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Noticing and Disrupting Racialized Power Hierarchies

Strategies for Science Teaching and Learning

The Science Teacher—July/August 2022 (Volume 89, Issue 6)

By Kathleen Schenkel

Noticing and Disrupting Racialized Power Hierarchies

Just as in broader society, racism operates at multiple levels within science and science education (Haley Mackenzie 2021). Science as a discipline has been used to perpetuate and justify white supremacy (Kendi 2016). At a classroom level, white supremacy can influence who is seen as capable of doing science and who is not. At the same time, science has often been positioned as a race-neutral entity by scientists, teachers, students, and broader society. As a result, its racialized characteristics are left unexamined in science teaching (Patterson Williams and Gray 2021).

Such colorblind ideologies do not prevent the impacts of racism in science classrooms (Leonardo 2013). I present a framework to support noticing and disrupting how racism impacts student learning opportunities in science classrooms. This may support more anti-racist science teaching and learning. I draw on a whiteness framework to explicitly analyze how actions, practices, and spaces are historically and currently organized to support white supremacy. Specifically, I use Frankenberg’s (1993) three-pronged definition of whiteness: 

This definition highlights how whiteness works to position white people over people of Color (Picower 2012). It emphasizes that whiteness includes ideologies, structures, and actions (Leonardo 2013). Bonilla-Silva (2017) explains, “The central component of any dominant racial ideology is its frames or sets paths for interpreting information” (p. 1). This definition provides different points of analysis for how to disrupt whiteness in any space, in this case high school science classrooms.

While whiteness is perpetuated systematically, individuals are actors socialized into upholding whiteness (Harro 2000). Often, white people are unaware of their racialized privilege and are uncomfortable discussing their role and benefits in white supremacy (Baldwin 1965). However, it is necessary to analyze how whiteness operates in science education and what teachers and students can do about it. These strategies will support noticing and disrupting racialized power hierarchies, that impede science learning opportunities.

To notice how white supremacy operates within your classroom, work to:

  • Pay attention to the racialized patterns in who has opportunities to contribute ideas, and which/whose ideas are taken up by the group. You might notice students repeatedly turning to particular students for ideas, and their ideas being used almost every time. There might be students whose ideas are rarely elicited or noticed by others when shared.
  • Actionable pedagogical moves:
  • Ask a colleague to keep tally of who participates in a class discussion
  • As exit cards, have students share peers’ contributions that they noticed. Look to see if your observations match students’ perceptions and if students’ perceptions match their peers’ perceptions. If there is a mismatch or underrepresentation of students’ ideas being recognized, work to collectively address it.
  • Pay attention to who has opportunities to access resources and spaces. Some students might have more access to consumables, technology, and spaces than their peers. Having access to resources often mirrors the disproportional discipline of Students of Color compared to White students. Additionally, pay attention to what resources have been recognized as legitimate science resources versus irrelevant resources from students’ lives outside of the classroom.
  • Actionable pedagogical moves:
  • At the end of the class, ask what students were allowed to use or not to support their science learning
  • Reflect: Who was and who was not welcomed to access resources? Who was welcomed to move around the room to access physical resources and collaborate with others?
  • Invite, but do not mandate students to share how they would like their classroom communities and group work to be more anti-racist. Students are experts of their experiences, and teachers’ perception of oppression can be incomplete because their own intersectional identities position them with various forms of power and privilege. Students can identify learning inequities.
  • Actionable pedagogical moves:
  • Ask students questions like, “How do you think our class or small group could be more fair? Is there anything that is stopping students from learning in our class or in your collaborative groups? Do you notice any racialized patterns about who has opportunities in this class?”
  • Invite, but do not mandate students’ input through multiple structures like whole-group conversations, written responses, one-on-one conversations. This will allow students to choose multiple modes to share ideas in the way they are most comfortable.

To disrupt racialized power hierarchies, work to:

  • Recognize a wider range of students and their broader expertise. Use multiple techniques to elicit and recognize students’ expertise. Publicly recognize scientific contributions made by collaborative group members’ whose ideas are often not taken up.
  • Adapt your curriculum to recognize the contributions of Scientists of Color and the ways communities of Color can and have leveraged science expertise in ways that matter. For each unit, examine whose scientific contributions are highlighted, and how to highlight the contributions of more people of color with this curriculum. Explore with students how Communities of Color have used that type of science as well as how the type of science has also been used to perpetuate white supremacy.
  • Enact the solutions that students share. Use students’ ideas about how to make their classroom and group work more anti-racist. Pause group work to have students evaluate whose ideas are being elicited, what knowledge is being valued, and who is accessing resources. Then brainstorm solutions to unequal opportunities.

These noticing and disrupting racialized power hierarchy strategies will support students’ science learning. Becoming attuned to disparities in who and what expertise is valued is key to disrupting whiteness operating within science classrooms. While this does not address the systemic nature of whiteness, it does provide insight into ways teachers and students can begin divesting in whiteness as they work to become more antiracist (Matias 2016).

Kathleen Schenkel ( is a professor in the School of Teacher Education, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA.


Baldwin, J. 1965. White man’s guilt. Ebony 47–48.

Bonilla-Silva, E. 2017. Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America. Largo, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Frankenberg, R. 1993. White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Haley Mackenzie, A. 2021. The socially-just science classroom: What will we teach with critical race theory under attack? The Science Teacher 89 (1): 6–7.

Harro, B. 2000. The cycle of socialization. In Readings for diversity and social justice: An anthology on racism, eds. M. Adams, W.J. Blumenfeld, D. Chase, J. Catalano, K. Dejong, H.W. Hackman, L.E. Hopkins, B. Love, M.L. Peters, D. Shlasko, X. Zuniga, pp. 15–21. New York: Routledge.

Kendi, I.X. 2016. Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America. London: Hachette UK.

Leonardo, Z. 2009. Race, whiteness, and education. New York: Routledge.

Leonardo, Z. 2013. Race frameworks: A multidimensional theory of racism and education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Matias, C.E. 2016. Feeling white: Whiteness, emotionality, and education. New York: Springer.

Patterson Williams, A., and S. Gray. 2021. (W) holistic Science Pedagogy: Teaching for Justice. The Science Teacher 89 (1): 52–57.

Picower, B. 2012. Practice what you teach: Social justice education in the classroom and the streets (Vol. 13). New York: Routledge.

Equity Inclusion Multicultural Pedagogy Social Justice Teaching Strategies

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