- An Invitation and a Demand for Equity in Mathematics - February 1, 2017
- All Mathematics is Political: Post Session with Rochelle Gutierrez - May 1, 2014
- Top five reasons to go to the 2015 NCTM Annual Conference - April 29, 2014
- Mathematics with a Social Justice Agenda? - April 23, 2014
- Math Principles to Actions: An Invitation and a Demand - April 11, 2014

Following an emotionally stimulating conference session presented by Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, I was intent on waiting in a line behind dozens of people for the opportunity to sit and talk with her. She began her talk with an engaging moment where she asked audience participants to “Stand Up” for the reasons they entered the teaching profession. One group after the other, we began standing; standing as student advocates, as lovers of the mathematics, as people who had been motivated by teachers in the past, as change agents! Dr. Gutierrez continued through an illuminating hour where mathematics was interrogated concerning the “unearned privilege” it possesses in today’s society.

As I sat down with Dr. Gutierrez on the carpeted floor of the convention center with another NCMT conference attendant, I began asking her to elaborate on some of the ideas brought out in the session. The following is a summary of that moment:

**KM:** Could you talk a little bit more about politicizing mathematics, or why you say that all mathematics is political?

**RG:** Well … I don’t feel like I’m politicizing it … I feel like it is that way. I think it’s just a matter of … we don’t tend to interrogate mathematics … as an entity, as a practice, really. I think that we’re taught as if it’s this objective thing out there that exists. It’s not in mainstream society for people to understand how mathematics has developed over time, or to understand the multiple practices that people do in other parts of the world. For instance, in Papua New Guinea they have a base 16 system and … it’s the body … the body is the calculator…so, when somebody’s counting it’s the body that’s being enacted. So, what does that mean when we receive a singular version of mathematics both from the point of view of European mathematics, but also from the point of view of what counts as school mathematics. So it’s like you’re already kind of reducing what people understand about mathematics and its social context.

We get conditioned into thinking … if this is all you know, you think that’s all there is, right?! So…I think that we are not taught, and I would argue that we are not really given permission, to interrogate mathematics because so much of mathematics supports economics and warfare right now. So there’s a real incentive for that to be protected by different institutions … Even what counts as mathematics to mathematicians is partly determined by the department of defense, it’s partly determined by National Science Foundations, and so there are entities that have a say in what’s available to people to understand about what mathematics is first and foremost. So, just like, there’s not a lot of incentive for Whites to interrogate Whiteness as the norm and as the right way to have society set up, there’s not a lot of incentive for mathematicians and math teachers to interrogate this unearned status that mathematics has in society.

So I’m not making it political it is political already … I’m just trying to make it more transparent … in the same way that critical race theorist

**KM:** So, when I think of, you know, math being political….I’ve often said that for me, I’m twice marginalized in the discipline because I am a woman, and I am African-American. Yet being able to do mathematics has added privilege where there wasn’t any. So, to me, there is an aspect of politics…and I wonder how that sort of fits in…being able to look at mathematics as adding privilege to students’ lives.

**RG:** Oh yeah! That’s a version of “using the masters’ tools”. So, like if right now mathematics operates in a way that kind of confirms authority, then you want to both at the same time recognize how you don’t really believe it as that … that you see through that…that it doesn’t in and of itself confirm authority on people or some kind of objective truth about the world around us, but you know how to use [this privilege] to your advantage. It’s kind of like “strategic essentialization”. So, yeah … it’s important to recognize that it’s an unearned privilege, and know how to use it when it will benefit you, and when it’s for the right reasons.

**KM:** Finally, can you talk a bit about this idea of creative insubordination that you mentioned, and how as educators we may have to do that to circumvent those things that are in place to keep this privileged curriculum going? What are some of the things you would say to teachers?

**RG:** I think for me, I’m using this term “creative insubordination” … and I also use, “reclaiming the profession”, I kind of use them alternately depending on who feels comfortable with what term…some people don’t like that term, creative insubordination, they feel it’s too battle oriented. But, whatever you want to call it, I feel like language is really powerful and it helps you be able to name what’s happening to you…and it helps you be able to name what you’re trying to do. So much of what’s being decided upon by other entities about what’s professional…..is kind of in the guise of, “Do you do these kinds of things with your kids?”, “Are you following these guidelines?”, “Are you earning merit badges?” [This is a reference to for-profit sites that offer merit badges to teachers for promoting and using their products]…this kind of stuff is ridiculous. But that’s what is seen as what it means to be a professional. So, I’m trying to take that term, creative insubordination, and say that’s a form of being professional! That’s what we as professionals need to do to reclaim this profession. We don’t need teaching to be teacher-proof in the way that other people are trying to make it.

