“Mathematics Itself Operates As Whiteness”: University of Illinois Professor Triggers Controversy In Calling For Professors To Recognize Math As Privilege

rg1University of Illinois math professor Rochelle Gutierrez has triggered a national controversy over her recent anthology for math educators entitled, “Building Support for Scholarly Practices in Mathematics Methods.” Gutierrez suggests that mathematic tends to perpetuate white privilege that must be actively addressed in classrooms.  For many, math is one subject that was viewed inherently objective and unbiased in its emphasis. Albert Einstein and others saw beauty in math.  He stated “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” Yet, Gutierrez appears to see the  “politics that mathematics brings” and white privilege.

Gutierrez warns that “School mathematics curricula emphasizing terms like Pythagorean Theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans.”  She adds  “On many levels, mathematics itself operates as whiteness. 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.”

Gutierrez raises these same views in her 2013 academic article entitled Why (Urban) Mathematics Teachers Need Political Knowledge  in the Journal of Urban Mathematics Education.  She wrote that “similar to whiteness, mathematics holds unearned privilege in society.” She emphasized that she was going beyond earlier writers who maintained that “mathematics education operates as White institutional space. I am arguing that mathematics itself operates as whiteness.”

Gutierrez seeks to inject “political knowledge” into math classes to foster a “greater awareness of the unearned privilege that mathematics holds in society,.”  She ties math to the ever-expanding notions of “microaggressions” and warns that many students “have experienced microaggressions from participating in math classrooms… [where people are] judged by whether they can reason abstractly.”

While I do not agree with much of what I read in the article, which I found hyperbolic and superficial.  However, I also disagree with some of the responses.  Critics have called for Gutierrez to be removed from her position.  Gutierrez is advancing her intellectual view of the role and barriers of mathematic education in the United States. Her voice adds to the broader debate over the influence of privilege or race on subjects.  One can disagree with those views while defending Gutierrez’ right to articulate and defend them.

Guiterrez has a stellar background that includes a Ph.D., in Curriculum and Instruction, from University of Chicago as well as a M.A. from Chicago and a B.A. in Human Biology from Stanford University. Her bio states that “Dr. Gutierrez’ scholarship focuses on equity issues in mathematics education, paying particular attention to how race, class, and language affect teaching and learning.”

In the end, it is a shame to see math treated as a field of privilege when many of us view it as a field of pure intellectual pursuit and bias neutrality.  Either the math is there or it is not.  The race of the mathematician will not change the outcome.  Moreover, the way to fight any bias is to leave “political knowledge” outside of the classroom.  Guiterrez has attracted some cache by calling for teachers to look beyond the numbers to find white privilege.  Yet the danger is importing extrinsic influences into an area that is wonderfully self-contained and politically neutral.  Indeed, many minorities sought math careers because it is a field premised on objective measurement.  That is why I was left unconvinced by the earlier academic article.  To use a valuable expression, “the numbers simply do not add up.”

128 thoughts on ““Mathematics Itself Operates As Whiteness”: University of Illinois Professor Triggers Controversy In Calling For Professors To Recognize Math As Privilege”

  1. If those who seem so in love with abusing the term “white privilege” continue down this path they will be pursuing the one thing that could possibly decimate the support of progressive whites for the cause of progress for all. Taking an idea too far is always a bad idea. Fetishizing everything through the weird and distorted lens of “privilege” is a mistake for progressives. The term itself is intended to offend and is good at doing so. A small number of whites use it to make themselves feel as though they are on the leading edge but the truth is, like many other leftist terms, it alienates and divides. When you are in the minority and trying to make advances against an historically hostile majority insulting them is not a very good strategy. It inflames those who are already prone to hostility to become intense hostile and it takes allies and potential allies and either alienates them or pushes them into the opposition. Those on the left who actually want to see progress and not just make themselves feel good by insulting white people should start vocally condemning this strategy or else there will be a backlash among enough of the white population (which still outnumbers nonwhites and has vastly more power and resources) to set social progress back for many years. I saw this as a person on the left who has worked tirelessly for equality for over 35 years. Ghandi and King both made the point that their movements were designed to convert their adversaries not to defeat them. That is the only path to achieving lasting progress. Moronic extrapolations like the one in this article about math terms being a haven of white privilege is so absurd and so far off the chain that it would be laughable if it weren’t so potentially damaging to the lives of millions who yearn for a more just and equal America. But people like college professors who make a comfortable living can afford to indulge their own egos by insulting their colleagues. They are not the ones who will suffer. The people who will suffer are those in the socioeconomic strata that feels the harsh reality of inequality and injustice most intensely each and every day.

