2500 Essay For Philosophy Reflection On Education With Film

Blindsided by the Avatar: White Saviors and Allies Out of Hollywood and in Education Julio Cammarota

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew, to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges.

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—James Baldwin

Every week I assist a social studies teacher with the implementation of a social justice government course at a Tucson high school located in Arizona. My role is to teach students qualitative research techni- ques so they can ‘‘read the world’’—in the Freirian sense (Freire 1993). The teacher provides the students with terms such as ‘‘cultural capital,’’ ‘‘social construction,’’ and ‘‘white privilege’’ so they can express critically the complexity of what they are ‘‘reading.’’

As part of a lesson on white privilege, the teacher whom I will refer to as Juan Gomez decided to show a trailer to the film, The Blind Side as evidence of the ‘‘white savior syndrome.’’ This was the first time that I had seen this trailer, and I was struck by the affect of the actors. Sandra Bullock’s character was fierce, bold, and eminently determined to change the world in ways that mat- tered to her. Quinton Aaron, who plays a young African American

The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 33:242–259, 2011 Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 1071-4413 print=1556-3022 online DOI: 10.1080/10714413.2011.585287


football player Michael Oher with many needs (i.e., housing, financial resources, emotional support), appears subdued, emotion- ally withdrawn, almost developmentally handicapped—with no real sense that he has the capacity to change the world in any way, shape, or form. Juan showed this trailer to demonstrate that Hollywood tends to make films based on this theme; young people of color can escape their predicament of marginalization through the guidance and agency of a lone white actor. Juan identified this theme as the ‘‘white savior syndrome.’’

After the trailer, we engaged students in critical media literacy (Alverman and Hogood 2000; Kellner and Share 2005, 2007). Students are often unaware of unjust representations and thus need critical media literacy, which cultivates ‘‘skills in analyzing media codes and conventions, abilities to criticize stereotypes, dominant values, and ideologies, and competencies to interpret the multiple meanings and messages generated by media texts’’ (Kellner and Share 2005, 372). Additionally, media is often how students learn about racial prejudices and privileges, as part of an encoded social logic of racist expression and exclusion.

We started our media literacy lesson by querying the students about their general perceptions of The Blind Side. We drew from Freire’s (1993) approach of ‘‘problem-posing’’ by suggesting ques- tions to the students and facilitating a dialogue about the problems of the film. To our general question about their perceptions, many responded that they ‘‘liked the film,’’ or thought it was a ‘‘good story about helping someone out.’’ Our facilitator roles allow us to offer our positions and take responsibility as educators to stimulate dialogue in critical directions. Therefore, I interjected and mentioned how I thought the trailer represented the white female and black male in extreme, polarized ways. I told the stu- dents that the white female seemed strong, capable, and effective while the black male appeared dilatory, dour and even, perhaps, mentally challenged. Some students immediately defended the film saying that the African American character did not appear ‘‘mentally challenged’’ and that it was ‘‘good that he was being helped.’’ One student stated that she saw the entire film and that it ‘‘focuses more on the football player than on her (the white female).’’

Juan reminded the students that the trailer represents the white savior syndrome in which a white person guides people of color from the margins to the mainstream with his or her own initiative and benevolence. The movement occurs through the ‘‘smarts’’ of

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the lone savior and not by any effort of those being saved. The white savior syndrome has the tendency to render people of color incapable of helping themselves—infantile or hapless=helpless victims who survive by instinct. People of color supposedly lack the capacity to seek change and thus become perceived as dispos- sessed of historical agency. Any progress or success tends to result from the succor of the white individual, which suggests that escaping poverty or ignorance happens only through the savior’s intelligence.

This assistance amounts to what Freire calls ‘‘false generosity’’ such that a white person may provide help to people of color yet help comes in the form of a saving action that tends to help a single individual or group. The focus on ‘‘saving’’ instead of ‘‘transform- ing’’ fails to address oppressive structures and thus the privileges that maintain white supremacy. False generosity is an ‘‘attempt to soften the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed’’ (Freire 1998, 46).