We have the means to be able to humanize mathematics. Because it can’t get taught without people, so we have to be complicit with this process. I think there is a point where people recognize… that they’re teaching students first….they’re not opening heads and pouring content in. So the “insubordination” part obviously is the, “I’m not just going to go along with what everybody says”. But, the creative part is not going about it foolishly…I feel like it’s the creative part too, that makes it professional because it requires a lot of intellectual work. It’s pretty complex to be able to pull this off.

It’s a lot harder to do this kind of work…and I feel like creative insubordination is something you can learn…I learned it from my parents, and the more we have language that talks about what we need to do to make this career … and to make mathematics more like what was….the reason we entered into it, the better.

**KM:** I think the language is….I could see someone who is interested in doing something more, hearing that terminology and thinking, “I’m not going there!” …But the idea of still getting to where you know you want students to be, and doing it creatively, I think is something teachers would be really interested in…even those that wouldn’t consider themselves activists.

**RG:** It’s never about my agenda….I tell the teachers I work with, I’m not there trying to tell you how to run your classroom… you need to figure out for yourself what you stand for … and you want to make sure you’re consistent.

We have something I refer to as the mirror test, you need to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, “I’m doing what I said I was going to do when I went into teaching” and if you can’t do that, you need to ask yourself “why?”, and “what will it take for you to get there?”

*Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez is a professor of Mathematics Education and Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on the structural and pedagogical factors involved in equity for marginalized students, especially African American and Latina/Latino students.*

Steven WeberOctober 24, 2017 at 8:47 pmIs there no end to this nonsense?

Franchesca WarrenOctober 24, 2017 at 10:34 pmExplain.

TCOctober 25, 2017 at 11:28 amFirstly author I must ask are you American or African as there truly are no African-Americans. You may hold to culture and traditions but that is that.

Secondly how in the WORLD does Rochelle even remotely think any of her ideas make sense? Bottom line math is math. Different levels, yes, but there is no political, ethnic, or any other agenda related to math. P-L-E-A-S-E!!

KMOctober 25, 2017 at 9:02 pmI am interested in additional detail around the statement “math is math”.

PHill AgricoOctober 25, 2017 at 11:57 amAlgebra is an Arab word, and was invented in Damascus

This reminds me of the Stalanist era and Lysenko having people jailed for their thoughts

JCOctober 25, 2017 at 12:40 pmOh brother…

Bill PorterOctober 25, 2017 at 1:18 pmSo she’s basically saying that brown people are too dumb to understand math. Do I have that right?

KMOctober 25, 2017 at 9:06 pmFrom where in the article do you draw this inquiry? I am interested in the connections you found that implied that brown people are too dumb to understand math.

Mark NelsonOctober 25, 2017 at 5:56 pmFrom what I understand, because some cornerstone principals are mathematics were developed by people of European heritage, the principals are more difficult for people of color? If this is anywhere close to what she’s saying, I would say this is extremely insulting to non-whites. Mathematics is colorblind.

KMOctober 25, 2017 at 9:14 pmIt’s actually very far from what she is saying. She is talking about the discipline itself, and the way we characterize it. She does not say that mathematics is harder for people of color. In fact she argues the opposite by explaining how a group of people who would otherwise be “counted out” actually use mathematical reasoning as a function of living, as we all do.

mikeOctober 26, 2017 at 10:03 amShe should be forced from teaching on any level, but eventually she’ll receive some medal & be haled as a hero from like minded educator

HSGOctober 28, 2017 at 3:52 amWho counted them out?

MartinOctober 26, 2017 at 10:42 pm“Even what counts as mathematics to mathematicians is partly determined by the department of defense, it’s partly determined by National Science Foundations”

Such bodies might influence what mathematics is used for, but the reality of what mathematics is was developed long before they got their hands on it.

AlexanderOctober 27, 2017 at 11:13 amSo let me begin by saying I think it’s a good idea to examine the ways in which different students learn anything, but particularly mathematics, and if necessary, tailor what is being taught to how the student can best learn the material.

