“What’s a White Woman to Do?” by Corie McCallum

Lessons Learned in the Education of Black and Brown Children

My mother, my heroine, is a white woman from rural Ohio with a heart of gold and nothing but adoration and love for her only child. Sometimes though, my mom forgets that I am Black. Now listen, we all know the rules, the “one-drop,” “paper-bag rules,” so on and so forth, but that doesn’t stop my mom. She doesn’t see color, darn it! And she never will. This is where my mom and I differ—extremely. As a child, I was often times bogged down by my apparent racial ambiguity and my mom always let me know that even though I was beige (a term I identified for myself), I was worthy, loved, and no different from others. Except, I was different and I still am today—different from her and a lot of my family members. Let me not mince words; she did the right thing. She loved me and cared for me. However, as my first teacher in the school of life, she could have done so much more by acknowledging our differences. That’s where this work comes from. My first white teacher of many (my mom) and she still struggles with what she can or should do with me. This idea has permeated my life and now I can say officially, my work.

In this piece, I identify what teachers, specifically white women teachers, have done in the past and what they could do moving forward to foster positive relationships with Black and Brown bodies in schools, both in K-12 and in higher education. In some ways, this piece is also meant to advance the arguments of the Black Lives Matter movement with respect to education. The children in our lives and in our classrooms are Black lives. Do they matter? Do they mean something more than a test score or a problematic nuisance? #BLM is advocating for the importance of Black lives and so am I. Our white female educators who make up the bulk of our nation’s educational workforce must do the same.

While at times I disagreed with mom’s choices, my mother’s sentiment was understandable–what is a white woman surrounded by class inequality, sexism, and racism to do? As any good historian might intimate, looking at the past can help. A review of canonical texts from the history of education will show that the white female teachers who have comprised the majority of the rank-and-file, as well as those who made names for themselves as education reformers greatly contributed to the education of Black and Brown bodies, specifically in New York City. At times, their contributions were damaging. Race-based assumptions permeated white women teachers’ ideologies and seriously impacted the lives of Black and Brown children and the women of color that strove to be their teachers, too. At the same time, many of these female educators and reformers built strong relationships with the communities they were working within, they kept striving, and they kept on keepin’ on. Of course, Black and Brown folks do this regularly, but let me give credit where it is due.This historical overview is to highlight how some white women, specifically in New York City, did both more and less to contribute to social justice and equity in education. I also offer suggestions for moving forward after a rocky past, as well as offer some hope for those Black and Brown students in the classrooms of white female educators as well.

The role of race, class and gender in structuring the work of women teachers over the years

From the onset of immigration to the arrival of settlers to the New World, teaching began with Old World notions of education. Before America had an inkling of how her education system would unfold, class, racial, and gender stratification was already in play. In the American colonies, white students of little means were given lessons in the home or sent to the local one-room schoolhouse, but the elite men, the future forefathers of the settlers, were of course shipped back home across the pond to receive their formalized and private educations (Semel, Sadovnik, & Coughlan, 2016).   As far back as slavery days, when it was illegal for slaves to be educated in any way, until after the Civil War education for Black bodies continued to be second-rate. Jim Crow laws in the South continued the separation of Blacks from whites in schooling, not to mention the continual harassment and discrimination of Black folk at that time (Semel, Sadovnik, & Coughlan, 2016).  While Black folk were struggling to receive basic educational liberties, women too at that time were struggling to become educated—though they had less formidable barriers.

Our education systems reflect and indeed contribute to society’s broader inequities by supporting different outcomes for different socio-economic, gender and racial groups. The roles of women educators in schools also reinforce those inequities. Women have always had a place in education, but as many historical scholars have indicated, that place was the classroom where their “nurturing” tendencies were best put to use, where they would not need to be paid like the good ol’ boys, and where children could be assimilated into good (white) American citizens.

Although women have always dominated the teaching force, from 1870—when 66% of American teachers were female –to the 1900s — when 75% of teachers and upwards of 80% of teachers in urban areas were female– it was mostly white native-born women who were reaping the benefits of those numbers (Rousmaniere, 1997). Not surprisingly, as the common school movement greatly expanded the numbers of free public schools throughout the nation in the 1920s, teaching became the second largest employer of women, following domestic service. With this expansion came opportunities for foreign-born women, for whom teaching would become the fifth largest employer. For Black women, however, teaching would only crack the top ten employers of women in the seventh position around the same time of the expansion of public schools in the 1920s (Rousmaniere, 1997). Understanding these dynamics at the intersection between race and gender is key to understanding white women’s uneven contributions to the education of Black and Brown children, and in answering the question “what’s a white woman to do?”

So What Did White Women Do?

There were a range of roles that white women and women in general played throughout the history of education of Brown and Black children. From James’ (2005) description of the Venable Mothers, to Markowitz’ (1993) teachers as activists to Tyack’s (1974) account of black teachers losing their jobs in the name of “desegregation,” there were always those women willing to go the extra mile to resist the patriarchy, inequality, and racism that was so prevalent in days past. And, there were those who used their race and class privilege to actively advance their own interests at the expense of others, or whose “good intentions” (James, 2005) masked deficit-based perspectives about racial and ethnic communities, which were then baked into policies and systems. The following examples speak to what women have done and endured for the sake of education for either themselves or another. Not all examples are indicative of what “ought” to be done, but the belief that past mistakes guide future successes holds true for all the women presented here.