The teacher then contrasted his definition of white savior with white ally. According to Juan, a white ally is someone who does engage in what Freire calls ‘‘true generosity’’ by joining in soli- darity with people of color to struggle collaboratively against those institutions that maintain oppression. Solidarity involves sublimat- ing one’s ego and status so that people of color can provide empow- ered leadership in movements of liberation. A reduction of status requires challenging the very institutions and practices that proffer white privilege and power. Anything less would amount to ‘‘false generosity’’ such that support would at best make a difference to a handful of people as opposed to engaging in actions of solidarity that may lead to the dismantling of oppressive institutions and thus long-term change. True generosity requires of the oppressed ‘‘hands . . . extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become hands which work, and working, transform the world’’ (Freire 1998, 46).

Although we problem-posed several questions to the students, they also have equal opportunity to pose their own questions. When Juan completed his statements about the white savior versus the white ally, an African American male student expressed, ‘‘But Blind Side is a true story! How could you criticize someone helping another human being?’’

Juan and I do not argue against the veracity and value of white people helping people of color. Significant social change can and

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does happen with the assistance of white allies. However, we are concerned, through an Althusserian symptomatic reading (Althusser and Balibar 1979), about what might be missing or even implicitly assumed in films like The Blind Side. In such cinematic treatments of race, people of color appear to lack the agency neces- sary to enact positive changes in their own lives. The underlying assumption is that people of color, on their own, fail to enact resili- ence, resistance, and success—as made gratuitously evident in the representation of Michael’s family life. Any achievements in these areas seem to result from the initiatives of the white savior. Further- more, these Hollywood narratives often miss or ignore how people and communities of color do successfully resist and overcome marginalization through their self-initiated agency.

This article discusses how the white savior syndrome renders the misrepresentation of the potential of people of color to resist and lead the transformation of oppressive conditions within their own social context. Indigenous resistance requires endogenous (internal) leadership such that all social justice actions derive from and con- tinue to flow through communities of color and their leaders. White saviors represented in popular media overshadow the fact that people of color are part of and, most importantly, make history. For instance, the historical legend of Abraham Lincoln ‘‘freeing the slaves’’ eclipses the real efforts of myriad African Americans who resisted and fought against their bondage.

In the school context, I discuss Ruby Payne’s (2005) work to underscore pseudo-educational approaches that avoid building leadership in communities of color while continuing to label them as deficient. This negligence results from the impact of racism shap- ing the worldview of the savior. Acceptance of Payne’s approach depends upon internalized racism influencing the perspective of the ‘‘saved.’’ In contrast, I examine the virtues of white allies and how they can help promote leadership among people of color by challenging the privileges that provide them with superior social status and legitimacy. The article concludes with a discussion of how racial justice can occur with the oppressed in leadership posi- tions and the oppressor adhering to and following this leadership. The existence of white saviors may help some people of color but it will not result in long-term systematic change. White allies can contribute to systematic change by abdicating both privileges and superior status while cultivating leadership within communities of color and relations of mutuality and respect.

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The Hollywood industry is a proponent of what Giroux and Giroux (2004) call ‘‘corporate culture’’ that shapes active ‘‘[c]itizenship’’ into a ‘‘solitary affair whose aim is to produce competitive, self-interested individuals vying for their own material and ideological gains’’ (252). The needs and interests of the individual, particularly the white male who possesses market power (social and cultural capital), supersedes the importance of people of color struggling to gain collective rights. The neoliberal logic driving corporate culture demands that the market regulates all social and economic practices, and the overarching principle regulating markets is competition (Lazzarato 2009, 117). Corporate culture facilitates a social climate of competition by feeding and managing inequalities so that individuals with power and status can dominate and succeed over marginalized others.

