Ron DeSantis and White Fragility Pedagogy

Last week, news outlets reported on Ron DeSantis’s latest anti-critical race theory publicity stunt. The Florida Senate Education Committee approved a bill proposed by Gov. DeSantis which would “prohibit public schools and private businesses from making white people feel ‘discomfort’ when they teach students or train employees about discrimination.” Ron DeSantis‘s bill would codify a new and dangerous white fragility pedagogy.

When I first read about DeSantis’s bill, I felt a mix of scorn and disbelief. Then I thought about how misguided it is to ban discomfort from learning spaces. Every educator knows that discomfort can be a key ingredient of learning. Educators design learning to be engaging and accessible for learners. But we also think about how to guide our learners out of their comfort zone to interact with new skills and content. Vygotsky called this space between what learners know and do independently and what they do not the “zone of proximal development.” By prohibiting discomfort in learning spaces about race and racism, DeSantis is essentially banning learning.

It would be strange to apply this same logic to any other content area. As a math teacher, I was expected to help my students engage in “productive struggle.” In other words, I tried to create tasks that required sustained effort and perseverance. 

Silencing Resistance, Stoking Anger

Of course, DeSantis’s bill has no grounding in learning science and no intention of promoting meaningful learning. This bill, like the entire anti-Critical Race Theory effort nationally, has two parallel purposes. 

The first is to remove anti-racist strategies and language from public discourse and schools in particular. Young people and adults need these tools in order to understand and name systems of oppression. By undermining the ability for young people to understand racism and other systems of oppression, DeSantis and others hope to dismantle opposition to white supremacy as an ideology and a political framework. 

This becomes more obvious when we look at the way anti-Critical Race Theory legislation is being wielded to erase Black history and Black literature from schools and libraries. By erasing stories of resistance, anti-Critical Race Theory lawmakers can deprive people of effective models of resistance for present-day struggles. 

At the same time, they are using Critical Race Theory to energize white voters and distract them from the very real and catastrophic failures of our political and economic systems. As has happened so many times before, white superiority is being offered as pay-off to white people, in order to maintain a structure of exploitation and domination by wealthy white elites.

Real Dangers of Discomfort

With all this said, I do want to acknowledge some real dangers of discomfort when learning about race and racism. I have facilitated learning about race and racism with people of all ages. I also continue to struggle with deep and often overwhelming feelings of discomfort when I face my own role in systemic racism.

Last year, towards the beginning of our unit of study on the Movement for Black Lives, I shared with students, “Sometimes I feel ashamed to be a white person, because white people are responsible for a lot of horrible and harmful stuff.”

One of my white students spoke up softly, “Sometimes I feel that way too.”

Brené Brown contrasts shame (“I am bad”) with guilt (“I did something bad.”) I am challenged by shame when I notice (or more often someone points out) that I am acting in a way that perpetuates white supremacy, patriarchy, or another system of oppression. I find myself sometimes sucked into a spiral where my feelings of worthlessness overwhelm my ability to focus on more important things such as:

  1. The needs of the person I harmed

  2. The universal fallibility of all human beings

  3. My ability to learn, grow, make new decisions, and repair the harm

Talking about race and racism can present a minefield of shame for white people. White people, especially young white people, need and deserve opportunities to navigate this shame in a caring (yet firm) environment. 

The way to address shame is through dialogue. Silence only allows shame to fester. As long as white people in the United States are overwhelmingly averse to honest conversations about race and racism, we are cultivating a culture of shame. White adults, especially white teachers, need to practice conversations about race and racism with honesty, reflection, and accountability . The trainings Ron DeSantis wants to ban are valuable tools which can help teachers (a predominantly white workforce) practice these thinking skills. By building white adults’ capacity to confront racism (and their feelings about it), we support white students and students of color.

Discomfort Can Be Exciting

Educators know that discomfort doesn’t equal pain. Discomfort can be a sign of growth. And while learning about the history of race and racism can be uncomfortable, it can also be joyful, healing, and liberating. As one of my white fifth graders said last year, “It’s up to the people now to make a better decision.” Isn’t that an exciting idea?! Anti-racist learning offers white people the opportunity to break away from patterns of exploitation and harm. White people have the chance to build healthy authentic identities not based on harmful internalized ideologies. White people can form healthy loving relationships with people across lines of difference.

There is growing pushback against diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings. Some research shows these workshops are ineffective. More and more liberals seem to be turning against them as well. As a facilitator myself, I feel very ambivalent about the effectiveness of one-off anti-racist trainings. However, I do believe there is an essential role for anti-racist education. Anti-racist education works best when it is sustained, and done in settings where facilitators and learners have strong relationships. Furthermore, anti-racist education is just one part of a much larger systemic transformation. 

The goal of white fragility pedagogy is to perpetuate silence in order to protect white people’s comfort. Prioritizing the protection of white feelings over real accountability and repair is white supremacy in action. The solution to shame is not silence. We need dialogue, even when it’s uncomfortable. Only then can learning and progress can happen.

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