White Supremacy (Classroom) Culture
A Guided Inquiry Exercise for Educators
White Supremacy (Classroom) Culture: A Guided Inquiry
Inspired by Tema Okun’s “Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” and adapted for educational contexts by Alisha Mernick.
How does our classroom culture inadvertently reflect and reinforce the values and practices of White Supremacy Culture? White supremacy culture (WSC) is the ideology that white people & their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions are superior to BIPOC & their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.
Hegemony is defined as the predominant and pervasive influence of one state, religion, region, class, or group. ... A hegemonic society functions not just to establish a homogeneous way of thinking, but also to try to make any alternative disappear. ... One might say hegemony is the language of conquest.
- Paul Kivel (via whitesupremacyculture.info)
The characteristics of white supremacy culture serve to maintain existing racialized hierarchies of power by limiting the potential for authentic reflective dialogue and critique toward organizational or systemic change and transformation.
These characteristics are often also central to the hidden curriculum & culture of our schools and institutions.
The following inquiry document was created to support educators in identifying how white supremacy culture shows up in our schools and classroom. As an arts educator, I include specific prompts to deconstruct how wsc might show up in my content area. If you aren’t an arts educator, I encourage you to reflect on your subject area or grade level standards and practices as well.
Perfectionism is a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable
Toxic Perfectionism in WSC:
A focus on what is wrong or inadequate, rather than appreciating what is right; Mistakes are seen as personal, reflect poorly on the character of the person who makes them; doing wrong is conflated with being wrong; when a perfectionist makes a mistake it greatly affects their sense of worth; little energy is given to reflecting on or learning from past mistakes.
Perfectionism In Schools:
What types of awards are given in our schools? Do we award academic achievements and attendance more often than character, growth, or service?
Are educators and admin judged primarily on quantifiable “results” in their classroom? Are Student test scores considered in teacher Evaluations?
Do students define their worth based on grades they receive? The recognition or awards they win?
Does the grade on an assignment mean more to a student than the feedback they receive? Why? How does ‘grading’ itself reinforce the pressure to conform to an single ideal?
Do we view student mistakes as negative character traits or cultural deficits? How often do we attempt to fix "inadequacies" before fully understanding the student?
Perfectionism In Art Education:
How narrow are our expectations for what "success" looks like? Is our feedback limited to how student work differs from a single "model example"
Who creates the grading rubric? Is it based on a single acceptable outcome, or is it standards based with opportunities for reassessment?
Do we value final products more than process, play, and experimentation?
How are we challenging student's equating their learned technique with their self-image? i.e. "I'm a bad drawer" or "I'm not an artist."
When students become frustrated by their own work, how can we use the "teachable moment" to name and disrupt toxic perfectionism?
Educators, Admin, and students all make time for structured personal reflection and developing our "growth mindset"
We avoid equating student performance or learning with their character.
We design every assessment and assignment with multiple measures of success.
We implement Universal Design for Learning & Assessment, and dismantle hierarchies of learning styles.
Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology and social outlook that emphasizes the moral worth of the individual.
Toxic Individualism in WSC:
Individual success is more valued than collective betterment, and there is a strong desire for individual recognition and credit for achievement. Competition between peers is more valued than cooperation and collaboration. Individuals have little interest or comfort working as part of a team, and may have difficulty communicating, identifying shared goals, or delegating or distributing leadership roles because of their lack of trust in others to do quality work.
Toxic Individualism In Schools:
Is competition between students encouraged by our grading policies, GPA rankings & academic awards?
Is collaboration Discouraged? Are Students typically expected to learn silently and independently? Are they perceived as intellectually lazy or untrustworthy if they seek to collaborate or build knowledge in community with their peers?
Are students only assessed on their ability to succeed in isolation? Are group assessments (like group projects) outside of the norm?
Do students have opportunities to experience working in community, collaborating, and supporting each other? Are they prepared to enter collaborative working environments after school?
Toxic Individualism In Art Education:
How are we challenging The myth of the "Genius" artist, born with talent?
Are students encouraged to consider multiple perspectives while working on their artwork? Is peer feedback as valued as teacher feedback?
Do students have regular opportunities to design and create art in community, ie murals, installation projects, or collaborative paintings or collages?
