Are All of Your Education Disruptors White?

The answer may be no* but it is the question that I would like to focus on for right now.

The question came to mind today as I was thinking through my position on higher education innovation and access. Both are wrapped up in language of justice, equality, and fairness — all things about which I care deeply, passionately even. Despite researching education and despite my irrational belief in the power of education to do all kinds of radical, wonderful things and despite having my own spotty history with traditional education organizations, despite all of these things I continue to carefully navigate the waters of recent debates around higher education disruption and innovation.

I had to ask myself, why is that?

I mean, I am one of those Roaming Autodidacts for whom so much of the current online delivery disruptors seemed to be geared. I actually can learn many things alone and through reading and writing. I actually hate group work with a passion and I would rather gnaw my arm off than have my classroom flipped. A nice, narrow delivery method of education — say, a video and some books and the email of some distant professor — actually would appeal to the kind of learner I am.

That could be why, despite having a few abilities, I zoned out on sudafed for most of my middle school years. I coasted through high school save but for a challenging calculus and english class or two. And college was so much of a joke that one exasperated professor told me not to bother coming back to class, I had an A and I wasn’t worth the trouble I started in class discussions.

I was not a stellar student.

So, when debates about the rigidity of traditional higher education are had I sympathize a great deal with the message. But there is something about the messenger that complicates the whole thing for me.

And I had to ask myself, again, why is that?

My enthusiasm for change is tempered by the reality of those who are doing the changing.

Why are so many of them white?

More specifically, why are so many privileged, white, upper middle class children born to wealth, access, and all of the goodies that buys you so hellbent on disrupting a system from which they disproportionately benefit?

Why can’t I bring myself to trust that this homogenous group of disruptors isn’t thinking of me when they go about the business of disrupting?

All of the personal enthusiasm I feel for solutions that would mesh so well with my preferred learning style and anti-authoritarian disposition is significantly tampered by the reality of my shared group position.

No way around this: I am black.

That might still mean something. It certainly seems to statistically. Black children are more likely than white children to attend underfunded schools. Even when they are in well-funded schools with advanced courses in math, science and English that colleges so very much like to see on applications they are more likely to be tracked into remedial courses. Black children benefit most from the status of attending an elite college but the gauntlet to get to the point of admissions at an Ivy League or small liberal arts college with selective admissions is so riddled with social and economic pot holes it may as well be an epic poem.

All of the promised disruption is said to create more access, particularly for “marginalized” students. I think they mean people like the student I was when they say marginalized. The thing is, my marginalized status was derived more from my group position – being black and low-status – than it was from my individual merit, gifts and ability. Somehow disrupting the marginalization for the individual me without disturbing the shared social position of people like me seems to be only half the equation.

As I have argued before, the first step in all this disruption is the transfer of credentialing authority from institutions to individuals. Again, I chafe under authority. I dream of burning bureacracies to the ground. The individual me is thrilled by the promise of controlling my own data, shaping my curricula, designing my own intellectual tradition, rising and falling in the choppy waters of labor market competition based on merit and grit. I mean, that would be nothing short of the gotdamn American Dream. And I am an American, after all. How could I not want that?

But the other me, that dual inner self so beautifully captured by WEB DuBois, that side of me can never forget what many who have never engaged systemic, institutional marginalization do not always realize: that this is no meritocracy. Some people are lucky and some people are more lucky than others. And those that are the most often lucky tend to have a lot in common with each other. In the American Dream I am an individual. In the American market I am my group. I can never completely disentangle my individual fortunes from my group position because my group is how I become labeled marginalized to begin with. In the solution lies me, the problem: the group that must be defined, worked with or worked against. Either way, I am a group.

What for me, the group, does all this disruption mean? When we disrupt education do we also disrupt group positions? Now that could be truly innovative. It could also be terrifying but it would at least recognize the reality of who and what I am, who and what millions of “marginalized” people are in relation to each other and in relation to the education we would disrupt.

If all of your disruptors are white, the same kind of privileged white, can they see that persistent, pervasive institution that would make me a group even when I stand alone? If we disrupt all the institutions and we become all a collection of individuals, to whom do I appeal when my individual-ness doesn’t operate like everyone else’s? Put more concretely, when individual black children continue to share remarkably similar piss poor shares of luck, how do they mobilize as a group for redress? Do they call the disruptors when there are no schools with authority? No institutions with a cursory commitment to seeing the group?

