by Francine Menashy and Zeena Zakharia
February 13, 2023
Until recently, there has been little attention paid to racism and White supremacy in global education circles, despite clear associations between the International Aid System and its colonial and racist foundations. Spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement, long-running critiques of the aid sector, made by Global South activists and Black women, in particular, have gained traction in mainstream media, practitioner circles, and foreign aid–related blogs since the summer of 2020.
We applied Charles Mills’ concept of White ignorance to our analysis of interviews, documents, and websites to help us understand how race has been taken up in the global education arena. Mills described White ignorance as the privilege to misunderstand, evade, or ignore issues of race. He also argued that White ignorance must be considered global, given that racist beliefs have justified worldwide colonial expansion. In our study, we used three tenets of Mills’ concept to uncover White ignorance in global education: racial erasure; denying White supremacy as a global system; and neglect of racial social-structural factors.
First, we uncovered how global education organizations have addressed power hierarchies through euphemisms that sanitize racial inequities. Interview respondents also expressed an inclination to silence discussions on race, deeming the subject politicized, controversial, or taboo. These observations show what Mills calls racial erasure—an effort on the part of actors to construct an alternative narrative separated from current and past racism.
Second, our research shows that within global education bodies, racism has been largely considered a US problem. Many interview respondents stated that anti-racist activities, statements, and policies were mainly relevant within the US and to US-based education organizations. This shows what Mills describes as denying White supremacy as a global system.
Third, we found little evidence of policies or programs in global education to bring about structural change that might address racism. Of those global education organizations that released solidarity statements in the summer of 2020, most did not follow up with concrete action, and those that did focused mainly on individual change. Mills describes this surface-level treatment of racism as a neglect of social-structural factors.
Based on this research, we ask global education actors to consider their own part in embodying and reproducing this ignorance. How have we, as scholars and practitioners, perpetuated this ignorance in our work? And how might we begin to engage in the difficult structural change needed to address racism and White supremacy in global education?
About the Author
Francine Menashy is an associate professor in the Department of Leadership, Higher, and Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her research explores global education governance, international education policy, and aid to education in development and humanitarian contexts.
Zeena Zakharia is an assistant professor of International Education Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research examines conflict and peacebuilding in education and advances a critical approach to refugee studies in the Middle East.
They are the authors of “White Ignorance in Global Education” in the Winter 2022 issue of Harvard Educational Review.