In the competitive market, neoliberalism applies racial distinc- tions in the process of managing inequalities to ensure the dominant racial group maintains advantages and privileges in the practice of individualism. Goldberg (2009) asserts that neoliberalism shifts the focus of the state from public welfare to private concerns and ‘‘thus also ensures a space for extending socio-racial interventions— demographic exclusions, belittlements, forms of control, ongoing humiliations . . .’’ (334). This shift involves moving racial practices from the public to the private realm, thereby engendering a privati- zation of racism by securing racial exclusions, preferences, and privileges within the private world away from government inter- vention (Goldberg 2009, 339). Privatized racism is what Goldberg would refer to as ‘‘racial neoliberalism.’’ With the continued prevalence of racial practices promoting injustices, the neoliberal inclination toward individualism will proffer advantages to the dominant racial group in market-driven structures, such as capital- ism, private schools, and insurance managed health care.

Hollywood films tend to gravitate toward the theme of the indi- vidual savior whose actions of saving others from themselves as opposed to addressing oppressive structures elide the possibility of recognizing social injustices and the need for collective action to secure rights and opportunities. The neoliberal logic of corporate culture highlights the savior as a model that narrows human agency to only the pursuit of individual success and gains. ‘‘Responsibility,’’ according to Susan Searls Giroux (2010), under

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在竞争性市场中,新⾃ 由主义在管理不平等现 象的过程中采⽤了种族 差异,以确保占主导地 位的种族团体在个⼈主 义实践中保持优势和特

the neoliberal regime initiated in the Reagan era ‘‘was divested of its social character; indeed . . . there was ‘no such thing as society’’’ (3). Thus, lost in neoliberalism is the recognition that subordination is not a failure of individual initiative but the result of a whole host of oppressive conditions including inadequate education, limited employment opportunities, unfair wages, and unjust discriminatory treatment.

In the Hollywood ‘‘savior’’ film Avatar, the main protagonist and individual savior, in this case, is a white male marine, named Jake Sully whom the military plants to gain access and information from the indigenous people, the Navi of the moon Pandora. The narra- tive parallels the film Dances With Wolves in which Kevin Costner plays an Army captain who is sent to an outpost to protect white settlers from the Sioux Indians. Similar to Costner’s character, Jake Sully becomes enamored with the native people, even falling in love with the female Navi character Neytiri. Jake then decides to lead a resistance that saves Pandora from the colonizers. Avatar parallels Dances With Wolves so much so that one might consider the screenplay a twenty-first century version.

New York Times editorialist, David Brooks (2010) writes that Avatar follows the

oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wil- derness in search of thrills and profit. But once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization. (27)

This narrative, what Brooks calls the ‘‘White Messiah Fable’’ is prevalent in several Hollywood productions, including A Man Called Horse, The Last Samurai, and most notably,Dances With Wolves. We have seen this trope or fable many times before such that a film- maker ‘‘doesn’t have to waste time explaining the plot because everybody knows roughly what’s going to happen’’ (Brooks 2010, 27). The dominant theme in these films centers on colonized people who ‘‘possess not the . . .physical or intellectual capacity to compete with their European counterparts and thus have not the ability to adequately govern themselves, much less in times of adversity ergo the need for a White savior’’ (Meade 2010, 209).

The natives appear the same way to the white savior in these films: always beautiful, spiritual, and reverent to God and earth. These qualities render the natives appealing to both audiences

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and white saviors. However, as Brooks (2010) correctly points out, ‘‘they are natural creatures, not history making ones’’ (27). Their agency is understated to a point in which the natives resemble elegant, graceful animals more than competent human agents. The lack of human agency among people of color is perhaps the most offensive aspect of the white savior productions. The oppressed have no other choice but to follow the leadership of oppressors who generally choose to oppress but occasionally choose to play the role of savior. These productions undermine the value of indigenous ideas for shaping the destiny of native people. Moreover, most native people would have been fine and not in need of rescuing were it not for the exploitation of the saviors’ people in the first place.

