The Pillars of White Supremacy in School

This is a paper I wrote for grad school adapting Andrea Smith’s Pillars of White Supremacy to talk about how they play in schools. It is in NO way comprehensive but if I messed it up in a big way I am open to feedback. (Not like grammar and stuff remember I already turned this in) Okay, here we go.

The Pillars of White Supremacy in Schools

“The purpose of state-sanctioned schooling has been to forward the largely assimilationist and often violent white Imperial project, with students and families being asked to lose or deny their languages, literacies, cultures, and histories in order to achieve in schools.”

  -Paris and Alim, 2017, p.1

The current United States school system is built upon a foundation of white supremacy. When white colonizers first came to America, even before it was the United States, they felt that it was their duty to educate and “civilize” the Indigenous children (Wright, 1991). When Indigenous children did not conform to western-style education, they were separated from their families and sent to boarding schools (Lomawaima & McCarty, 2006). This was the beginning of schooling for students of Color in the United States. 

Contemporary schooling has continued this tradition of “civilizing” or assimilating students to the norms of white society (Emdin, 2016). American schools value conformity over individualism, pushing students to meet some “white-bread Americana” version of a child (Shalaby, 2017). An impossible standard for students of Color. bell hooks (1994) described attending white schools after Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, 1954 as a place of obedience where individual thought was a threat to whiteness.

I, myself, am a product of the United States school system and a white female teacher. I have been an actor in, and an observer of, how white supremacy operates in schools. Much of the research around whiteness begins with the idea of making whiteness visible (Leonardo, 2009), and whiteness, of course, is only really invisible to white people (Ahmed, 2004). Its violent policies of domination are clearly evident to people of Color (Leonardo, 2004).   In this paper, I use the framework of Andrea Smith’s (2006) three pillars of white supremacy to examine the ways k-12 schools in the United States uphold white supremacy.


The first pillar of white supremacy that Smith (2006) defines is that of slavery and capitalism. This pillar positions Black people as property and labor. The controlling and enslaving of Black Americans has shifted from colonial slavery to the prison industrial complex, where instead of kidnapping Africans and enslaving them, we punish Black people with unfairly enacted, unjust and unequally applied laws and send them to prison.  

Even the physical structure of schools often look and feel like prisons, with large concrete block construction outfitted with metal detectors at all entrances and police roaming the halls. In the United States, more school campuses have police than social workers. Schools with majority Black and Brown students are more likely to look and feel like prisons, and many majority Black and Brown schools act as feeders for the prison industrial complex. Known as the school-to-prison pipeline, there is a trend of schools that track students directly out of k-12 institutions and into the criminal justice system (Heitzeg, 2009). This pipeline depends on white supremacy on both a macro-level and a micro-level. On a macro-level, zero-tolerance policy and police on campus result in more suspensions and expulsions for Black boys than any other group (Heitzeg, 2009); On a micro-level, Black and Brown boys are watched more carefully and punished more harshly by their white teachers (Bryan, 2017). The school to prison pipeline supplies prision with free labor upholding both slavery and capitalism. 

In schools, we also uphold slavery in the ways we control students through the discipline policies that include suspensions and expulsions. As stated above, Black students are suspended and expelled at rates triple of their white peers (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014).  As young as preschool, Black children are suspended at 3.8 times their white peers (Shalaby, 2017). Students who are expelled and suspended fall behind academically and are more likely to be assigned to special education and remedial classes (Bryan, 2017; Hotchkins, 2016). This learning loss, combined with a lack of access to high-quality instruction, upholds capitalism by maintaining a workforce of young Black men without the societally-required education to advance in the workplace. 


The second pillar of white supremacy is genocide and colonialism. Missionaries have long known that the best way to colonize a people is through their children. Since arriving in the Americas, Catholics and Protestants have built schools to force Native people to conform to more “civilized” ways (Wright, 1991).  For nearly 300 years, white religious missionaries have attempted to convince Native people to send their children to missionary schools. Most Native people refused as the schools were so misaligned with their culture and values. In 1891, Congress mandated that Native American children attend state-run schools, and by 1893 they withheld food, money, and support to Tribes that refused to do so (Adams, 1988). These schools, designed to erase the Native identities and cultures of the children, strived to make them more “white”  (Lomawaima & McCarty, 2006).

