University of Colorado Denver education professor Cheryl Matias built her career helping prospective urban teachers fight racism. Now she wants to bring her ideas to a broader audience.
5280 | December 2018
By Kate Siber
Cheryl Matias could see it happening. After all, she’d watched it unfold in her classrooms before. The man’s hand was gripping the table in front of him; his finger was pointed, accusingly, in her direction. His face reddened dramatically. He spat the words “racist” and “sexist” at her and asked why she was so intent on talking about race when it wasn’t supposed to matter.
It was a strange question, considering the class was about race and cultural diversity in teacher education. Standing barely five feet tall, with a powerful voice and a generous smile, the fortysomething University of Colorado Denver professor exudes warmth and confidence. In front of her students, Matias has a magnetic, outsize presence. But as she relates the story of her angry pupil from the sunlit sanctity of her home one Thursday morning this past September, her brow furrows, her shoulders stiffen, and her voice turns serious and sad.
Matias was hired by CU Denver in 2010 to teach education students about how race can impact the way teachers relate to their students—and vice versa. She was disheartened to find, however, that despite signing up for her courses, some of her students didn’t seem to want to talk about race at all. In fact, she says, the subject matter often elicited heated reactions, like the one she’d just described to me. “If I were in my neuroscience class, it would not be acceptable for me to yell at the professor and tell him he’s wrong just because I don’t believe in neurons,” Matias says. “How can someone who says they’re colorblind—they don’t see race at all, race is not a real thing—be having an obviously visceral experience, shaking, defensive, crying? If it’s nothing, why are you having a reaction to it?”
For students to understand race, Matias says, they must understand a concept called “whiteness,” which can be a touchy topic, especially for those who are unaware of or who haven’t fully considered the widely recognized social construct. The term refers to a collective group identity—which includes cultural values, norms, behaviors, and attitudes—that systemically offers privileges to people who appear white while marginalizing the culture and experiences of people of color. As a field of study, whiteness has been around since at least the time of W.E.B. Du Bois, the early 20th-century author and activist, but it wasn’t until white scholars began exploring the subject in the 1990s that the term was popularized and inspired more robust scholarship.
In her class, Matias explains that whiteness can show up in many different instances in academic settings. An English teacher might, for example, assign books from only white authors like Don De-Lillo, David Foster Wallace, and Joan Didion and exclude authors of color like Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Zora Neale Hurston. And studies have found that in faculty evaluations, students rate minority and female professors more harshly. In day-to-day life, whiteness can pop up in more subtle ways, like the facts that Band-Aids are made to match white skin tones and magazines, advertisements, posters, greeting cards, and toys most often feature white models (although that is slowly changing).
The bias also lives at deeper levels of our minds, Matias explains. It’s the skepticism people might unconsciously harbor when a person of color is leading a company meeting or the muted fear that might arise when a person of color walks past them on a darkened street. The heart of whiteness, though, is the implicit assumption that white culture and white perspectives are the norm against which everything else is judged. For many, it is so ubiquitous it’s largely unnoticed, in the same way a fish is so immersed in water it doesn’t realize it’s swimming in it—and that lack of awareness is precisely the problem.
A former urban schoolteacher, Matias has devoted herself to fighting racism and championing social justice in education. Early on in her tenure at CU Denver, though, she realized there was a major impediment to people learning about race and racism: strong emotional reactions. Some people thought racism only existed in egregious acts of hatred and weren’t aware of the more insidious forms of discrimination—and they were so fearful of being called racist that they became reactive.
That strong response actually has a name: white fragility, a phrase coined in 2011 by sociologist and diversity trainer Robin DiAngelo. When presented with the realities of racism and a system of privilege that favors white people, it’s not uncommon for whites to express anger, guilt, shame, fear, and defensiveness, all of which can shut down any meaningful dialogue about race. In other words, they take it personally.
In response to that reality, Matias began devoting her attention to understanding the feelings themselves and how they affect teacher education. In her 2016 book, Feeling White: Whiteness, Emotionality, and Education, she argues that to be a true social justice advocate—in urban classrooms or anywhere—one must not only understand historical, cultural, and institutional racism but also one’s own racial identity and the emotions that come along with it.
Matias, for her part, has worked to understand hers. Born and raised in Los Angeles County as a self-described brown-skinned Pinay (Filipina), she noticed how easily white people could unwittingly efface her identity. She describes, for example, the impact of a white teacher renaming her Filipino meal an “egg roll” instead of attempting to pronounce its real name, “lumpia.” To her, the message was clear: Assimilate.