In the social science class, Juan Gomez talked about the white savior syndrome in Avatar and The Blind Side. He pointed out that the films focus on the white savior’s deeds to the exclusion of the real conditions of oppression that put the ‘‘saved’’ in the predica- ment of needing to be ‘‘saved.’’ Avatar does, however, present a narrative of colonization, which students in southern Arizona understand intuitively from a similar colonial process afflicting the U.S.–Mexico border. However, Avatar fails to address the historical context of what Mendelsohn (2010) describes as ‘‘the scary and often violent confrontation between human and alien civilizations’’ (1). This failure leaves students with a lack of under- standing of how conflicts occur between civilizations (alien or human) or cultures along borders.

In The Blind Side, the discussion of social and economic forces (i.e., racism, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, inferior education) impacting black communities is largely absent. The history of oppression and negative social and economic forces are missing in these films, yet their absence nonetheless allowed Juan Gomez and me ‘‘teachable’’ moments by filling in the historical silences.


History directly contradicts these films by exposing their untruths. Rather than awaiting white saviors, people of color do act in accordance with their own interests and in the interest of a more just society. Resistance leaders are often people of color struggling

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against white colonization, who end up either in prison, murdered or both. For instance, Puerto Ricans have struggled for liberation longer than the U.S. occupation, which began in 1898. Pedro Albizu Campos and Lolita Lebron are two of the most prominent Puerto Rican resistance leaders in the twentieth century. Campos was the leader of the Puerto Rican nationalist independence party from 1930 until his death in 1956. Because of Campos’ political actions for independence, the U.S. government arrested and then condemned him to more than 10 years in prison. He eventually died from radiation torture imposed while under arrest. Two years after the U.S. Congress voted to make Puerto Rico a permanent colony in 1952, Lolita Lebron entered the House of Representatives to shoot at her colonizers. Five representatives were injured in the shooting. She was also arrested, sentenced to 70 years in prison but served a ‘‘modest’’ 25 years for her actions.

There have been other resisters like Campos and Lebron. Assata Shakur was falsely arrested for her involvement in the Black Panther party. After spending time in jail she escaped and fled to Cuba. She has been living there ever since her escape. Another Black Panther, Fred Hampton was shot and killed in Chicago by FBI agents, and the famed Soledad Brother, writer, and activist George Jackson, was also shot by a prison guard during an attempted escape. A young Angela Davis would also find herself the subject of repeated harass- ment by then Governor Ronald Reagan, placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list and incarcerated, even facing the death penalty, on absurdly trumped up charges. Leonard Peltier was jailed for his involvement in the American Indian Movement, and Mumia Abu Jamal is also suffering a similar fate on death row for his connection to the black liberation organization MOVE.

There have not been any Hollywood films made about these resistance leaders. A film about a person of color standing up to white colonization would anger, intimidate, alarm, and thus ultimately fail with white audiences. Currently whites are still a majority in the United States and perhaps the most important racial group among movie-going consumers. However, the white savior syndrome in films like Dances With Wolves or even Avatar do more damage than good to the historical record. These films suggest that social change occurs through white leadership and that people of color in change processes occupy primarily the role of the victim as opposed to the victor. Perhaps the worst misrepresentation is Allan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, which depicts the FBI as key

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电影表明,社会变⾰是 通过⽩⼈领导⽽发⽣ 的,在变⾰过程中,有 ⾊⼈种主要扮演受害者 ⽽不是胜利者的⻆⾊

activists in the civil rights movement. This, in contrast to their actual roles as agents of repression under J. Edgar Hoover and his covert program of ‘‘dirty tricks,’’ COINTELPRO. Overshadowed in this film is the critical role of people of color organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Southern Christian Leadership Council. Young people of color who consti- tute an important segment of moviegoers will have little to draw from models of leadership and positive, empowered roles to adopt in social change movements if movies continue to misrepresent the role of people of color in history.

