This weekend, more than 14,000 academics will gather in Toronto to share their research for the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference. In past years, I’ve documented the focus of AERA academics on matters that seem only obliquely connected to curriculum, instruction, and policy. It looks like more of the same this year, from the symposium on “Liberating Oppressed Ontologies and Cosmologies for Transformational Praxis” to the paper “Queer Evolution: (Re)invigorating Environmental Education through Queer Interpretations of Evolutionary Onto-Epistemological Choreography.” But this year’s conference has especially lofty ambitions. Under the title Leveraging Education Research in a ‘Post-Truth’ Era: Multimodal Narratives to Democratize Evidence, the event’s promotional poster features a lighthouse inscribed with the words “Trust, Integrity, Methodology, and Reliability,” which looks out over a sea of “Post-Truth, Propaganda, and Fabrication.”
Unfortunately, rather than a renewed commitment to methodologically sound research into education policy and practice, the conference program demonstrates a preoccupation with promoting a virulent new brand of racism. A keyword search of the conference program reveals 422 hits for whiteness—more than for “personalized learning” (16), “school boards” (19), “standardized testing” (20), “high school graduation” (23) “reading achievement” (24), “digital learning” (25), “policy analysis” (31), “early education” (38), “teacher evaluation” (41) “literacy instruction” (42), “bilingual education” (48), and “achievement gap” (75) combined.
A symposium called “The Interrogation of Whiteness in Progressive Public Schools” promises to explore “the experience of teachers and education leaders who work to undo whiteness in public schools.” A featured paper in that session is “Trust, Community, and Dismantling White Dominance.” Another, “Critical-Race Elementary Schooling: Teacher Change Agents are Undoing Whiteness in Elementary Schools,” celebrates teachers who “actively resist elements of Whiteness.”
“Marking the Invisible: Articulating Whiteness in Social Studies” promises that participants will “call out the strategies deployed by white supremacy and acknowledge the depths by which it is used to control, manipulate, confine, and define identities, communities, citizenships, and historical narratives” in order to “promote justice-oriented teaching and learning.” Conference-goers can then attend “Whiteness at the Table: Whiteness and White Racial Identities in Education,” which features an academic exploration of student participation in “The Whiteness Project,” in a paper titled “Whiteness as Chaos and Weakness: Our ‘Abnormal’ White Lives.” The author of that paper laments that “with complex theory, it feels impossible, on some level, to interrogate whiteness, to suggest that it is something less violent than it is.”
Another symposium, “Dis/Orientations: Mapping Whiteness in Educational Spaces,” is dedicated to overcoming the inability of traditional academic practices to interrogate whiteness properly. Noting that “one of the conditions of white space is an uneven, positionally situated and ever-shifting inconspicuousness,” the researchers “engage in practices of collage, poetry, body work, and sound to turn towards educational whiteness.”
Perhaps the most remarkable symposium analyzes fanfiction about “Beckys.” “Becky” is a slur for “a stereotypical basic white girl; obsessed with Starbucks, Ugg boots, and trying to have a bigger butt.” The panel, titled, “Critical Becky Studies: Critical Explorations of Gender, Race, and the Pedagogies of Whiteness,” includes a paper called “Becky Book Club: White Racial Bonding in the Living Room,” which explores the “more insidious workings” of book clubs “laced with white supremacy and surveillance.” Another essay, “Border Becky: Exploring White Women’s Emotionality, Ignorance, Investment in Whiteness,” examines white women who find themselves “at the border between choosing to be a race traitor and repledging their allegiance to white supremacy.”
America’s education system is far from the envy of the world, and academic achievement for black students has lagged stubbornly behind white students for decades. The task of improving literacy, numeracy, and building the skills necessary to help black students advance themselves could not be more urgent—and education researchers have a crucial role to play in developing and disseminating knowledge toward that end. Unfortunately, judging by the AERA program, practical questions about improving teaching and learning appear to be taking a backseat to an increasingly pervasive dogma of racial resentment.