Higher Ed

Mesa Community College Is Hosting a 'Teaching While White' Forum

White faculty and staff are invited to a lunchtime discussion on "teaching while white" at Mesa Community College.
White faculty and staff are invited to a lunchtime discussion on "teaching while white" at Mesa Community College. Mesa Community College
Mesa Community College has a whiteness problem.

At least, that's the basic idea behind a series of lunchtime discussions for white employees put on by a group of MCC faculty members.

This month's lunchtime forum in the "When We Are White..." series looks at "teaching while white:"

"We invite white folks at Mesa Community College to join us in this months [sic] honest discussion as we explore the concept of whiteness through the lens of educationg, [sic]," reads an invitation on MCC's Intranet, a network for district faculty and staff. "We would like to have a conversation with faculty and staff on how they endeavor to build a diverse learning environment in their classrooms. We will be having a supportive dialogue around challenges and practices that we can use to support our students of color."

Three teachers representing life sciences, political sciences, and dance will help lead the discussion, scheduled on Google Meet from 9 to 10:30 a.m. this morning. Neither the public nor students are invited, nor will a copy of the video meeting be made public.

Life sciences teacher Sean Whitcomb said this is the first time he's spoken in the series and doesn't know what to expect. Whitcomb praised MCC's overall inclusiveness and said it's important to recognize that people have differences, especially as it relates to problems related to whiteness.

Failure to acknowledge the existence of white privilege would be one such problem, he added.

Amanda Mancic-Coe, who created and sent out the intranet notice, said that "teaching while white" is just one topic of the program, which has run since August. Other forums in the program have explored whiteness in sports, holidays, dance performances, and art, Mancic-Coe said.

The program isn't officially associated with MCC or the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD), and any MCC faculty member can use the district intranet like a bulletin board, sending messages to all other MCC employees in the system.

Although Mancic-Coe is the program advisor to TRIO, an MCC program that seeks to "identify and provide services for students from disadvantaged backgrounds," she's helping lead the discussions as part of a five-member group of faculty members who felt the need to have a collective talk about whiteness in the college experience without imposing on or requiring people of color to teach them about it. She declined to name the other group members.

click to enlarge Teaching While White is this month's discussion. - MCC
Teaching While White is this month's discussion.
The series is about "how do we, as people who identify as white, deal with whiteness" to help students of color, she said. "We're inviting other white folks to be in a space where people of color are not responsible for educating us."

The idea is to ensure that stories and histories in any particular academic discipline are not centered on white people, she said, but the point is to "decentralize whiteness, not take away from the white voice — it's to elevate everyone's voice."

Whiteness often manifests itself with the "white stories" in academia that may be present across many areas of study, she explained. Being inclusive, she said, means bringing in dance performances that are not all "written by and for white people," and discussing the "other people involved" in scientific discoveries that led to a white person winning a Nobel prize.

Mancic-Coe was temporarily stumped, however, when asked to define the concept of whiteness. Her group collaborated on "some common definitions," she said, but she couldn't recall them at that moment. To her, she said, it is "the idea of centering the ideal to which all people should live up to on what society has constructed as the perfect ideal, which tends to align with white culture."

In fact, "the concept is slippery and elusive," wrote the late education professor Joe Kincheloe in 1999. "Even though no one at this point really knows what whiteness is, most observers agree that it is intimately involved with issues of power and power differences between white and non-white people." That's still true today: Defining whiteness itself has been the subject of numerous magazine journal articles and newspaper op-eds. The belief in whiteness as a problem that must be addressed also tends to fall on political lines.

To conservatives like Kathleen Winn, one of seven MCCCD governing board members, the "When We Are White" series is "embarrassing."

"I’m disgusted that in this day and age, when we’ve accomplished so much to get rid of racism, that we’d return to racism," she said. "Whatever problem they’re trying to solve I believe doesn’t exist to the breadth and depth that they say it does... The people that are behind this are intentionally trying to create division. We as a people need to embrace our diversity and our history and this is not going to get us where we need to go."
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern