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What’s Love Got to Do With It? Toward a Theory of Benevolent Whiteness in Education


In this theoretical essay, I argue that the contemporary over-disciplining of Black and Native youth can best be understood through understanding the culturally violent roots of the heroic white woman teacher. I use analytical tools from settler colonial theory and feminist of color theory to inform my epistemological framing of power as a site of multidimensionality existing across space and depth (Sandoval, Methodology of the oppressed, vol 18, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2013) and comprised of mutually constructed systems of oppression (Collins, Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment, Routledge, London, 2002). Revisioning the “discipline gap” from this vantage point moves us away from culturally focused or individualized deficit thinking aimed at communities of color and toward understanding the structures and histories foundational to our contemporary school systems, and the individuals who have informed and upheld those structures for nearly 200 years. I close with a discussion of immediate practical changes we can implement in classrooms, as well as a perhaps less practical call for reimagining decolonial futurities for teaching and schooling, both taking into account that the current U.S. teaching force and enrollees in credential programs are majority white and female whereas the student population is not.

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  1. 1.

    Waiting for Superman (2010), Dangerous Minds (1995, starring Pfeiffer), and Freedom Writers (2007, starring Swank) are all contemporary narratives focused on “heroic” teachers and students of color in need of “saving.”

  2. 2.

    Here, I employ the term “genealogy” as described by Foucault in a 1983 interview with Paul Rabinow and Herbert Dreyfus as having three possible domains. I specifically focus on the second possible domain, “a historical ontology of ourselves in relation to a field of power through which we constitute ourselves as subjects acting on others,” (Foucault and Rabinow 1984, p. 351).

  3. 3.

    “Matrimony,” The Lady’s Amaranth: A Journal of Tales, Essays, Excerpts-Historical and Biographical Sketches, Poetry and Literature in General (Philadelphia), II (Jan. 1839), 17.

  4. 4.

    “Commonsensical” in a Gramscian sense: un-interrogated and uncritically absorbed by the masses.

  5. 5.

    See, for example, Bushnell’s Christian Nurture (1916), Beecher’s A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the use of Young Ladies at Home and at School (1841), Cobb’s The Evil Tendencies of Corporal Punishment: As a Means of Moral Discipline in Families and Schools, Examined and Discussed (1847), and Sigourney’s Letters to Mothers (1839).

  6. 6.

    Hurricane Katrina was the costliest, and one of the top five deadliest hurricanes, in United States history. Katrina lasted from August 23, 2005–August 31, 2005 and resulted in 1837 fatalities, including that of the Louisiana public school system.

  7. 7.

    I use this term here intentionally, and somewhat ironically, calling attention to the catch-all educational code category for which roughly half of all Black students are suspended.

  8. 8.

    California recently (2019) banned “willful defiance” as a suspendable offense up to grade 5, and for grades 6–8 it has been banned for a 5-year trial period. Individual school districts within California have banned the category across all grade levels.


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Correspondence to Natalee Kēhaulani Bauer.

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Bauer, N.K. What’s Love Got to Do With It? Toward a Theory of Benevolent Whiteness in Education. Urban Rev 53, 641–658 (2021).

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  • Settler colonialism
  • White womanhood
  • School discipline
  • Benevolent whiteness