I don’t have the answers here but at least I am asking the questions. Questions like, how does this disruption work beyond the scope of education, out there in the rest of the world where that education becomes a commodity? How does this disruption challenge the privilege of all the sorting that has already happened before a kid makes it to college? How does this disruption make black me an individual in the same way it makes an individual of white you? Trust me, I want to see this vision that would so work for me, the individual me that I was and that I am. But I have questions about the scope and limits of that vision for the rest of me, the other me, the me that is always my group, my history, a people.  That’s what a few disruptors that aren’t all white, all the same kind of white can bring to the table: some new questions.

Sure, that makes things more complicated but it also makes your disruption more possible, more plausible, more like actual innovation instead of innovation lite, the marketing plan.

* And the first comments are that the answer is no. Someone points out that 4 of 5 leaders of higher education companies in the news lately are not white males (Khan, Ng, Agarwal, and Koller). I think that is narrowing the question to five companies when I perceive there to be a status group that has grown up around the professional discourse on higher education disruption. Groups like the 20 Million Minds and Technomy have conferences, publish papers, are cited in Op-Eds and become faces of this status group. That group feels overwhelmingly white to me, particularly considering so much of the debate is about more access to an implicitly group of marginalized students who are generally much more diverse than the status group.

A few optics might help: I’ve talked here about the 20 Million Minds conference. Also, see dais at Technomy or the Higher Ed Tech conference, etc. etc.

3 thoughts on “Are All of Your Education Disruptors White?

  1. I speak from the perspective of a white-middle class “educational disruptor” in the secondary sphere who works for one of “high-performing” charter school networks which ostensibly seeks to do the front-end work of feeding prepared students into higher educational settings with the proper tools for academic success. The author’s core question of to what degree are the mostly white educational disruptors actually enacting changes that serve to adjust the inequities of privilege between groups–not just individuals–rings with eerie urgency in our very strange world.

    I work for a charter network which teaches mostly black students by paying mostly white middle class people to do so. As somebody who spends way too many hours holed up in the minutiae of the daily teaching obligations, I can only offer an anecdotal but affirming validation of this comment by the author:

    “Why can’t I bring myself to trust that this homogenous group of disruptors isn’t thinking of me when they go about the business of disrupting?”

    I don’t think you should trust us–the white, middle-class educational disruptors–because the rhetoric abounding in the halls of my high school is one that sidesteps the systemic class & racial inequities by proclaiming the victory of the meritocracy, even if trite homage is paid to the “system of injustice” that brought us all together. In reality, the dialog in our staff and department meetings refuses to even engage with the complexities of systemic change. I argue that the roots of this oversight are at the very core of the white liberal psyche of many of the 20-somethings that teach at my school. We (many white teachers at my school), find comfort out of our privilege guilt by working 90+ hours a week making mediocre teaching materials (that have, no doubt already been made by content experts), telling our students who complain about too much homework that grit is the only way through, and, at the end of the long days, hope to some higher power that our sacrifice of sweat and hours will somehow be part of an amorphous “educational revolution.”

    The danger is that my psyche (and perhaps those of my colleagues) avoids cultivating meaningful solidarity with groups we purport to serve by subconsciously acknowledging that we have the unearned privilege of a relatively easy ascent within the racially discriminatory social hierarchy when the hours get too much or the kids grow too “disrespectful.” And, indeed, with a staff turnover at many of these kids of organizations (KIPP, Teach for America, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, to name a few) easily in the 50%+ per year range, I think this is exactly what is occurring.

    I deeply appreciate the authors willingness to express the skepticism that our institutions do not have a convincing way of addressing since so much of our foundational psychological drivers fall so far from where they need to be in order to be part of some sort of change. The question then becomes what does a reconfiguration of group relations within the educational disruption movement actually look and feel like in practice? How do we engage in the dialog within a system that is so hellbent on not examining the entrenched meritocratic myths drive so much of the white disruptors’ world?

  2. I speak from the perspective of a white, younger female who mostly works with other women in “underserved” populations (low-income, African-American and Latina) at a technical college. At my school, there are two members of the teaching staff who belong belong to a minority. The rest are white.