Do we allow students to help each other with artworks? Or are we strict about each student being the only one to lay hands on their work?
We nurtured collaboration instead of competition?
We normalized peer support networks, mentorship, partner work, and collaborative learning in our schools?
We incorporated group work, peer feedback, and peer critique in every single class day? In every project?
We encouraged students to co-teach, tutor, and support their peers during class time..
We measured our success as teachers by the feeling of authentic community in our classrooms.
“Grind Culture” encompasses several characteristics of WSC:
A Sense of Urgency to make decisions and take action is often created by upholding strict, arbitrary deadlines. This constant ‘rush’ or ‘sprint’ makes it difficult to work democratically or to take time to reflect on purpose before taking action. Efficiency is often valued more than effectiveness.
“Quantity over Quality” describes and organizations focus on “producing measurable goals.” Less value is attached to things that cannot be easily measured, such as process or organizational culture. Once a project is started, grind culture demands “finishing,” even when process is harmful.
The belief that Progress = More reflects the institutional focus on numbers, and the rush to cover more content or to serve more students regardless to how well we do either.
Grind Culture In Schools:
Does our school require educators to adhere to strict curriculum schedules, pacing guides, and benchmark exams?
Is there pressure to “cover” all the material before testing? Do we ask teachers to sacrifice depth and quality of learning experience in order to “cover the standards.”
How might students be rewarded by the school for overextending themselves? (i.e. participating in many extracurriculars, taking make AP courses, etc.) Is student well being and mental health considered in school evaluations?
Are your grade level and/or content standards developmentally appropriate?
Is our school using coded language like “learning loss” and “achievement gaps” which embody varying elements of WSC and grind culture.
Does your school apply “wellness bandaids” to respond to stress and burnout, without questioning or adjusting the workload for students and staff?
Grind Culture In Art Ed:
Do we plan to produce a certain quantity of artwork by the end of the semester or grading period, or before an exhibition? Is this goal meaningful and obtainable? Are students pressured or rushed to finish artworks?
Are we more focused on teaching a checklist of technical skills than teaching students authentic creative processes and studio habits of mind?
Are students required to finish an entire artwork in one work period, are they required to display the artwork once done?
Does our grading criteria include a list of techniques or qualities an artwork must display? Are we grading based on completion or filling the space?
When students finish early are we asking them to stay busy by making unnecessary revisions or completing extra assignments?
We assessed students on differentiated growth goals instead of on quantity of work or teacher-imposed markers of completion?
We fought the urge to 'cover the standards' and instead chose content based on student interest and need?
We took ample time to view, process, and discuss texts/art together, without rushing to “get to the assignment/task.”
We prioritized learning habits and over the creation of "finished" work?
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Defensiveness + Resistance to Change:
Organizations are often set up to “protect power as it exists.” Any critical feedback regarding the way things are done is viewed as a disrespectful, or a personal attack on leadership. School and district leadership - and classroom teachers - often feel entitled to their own emotional and psychological comfort, and therefore avoids conflict or criticism wherever possible.
Concepts like the “chain of command” are created to limit direct feedback. Individual conversations are encouraged over community dialogues, town halls, and collective bargaining in order to limit impact. When individuals do voice their concerns, leadership is defensive and blames the individuals for causing discomfort, or having character faults.
Defensiveness In Schools:
Are criticisms of school policies or procedures interpreted as personal attacks by administrators?
Are educators who voice concerns considered rude, lazy, overly sensitive or critical, or not “team players.”
Does voicing a concern negatively affect interpersonal relationships?
Does the fear of creating ‘discomfort’ or ‘conflict’ keep staff and faculty silent or inactive in staff meetings? Has school staff developed a sense of fatalism about the ‘way things are’ or ‘the way it’s always been done?’
Defensiveness In Classrooms:
Do we view student criticism and lack of engagement as a personal attack?
Do we perceive students who voice concerns often as “defiant”?
Is “misbehavior” viewed as a character fault, or as a form of actionable feedback for our teaching practices?
How often do we invite feedback, critique, and cogenerative dialogues about curriculum?
Are we avoiding “courageous conversations” in our classroom, out of fear of our personal discomfort facilitating these discussions?
Defensiveness In Art Education:
What potential changes to the art education status-quo make us uncomfortable?