With that said, I think it’s incredibly silly to paint mathematics in any form as being inherently “white”. For one, branches of mathematics fold into each other and different forms are equivalent to each other, so the example of the Base-16 number system isn’t mathematically special, since all Base-16 math is equivalent to Base-10 with some conversions. All math is validated not by the whims of the National Science Foundation, or the Defense Department, but by the internal consistency and validity of the propositions in question.

The professor in question seems not to know her history, either. It isn’t “white people”, but Egyptians, Babylonians, and Indians and later, the Arabs who provided most of the groundwork for mathematics today. Sure, the West had the likes of Euclid and Pythagoras, but they were working in a geometry pioneered by the Egyptians. If one wants to reclaim the roots of mathematics as being “theirs”, that’s fine, but mathematics can’t be of or for a single culture, and it never has.

Carlton JohnsonOctober 27, 2017 at 1:40 pmThese comments by this ‘professor’ infuriate me. Mathematics is not racist any more than you would say that Physics is racist. These subjects like the numbers that make up Mathematics are objective in nature. If a teacher displays a certain style of teaching that excludes students of color (for example) he/she can be labelled at worst racist or at best uncaring, inconsiderate etc. Yes we are indebted to the Greeks and Arabs for the foundations of Geometry and Algebra and it is important to acknowledge other types of mathematics but the time honored principles of mathematics have gotten us to the society we have today – engineering, computer science, agricultture, etc all benefit from white guys like Leibniz and Newton who gave us Calculus but that should not meen that we should dump Calculus simply because perhaps it is’too white’ – you can always incorporate other examples of people of color who provided great contributions to the area of mathematics but to say Mathematics is Racist is irresponsible.

asdfOctober 27, 2017 at 11:36 pmSo that was a long way of saying the terminology of Mathematics asserts the history of it’s European/Greek Heritage? And only the base 10 system? So binary, and hex, and the way we tell time is fine. But what about the fact that our numbers are called Arabic Numerals. The use of zero comes from there as well. Someone else already pointed out the origin of the word Algebra.

The ignorant assumption that mathematics is historically white shows a narrow focus and lack of understanding. If you would like to de-whiteify Math then read some of the history of it, Math can only be white if you ignore the actual history and progress of humanity. Further, there is no historical consensus that the Greeks were white, that is another unsupported assumption. If the problem is not the actual history of Math but the perceived history of Math, well then, teach that, don’t pretend that Math is the problem when false assumptions and intellectual laziness are the culprit.

Base 16, as was mentioned is used by the the peoples of Papua New Guinea, is already regularly used every day by millions computer programmers and graphic artists of all heritages around the world. There are many other bases used as well, base 8 (Octal), base 2 (Binary), and so on. They all fall under the category of “Math”. If anything, Base 10 is natural because, well just look at your hands…

Have you tried adding in Base 16? It looks like this 26A + 6D = 2D7

(That’s 618 + 109 = 727)

Math is not a case of “using the master’s tools,” it is a case of “we have this way of organizing and processing information if you want to participate in that there are many benefits, if you do not, the informational exchange friction may cause difficulty for you.”

The stigma of not knowing math is not one of racial origin, it is one of trial by fire, EVERYONE had to learn it, for some it was harder than others, for the dyslexic it is practically torture. If you don’t put in the time and effort to learn it there is minimal sympathy because it is specifically unbiased, it either works or it doesn’t, the right answer doesn’t depend on who is solving the problem.

Math cannot be Political.

Brian RichOctober 29, 2017 at 7:01 amKasele Mshinda,

As a graduate student currently doing mathematical research and

teaching, I find this piece deeply flawed on many, many levels. I can

see that there are a few people here who might have gotten their

interpretation of Gutierrez from a headline on some conservative

site. I am generally not sympathetic to such people; however, this

case is an exception, given that it is clear that this interpretation

is not far off, and given that Gutierrez is — like many postmodernist

academic figures — using obscurantist speech to conceal the fact that

some of what she is saying really lacks semantic content. [1]

The current headlines concern a book chapter in which Gutierrez claims

math contains “white privilege”, among others. Unfortunately, I do not

have said chapter on hand, so I cannot comment on it; thus, I will

confine my discussion to first two questions in the interview above,

which I have the biggest issues with, given that they deal with

mathematics rather than mathematics education.