The colonization of children of Color through schools continued beyond Indigenous people. The Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) doctrine of “separate but equal” created a system that segregated Native schools as well as schools for Black students, Mexican students, Chinese students, and students of Color from their white student peers. The schools for students of Color were woefully underfunded, understaffed, and often miles from the homes of the children expected to attend. In California, the population of Mexican and Mexican American children grew, and much likeike the Native schools that white people built, the schools for Mexican children focused on “Americanizing” them. Spanish was prohibited, and American values were central to the curriculum (Wollenberg, 1974).  In San Francisco, this same treatment was happening to Chinese students (Kuo, 1998)

The colonization of children into white culture is not just a historical problem; the erasure of the cultural ways of being for students of Color continues to this day. Chris Emdin (2016) describes American’s urban youth of Color as neoindigenous, using this term to connect the experiences of urban youth of Color to Indigenous children’s experiences. Both groups go into schooling with their languages, literacies, cultures, and histories. Forced by a system of education rooted in white as “right”, they are required to deny parts of themselves to be “successful” (Paris & Alim, 2017). Many students are even asked to change their names for the ease of the teacher and the white students (Kohli & Solórzano, 2012). If the teacher can’t say, “Gilberto”, she might call him “Gil”. Colonization here reaches in and removes the child’s name, taking away a piece of their very identity. 

The second part of this pillar is genocide. In schooling, white supremacy is held up by the erasure of genocide. Students learn about westward expansion without discussing the fact that there were already societies and cultures in the West. In California, students build mission projects creating replicas out of sugar cubes without discussing the genocide committed by the missionaries. Teachers dress up their students as “Pilgrims and Indians” and sit them down to give thanks, wiping away the disease and violence the pilgrims rained on the Native people. 


The last of Smith’s (2006) pillars of white supremacy is orientalism and war.  Orientalism creates the idea of Western civilization as right and Eastern as “exotic” or other. This pillar allows people who might have racial privilege to be subjugated under white supremacy. When Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006) coined the education debt, she spoke of the difference in achievement between White and Asian students and their Black and Brown peers. High achievement on standardized testing creates the idea that Asian and Asian American students carry the same privileges in school as white students. 

Orientalism starts by placing all Asians into one group (Iftikar & Museus, 2018). In the same way, colonizers created a category of Native Americans, erasing all differences in culture, politics, and history, it reduces Asians and Asian Americans in the United States to a monolith. In schools, this leads to a model minority stereotype of East Asian students as academically inclined (particularly in math and science) and socially inept (Lin et al., 2005). This stereotype allows white teachers to hold up Asian students as examples of students of Color who can be successful, and it is harmful in many ways. First, it creates pressure on Asian students to perform a type of academic perfectionism that is unattainable. Second, the model minority stereotype sells the idea that if Asian students are good enough at school, they will achieve some level of whiteness and, in turn, success. Lastly, it reinforces white supremacy by creating a false racial ranking system that places Asians with white people above Black and Brown people (Iftikar & Museus, 2018)

The other half of this pillar of white supremacy is war. Smith (2016) writes about the United States’ constant state of being at war. In schools, the conflicts happening in the world filter down to the way students treat each other. Since September 11th, a war has been waged on students of Middle Eastern descent, particularly Muslims. A recent study found that Muslim children are of the faith most likely to be bullied for their religion by other students, as well as by teachers and administrators (Ochieng, 2017). In 2016, the election of Donald Trump brought a new wave of terror to all students outside the norms of white supremacy. Eight of ten marginalized children reported heightened anxiety at school (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2016). War on a large scale leads to internal tension within schools and among students.

What’s Next?

The pillars of white supremacy, which were always apparent to people of Color, are becoming more visible to white people (Ahmed, 2004). America is in the middle of a racial uprising. A recent poll found that the #BLACKLIVESMATTER movement was more popular than Trump, Biden, Warren, Obama, or any other government official (Linzer, 2020). Books on antiracism are on backorder, and more white people than ever are standing up with people of Color against white supremacy (Schwedel, 2020). There appears to be a national recognition that the United States’ problems are not just one or two racist people, but that systemic racism is built into our societal institutions’ foundations, including schools. 

In public schools, white teachers make up 80% of the teaching force, and with this national awakening, more teachers are examining their practices and looking for ways to improve their classrooms for students of Color. The national conversation about race provides an opportunity to shift the practices of teachers and improve schooling. Working to dismantle the pillars of white supremacy is one way to start this work.

