Whiteness in Physics? The Latest Front in the Woke Wars | Opinion

Science education is no stranger to America's culture wars, but traditionally the battle involved right-wingers attacking biology textbooks. Fields like physics—which I teach—largely escaped this fate, probably thanks to being less directly connected to matters of evolution, sex or the origin of life. Nonetheless, education in any field is a social activity; physics instruction cannot forever stay aloof from social controversies. Thus the reported excesses of K-12 education—including claims that right answers or acronyms are white supremacy—now seep into college-level science education.

The latest salvo on the science front involves an article titled "Observing whiteness in introductory physics: A case study." Physics professor Amy Robertson and her collaborator Tali Hairston use critical whiteness studies (CWS) and critical race theory (CRT) to interpret a case study of three students working on a mundane physics problem. The article has—unsurprisingly—drawn harsh criticism online.

However, the high-profile publication venue (one of the most prestigious education journals in the physics community) and the public resources underwriting the work (a $495,847 grant from the National Science Foundation) indicate that the intrusion of CRT into physics has become mainstream. Those who value rigorous science and rational analysis cannot afford to merely mock this work. We must instead shine light on it, demonstrate how stifling and unproductive CRT and CWS can be when applied to science classrooms, and highlight missed opportunities for insight.

Robertson and Hairston recorded and analyzed a six-and-a-half minute video of three students (identified as Hispanic, Middle Eastern and white) working on a problem involving heat, energy and temperature change, with occasional input from an instructor (identified as biracial). The students were asked to solve the problem using a particular technique that the instructor had previously outlined for them. Robertson and Hairston also conducted follow-up interviews with the instructor and two students.

In the interests of taking a "steel-man" approach, I will highlight the article's most defensible aspects. Although its scope is narrow (four people interacting for less than seven minutes), skillful dissection of a case study can yield insights. Indeed, the situation showcases several common educational dilemmas. Students struggled over whether to stick to a carefully delineated problem-solving procedure, or think more broadly about the task. Not all students spoke equally. Given the ubiquity of these issues in classrooms, I do not fault the authors for devoting an article to this episode.

Alas, Robertson and Hairston offer little insight. They instead find "white supremacy"—a term used repeatedly in the article—in the instructor's direction for students to "center" a diagram in their work. To Robertson and Hairston, focusing students' attention on a well-defined task or tool is a manifestation of whiteness, saying "Whiteness as social organization normalizes and rewards the creation and maintaining of a well-defined center and margins."

I will not insult readers by belaboring the problems with viewing focused activity as particularly white; those who desire to see that argument in detail can read John McWhorter, or consult critics of a recent museum exhibit making similar assertions. Nor do we need to belabor the difference between prioritizing a particular task in a short activity and systematically marginalizing a segment of the population.

If Robertson and Hairston had "decentered" their own restrictive framework, they would have seen challenging issues of wide concern to science faculty. I frequently struggle over whether to tell students to stick to a narrowly prescribed recipe for solving a problem. There are practical advantages to following designated steps along the sure path to an answer, and likewise value in stepping back to ask if other approaches might work. In graduate school I once chafed at a supervisor's insistence that when teaching certain topics to freshmen I must always use a very particular diagram. If I had known that this professor was not just a taskmaster but a promoter of white supremacy I could have reported him!

Engineering students
Several people, seated and standing, look at equations on a whiteboard in a Whiting School of Engineering classroom at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, March 3, 2009. From the Homewood Photography Collection. JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images

Still, for all the value of open-ended examination of a problem from multiple perspectives, arguing for it on dubious racial grounds will not be compelling to most instructors. In fact, stark racial analyses may sound like potentially career-threatening allegations of racism, undermining any chance for trust and dialogue. Even worse, if students take this critique to heart they might resist developing necessary technical skills.

In short, framing these pedagogical dilemmas around racism and whiteness will not promote educational progress.

Robertson and Hairston find additional whiteness in one student's "meritocratic" acceptance of another student's greater tendency to participate in class. A Hispanic female student says that she doesn't mind another student, a Middle Eastern male, taking the lead because he seems to understand the material quite well. Indeed, she indicates that she often learns from his answers. There are arguably gender dimensions worth exploring in her acceptance of a male classmate's dominant role, but it is hard to understand how "whiteness" manifests in one student of color trusting another student of color on the basis of his apparent expertise.

Robertson and Hairston also identify whiteness in the mechanisms by which the "center" of this class activity is maintained. The professor's instruction to produce a diagram, and the provision of small whiteboards on which to draw it, allegedly "marginalizes the activity of sense making that [students] are engaged in." It's hard to see how asking students to produce a diagram actually "marginalizes" their attempts to make sense of the activity and determine what to put in the diagram. Moreover, even if there are shortcomings in the pedagogical strategy, sub-optimal teaching is not inherently white.

Worse still, Robertson and Hairston maintain that whiteboards "collaborate with white organizational culture, where ideas and experiences gain value (become more central) when written down." It is racist and ahistorical to suggest that valuing written work somehow reinforces "whiteness." Fine written works throughout history attest to the esteem that countless people, many of them decidedly non-white, have attached to writing. Indeed, light-skinned people were latecomers to literacy, a concept first developed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, China and Mexico.

How did we get here, with even physics now hosting a faction of critical race theorists? Scientists are, simply put, as human as anyone else. How could we not traverse the same path as so many other professional communities? We are—diversity deficits notwithstanding—a varied bunch. We have made weapons for governments of every political and ideological stripe. We have also lobbied for arms control and contributed to fights against disease. We have liberals and conservatives, atheists and evangelicals. We are like any other profession in the modern era, and thus conscripts in the same culture war that threatens all learned fields.

Human as we are, though, we must reject this folly. We should not shiver or dissemble when people purport to see whiteness in innocuous educational activities. Diversifying science is something that we should strive for, but we'll have to achieve it the old-fashioned way: by helping people learn in spite of unequal access to educational resources. De-emphasizing methodical work, or self-flagellating when told that inoffensive practices are in fact whiteness, help no one.

Alex Small is a professor of physics at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, and a Writing Fellow with Heterodox Academy.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.