Apathy among people of color is a real concern because they are consistently bombarded with images of inferiority and victimiza- tion. Hollywood films sustain these messages via constant repetition and obfuscate the historical record. In the social studies class, Juan Gomez queried the students about their knowledge of film stars versus real educators. They were more familiar with Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds than with Bob Moses of the Algebra project. When a picture of Jeffery Canada was shown to the students, he was not recognized. However, students recognized the white savior played by Hilary Swank in the film FreedomWriters.


Occasionally Hollywood has made films about white allies in which the white leader stands in solidarity with the leadership and actions of people of color. Perhaps the best white ally example appears in the film, Glory, based on the true Civil War events of an all-black troop of the 54th Regiment led by the white Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick. Although the film does not accurately or fairly represent the African American perspective, it does shift the standard white leadership role from messiah to martyr (Stoddard and Marcus 2006). Colonel Shaw accepted the leadership assignment knowing that racism would prevent the troop from ever seeing battle. However, at the end of the movie, the Union forces needed to take a Rebel bunker to win a battle and the only troop available to fight was the 54th. The troop elected to fight knowing that the straight on attack of the bunker would lead to their deaths. The soldiers’ white ally, Colonel Shaw stood and fought shoulder to shoulder with them. Shaw and the soldiers were eventually killed but their defeat led to the enlistment of

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150,000 African Americans, which Lincoln assessed as the turning point of the Civil War.

In this example, the white ally Colonel Shaw assisted the African American soldiers with becoming agents of history by preparing and then fighting alongside them in battle. Matthew Broderick’s charac- ter sacrificed his status and power to stand with the soldiers and face death together while struggling against the forces of oppression.

Although fighting alongside the African American soldiers was a suicide mission, a white ally does not have to give up his or her life to achieve solidarity. Alliance requires at minimum a symbolic death, more in the line with Amilcar Cabral’s ‘‘class suicide’’ in which one relinquishes social status to work collaboratively with the oppressed. Cabral asserts that allies with privilege and power who join move- ments of change should commit ‘‘suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong’’ (quoted in Rudebeck 2006, 94). Hierarchical positioning becomes inactive betweenwhite allies and people of color so that ideas andmovements emerge unilaterally with those united democratically on the ground.

In order for Colonel Shaw to become an ally he had to dismount from his high horse, abdicating his status and power as an officer in this final moment and place his feet on the ground next to the foot soldiers. When the time to act and make history comes, the white ally must sacrifice his power so that the agency of the oppressed becomes central.


Popular film culture not only undermines young people of color’s potential to become change agents but also reinforces and at times shapes the social policies that bear the greatest impact on their lives. For instance, Ruby Payne is perhaps the most influential individual with shaping teacher practices for poor students in this country. Although she focuses primarily on class and poverty, most exam- ples in her writings involve the work of students of color (Stinnent 2008). Nevertheless, many school districts that serve students of color have adopted her ‘‘framework’’ for professional development and teacher training (Sato and Lensmire 2009).

Payne’s ideas are not much different than those espoused by the white saviors in Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, and The Blind

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Side. She perceives poor students of color existing in deficit such that they supposedly do not possess any knowledge or intellectual capacity beyond what they absorb from their more educated and economically stable teachers. The following represents how Payne (2005) characterizes poor students’ behavior in the classroom: She believes that they ‘‘laugh when disciplined, argue loudly, make angry responses, make inappropriate or vulgar comments, have hands on someone else, fail to follow directions, learn to be disor- ganized, unable to finish tasks, become disrespectful to teachers, harm others, cheat or steal, and talk incessantly’’ (79–80). Missing here is any sense of how students resist forms of teacher authority that relentlessly define students according to their alleged lacks— often as a matter of maintaining dignity.