  2. “However, I also disagree with some of the responses. Critics have called for Gutierrez to be removed from her position.”

    This is a disgusting position to take. Tax payers have the right to determine who and who doesn’t live on tax payer money. If YOU financed, out of your own pocket, this woman’s “scholarship”, you’d be right, no one else has the right to tell you how to spend your own money.

    “Liberals”, though, see other people’s money as their own, since others are too stupid to know how to properly spend their own money. Until all educational institutions are fully privatized, completely eliminating political control and the forced extraction of money from citizens to finance these political institutions, EVERY SINGLE PERSON has the right to clamor for the removal, and hiring, of anyone they like. In fact, the entire problem with Gutierrez, and your disgusting feelings of entitlement to other people’s money, is the politicization of education. This politicization results in the predictable devolution currently occurring in these political institutions that once honorably served humanity, as Gutierrez and her awful ilk seek to appease the political fashions of the day, rather than purse scholastic achievement furthering the knowledge of mankind.

  3. “University of Illinois math professor Rochelle Gutierrez”

    False. She is a professor of curriculum and instruction in the education department, with a BA in human biology and a PhD in education.

  4. There will always be those who see the entire world through the lens of perceived injustice – rightfully and wrongfully so. In this case, wrongfully. We in the US (and the Western world, for that matter) have always acknowledge the “non-whiteness” of Hindu-Arabic numerals and algebra (as well as algorithm) derived from the great Islamic golden age of the 8th-13th centuries. Maybe she can dig deeper and come up with some other injustice to harp on?

  5. I agree entirely with Prof. Turley and would choose pbinca to debate the issue with Dr. Gutierrez preferably somewhere where we could all enjoy an intellectual debate.

    1. Mike Snow – Dr. Gutierrez only got her Ph.D. in education because they have the lowest standards. I learned this when I was taking my GREs. Each college has a minimum score it accepts, the College of Education is the lowest. So, if you are having trouble elsewhere, get your Masters or Ph.D. in education. It is the bottom rung of the academic ladder. She is unprepared to debate. She would need a tutor.

  6. If I read this in the Onion I’d think it was very dry satire. It’s true that freedom of speech allows idiots (or sometimes non-idiots with idiotic ideas) to expose themslelves. This is a prime example.

    If she’s ever helds accountable for this in any fashion she could say she was just trying to be funny and some people might believe her. Seriously.

    This is like saying particle physics is homophobic.

    1. Well, particle physics is anti-LGBTQ! Physicists put their particles in boxes like quarks and bosons, rather than allow for particle self-identification. In doing so, particle physics perpetuates violence against those who would prefer to self-identify their category, or who may be identity-fluid.

      Btw, I self-identify as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, so please refer to me as M/s non-profit.

  7. “Children should be seen and not heard.”

    – Aristophanes, The Clouds, 1. 963. (423 BC).

    “Shut Up And Sing (i.e. Teach)”

    – Laura Ingraham

  8. “On many levels, mathematics itself operates as whiteness. 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.” I am frankly shocked that a professor would write this. Higher math classes at universities are populated by Indians, Asians, African foreign exchange students…The country famous for math is Singapore.

    Mathematics transcends race and culture. A Jew in a dangerously anti-Semitic Europe became one of the most famous mathematicians of all time – Albert Einstein. Thank God he escaped the Nazis, who also gaged someone’s worth on their race and ethnicity.

