Katarzyna Olcoń

Senior Lecturer, Social Work, University of Wollongong


White ignorance is the source of the ongoing strained race relations and the contributor to the disadvantage of the Black, Indigenous, and people of colour in settler colonial countries such as Australia or the United States (Taylor & Habibis, 2020). Indeed, education was the most common recommendation that Taylor and Habibis (2020) received from Aboriginal people interviewed on the topic of White Australian people, culture and race relations.

So how do we educate White people about race, racism and Whiteness, and are they willing to learn? These were some of the questions I asked when conducting a study on White US social work students who went on a study abroad program to Ghana, West Africa.

The three-week summer study abroad curriculum was based on human rights and social justice frameworks with classroom-based and service-learning, and visits to places of significance to Black history such as the W.E.B. DuBois Centre in Accra and the former slave dungeons in Elmina and the Cape Coast. African American female academics led the program and I, a White female and a PhD student at the time, was a participant observer.

Going through hundreds of pages of fieldnotes, interview transcripts and student journals, I started noticing certain “story types” that seemed to capture how the eight White students engaged with learning about Whiteness. I labelled these: (1) avoiding racial discomfort; (2) turnaround; (3) from White saviour to White humility; and (4) back and forth. A unique combination of key themes, and dominance of one or two in each story type, meant that each type stood on its own.

Where students sought to avoid racial discomfort or just awkwardness, stories centred on the theme of silence about race and Whiteness. This manifested as an avoidance of, and withdrawal from conversations about Whiteness and race. Except for a few instances where they seemed to have opened themselves slightly to self-reflection, most of their thoughts and experiences went unsaid. In contrast, the “turnaround” story saw students initially display defensiveness and resistance. Through the program, however, these students experienced a major shift in their racial literacy and ultimately showed a strong commitment and steps towards becoming anti-racism advocates.

Other students approached the trip to Ghana with a White saviour attitude, a desire to “help” people of colour. Despite their initial problematic attitude and minimal understanding of Whiteness and racial oppression, these students appeared humbled by their experiences and their new awareness of Whiteness, responding with deep listening, genuine engagement, and a commitment to learning more about race and Whiteness. The final story type of back and forth, saw a variety of tensions and struggles related to White privilege exposed. While acknowledging (and trying to tackle) their White privilege, some students also simultaneously acted on this privilege. Much more advanced in their understanding of Whiteness than other study participants, they went back and forth between building a new, non-oppressive White identity and engaging in tactics that allowed them to return to the racial comfort of Whiteness.

All of these story types demonstrate different shades of initial White ignorance, privilege and fragility. Some students demonstrated visible movement in their learning towards more advanced racial awareness and White allyship, yet others largely remained where they started. As a White participant observer, I was frustrated but ultimately learnt from analysing and understanding the different journeys.

I believe engagement with critical Whiteness studies is crucial for breaking the pattern of White ignorance that Black, Indigenous, and people of colour can so easily pinpoint. Critical Whiteness pedagogy allows for an analysis of Whiteness at multiple levels: a power system embedded in social structures, ideologies and institutions that create and reproduce Whiteness, and an individual identity. Acknowledging these levels and complexities, pedagogy needs to be delivered in a thoughtful and skilful way. As Lensmire (2010) noted, “previous conceptions of White identity have too often hurt rather than helped our critical pedagogies with White students” (p. 159).

An essential aspect of teaching about Whiteness is managing White students’ emotional responses. Educators should understand that White students will have various levels of awareness about race, racism, and Whiteness, and therefore will respond differently to this learning. As seen in the students’ stories and documented in previous studies (Boatright-Horowitz et al., 2012; Todd et al., 2010), White participants tend to initially experience the emotions of: anger, fear, defensiveness, withdrawal, and guilt. If these emotions are not adequately addressed, “they can easily halt White students’ engagement with Whiteness, or worse, become the centre of the class” (Nichols, 2010, p. 6). Educators need to avoid what Leonardo (2002) frames as “a pedagogy of politeness” as this “degrades into the paradox of liberal feel-good solidarity” (p. 39). Instead, they need to create a safe environment for critical self-reflection and dialogue and assist White students in grappling with their emotions. As Boatright-Horowitz et al. (2012) pointed out: “helping White students understand how racism is manifested in modern society, without causing them to feel criticized or personally attacked, may increase the effectiveness of these interventions” (p. 909).

The “pedagogy of Whiteness” needs therefore to move students beyond emotional reactions, such as guilt or resentment, and “enable White students to have a stake in anti-racist and democratic struggles” (Giroux, 1997, p. 376).

This blog is based off: Olcoń, Katarzyna (2020). Confronting Whiteness: White US social work students’ experiences studying abroad in West Africa, Journal of Teaching in Social Work 40 (4), 318-335


Boatright-Horowitz, S. L., Marraccini, M. E., & Harps-Logan, Y. (2012). Teaching antiracism: College students’ emotional and cognitive reactions to learning about White privilege. Journal of Black Studies, 43(8), 893–911. doi:10.1177/0021934712463235

Giroux, H. A. (1997). White squall: Resistance and the pedagogy of Whiteness. Cultural Studies, 11(3), 376–389. doi:10.1080/095023897335664

Lensmire, T. J. (2010). Ambivalent White racial identities: Fear and an elusive innocence. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 13(2), 159–172. doi:10.1080/13613321003751577

Leonardo, Z. (2002). The souls of White folk: Critical pedagogy, whiteness studies, and globalization discourse. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 5(1), 29–50. doi:10.1080/13613320120117180

Nichols, D. (2010). Teaching critical Whiteness theory: What college and university teachers need to know. Understanding and Dismantling Privilege, 1(1), 1–12.

Taylor, P. S., & Habibis, D. (2020). Widening the gap: white ignorance, race relations and the consequences for Aboriginal people in Australia. Australian Journal of Social Issues, 55(3), 354-371. doi:10.1002/ajs4.106

Todd, N. R., Spanierman, L. B., & Aber, M. S. (2010). White students reflecting on Whiteness: Understanding emotional responses. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 3(2), 97–110.doi:10.1037/a0019299