The ‘‘important’’ knowledge that poor people may procure reportedly derives from institutional or ‘‘official’’ instruction and not from any indigenous or local practices generated by their own initiatives. What she does report as indigenous knowledge is quite insulting. For instance, she claims, without supporting research, that poor people relative to middle-class folks know more about how to ‘‘buy guns, bail someone out of jail, function in laundromats, acquire food from grocery bins, and use duct tape’’ (Payne 2005, 53–58).

Furthermore, Payne perceives poor students of color as lacking middle-class cultural capital, values, and behavior. The teacher’s job is to ensure that poor students learn middle-class culture and values, ‘‘and this very need characterizes them as deficient’’ (Stinnent 2009, 65). Once they assimilate to the middle-class value system, they supposedly become better off. This approach allows the educator to adopt a savior perspective and mistakenly see his or her role as saving the poor student by extirpating him or her from a culture of pathology and then remaking him or her into the image of the educator=savior (Sato and Lensmire 2009, 368). ‘‘Saving,’’ according to Michie (2007), ‘‘is not how real teaching works. Teaching . . . can only happen over time as trusting and mutually respectful relationships are built’’ (8). The savior perspec- tive in Payne’s method translates into a messiah complex, elevating educators to an artificially high level of self-importance and value for ‘‘feeding’’ their supposedly bereft students. This higher status buttressed by racism, classism, and general elitism allows white and wealthier people to feel superior over the supposedly down- trodden others. It would be hard for teachers to build trust with

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students who they believe to be from a much lower social position and perspective than them.

Educational assimilation posits that people of low socioeconomic status lack the appropriate values to achieve success, and any lack of success or low status is the result of their personal deficiencies. This is an example of the way that the privatized racism of the neo- liberal order works. Inequalities are reduced to private character flaws (e.g., laziness, predilection for drugs, sex, etc.) rather than understood as (historically and currently) institutionally shaped and maintained. The deficiencies, according to Payne, are dimin- ished resources, but her definition of ‘‘resources’’ surpasses money. She includes ‘‘emotional, spiritual, physical, relational, and social resources’’ (Payne 2005, 16). However, repeated ethnographic stu- dies demonstrate the real resourcefulness and resilience of poor people (Edin and Lein 1997; Gregory 1998; Cammarota 2008). This research demonstrates that poverty presents political and economic restraints that may impose effects on human development yet sep- arate from cognitive and cultural realms. Some, in fact, argue that poor people cultivate valuable ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ or ‘‘cultural wealth’’ out of the necessity to negotiate and survive the harsh cir- cumstances of poverty (Velez-Ibanez and Greenberg 1992; Yosso 2005). The incorrect assumption that poor people lack resourceful- ness exonerates social or economic structures from any culpability in reproducing poverty and oppression generation after generation.

Approaching poverty or any form of oppression as an individual behavioral problem evades the entire point about economic marginal- ity and low status. Society influences the social position one inhabits; the individual may have some say about his or her social status, but for the most part society plays a huge role with shaping status distinc- tions. Inmany societies, includingAmerica, social and economic prac- tices tend to organize individuals into gradients so that some people access greater power andwealth than others. This happens systemati- cally, and schools are part and parcel of this system of unequal distri- bution of wealth and power. Teaching down to poor students, as if they are unintelligent and culturally deficient, when coupled with the real material hardships they face, will only reproduce poverty.


White allies adopt a significantly different position from white saviors. They realize they have privileges and work to undermine

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the very power that provides them with superiority. Beverly Tatum (1997) asserts that a white ally’s role should not be about ‘‘helping’’ people of color but rather about speaking ‘‘up against systems of oppression and to challenge other Whites to do the same’’ (109). Allies tend to redirect resources toward addressing racism, resources that would otherwise only be given to a chosen few.White allies, therefore, look to end oppression by challenging the neolib- eral logic of competitive individualism and privatization, then look- ing for fair and equal treatment for all—even at the expense of diminishing their status to share power with the oppressed.