    “I am arguing that mathematics itself operates as whiteness.” That’s an absurd argument directly at odds with the global reality.

    “Gutierrez seeks to inject “political knowledge” into math classes to foster a “greater awareness of the unearned privilege that mathematics holds in society,.” She ties math to the ever-expanding notions of “microaggressions” and warns that many students “have experienced microaggressions from participating in math classrooms… [where people are] judged by whether they can reason abstractly.”” Obviously you will be judged on your ability to reason abstractly in higher math classes. Such ability is required for your mind to work with higher math principles. And it is not found in our melanin.

    “School mathematics curricula emphasizing terms like Pythagorean Theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans.” Do we abandon geometry and calculus because it’s not politically correct? The Mayans were also early math pioneers. Should we exclusively use their 20-based system, and draw a shell for zero, a dot for one, and a bar for 5, so we can be more inclusive? Sure, engineering, chemistry, quantum physics, calculus, and many other fields will fold if we abandon that hateful Greco-Roman mathematical foundation, but it’s more important to feel good and inject hard Left politics into every single subject of study at universities, right? Universities are not for pure learning; it’s for political indoctrination, straight out of the playbook for Fascists, Communists, Socialists, and all of the other dictatorships that have sprung out of the Left’s desire for better living through big government.

    And let’s discuss the bit about “unearned privilege.”

    Kids do better in school when they have parents who help them with their homework, read to them, find them a tutor if they’re stuck, teach them academics at home, and are otherwise involved with the evolution of their mind. That’s also true for emotional intelligence and empathy.

    Children do better when they have either an involved parent, or a nanny, grandparent, or other relative who spends time with them on their academics and emotional and character development. Children who have two working parents with zero time, or a single parent, fare worse. The working parents have better odds of affording a tutor, and noticing there’s an academic problem, than the single parent of limited resources.

    Some kids from good socioeconomic classes still do poorly in school if their parents are neglectful or disinterested. I have known middle class people whose parents never read a book to them in their life, or helped them with a single page of homework. I have known people who grew up poor whose parents placed a strong emphasis on schooling and a desire for their kids to succeed that was like the forces that move the tectonic plates of the Earth. A prime example are the kids of Asian immigrants. Academic failure is not an option.

    Sometimes, it’s the kid who has the grit and goal setting who gets his own education in spite of the odds. My own father lost both his parents in college, and had to sell his textbooks to buy food and other necessities. He read textbooks in the school library and finished his education.

    The “privilege” of having involved parents is not unearned. The family makes many decisions that affect the outcome of the kids.

    Having kids deliberately out of wedlock, with absentee dads, is a decision. The government is a poor substitute for a father.

    If you lose a spouse due to illness, accident, or divorce, your attitude towards your kids’ education is a decision. You could have absolutely no money at all, due to the whim of fate, but you still have a voice to ask for free tutoring help at a church, the school, anyone. And you have feet to take your kid to the library on your time off. Or you could require your kid to check out books from his school library if you have no time off.

    It is true that the kids are innocent of the choices of their parents. But that does not mean that kids of parents who put education first should be penalized or looked down upon. Choices have consequences. Instead of punishing those who have involved parents, lets instead try to lift up those who don’t. There are many successful programs out there to help kids with homework and learning who don’t get that help at home. Lift up, instead of show bias and push down on those whose families cared about their education, or people who just have an innate ability to learn.

    Instead of making ridiculous claims like math is whiteness, just address the elephant in the room. Upwards of 72% of all African American births are out of wedlock. Single motherhood with an absentee father is one of the greatest risks for a child to be poor his whole life, drop out of school, join a gang, go to jail, or be murdered young. There is a big difference between divorced families, where the Dad supports the family financially, and kids raised out of wedlock with no Dad in the picture at all. Those kids are screwed. They grow up in the worst neighborhoods, are in the most physical danger, and have all of the above mentioned obstacles in the way of their success. This rate is increasing across all ethnicities, but it is an absolute epidemic in black communities. This is completely unfair to these kids, and it breaks my heart that girls are being raised to not know their worth, and boys are not raised to be even minimally responsible. The bar for what girls expect out of life, and their own self protection, is so low. We’ve got to understand the drivers so we can do something. It was after the 1960s that we saw this increase in black single motherhood. It has been argued that the structure of our social welfare system rewarded and subsidized single motherhood And if you want more of something, subsidize it. Women were promised a middle class lifestyle provided by the government if they vote Democrat. Free housing, financial support, and the many programs available to them and their kids. But government make a poor parent, free housing is filled with crack addicts and cockroaches and danger, and their kids suffer.


