“Think of it as being trapped inside of an invisible shell, where you’re often shielded from awareness of your actions, thoughts and expectations about yourself and others."
That’s the analogy that ASU social scientist Jennifer L. S. Chandler uses to describe how any human learns — and lives — the dominant norms in their social groups.
“We frequently have no recognition of them at all. When something happens to us personally to rupture that shell, it upends our sense of reality or illusion. We often feel shock, outrage and disbelief,” said Chandler, a lecturer in ASU’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. “But it’s in those fractures where learning and growth can take place, where we realize we can work to continually push outward and upward to create a little more space in which we all can thrive."
Chandler has a new book out that explores social processes by looking at whiteness norms.
In “Colluding, Colliding, and Contending with Norms of Whiteness,” she shares the results and analysis of her extensive research interviews with 30 white-identifying women from across the United States whose sons and daughters include people of color.
Chandler asked the women to share stories about the social interactions they had as mothers. Because her participants’ children ranged in age from younger than 1 year old to older than 40, she heard stories from across the lifespan — about becoming a mother, mothers and schools, and mothering a maturing adult.
“These women live in a space where they are bumping up against dominant norms about race, about whiteness, about white mothering, about people of color, in everyday interactions with family members, caregivers, teachers and school staff, other parents, neighbors, colleagues, health providers, and even strangers,” Chandler noted. “Their stories shed light on how social racialization and learning take place, and how people teach and strengthen whiteness norms.”
Chandler said that when she set out to do the study, she thought she might discover ways that these mothers were successfully resisting whiteness norms, and that her analysis might suggest a road map for others.
What she discovered was pain, confusion and frustration.
Woke to whiteness
“The mothers’ collisions with whiteness norms started occurring within very personal relationships,” said Chandler, “with people they were expecting to support them and their families in the parenting experience.
“In most cases they recognized that the family, friends, doctors, teachers were not being intentionally malicious, but at first they were bewildered and overwhelmed about what to say or do.
“Many of the moms I interviewed hadn’t read about systemic oppression, but at a gut level they knew it when they encountered it,” continued Chandler. “They also began to recognize that they were often unknowingly tripping over their own collusions with norms of whiteness. As their own racial literacy grew, so did their ability to more effectively respond to situations.”
Within the stories that were shared, Chandler uncovered the mothers’ interactions with 23 norms of whiteness.
“I came to realize how strong and prevalent these norms are in our society,” she observed, “and that there are three main ways that people interact with dominant patterns of behavior regarding race and other social norms: They collude with them, collide with them or contend with them.”
Chandler said her resulting model offers a lens for understanding all kinds of dominant norms: not just social norms related to race and ethnicity, but also related to age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class and even community and organizational norms.
Her book, published as part of Information Age Publishing’s Urban Education Series, includes recommendations for school administrators, teachers and parents.
“Schools are a place where dominant racial ideologies and norms are perpetuated,” Chandler said. “In the U.S. and Canada, 80 percent of the teachers are white females and more than 50 percent of the students are multiracial or non-white. Norms perceived and enforced about being a ‘good’ student are often whiteness norms.”
She suggests launching conversations and training from a point of common ground.
“Educators agree that we’re all here for the good of our students. So a model that clicks with some people is sitting down together and looking at how our words and assumptions can be subtly oppressive: ‘We don’t listen to that music. That’s the sketchy side of town. You shouldn’t dress like that.’”
Questions, she explained, might focus on: What if we adjust our language? What imagery and words can we be using that engages the full humanity of each student? Do you have the same capacity to look lovingly into the eyes of all children, triggering deep emotions of caring?
Prepare to engage
In January, Chandler used her model as the basis for facilitating a post-election workshop at the Arizona Historical Society’s Arizona Heritage Center. The session focused on the role social norms have played in the contentious presidential election cycle and in creating the current U.S. political divide.
“Eighteen community members from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and varied political leanings participated, which made for some really good conversations,” observed Tawn Downs, director of the Arizona Heritage Center.
“The sign of a good presentation is when people linger long after the event has ended, and I had to shoo people out an hour after this workshop,” Downs said. “People really appreciated going through this model and going through examples of how they can respond to situations that are causing conflict and discover new ways of dealing with that conflict.”
At her workshops, Chandler reminds people that learning to recognize oppressive norms and contending with them is a continual process.
“When people see their own learning happening, they often have this sense that their learning will eliminate future collisions,” Chandler said. “But the dominant norms don’t go away. So your collisions with them will actually increase over time as your learning and awareness happens. You might feel like things are getting worse instead of better.
“But when we recognize that collisions with dominant norms will be coming, we can prepare and choose how to interact with them. Sometimes more gently reacting makes the confrontation less damaging to ourselves and allows us more energy to invest in contending with the norms.”
Being prepared to engage with norms, she said, is an effective way for each of us to create more space under our invisible shell boundary and — perhaps — break it.
Chandler, who joined ASU in the fall to teach in the organizational leadership degree program in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, earned a doctorate in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service from Cardinal Stritch University. She has conducted organizational analyses with corporations, federal agencies and not-for-profits, including Motorola, NASA, and the U.S. Army, Navy, Treasury and Secret Service.
She is heading a research team at ASU that is doing a meta-synthesis, distilling whiteness norms from 17 studies conducted in the United States, Canada and England.
“By consolidating the results of these studies, we will propel research in this area forward,” said Chandler. “Gaining greater understanding of the dominant social and behavioral norms that divide us is an important first step in bridging that divide.”
On Saturday, Feb. 18, Chandler and ASU colleagues L. Marie Wallace and Kristen Elwood will discuss the findings of their meta-synthesis at the ASU conference “Speaking the Unspeakable: A Conversation on Colorblindness, Racism and Antiracism,” in the ASU Memorial Union on the Tempe campus. Register for the free conference, which runs Feb. 17-18, at https://csrd.asu.edu/SpeakingTheUnspeakable