However, teacher educator Christine Sleeter (1993, 173) warns that many white teachers fail to accept and thus deal with the ‘‘paradox’’ of supporting students of color by challenging the racial neoliberalism that grants superior market status to whiteness. Rather, she notices patterned responses of avoidance that includes ‘‘colorblindness’’ or presenting the model of European immigrants as a way to demonstrate positive shifts in race relations. Bonilla- Silva (2002) asserts that whites may use rhetorical strategies to maintain color-blind racism. These strategies include the avoidance of racial terminology altogether, the use of semantic moves such as saying that they have ‘‘friends who are black’’ to deny accusations of racism, and the projection of racism onto the marginalized racial other by saying that ‘‘they are the racist ones, not me.’’ Addition- ally, there is the ‘‘Obama effect’’ in which people falsely assume a black president means a postracial America.

Sleeter (1993, 174) recommends white teachers become allies by a process of reeducation that helps them analyze white privilege and the ways neoliberalism perpetuates racism through competitive individualism and de-regulated, market-based forms of resegrega- tion. This education begins with an immersion into a community of color in which the ally focuses his or her learning on the history of racism and those structures such as inferior education, depressed wages, and inadequate housing that maintain others’ subordinate statuses. Through this process, ‘‘teachers . . . are not just learning about other races but becoming committed to anti-racism as part of their own self-hood’’ (Thompson 2003, 14). The immersion can be integrated into field research experience in a teacher education program (Sleeter 2001). The outcome, according to Sleeter, from this deep immersion should be willingness to work collectively with people of color to end structural or institutional racism. This means that allies work in collaboration, not as leaders, not as saviors, but

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as engaged participants who share power in a democratic process. Esteva, Prakash, and Stuchul (2008) write

[in]stead of pro-motion (which operates under the assumption that the people are paralyzed or are moving in the wrong direction), those taking initiatives at the grassroots to govern them autonomously or democrati- cally speak of co-motion—moving with the people, rather than moving the people. (99)

White allies, therefore, should ‘‘follow people of color as they provide the leadership in the struggle for racial justice’’ (Gardiner 2009, 1). Following requires accepting and validating the oppressive experiences of people of color and acknowledging their critiques of the power of whiteness (Gardiner 2009, 1). ‘‘The White person,’’ according to Tatum (1997, 113), ‘‘who has worked through his or her own racial identity process has a deep understanding of racism and an appreciation and respect for the identity struggles of people of color.’’ White allies must engage leaders of communities of color in a dialogue based on this appreciation and respect, particularly as it pertains to the years of suffering caused by racism. This type of open and honest dialogue might be painful, and even the most well-intentioned ally might feel the need to retreat (Dickar 2008, 130). However, allies must become compassionate listeners and remain engaged in dialogue no matter how painful it becomes.


In this article’s epigraph, James Baldwin speaks of the need to abandon privilege. He refers to not only the privileges of racial superiority, but also that of pure ignorance. Somehow the vague- ness of insularity must cease so that hearts and minds open to the realities of human suffering. Our greatest and most nefarious privilege in America is the blatant willingness to turn a blind eye to our deepest social problems. Everyday, many live without shelter; brown and black men fill prison cells; workers lose their jobs; women experience violent abuse; gays and lesbians face unbearable threats; and migrants risk their lives for their survival. National dialogue about these daily tragedies is delimited to victi- mization at best. But this discursive turn proves a double-edged sword: victims are either to be pitied or scorned. More often than not, the problem supposedly lies with the victims’ choices and

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not with neoliberal policies that generate unfair wages, subpar education, and ineffective and rapidly disappearing social support. Those who benefit from the managed inequalities of racial neoliber- alism have the responsibility of correcting the disparities that result from it.