    1. Ms. Karen
      Thank you for presenting some unvarnished truths without bias or bigitry. For 75 years I have lived through perhaps the best and worst of our society. Failure to educate oneself is a loss for society. And to ask for it to be given is criminal.

    2. Did you see Gutierez’ picture? She’s white. probably from a family with money. Maybe that’s the source of her screwy ideas–she’s trying too hard.

    3. Well to address the elephant in the room, you’d have to go back to Clinton’s 3 strikes law. The epidemic plaguing the black communities stems mostly from the systemic mass incarceration of young black men, many of whom are targeted for non-violent crimes and forced apart from their children. It is not always choice that divides families, and you cannot blame the black community for this division that they have no control over.

  9. “who is capable in mathematics, and who is seen as part of the mathematical community is generally viewed as white.”

    No, they’re generally viewed as Asian.

  10. Mathematics teaches the value of precision and accurate estimation. In a mathematical context, Gutierrez would be challenged to define “whiteness” in a manner that is not based strictly on her subjective experience.
    We now have DNA analysis methods that reveal the complex, intermixed geneologies of all humans. I believe a movement is building to force social scientists and government to use DNA-based categories of genetic grouping, and to retire subjective, vernacular classifications (including self-classifications), wherever groupings based on genetic heritage are sought.

    At a time when many math teachers are still trying to digest the brilliant contributions to NASA’s golden era made by the heroines in “Hidden Figures” (e.g. Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson), namely, making the jump from calculator-based math to software-assisted math, it seems out-of-touch with these positive exemplars to be attempting to be attempting to brand mathematics as “white”.

    And, she may not know it, but in many classrooms, students discover the Pythagoras result themselves, and devise their own proof. And, afterwards, knowledgeable teachers will relate that its initial discovery was made by primitive peoples the globe over, who after cutting equal-length sticks, discovered the 3-4-5 right triangle formed by laying out 12 sticks on the ground. And, it will be mentioned that the generalization to c**2 = a**2 + b**2 was brought from the Indian subcontinent to Mesopotamia by caravan traders. What Pythagoras (and Euclid) did was to spread awareness of triangle and circle geometry widely by writing and organized teaching.

    The question Gutierrez should be challenged on is, how does it improve the learning of mathematics, and their application to one’s advantage, to label this area of knowhow as “white”? What is she trying to accomplish for people by making this argument? Because, the strongest argument against her position is that it could inadvertently lower expectations of ability to learn math among some students. That is an unwelcome effect.

  11. “She ties math to the ever-expanding notions of ‘microaggressions’ and warns that many students have experienced microaggressions from participating in math classrooms… [where people are] judged by whether they can reason abstractly.'”

    My non-white wife points out that the amazing black female mathematicians of “Hidden Figures” fame seem to have developed and demonstrated the ability to reason abstractly under significantly more onerous conditions.

    And where do East Asians and South Asians fit into this analysis? They seem to be somewhat over-represented in STEM fields, despite the alleged white bias of mathematics.

    1. Porkchop – and what about us whiteys who excelled in geometry but almost failed algebra.

      1. Interestingly, in the small and virtually entirely white (mostly Scandinavian and German) Montana town I grew up in, we had some who did well in mathematics, and some who did poorly. Our math teachers were sometimes less than kind to those who had difficulty reasoning abstractly. Those kids felt bad — I suppose that would be “micro-agression” — but I don’t think that any of them felt that the teacher was hindering their education (nor did their parents). The parental answer in most cases (not necessarily the right answer in all cases) was “you need to work harder.”