After earning her undergraduate degree at the University of California, San Diego and graduating from California State University, Long Beach with a master’s in education, Matias taught second grade at an elementary school in south-central Los Angeles and sixth grade at a middle school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Like many urban public school teachers, she was heartbroken by the conditions. The kids, mostly black and brown, were sometimes hungry; faced overcrowded classrooms; and experienced a lack of supplies that, at the opening of one school year, meant there weren’t even tables or chairs.
But what concerned her the most were the attitudes of some of the teachers she encountered. Many blamed the children and their parents for their challenging circumstances, labeling them low achievers, and ignored the greater cultural factors at work. They didn’t see how the education system favored white students, from culturally biased standardized tests to much higher suspension rates for black students. Furthermore, the districts required them to teach Eurocentric curricula, which focus on the accomplishments and history of Europeans and Euro-Americans to the exclusion of other groups. Race and the achievements of people of color simply weren’t talked about very often. As a result, some of the kids felt their teachers didn’t fully understand their identities and experiences.
Matias decided to bring race into her lessons. She gave assignments asking the children to write about themselves; as Matias puts it, she wanted them to write about “what it meant to be them.” The opportunity gave at least one of her students the chance to detail, with heartbreaking poignancy, what it meant to be black—and how he felt the world didn’t value him. She also staged creative activities like a mock trial of Christopher Columbus for the genocide of indigenous peoples. Her goal was to validate their experiences, help the kids understand their identities, and celebrate their rightful places in American society. One day, she recalls, a student asked her why the other teachers didn’t teach like her. He encouraged her to teach the others—to become a teacher of teachers. She decided to take his advice. Four years later she graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a doctorate in education.
During a public talk about white supremacy and the politics of race held at CU Denver, Matias is energetic and self-assured. She wears dark-rimmed glasses, big hoop earrings, and six-inch heels, an ensemble that makes her look at once bookish and hip. Narrating a slideshow filled with gut-wrenching photos of lynchings and other images of racially motivated violence, she clutches the microphone, impassioned. As she speaks about the emotions that drive our responses—or lack of response—to race and racism, her tone turns fierce, even angry. She ends by recommending the audience, some 100 people, pick up her paper about how strong emotions can “cockblock” people’s understanding of critical race theory. The audience laughs at the blunt term. “Yeah, I go there,” she says. “Yeah, I do.”
Matias does go there—and recently she decided to push her ideas even further. In September, she launched a coaching business with the goals of helping faculty of color across the country navigate white-dominant universities; consulting with universities and other institutions to shift their cultures and become more inclusive; and working with white individuals to understand whiteness so they can become true anti-racists. In late 2019, she will publish an anthology of stories by people of various races about grappling with whiteness and how it appears in daily life.
Matias’ previous work has been well-received among academics. She has won two University of Colorado Denver Rosa Parks Diversity awards and a national award from the American Educational Research Association. She has spoken on panels across the country, and this past spring, the journal Diverse: Issues in Higher Education named her one of its Top 25 Women in Higher Education. In the words of one of her doctoral students, Geneva Sarcedo, Matias is “badass.” But the professor is also aware that her big personality can intimidate some people.
“When I started teaching here, a lot of the students, even some of my colleagues, were not accustomed to having a woman of color operate with such authority,” she says. “When a woman is sure of herself, that’s intimidating. When it’s a woman of color, she gets labeled unapologetic—‘How dare she?’” Over the years, her work on whiteness has fueled streams of hate mail, from incoherent diatribes to a stack of photographs of white men posing with assault rifles. Conservative bloggers have attacked her online, and a stalker targeted her son. She is also pained by an accumulation of everyday slights, from people refusing to believe she’s the professor in her own classroom to a colleague disrespecting her work by demanding that she stop making up words like “whiteness.” (“I wish I made it up!” she says. “I’d probably be famous by now.”)
