Kassie Benjamin-Ficken, a teacher in Minneapolis, discovered her love of math in elementary school. One of her earliest memories is begging her mother to come to school so her teachers could share how she excelled in math class. While earning average scores in reading, she was consistently above average for math—which instilled her with a sense of accomplishment. That continued into middle school, where she recalls asking her math teachers to move her into a higher grade for more advanced content. But she remained in the same middle-school class.
Then in high school, her excitement for math slowly turned to disappointment. Benjamin-Ficken, a citizen of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (a tribal nation in Minnesota), was one of two students of color in her 11th-grade pre-calculus class. When her study partner was absent for a series of days, Benjamin-Ficken began to struggle with the material and barely passed the class with a D-minus. Her senior year in AP Calculus repeated the pattern—lacking support and feeling ignored in the class, she passed with a D.
“I didn’t have a math teacher that I could go and get help from, [and] I didn’t feel comfortable at all approaching my own math teacher,” she said. Recognizing the undercurrent—how her feelings of isolation were related to her race—she admits “those two [classes] really made me question: Do I consider myself good at math anymore?”
In this article, the authors provide a framework for understanding whiteness in mathematics education. While whiteness is receiving more attention in the broader education literature, only a handful of scholars address whiteness in mathematics education in any form. This lack of attention to whiteness leaves it invisible and neutral in documenting mathematics as a racialized space. Naming White institutional spaces, as well as the mechanisms that oppress students, can provide those who work in the field of mathematics education with specific ideas about combatting these racist structures. The framework developed and presented here illustrates three dimensions of White institutional space—institutional, labor, and identity— that are intended to support mathematics educators in two ways: (a) systematically documenting how whiteness subjugates historically marginalized students of color and their agency in resisting this oppression, and (b) making visible the ways in which whiteness impacts White students to reproduce racial privilege. (Journal of Urban Mathematics Education (JUME)).