        But on the other hand, some people just don’t get mathematics or, if they do, just take longer. My youngest daughter got a degree in physics and took higher level mathematics courses that I had to look up just to understand what I was paying for. My oldest daughter got a degree in biology and had to repeat her calculus class twice in order to pass, but once she “got it”, she got an A. My middle daughter stays as far away from mathematics as possible. It’s just not where her strength is. All are gainfully employed in jobs they enjoy and are good at.

        In your case, I presume you went into a field that did not require excessive calculation. 🙂

        1. I had to get a tutor in college just to get a C- in pre-calculus. I had to relearn algebra to help my oldest son get through high school. My daughter would’ve made a better tutor for him than myself.

          I’ve always wanted to understand the math but I just don’t think I’m wired for it. I even went so far as to read Hawkings A Brief History of Time with the hope something would finally click. Never happened. I now have a 9 year old that has a better aptitude for math than I had. I’m praying by the time he gets to the more advanced math that he gets it.

        2. Porkchop – you cannot be in my field without using calculation, but it doesn’t have to be algebra. Which is why I decided to get my first degree in Theatre Education, which did not require algebra. We got to take a course that was a survey of all math classes. By the time we got to algebra, I had more than enough points to get an A. The Creative Art of Math. We also did not have to take a hard science, so I took behavioral psychology, which was a godsend in the classroom. Really helped with classroom control.

          1. It is a sign of genius to work to your strengths. (Or to put it another way, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”) Either way, it sounds like it worked out. Good for you.

            1. Porkchop – there was no reason I needed to take algebra and I took a logic and critical thinking course in grad school. All the formulas were pre-laid out. All I had to do was plug in the figures. Then Viola!!! I knew if I was going to set the theatre on fire or not. 🙂

              1. OK, logic may be fine to determine whether you set the theater on fire. But, still, does the barber of the village cut his own hair or not?

                1. bfm – it was the 60s, nobody was cutting their hair unless they were drafted. 😉

      2. By “whiteys,” do you mean Americans; are you referring to the requirement for citizenship, ratified by the Founders in 1790, one year after adoption of the Constitution, that they be “…free white person(s)…?”

  12. These “professors” have lost their minds. 2 + 2 = 4 isn’t a privilege. I think America would be so much better off without these crazy people.

  13. Actually, no, math is absolute, you either know it or you don’t, ‘political awareness’ is irrelavent, and a separate conversation. I disagree with you Jon – I don’t care how many letters follow her name, she is a dumba**, and couldn’t fill a bottle cap with the depth of her understanding.

    Math can’t simultaneously be white privilage AND the legacy of south eastern enlightenment. It can absolutely be a continuum in which many varied people have made contributions, and to which none can claim total ownership, but again, are we teaching math, or the history of math? They are two separate conversations with two very different purposes, and her inability to parse them, let alone accurately represent them, is less than impressive.

    Having realizations and being able to actually integrate them into something useful are the difference between mature wisdom and naive reflection. Both are important parts of a process, but this is tantamount to noticing that the sun rises and sets and never wondering why, or worse, imagining it as the incontrovertible evidence of something malefic. This is not someone that belongs in the field of imparting knowledge.

  14. This is an excellent example of the need for free speech. If this sort is not allowed to postulate and rant, how can they be indentified, queried, gleaned for some benefit(s)? Attributing our understandings to the Greeks only is an issue that should be studied. Just as the Bible is a compilation of many previous thoughts and dictums of many previous civilizations, with or without their gods, and not the word(s) of any one god, our understandings of mathematics, geometry, and the like do stretch further back than the Greeks. Like the Bible, the Greeks were more a moment in time where enough was recorded to last and appear as an origin. Linking the argument to ‘whiteness’ is where this brainiac went off the beam.

    1. Excellent example of why Canadians can neither add nor subtract far less do formulas such as x + y =znowflake

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