, she held a prestigious academic scholarship and took many of her courses through a selective honors program. But not this course: “[The professor] was a nice lady, but she felt like she had to tie every single thing she said into like, diversity. And it felt extremely forced. And the class was largely, it was a diverse class, more so than any other class that I had taken … Don’t get me wrong I love the diversity at this school, but it just felt so forced…Like it wasn’t even related to our topic, and it just felt almost like someone was forcing it in there… [It] wasn’t in the course description at all. It didn’t count as a diversity requirement or anything.”
The course was an introduction to Public Health. Public Health is the work of protecting and improving the health of communities through education, research, and communication. Sociologists, demographers, and legal scholars, as well as public health scholars and clinical care providers, have documented myriad ways in which race and ethnicity shape communities and their health – influencing at the very least where people live and thus the schools and jobs they have access to, the distances they have to travel to get to their jobs and schools, and the means by which they travel there. Race and ethnicity are fundamental to the study of the health of communities. But somehow Allie didn’t see the connection.
Allie had the transcript of a superstar. She’d aced every course she’d taken in college and most every course prior to it. And many of those courses explicitly stated as a primary course objective that students would improve their critical thinking capacities. Allie’s grades would suggest that she’d unequivocally excelled at this; her comments indicate something more ambiguous about her success. They indicate to me that the “critical thinking” valued by the institutions in which a White, privileged student like Allie had excelled might be leaving students to flounder when it comes to thinking critically about race, ethnicity, and the ways in which privileges and oppressions have been – and continue to be – systematically linked to race and ethnicity. For Allie, this lack of support led to a vicious loop: she saw race and ethnicity as having nothing to do with her (Whiteness apparently did not count as race or ethnicity); as mattering only when fulfilling some institutional requirement; and as unworthy of her learning energies unless she was fulfilling such requirements, upon completion of which, she could return to not thinking of race and ethnicity at all.
Sociologists like Eduardo Bonilla Silva see students like Allie the norm among college students who are White and economically well-off: they’ve learned, even been encouraged, to minimize – and deny – the ways in which race shapes social relationships, and the ways in which the blatant racism of the past relates to deeply embedded and ongoing injustices in the present. Such dangerous misunderstandings are evident now in Tucson, Arizona, where the Tucson Unified School District has moved to eliminate its Mexican American studies curriculum and to ban books the discuss the history of the Americas from the perspective of the peoples who have lived on the land prior to European and European-American conquests. Arizona School Superintendent John Huppenthal argues that this ban was a necessary move because the program “promotes resentment.” But what about the resentment of White, privileged students like Allie – the resentment of having to think about, talk about, reflect on systemic inequities by which they have benefited? Allie’s “mainstream” course of study promoted her resentment of her public health course. So do we ban Allie’s honors program, then? Do we ban the high-level honors curricula she followed in high school?
Education scholar and educator Ernest Morrell has described critical thinking as thought and/or inquiry that fosters individual or social transformation (2009:29). A ban transforms nothing, relying instead on binary oppositional terms and explanations. Dangerous and unjust as a ban may be, however, it makes the binary oppositional logic on which it operates apparent. In Allie’s case, her mainstream curriculum allowed that thinking to operate silently. So if institutions like Allie’s really want to “honor” students, shouldn’t they support – actively and explicitly and thoroughly – the voices and perspectives that students need to engage them in the conversations that foster critical thinking?