    So why are most of the disruptors white? By being white, I have disproportionately benefitted from “the system” ,as have many other disruptors. I also live in one of the most racially segregated cities in the US. The neighborhood I live in, and the neighborhoods my students live in are entirely different worlds. Our lives are completely different. My problems are child’s play compared to the issues that many of my students deal with on a daily basis.

    When you’re living in your car, fighting DCFS for your kids, taking care of your elderly and dying parents, worried every day about being the collateral damage of gang violence…..some things drop down the priority ladder. People may be too busy, too tired, unaware, uneducated, or don’t have the social capital to advocate for themselves when the system is trying to screw them over…..yet again.

    I will be the first to admit that I don’t have the answers. I don’t know how to fix the system; I only know that it’s broken. From my observations and conversations with my students, for the most part, they don’t understand the system. They have no idea how to address problems in the current system formally, let alone attempt to enact change. They don’t know what to do, so they do nothing. So to that end, I educate my students about the facts. I let them conclude what is best for them. I disrupt through truth and advocacy (when asked) because frankly, I’ve been afforded the luxury of being able to when others haven’t. I won’t say how to fix their problems, but I will yell about the injustices until someone listens.

  3. I am not a white disruptor, and though I am a black woman I did not come from the kind of socio-economic background (African immigrant parents, went to school in small town CT) which results in being the kind of student or going to the kind of school which is targeted for ‘educational disruption’ of the kind the post raises. My experiences with educational disruption is as a disruptor in a Yale-student-run program I did in college, in which I tutored at a local middle school, and via having several white friends from Yale who did Teach for America and other educational disruptor programs. So my comments are from this perspective, along with recent experiences with bullying in a university setting which have me cosigning what the author has written about blackness as a collective and social position (and one in which one’s background is often assumed to be known, no matter how incorrect the identification, purely on the basis of epidermalization, laying bare the limits of individual achievement and mobility for those collectively designated Black).

    When I read this post I thought of the number of white friends and classmates whose participation in educational disruption could not be separated from personal/career/political ambition. Teach for America as something to do because of an espoused commitment to social justice–and because it would look good on a law school or Rhodes application. And even for those who were not so transparently careerist, political animals, there was still the feeling that educational disruption was a *career*, whether short- or long-lived, not simply a calling in commitment to social justice no matter what. It’s not what I thought 15-20 years ago in college, but the long duree’ of life experience makes certain patterns all-too-apparent.

    Given my anthropology background, I think about your question of can white disruptor’s be trusted in relation to the embodied processes which produce subjects in the world, and the deep, largely unconscious, affective and emotional investments in one’s (racial) subject position such social production results in. (And in the process I tend to offer analyses which tend to piss people off, deeply, for suggesting that maybe they are even more invested in white/racial/skin-color privilege than they imagine.) On a fundamental level (i.e. the discursive fundaments of racial subjectivity/subject production) one has to acknowledge that, regardless of conscious intent, the *structural* fundaments of whiteness are parasitic on blackness, black suffering and inequality: and this is not a position which makes for collective trusting. No matter how well-intentioned the white disruptor, every daily encounter with the marginalized students and neighborhood in which the disruption takes place is an affirmation of one’s whiteness and one’s white privilege: a ‘thank goodness this is not and/or does not have to be my reality’. For white female disruptors in particular, these marginalized spaces and the dark(er) bodies which inhabit them are a reminder of the elevated status of bodies marked as white and female (especially over those marked as black and female): their higher status, coveted femininity. As one hears one’s students ranking hair texture and skin color so as to decide beauty/attractiveness, what does a white disruptor really think, not avoid feeling good about one’s light skin and de facto ‘good hair’? Especially given how women are socialized to evaluate themselves and other women in relation to hierarchical racialized beauty ideals? Then add to this what the previous commenter wrote about white disruptors not really discussing, wanting to discuss what it would mean to systemically challenge inequality.

    The issue of trust is not simply a matter of the conscious and espoused intent of white disruptors, it is also about the ways in which the daily embodied experience of white subjects in daily affirmed via the same structural inequality that white disruptors say they are committed to challenging. The collective keeps defining the individual, for better and for worse, and independent of any desire to trust or be trusted.

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