Lately, much of the discussion of race in math education has centered on the persistent underperformance of certain student groups, particularly black, Latino, and indigenous youth, and their disparate access to honors, gifted, and advanced mathematics courses. Yet a new paper disrupts those narratives by examining an unaddressed element of the equation—namely, the ways in which “whiteness” in math education reproduces racial advantages for white students and disadvantages historically marginalized students of color.

Dan Battey, an associate math professor at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, said he set out to synthesize for math educators the research literature from sociology, history, and other disciplines on whiteness—defined in the paper as “the ideology that maintains white supremacy, valuing one racial group over others.” He also sought to expose how whiteness operates in classrooms and schools, leaving black, Latino, and indigenous students disenfranchised mathematically.

According to Battey, there are ways in which math teachers, math educators, and math researchers “are perpetuating racism in schools”—which is shaping the expectations, interactions, and kinds of mathematics that students experience. And the lack of attention to whiteness as the fundamental cause leaves it invisible and neutral. “Naming white institutional spaces, as well as identifying the mechanisms that oppress and privilege students, can give those who work in the field of mathematics education specific ideas of how to better combat racist structures,” writes Battey and his co-author Luis Leyva, of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education.

One example of whiteness explored in the paper is how the relentless drumbeat from researchers about racial differences in math achievement is linked to racially differential treatment in math classrooms. The concept of racial hierarchy of mathematical ability—a term coined by Danny Martin, education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago—basically says constantly reading and hearing about underperforming black, Latino, and indigenous students begins to embed itself into how math teachers view these students, attributing achievement differences to their innate ability to succeed in math.

As the theory goes, with white and Asian students consistently at the top of math-achievement rankings—and black and other nonwhite students continuously trailing behind—teachers start to expect worse performance from certain students, start to teach lower content, and start to use lower-level math instructional practices. By contrast, white and Asian students are given the benefit of the doubt and automatically afforded the opportunity to do more sophisticated and substantive mathematics. The consequences are classrooms where Asian students not excelling in math are seen as an oddity, and black students excelling in math are seen as an outlier.