Ignoring the social and economic inequalities of ongoing market-based residential segregation, labor exploitation, health disparities, racial profiling, and racially tracked schooling that influence the daily experiences of most people of color is the most guarded privilege in America. When we finally become ‘‘free’’ of this privilege, we will truly begin to address the entire range of human suffering. It is within this ‘‘freedom’’ that Baldwin asserts we will experience higher privileges—the rewards of ‘‘justice,’’ ‘‘peace,’’ and true ‘‘compassion,’’ inclusive of those under the weight of oppression. Removing the privilege of ignorance will cure our blindness and allow us to truly ‘‘read the world.’’

The false generosity of the contemporary white savior binds to the privilege of ignorance by failing to see how the maintenance of his or her higher status in relation to the oppressed perpetuates inequalities. Limiting people’s access to opportunities and resources also provides the context in which higher status individuals benefit from the hierarchical system they maintain. The savior requires exploiting his or her status to procure leadership positions and thus denying people of color the process of developing the agency required for long-term systematic change. Real change within struc- tural racism requires the leadership of people of color, because it involves the sharing of power to the point in which an affirmative democratic character will emerge in society. Sharing power for those members of dominant groups necessitates the abdication of status to clear space for the leadership of people of color. Once there are more progressive people of color in leadership positions, then the realm of power and politics will contain a greater sense of equality. The voices of people of color in this realm will elevate to demand better circumstances for all. Members of the dominant culture cannot and should not speak for the oppressed because their voices will silence them, which in turnmaintains their status and privilege in ways that support racial hierarchies.

The false generosity of saving one or more of the oppressed may amount to no more than false redemption. The guilt that a white savior holds resulting from his or her privilege is left unredeemed by a generosity that may change an individual’s life but fails to

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address the long history of injustice shaping our present day system of inequality. As long as labor exploitation, educational dis- parities, and state repression of people of color remain in place and one’s privilege is part and parcel to their maintenance, redemption may never occur. A true redemption may arise through solidarity work in which white allies support the leadership of people of color in actions focused on challenging systems or structures of racial injustice. For example, white ally teachers may contribute to actions initiated by people of color to end those structures of white privi- lege in education, including racial tracking, Gifted and Talented Education, or moreover, the hegemonic and representational white- ness of the teaching profession. Sleeter (1993) recommends that educators should help to ‘‘reverse policies that propose mainly white people into the profession . . . Schools as they are structured currently operate in a way that largely reproduce the racial and social class structure’’ (168).

In addition, white allies can advocate for changes in curricula and pedagogical strategies that empower people of color. These changes would include multicultural education, ethnic studies, critical pedagogy, and participatory action research. These approaches tend to place students of color and their experiences of racism at the center of the curriculum. Educational transform- ation on this level also cultivates their leadership with addressing racial oppression. Seeking and implementing these changes facili- tates the freedom from the privilege of white supremacy in edu- cation; culturally relevant curricula and pedagogies deconstruct white supremacy in the classroom. White educators can participate in this facilitation by adopting an ally perspective and working in solidarity, and thus collectively with students and teachers to build knowledge to challenge racism.

Juan Gomez and I ended our lesson on race and critical media literacy by shifting the focus to people of color in leadership roles. We showed the students the beginning sequence of the film 187, which tells the story of an African American teacher struggling to teach inner-city students in Los Angeles. Although the film has a person of color as the main protagonist, his representation offers little in the way of a positive model for leadership. Moreover, his actions in the film indicate that violence is the only means to ‘‘deal’’ with students of color. After we showed the first ten minutes of the film, we started a discussion by granting students the opportunity to pose questions. One student immediately said, ‘‘What does this

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have to do with us?’’ Juan and I were elated because he posed an important question. Although the demographics between the Tucson government class and the film’s class were similar (students and teacher of color), the differences in behavior and attitude were miles apart. The film’s violence and mean-spiritedness did not relate to the Tucson students. This difference was exactly the point Juan Gomez and myself were trying to make. Hollywood very often gets it wrong about people of color, leadership, and resistance.


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