The Depression is arguably the single, most important American event to undergird women’s impact on the economy and thus, the teaching profession. As James (2005) stated, “charitable mothering” was no longer enough to support the life, or lifestyle, of so many middle-class white and black families. The Depression also brought about changes in labor and unions and socialism in general. As Black and Latina women entered the workforce, their status was slightly elevated, even if their paid labor helped wealthy white women realize educational goals more than it helped women of color realize their own   (James, 2005). The Venable Mothers, rich upper class white women had no interest in securing education for all. Their focus, as James (2005) described was to ensure that their white offspring continued to receive an education that would further their status and maintain their current class stature. During school strikes and closings, they secured schooling in the basements of other elite white homeowners to ensure that their children would not fall behind, or be compared to those without proper education. While their missives will never be truly known, it is difficult to imagine that they were bothered by not taking in other school-aged children.

While the Depression-era negatively impacted schooling in the entire nation at the time, New York City did establish some schools in neighborhoods such as Harlem which had all-black student populations. Blacks from southern states continually migrated to northern cities including New York, Detroit and Chicago (Rousmaniere, 1997), contributing to a blossoming of black art, culture, and identity, and creating a space for black militancy to bubble up to the surface of mainstream black life. In NYC, that took the form of the Harlem Rennaissance. More black youth were in NYC schools than ever before but not necessarily more black teachers.

Teacher shortages and the boom of compensatory education are often cited by historians as the reason many teachers were able to be employed so quickly, but that was not the case for most Black women teachers. As Tyack (1974) describes, “there was no shortage of trained Black teachers…” (p.225), but the segregation of black students within schools did not lend itself to black teachers teaching whites. Tyack later argues that black teachers had higher chances of being employed in segregated schools both in cities that had de facto segregation laws in place and those that had “outlawed” segregation (Tyack, 1974). While Tyack’s work considers black teachers in New York in the early 1900s, the ideas and cultural beliefs about hiring black teachers remained in place for years. Similarly, in Rousmaniere’s work City Teachers (2004), she describes Sadie Delaney, a well-off, and respected preacher’s daughter, as having to hide her blackness by skipping her interview in order ensure her employment offer for a position in New York City. Even in places like New York City or Chicago where de facto segregation was outlawed, most teachers that taught black children were white, and especially after the 1930s, were more specifically, Jewish.

In the 1920s in Harlem, many white teachers were openly bigoted toward black parents. Although those same white women teachers may have helped or advocated for black students, they were also blaming parents for their perceived shortcomings (Rousmaniere, 1997). Later, white teachers would view working at black schools in Harlem, and elsewhere, as a sort of punishment or indicator of their poor ability as teachers (Rousmaniere, 1997).

However, there was one white woman who would change that idea in Harlem, Alice Citron. Alice Citron, a Jewish woman teacher in 1930s Harlem, serves as an example of what some white women were doing to alleviate racial tensions and inequality in an ever-changing New York City. Citron developed lesson plans and curricula that integrated Black authors and playwrights and taught other teachers about black history and culture. Citron, a known radical and child of Jewish immigrants, would work to become a serious supporter of parents’ organization and community-based programs in Harlem (Perlstein, 2004). She would become one of a few white and Jewish women to advocate openly on behalf of black children and parents in a racially segregated and stratified society.

Later, as issues of racial equity in education continued to rise to the surface during the Civil Rights movement, there are also examples of white female teachers, who despite their good intentions, did not forge meaningful partnerships with the communities they intended to “help,” thus rendering them ineffective in classrooms of black children whose experiences they did not understand. For example, Liz Fusco an Ocean-Hill Brownsville school teacher formally trained in high school teaching, went to Brownsville for the politics of it all–the strike in 1968 specifically. She went to Yale and was a proponent of Freedom Schools popular in Mississippi. However, when she arrived back North she was confronted with an absence of community or organization of the New Left. In her experience, she confronted an older male student for hitting one of her elementary students; his mother came to the school and slapped her (Perlstein, 2004). To make matters worse, Fusco’s supervisor gave the offending woman a job. Even though Liz Fusco was on the right side of the debate about equality in education, in this case, she did not make the time to understand the community, and so when she perceived she was treated badly, she left education altogether.