Matias is clear that she doesn’t dislike white people but rather whiteness as a cultural force. She’s also transparent about the fact that whiteness can live in the minds of both white folks and people of color, who can sometimes internalize oppression or even unwittingly perpetuate systems that favor whites. (One example is the subconscious expectation that people in positions of authority should be white, which can inform hiring practices or affect confidence in leaders.) Her nuanced explanations haven’t stopped critics from directing negative feedback toward Matias—or scholars in comparable positions. Other academics studying and teaching whiteness have endured similar flak. In 2015, Fox News commentators criticized an Arizona State University professor who was offering a course called U.S. Race Theory and the Problem of Whiteness. The professor received dozens of hateful emails, one even encouraging him to kill himself, and saw his face, stamped with “anti-white,” plastered on posters around Tempe. In 2016, a state representative in Wisconsin threatened to pull his support for the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s funding when the institution stood by a decision to offer a class on whiteness and racial justice.
For Matias, the resistance has taken a toll. One friend says that over the years, Matias’ personality has turned from boisterous and happy to more reserved and careful. Several years ago she took down some of her work online, but then most of what remained on the internet about her was, she says, misinformation. Because she sometimes fears for her and her family’s safety, she considered declining to participate in this article but then decided remaining quiet was letting critics control her story.
Matias doesn’t try to hide her sadness—she has been known to tear up in front of colleagues and students while sharing her own stories. She felt frustrated, for instance, when the university administration changed the so-called “cross-listing” for her class about whiteness in 2016, which limited its visibility and resulted in plummeting enrollment. She perceived the act as an example of whiteness. (A university spokesperson says the class was not cross-listed because of a schoolwide change in budgetary practices and that multiple classes were affected; the 2019 class is cross-listed again.) Because she is open about her vulnerability, Matias demands that her students and the people she coaches be willing to confront racism on personal and emotional levels, too. For both people of color and white folks, the results can be surprisingly healing.
Jihee Yoon, a CU Denver graduate with a master’s in social sciences, says she had often felt like there were indistinct but persistent ways that faculty, administrators, and other students marginalized her and others’ experiences as people of color, but they were difficult to articulate. She was troubled to see, for example, white students in social justice programs performing research in communities of color and treating people coldly, like test specimens. In some classes, she sensed that others dismissed her views and that advisers didn’t take her research ideas seriously, an experience that was painful but difficult to pin precisely on race. (A university spokesperson says the institution has many programs to support students of color and promote diversity and takes complaints seriously.)
Then, in 2016, Yoon, who is Asian-American, took Problematizing Whiteness: Educating for Racial Justice, and she could finally put into words many of her experiences, identifying them as whiteness. “Everybody I know from the course, we all talk about it and how life-changing it was,” Yoon says. “We’re like a family. On campus, there’s so much whiteness and white supremacy in the things we learn, the things we read, the professors we have to take. Dr. Matias’ class provided a space where we could speak our truth and be humanized.”
One white former colleague whom Matias coached also felt that learning more about whiteness made her feel more connected to others. Kara Viesca, now a professor of education at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, had studied critical race theory for years and had been hired to teach CU Denver education students at the same time as Matias. But she says watching Matias be verbally abused by a white male professor one day jolted her out of her obliviousness. Viesca realized she had been blind to the whiteness happening right in her workplace.
“When I realized what was happening to Cheryl at work, I was like ‘How in the world did it take me a year and a half to see this?’ ” she says. “I think that’s the reality of whiteness. We are socialized and racialized to not see. So often when people of color say, ‘Hey, there’s a problem here,’ white people say, ‘No, there isn’t.’ It silences people.”
With Matias’ help, Viesca started educating herself. She read books on whiteness. She and Matias discussed incidents and interactions at work and in her daily life so Viesca could understand the ways she might be unintentionally causing harm.
Matias’ expertise even helped Viesca with her personal life: One of Viesca’s family members is a person of color, and she would get irritated when her loved one wouldn’t fight against racist affronts in the workplace. Matias helped Viesca understand that her family member had probably spent a lifetime creating strategies for dealing with whiteness, such as choosing not to engage people about race when it was clear they wouldn’t listen. “It’s such important work for white people to do,” Viesca says. “As white people, when we don’t do that work, we’re very likely to silence and marginalize without intending to.” All of which is why Viesca encouraged Matias when she decided to launch a formal coaching business so that her work could reach a larger audience.
“At the end of the day, the one thing that all people can get by learning about racial identities is that you can feel like a human,” Matias says. “You feel like, ‘Wow, I’m connected.’ We’re sharing a burden as a common humanity. It’s not about not seeing race—not that. It’s understanding and seeing how race impacts the humanity of all of us.”