Black and white photo of 1935 classroom scene with students at desks.

How Schools Stay the Same: A Study of White Parent Opposition to Ethnic Studies 

by Ethan Chang

Ethnic Studies, an interdisciplinary curriculum and pedagogy that centers the insights of Black, Indigenous, and minoritized peoples, 1 has become one of several targets of predominantly white parent opposition. Such opposition is not new.2 Yet these recent attacks represent an illustrative case for understanding the shifting dynamics of education politics and policymaking in the US and how and why schools stay the same.3 

During the 2019–2020 academic year, I sought to understand one local movement opposed to Ethnic Studies. I spent time with and listened to white parents, grandparents, doctors, financial analysts, community volunteers, nutritionists, and engineers (among others). I observed their repeated testimonies at school board meetings, strategic efforts to recruit allies, and online activities aimed at broadening their oppositional coalition. Based on the data I generated and analyzed, I identified three aspects of white parent opposition to Ethnic Studies. 

Crafting narratives of white innocence.

White opponents crafted a story about their own oppression that they used to undermine Ethnic Studies. Narratives of white innocence, or cultural stories that attached “a permanent victim status” to white people,4 animated false claims that Ethnic Studies was “anti-white” and “anti-American.” One white grandmother testified that Ethnic Studies “targeted” her grandsons by framing them as “oppressors.” Narratives of white innocence cast doubt upon Ethnic Studies and reinvested in taken-for-granted understandings of schooling as bias-free institutions. 

Recruiting unexpected allies.

Narratives of white innocence also created opportunities for other individuals and groups to see their own interests in a local movement opposed to Ethnic Studies. Dyslexia advocates represented one group. White parent opponents argued that district spending on Ethnic Studies diverted funding away from educational programming for students with dyslexia. As one white mother put it, “if you want true equity, people need to learn how to read.” Dyslexia advocates shared in this zero-sum understanding of school opportunity. They joined the movement against Ethnic Studies, and in partnership with white parents, successfully wrested material resources from the district and even lobbied a pro–Ethnic Studies superintendent to retire.   

Leveraging favorable media coverage.

Local education beat reporters, national conservative television hosts, and alt-right journalists cast opponents of Ethnic Studies as a reasonable and respectable “watchdog group” that kept a “woke” school board in check. These news stories appeared to reenergize and reinvigorate the everyday organizing work of anti–Ethnic Studies organizers. 

Anticipating and weathering countermovements.

White parents championed ideals of rugged individualism. Yet their activities revealed a deeply collaborative and shared investment in status quo schooling.5 Studying the cultural work of white parent opponents of Ethnic Studies also raises urgent questions for educators, scholars, and organizers committed to building a more just society. For instance, how might pro–Ethnic Studies organizers recruit expected and unexpected allies (e.g., dyslexia advocates) to build broad-based organizing power? Or how might the powerful fictions white parents wove emphasize a need to craft an “alternative common sense”—ideas and terms set against dominant understandings of schooling that can lay the groundwork for emancipatory educational movements?6 These questions are starting points for the difficult and long haul work of making Ethnic Studies an educational possibility for all students and transforming public schools


1 R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, Miguel Zavala, Christine Sleeter, & Wayne Au, (Eds.). Rethinking Ethnic Studies (Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools, 2019). 
2 Sonya D. Horsford. “Social Justice for the Advantaged: Freedom from Racial Equality Post-Milliken.” Teachers College Record 118, no. 3 (2016): 1–18. Retrieved from; Thandeka K. Chapman, Makeba Jones, Ramon Stephens, Dolores Lopez, Kirk D. Rogers & James Crawford. “A Necessary Pairing: Using Academic Outcomes and Critical Consciousness to Dismantle Curriculum as the Property of Ehiteness in K–12 Ethnic Studies.” Equity & Excellence in Education 53, no. 4 (2020): 569–582. doi:10.1080/10665684.2020.1791767 
3 Thomas Popkewitz. Struggling for the Soul: The Politics of Schooling and the Construction of the Teacher (New York: Teachers College Press, 1998). 
4 Lisa Marie Cacho. “The Presumption of White Innocence.” American Quarterly 66, no. 4 (2014): 1085-1090. doi:10.1353/aq.2014.0078 
5 Aileen Moreton-Robinson. The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). George Lipsitz. “The White Possessive and Whiteness Studies.” Kalfou 6, no. 1 (2019): 42-51. doi:10.15367/kf.v6i1.229 
6 Michael Dumas and Gary Anderson. “Qualitative Research as Policy Knowledge: Framing Policy Problems and Transforming Education from the Ground Up.” Education Policy Analysis Archives 22, no. 11 (2014): 16. doi:10.14507/

About the Author

Ethan Chang is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. He partners with community leaders, educators, families, and young people to build more equitable and self-determined communities and schools. Chang is the author of “Curricular Countermovements: How White Parents Mounted a Popular Challenge to Ethnic Studies” in the Summer 2022 issue of Harvard Educational Review.