Women feminists through the years have varied in their approaches to education and their beliefs and cultural practices. Women like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Ethel Whitehead were true activists, fighting for women’s suffrage and championing women’s issues even if they exhibited racist and classist mentalities (James, 2005). White women like Liz Fusco, who worked in Freedom Schools of the South, and irrespective of  stereotypes of Black parents and students to become advocates for equality in education, and Alice Citron, who produced some of the first Black-oriented lesson plans for the Teachers’ Union used their privilege to further the educational pursuits of Black and Brown students in the 1960s (Perlstein, 2004). Eleanora Sellers, a Black woman who in the 1930s helped organize Black women’s organizations in Charlottesville, Virginia and whose husband also assisted Sara Patton Boyle, (another well-meaning white woman who actually became a staunch advocate of school desegregation in Virginia) in understanding her whiteness and “gross paternalism” in trying to assist young black men (James, 2005).  These varied efforts resulted in greater access to Black materials for students in New York City, pushed their white, male, Southern leaders toward desegregation and better quality education in the South, and increased women’s suffrage and working activities—all of which are still impactful today.  These stories and more speak to the dire straits people faced in fighting for equal rights or what they believed was the right thing to do. Consequently, the fight for equal rights in education is just one facet of the struggles these women, white and black, had to endure throughout the past.

Looking Forward

The unfortunate reality that can be gleaned from nearly every book or historical piece on education is that as a society, Americans have always fallen back on the laurels of strict and conservative, white-centric education with women at the passenger side, tending to the children in the back and men driving the education school bus where the wheels seemingly never stop turning. Attitudes steeped in white supremacy and delusion often dictate education policy particularly in urban areas. Today, in 2017, there is nearly no difference—except for maybe the driver. As of this writing, long-time Republican donor and advocate for private and religious education, Betsy DeVos, just had her confirmation hearing in the Senate for the Secretary of Education position. Her performance, much like her educational CV, was abysmal. There was not a shred of evidence that suggested she knew about education—in general—let alone that she will advocate for Black and Brown bodies to receive quality education.

Demonstrating more continuity from history regarding the uneven contributions of white women, a white woman who gets it, Sen. Elizabeth Warren quickly exposed the lack of experience Mrs. DeVos has in education. Unfortunately, that meant we the public, did not even get to hear her defend the Christian, white-washed worldview that she so stridently pushed in Michigan. Sure, we can assume that the “States” will be making most of the decisions, a position that DeVos took on most tough questions. Unfortunately, those of us in school, teaching at a school, or in any way in education do not have the ability to just depend on the “states” making the right decisions. How do we know we, Black and Brown folks, will be protected or even acknowledged?

What is known from multiple studies is that rare are the occasions when school ideas—the way in which we enact school culture, the community values of a school, and the diverse and not so diverse students who attend them—change and actual school practices follow (Cuban, 1984). It is also rare that politicians, educators, and even enthusiastic young scholars and philanthropists review the literature and rich history of education before making sweeping generalizations and claims about how schools should be operated. But, when we read our history, we – and all those white women teachers especially – can see how educators’ ideologies, attitudes, and actions impact school practices. Who will ensure that Black and Brown and different bodies of all kinds will be protected? Who will join forces with #BLM to advocate for educational rights AND the anti-police brutality of Black folks—adults and children? And now with Mrs. DeVos in line for a prime position in education, who will fight back?

So what can a white woman teacher do? For one, they can stop wearing those damn safety pins—the idea that a white person wearing one is a beacon of safety for “other” people who are vulnerable because of our new president-elect—which center themselves in a bunch of issues and pays homage to the white savior mentality. And secondly, they can recognize that by the sheer paleness of their skin they are walking around with a boatload of privilege that their students, nor their students’ ancestors, ever had. That, of course, is not to say that Black and Brown students don’t carry privilege. However, I can say that I do the work of unpacking it and recognizing it without sinking into my own white pity or feeling any white guilt. We have to unlearn social inequality. That takes work, that takes self-improvement and that takes a willingness to look at ourselves and all that we carry with us. That’s what white (all) women need to do. Work to think critically, challenge their mind-sets and help each other instead of trying to help “us.” Like the white women who came before, take up a Black history module outside of the month of February in your class and ask students what they want it to include; go to the spaces where your students live and experience the community without trying to fix it; and try listening to your students, instead of talking at them about their otherness.

Finally, she can argue that inclusivity and equity is important for all. She can stand up to white men and white supremacy without fear of pulling the “race card.” She can make inclusive lesson plans incorporating other cultures and ideologies. She can support minority students by giving them spaces to explore themselves and other cultures. She can recognize her own privilege and acknowledge it and then, dismantle it. These tasks are not easy, but neither is being Black or Brown.  The real goals are to consult historical knowledge, learn from the past successes and failures, and work to change the larger economic, social, and racial inequalities that shape education–not just to change education itself.

Photo credit

Corie and her first white “teacher,” her mom, at the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of the author.


Cuban, L. (1993). How Teachers Taught. New York: Teachers College Press.

James, M. (2005). The Conspiracy of the Good: Civil Rights and the Struggle for Community in Two American Cities, 1875-2000. New York: Peter Lang.

Markowitz, R. (1993). My Daughter, the Teacher: Jewish Teachers in the New York City Schools. Rutgers University Press.

Perlstein, D. (2004). Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism. Peter Lang.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System. New York: Basic Books.

Rousmaniere, K. (1997). City Teachers: Teaching and School Reform in Historical Perspective. Teachers College Press.

Semel, S.F., Sadovnik, A.R. & Coughlan, R.W. (2016). Schools of Tomorrow, Schools of Today: Progressive Education in the 21st Century. New York: Peter Lang Publishers.

Tyack, D. (1974). The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

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