Many antiracist practices in schools are almost immediately coopted, privatized, and rendered ineffective.
“What does a white person confessing their privilege actually do, in a material sense, to combat white supremacy?”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Zachary Casey. Casey is Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at Rhodes College. His book is A Pedagogy of Anticapitalist Antiracism: Whiteness, Neoliberalism, and Resistance in Education.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Zachary Casey: We are living in a moment when explicit white supremacy is being defended by the President of the United States (US). While there is no doubt that white supremacy has been central to the history of the US from the earliest moments of European settler-colonialism, indigenous genocide, and enslavement of African peoples to the present, our current moment calls on all of us to question notions of progress in advancing the life chances and opportunities of people of color in this country. This book focuses on the ways that our capitalist economic system thwarts efforts at racial justice. It demonstrates the ways that white supremacy and capitalism intersect, particularly in education, to reinforce one another to such an extent that many antiracist practices in schools are almost immediately coopted, privatized, and rendered ineffective. Importantly, it argues that white supremacy is a white problem, that viewing antiracism as primarily the work of people of color with white people playing a subordinate and supporting role further entrenches the status quo and evades the necessity to combat white supremacy as white people. There is a chapter focusing on white nationalism and the Tea Party that feels especially relevant given all that has happened since, as well as special attention on what an anticapitalist antiracist approach to teaching and learning and to teacher education more broadly can offer us as we seek to resist the wildly dehumanizing impacts of white supremacy and neoliberal capitalism as they function together to maintain our oppressive social reality.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Activists and organizers will find the chapters focusing on pedagogy especially helpful, as these chapters offer a broad conceptualization of teaching and learning with explicit commitments to anticapitalism and antiracism. Approaching the work of community advocacy and organizing from the perspective of a pedagogue – of a politically conscious teacher – can help to maintain an asset-based framing for work with others. So often, our oppressive reality limits our purview to deficits and lack. For instance, in education we hear far too often of students, particularly students of color, coming from homes and communities where their parents “don’t love them enough” or where their guardians are “making bad choices” about childrearing. These perspectives further entrench a white supremacist conception of normalizing middle-class white ways of being and knowing as best and all other expressions as deficits and deficiencies to be remedied. Instead, we must seek to maximize and grow the assets of families and communities, to build on the “funds of knowledge” that our students bring with them, and work to scaffold those funds to greater and greater engagement with the world in order to transform it. Thinking seriously about frames and framing, about the ways that ideas conjure particular images and associations, can also support activists and organizers to re-frame debates on the side of humanization and justice. If we think of our work as building on the expertise that is always-already present in communities, we can take on a more pedagogical approach to organizing that can offer new insights and new ways of building capacity.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
This book argues that the primary ways we have attempted to engage white people to understand race, racism, and their identities – white privilege – has failed. Since the late 1980s white people have been compelled to focus on their relative racial privilege and the ways this privilege functions to harm communities of color. But what does a white person confessing their privilege actually do, in a material sense, to combat white supremacy? In many ways white privilege has become the fundamental concept white people are hailed to understand in order to engage in antiracism as a kind of prerequisite: unless one understands their privilege as a white person, they have no hope of ever being in solidarity with people of color. Yet this logic makes white privilege a cause, when in actuality it is an effect. White privilege was the not reason nor the source of the Transatlantic slave trade, the Chinese Exclusion Act, or American Indian boarding schools. Instead, white privilege is an effect of a greater causal mechanism: oppression. If we fail to understand that white supremacy was created for the purposes of securing wealth and power, not as an end in itself, we fail to understand the full picture of what our struggles for justice must confront. This does not mean that white people don’t have racial privilege in a white supremacist social reality – let’s be very clear, they do – but this racial privilege has come to stand in for the entire constellation of race and racism. We must move away from thinking of white privilege as the most foundational aspect of white antiracist consciousness and replace it with anticapitalist antiracist actions and interventions.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Each chapter of the book begins with two quotes from the work of Karl Marx, mostly from works he produced before writing Capital. If we want to understand capitalism in its totality, there is no greater teacher than Marx. I came to Marxism from the field of critical pedagogy and the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Freire offers a way of operationalizing Marx’s anticapitalism: his Pedagogy of the Oppressed can be read as the pedagogical extension of critical theory and western Marxism. I think of Marx and Freire as the greatest inspiration for the first half of the couplet: anticapitalist antiracism. The second half, on antiracism, stems from my engagement primarily with black writers about whiteness and white supremacy. W.E.B. DuBois’s theorizations on a “public and psychological wage” of whiteness coupled with bell hooks’s critical black feminism became the primary ways I approach questions of white supremacy and resistance. hooks’s critiques of Freire’s patriarchal discourse offered me ways to “reinvent” aspects of critical pedagogy to better focus on the ways that so much of our antiracist interventions fail pedagogically. The last intellectual hero I’ll highlight here is Kevin Kumashiro, whose work on anti-oppressive education has been especially impactful for me. As an anticapitalist, I’m drawn to Marxist theorists of the ways social class determines our social reality. But as a race scholar, I’m sensitive to the ways that focusing exclusively on class misses critical components of the ways oppression is lived and experienced. Kumashiro’s work offers a nuanced approach to understanding the partiality of our work, and the ways that attention on a particular form of oppression, like white supremacy, brings with it a simultaneous lack of attention to other forms of oppression. This is an inevitability, but it reminds us of the need to continue to question, problematize, and challenge even those positions we affirm the most.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
The incredible potential of teaching and learning on the side of justice, of working in schools to combat centuries of oppression and exploitation is something I’ve never been able to stop believing in. It’s why I conclude the book by discussing different kinds of hope and the centrality of hope for anticapitalist antiracism. When we think about our radical imagination, our capacity to rethink our present and reimagine it as more fully human, we must not lose sight of the reality that we presently find ourselves in. There is no other way to begin than from where we are. For work in education, this means that we must locate antiracist interventions that are conscious of the racial realities of our schools: more than 80% of teachers are white, while 51% of P-12 students are people of color. As important as it is to have a teaching force that is reflective of our students, to get there we must work with those who are in positions to act on antiracist convictions. We have to mobilize the overwhelmingly white teaching force to engage actively in antiracist work – and this work cannot stop at the level of race: we need to rethink the role of the teacher as a cultural worker on the side of humanization and anticapitalism. This book aims to help us imagine new habits of engaging antiracism in ways that are conscious of white supremacy but don’t fall into the traps of white privilege that function to stifle our desires for equity and justice.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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