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ROCHELLE GUTIERREZ Printer Friendly Page

Mathematics Is ... Whiteness
By Jack Kerwick
October 27, 2017

Prof: Algebra, Geometry Perpetuate White Privilege
By Toni Airaksinen

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Rochelle Gutiérrez has been a professor of mathematics education at the University of Illinois (UI) in Champaign-Urbana since 2011. She previously served as an assistant professor from 1996-2002, and as an an associate professor from 2002-11, at that same institution. For information about her educational background and a complete list of her publications and professional awards, click here.

In October 2017, Gutiérrez became the subject of national attention over a chapter which she contributed to Building Support for Scholarly Practices in Mathematics Methods, a newly published anthology for math teachers. The chapter in question, titled “Political Conocimiento for Teaching Mathematics: Why Teachers Need It and How to Develop It,” contains many of Gutiérrez's views on teaching mathematics, particularly to nonwhite minority students.

What raised eyebrows were Gutiérrez's assertions that mathematics, because it is widely perceived as a discipline that is intellectually “pure,” “operates with unearned privilege in society, just like Whiteness”; that “curricula emphasizing terms like Pythagorean theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans”; and that “who gets credit for doing and developing mathematics, who is capable in mathematics, and who is seen as part of the mathematical community is generally viewed as White.”

Noting that the
American economy places a premium on mathematical skills – as evidenced by the fact that math professors, who are disproportionately white, tend to receive more research grants than “social studies or English” professors – Gutiérrez laments that “if one is not viewed as mathematical, there will always be a sense of inferiority that can be summoned.” Indeed, she avers, many minorities “have experienced microaggressions from participating in math classrooms … [where people are] judged by whether they can reason abstractly.” Introducing also her theory that “all knowledge is relational,” Gutiérrez argues that “things cannot be known objectively; they must be known subjectively.”

In her controversial 2017 chapter as well, Gutiérrez asserts that “politics permeates everything we do, in education in general and mathematics in particular.” Consequently, she argues, teachers must develop some measure of “political 
conocimiento (the Spanish word for “knowledge”) if they are to successfully navigate an educational system that frequently fails to meet the needs of the students. In addition to laying out a variety of training techniques that could help teachers develop such knowledge, Gutiérrez takes issue with various aspects of schooling in America such as educational testing, bureaucratization, and Common Core academic standards. The controversy over the chapter led to statements of support for Gutiérrez from the university and the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators, which published the book in question. 

It was not the first time that Gutiérrez had written on matters of race, politics, and mathematics. For instance, in a December 2013 article titled “Why (Urban) Mathematics Teachers Need Political Knowledge,” Gutiérrez explains that “political conocimiento” involves “understanding how oppression in schooling operates not only at the individual level but also the systemic level; deconstructing the deficit discourses about historically underserved and/or marginalized students; negotiating the world of high-stakes testing and standardization; connecting with and explaining one’s discipline to community members and district officials; and buffering oneself, reinventing, or subverting the system in order to be an advocate for one’s students.”

In the same piece,
Gutiérrez urges teachers to engage increative insubordination” as a means of “find[ing] loopholes in policies or interpret[ing] rules and/or procedures in ways that allow them to advocate for historically underserved and/or marginalized students.” On the premise that “all teaching is political,” she calls for combining “rigorous and creative mathematics” with “social justice teaching.” “By virtue of mathematics being political,” Gutiérrez elaborates, “all mathematics teaching is political” and “all mathematics teachers are identity workers” who “contribute to the identities [that] students construct” for themselves.

In 2015 Gutiérrez contributed a chapter titled “Nesting in Nepantla: The Importance of Maintaining Tensions in Our Work” to the book Interrogating Whiteness and Relinquishing Power: White Faculty’s Commitment to Racial Consciousness in STEM Classrooms. In this chapter, Gutiérrez states that “many teacher educators, and thus teacher candidates, are not trained to understand how White supremacy intersects with other forms of oppression” that pervade America's “White supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” where “people of color” encounter “interlocking systems of oppression” on a daily basis. “As citizens, teachers, and teacher educators,” she explains, “we will not be able to understand and transform our realities if we analyze society only through a lens of race, gender, or class.” In order to “move beyond the idea that White males, alone, protect ongoing systems of oppression,” adds Gutiérrez, the left's assault on “White supremacist capitalist patriarchy” must also “tak[e] up issues of language, religion, and sexuality.”





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