Dismantling Slavery/Capitalism

The first step to dismantling slavery and capitalism in schools is to reimagine the entire discipline system as a way to facilitate the destruction of the school to prison pipeline. Since all of the pillars of white supremacy are intertwined, it makes sense that their dismantling should be, too. One reimaging of school discipline is deeply rooted in decolonization. Instead of the typical punitive approach, schools are starting to look at Restorative Justice, which replaces a system designed to punish students for breaking the rules with a system designed to repair harm to the school community (Evans & Lester, 2013). Restorative Justice is based on Indigenous traditions, knowledge, and ceremony (Vaandering, 2010). It has the potential to allow students to own a part of their school community and participate in building and maintaining it.

Schools have adopted Restorative Justice for over two decades. While some of the results are promising (a decrease in suspension and expulsions) in many places, Restorative Justice is tied to a system so warped by white supremacy that it causes the same harm it was meant to prevent (Vaandering, 2010).  One facet of Restorative Justice is peacemaking circles. These circles are collectively designed to build community inclusive of all students and their cultures. However, when circles are run by teachers who do not examine their ties to the educational system, they can reinforce white supremacy and uplift the privileged and powerful voices in the classroom (Parker & Bickmore, 2020). This is an indication that the pillars of white supremacy cannot be torn down one at a time. Slavery and capitalism must be dismantled in conjunction with genocide, colonization, orientalism, and war.


How do we stop and repair the harm from colonization and genocide? If schools are what missionaries build to colonize a people, then there is hope that schools can be a place to decolonize and revive a culture. Instead of erasing students’ cultural identities through a pedagogy of whiteness, Lee and McCarty (2017) propose Culturally Sustaining/ Revitalizing Pedagogy (CSRP). CSRP starts by acknowledging the harm of colonization, which then helps students  reclaim and revitalize their cultures. This includes art, language, food, and any other pieces of a student’s identity that has been damaged by colonization. In addition, CSRP focuses on schools’ need to be accountable to communities (Lee & McCarty, 2017)

Currently, schools are accountable to an elected school board, but to be accountable to communities, we need our school boards to reflect our students. In the United States, over 50% of public school students are students of Color (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020). A national survey of school boards found that 78% of school board members are white (National School Boards Association, 2018). School boards that accurately represent their communities with voices that have been historically marginalized have been shown to shift districts to decolonizing policies (Hughes et al., 2017)

Dismantling Orientalism/War

Orientalism and war need an enemy in order to exist. Without the notion of the “other,” there is no orientalism. Without the idea of the “other,” there is no one to fight in a war. For schools to dismantle orientalism and war, they need to focus on humanizing practices, which occur through core content curriculum, pedagogy, and social-emotional lessons. 

Humanizing curriculum provides both mirrors and windows to students; mirrors allow for marginalized students to see themselves in their books and curriculum, while windows enable all students to experience different cultures and see the commonalities and differences (Sims Bishop, 1990). Humanizing curriculum lifts the voices of students who haven’t traditionally been heard and places value on their words and experiences (Burke et al., 2008).  Students who experience a humanizing curriculum see the experiences of others as valuable and important.

Culturally Sustaining/Revitalizing Pedagogy is humanizing pedagogy. As teachers move away from the idea of students as receptacles of knowledge and begin to recognize the value that students bring with them into the classroom, school becomes a humanizing place (Freire, 2018). As schools incorporate social-emotional learning like Restorative Practices into their systems and structures, all students gain a sense of belonging within the school community. Orientalism and war cannot exist in a place where everyone is welcome and seen for who they are. 


None of the above will work independently of the rest. Restorative Justice in a school with zero tolerance policies is not restorative. One teacher in a high school implementing CSRP cannot revive language, art, and all the other pieces of culture. Students knowing each other without an antiracist focus will not dismantle social hierarchies. It’s possible that, even together, all of this is moot. The killing of unarmed Black and Brown people cannot be extracted from the experiences of school children. Racial disparities in access to housing and well-paying jobs do not disappear when a student enters a campus. The school system is inextricably linked to the colonization of the United States and white supremacy. There is a real chance that the only option is revolution. We may need to burn it all down and start fresh. 


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