“Controversial” Scholarship, Mathematics & Whiteness

In writing this post I’m thinking about two events that happened recently. First, was this thread from Dr. Erika Bullock on how “controversial” is used to label and dismiss the work of scholars, especially critical scholars of color.

The second is the conservative mockery/attacks on Dr. Rochelle Gutiérrez, because of her work pointing out the inherent racism and Whiteness of mathematics. While I agree with and am preparing my own work on Whiteness in mathematics (I literally wrote a post yesterday about multiple papers I am working on that will address racism and Whiteness in mathematics), the connections between Whiteness and mathematics will be a post for another day. Here I want to explain how I see the problem of launching public attacks on scholars, in particular critical scholars of color, and dismissing their work as “controversial”.

Dr. Gutiérrez’s work is based on decades of research that she has done as well as on the research of other scholars both in and out of mathematics education. She is not stating her opinion nor does her work exist in a vacuum. Attacks, such as this current one, cherry pick a few quotes out of context and use them to dismiss an entire body of work and a person as without academic merit. They never take the time to understand a body of work within context or within the field. They intentionally misunderstand and misrepresent that work.

Institutional White Supremacy

These attacks are a clear manifestation of racist, White supremacy. A White supremacist cannot stand to hear that she/he is racist, especially from an intelligent, well-informed person of color. Because this White supremacist cannot hope to win a discussion based on evidence he/she resorts to misrepresentation and personal attacks. However, this is only part of the problem, White supremacy also manifests itself in the current lack of critical research generally and in mathematics education specifically. Not enough scholars are meaningfully engaging the excellent work of Dr. Gutiérrez and others.

This leaves these scholars, and they are mostly scholars of color, somewhat isolated and without enough academic and institutional support when these attacks come. If more of us were willing to address and call out racism in our own disciplines then these attacks would be less likely and when they did come they would be unable to isolate individual scholars in this manner.

The bottom line in mathematics is that while math ed researchers have been trying for reforms and more equitable instruction for decades, too few have been willing to critically examine mathematics as a discipline, particularly the mathematics that we push in schools. This mathematics has racists roots and is steeped in Whiteness. We need to confront this as a research community to really work on equity.

Personal Note

As a White teacher and a White scholar, Dr. Gutiérrez’s influence on my work is without equal. I worked for several years as a mathematics teacher in Colorado. Then went to the University of Utah to work on a PhD. I was in an excellent, critical department and was well supported there. However, no one worked in mathematics education. I came upon the work of Dr. Gutiérrez and it clarified so many things for me.

As I was finishing up classwork and turning towards my dissertation I decided to reach out to Dr. Gutiérrez. At the most I was hoping for an email response to some of my questions. Well she did respond to my email AND offered to let me call her and talk over some of the things I was doing. I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity so I called and we talked for over an hour, at the end she offered to serve on my dissertation committee (I was too nervous to ask). This required a significant investment of time and mental energy on her part. Both offers were completely unexpected (and offers I was delighted to receive) and incredibly generous. She was already well-established and had nothing to gain personally or professionally for dedicating the hours it would take to mentor me through my dissertation as the only math ed researcher on my committee.

I’ve met up with her a couple of times at conferences both planned and unplanned and she bas always been willing to talk, listen and give much needed advice. Dr. Gutiérrez is an incredibly thorough scholar, but more importantly, an excellent and generous human. I know of several others who have benefitted from similar generosity. I am incredibly indebted to her and appreciate her and her work now more than ever. I applaud her courage and insight. I could not do the work I want to do without her help. More importantly the world of mathematics education that she envisions, while far off, is so much more than what we currently have. All of mathematics education would benefit from a deep understanding of her work.

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