Do I avoid informing students about “uncomfortable truths” in art history because of my own love for the discipline?
Have I chosen not to inform students about the history of imperialism and white supremacy in art museums out of fear that they will lose respect in something I love?
Which artists or movements do I continue to center and defend despite the harm caused? Have I ever told half truths about an artist, left out information I knew is problematic, or avoided teaching certain parts of their life?
How might “toxic positivity” show up in art education spaces? How does toxic positivity limit the critical conversation we can have within our profession?
Do students fear the ‘discomfort’ of an art critique, or is there a positive culture around receiving feedback?
We taught the whole truth in our classrooms.
Critique & socratic seminar happen often, fostering a culture of collaboration.
We frame formative critique and art revisions as a a helpful, joyful part of the creative process.
We sought out regular critique and feedback from students, staff, all stakeholders.
We earnestly appreciated the time and energy it takes to give criticism, and thank those stakeholders for being invested in the growth of our school/classroom/organization.
We developed a "growth mindset" about our classrooms and schools. Reframing raising issues as dialogue, not conflict
Concentration of Power/ Power Hoarding / Paternalism
Power is often organized in hierarchical chains of command, and “power” is viewed as a limited resource. There is no value in shared power, collaboration, or collective decision making. Those in power consider themselves the only ones qualified to lead, and lack respect for the knowledge or experience which others bring. Leadership may feel personally threatened and defensive when anyone suggests alternative structures, and may view those voicing issues as ungrateful. Closely related to toxic individualism, defensiveness, and “one-right-way” thinking.
Power Hoarding In Schools/Systems:
How often are administrators making major decisions which will affect the entire school, without consulting educators, staff, parents or students.
Are unions and collective action viewed as a threat or existential crises?
How do dominant narratives about teachers as unskilled, lazy, or selfish negatively impact our ability to claim authority as advocates for our students?
Does our PTA (Parent/Teacher Associations) hold any decision making power, or is it solely a tool to recruit volunteer service?
Does the school prefer outside consultants, companies, and boxed curriculum over the collective wisdom of the teaching staff and learning community?
How do state standards codify certain epistemologies, and limit our ability to center culturally responsive or culturally sustaining pedagogies?
Power Hoarding In Classrooms:
Do I think I know best how students learn, or do I include student input in decision making about curricular objectives or learning experiences?
How do I consider students’ individual interests and needs while lesson planning? Is “differentiation” and choice core to my work, or viewed as an afterthought or chore?
Am I anxious about choice-based lessons, independent studies, or student driven curriculum? Do I worry my students will be lazy or unmotivated.
Do I feel that my “authority” is threatened by student criticism or protest. Do I feel personally attacked when students assert themselves, point out my mistakes, or disagree with my thinking?
Power Hoarding In Art Ed:
How might “I Do/ We Do/You Do” or “Make and Take” art lessons strip students of decision making in their own artistic process.
Who defines “Art?” and chooses which art forms, techniques, and artists you include in your curriculum?
Who defines success? Are students permitted to define artistic success for themselves, based on their own visual style and artistic interests?
Is student choice and voice core to artmaking, or an afterthought to the techniques and theories we decide are core knowledge?
How do you choose which art making materials to keep in your classroom? How might that limit student choice?
Student Choice and self-selected differentiation are core to all student learning and assessment. Every class. Every Lesson. Every day.
Educators utilize community dialogue and collaborative contracting to shape classroom culture, behavior norms, and expectations.
Students and communities participate in curricular and pedagogical decisions (i.e. Cogenerative Dialogues, regular surveys, student-directed learning, TAB)
All stakeholders collaborate on defining the school culture and priorities.
I hope that this article will become a useful part of your journey toward divesting from white supremacy culture in your classroom, school, and community. If you think something I wrote missed the mark, or noticed something missing - please let me know! Part of this work is committing to a lifelong reflective praxis, and inviting warm and respectful critique.
If this was a useful resource, I hope you will also subscribe to this substack, in order to follow along my own continuing journey in decentering whiteness in art education, and in my own psyche. I also invite you to become a paying subscriber, and to reach out if you are interested in hosting a lecture or workshop at your school. This financial support helps sustain the creation of free resources like this one.