In the interview above, you first ask Gutierrez why, as you put it,

“all math is political.” Gutierrez then claims that she is not

politicizing math, but that it is political already, and she is merely

getting people to “interrogate” it. There are a few problems with this

response; the biggest being that Gutierrez, in between word games

(“the body is the calculator”, capitalization of “white”),

obscurantist emptiness (“it’s the body that’s being enacted” — what

does this sentence even mean?), and pure bullshit (“so much of math

supports economics and warfare” is vaguely qualified), demonstrates

that she really does not know what mathematics actually is.

Mathematics is, quite simply, the fullest, purest development of the

art of argumentation — of applying reasoning to the solution of

problems. Moreover, since formal reasoning does not reference things

in the physical world, it is clear that, given some set of axioms, one

will inevitably be able to derive the same things from them regardless

of what cultural background said person is from, and will hold

regardless of what one believes; to say otherwise is to question

logical reasoning. (While there is a debate between standard

mathematics and constructivism, this is merely a question of

strictness of standards; all constructive proofs count in standard

mathematics, and unless one thinks that something can be both wholly

true and wholly false at the same time, one cannot reasonably reject a

proof by contradiction on those grounds alone. [2]) In this sense,

mathematics is distinct from — and arguably more important than —

numeracy and the ability to calculate.

This is not to say that there isn’t the seed of some good ideas

here. The idea of teaching math with a historical background is one I

often use in teaching — not because it indicates bias, but because it

allows one to construct a narrative around what one is learning, and

thus remember it.

As for Gutierrez’s claim regarding economics, warfare the Department

of Defense and the NSF, I can say that this is *utter*

horseshit. These fields do not define mathematics any more than a

fish’s oxygen requirements defines what constitutes good water for

humans to drink; they are merely opportunists using and contributing

as they see fit to a field that is much larger than them

Additionally, most research in mathematics has not been applied to

real world applications; historically, almost none of it was. For

example, prior to the last quarter of the 20th century, the field I am

doing my thesis — number theory — had virtually no applications; to

the point that one of the greatest number theorists of the 20th

century, G.H. Hardy, was drawn to the field precisely because he was

confident his results would never find application and would always

remain as pure and unapplied as a great artwork. Only with the rise of

modern physics and cryptography did Hardy’s words prove to be

(partially) incorrect.

As for the whiteness bit, I will quote my thesis advisor, who stated

quite succinctly that “people all over the world do mathematics.”

Your second question is whether your belief that math is an added

privilege ties into this theory. Gutierrez’s statement that

mathematics “confirms authority” would have been better applied to

postmodernism, which often uses this argument; on the other hand,

arguments from authority, were they included in a proof, would stick

out like a sore thumb, given that they are a fallacy of informal

reasoning, and informal reasoning is not used in proofs, given that it

strictly pertains to the physical world.

The fact that Gutierrez — who has no mathematics qualifications and

clearly has no good understanding of what she is talking about — can

somehow pass herself off as an expert is bad enough, the fact that

people revere her and do not bother to pick up on her fakery is worse

still. I have no idea why so many math educators — much less the

people who arrange the speakers for the NCTM — see her as being

anything other than what she is in this matter

[1] Postmodernist here is a qualifier for those who subscribe to the

eponymous philosophy. I am not implying that all academics subscribe

to this; I am only referring to those that do, who are predominantly

found in some humanities departments.

[2] I do not mean by this the sense of the term as used by math

educators, I am referring to a mathematical philosophy in which direct

proof is required, with contraposition, proof by contradiction, and

various other indirect methods deemed invalid.

DavidNovember 29, 2017 at 1:28 pmBravo, man, bravo. This is the best detailed take-down of the post-modernist content-free curriculum that I have ever read.

babarishkaOctober 30, 2017 at 4:37 pmMath is not an indication of White privilege, it is possibly the purest of scientific disciplines. As for why some groups do better than others in math, I refer you to Gedaliah Braun’s book, “Race, Guilt, Self-hatred and Self-deceit.”

Wiskunde en Sociologie - Beter Onderwijs NederlandNovember 2, 2017 at 8:07 am[…] [Professor says math perpetuates white privilege] [All mathematics is political] […]

Atty. Mike AgranoffNovember 29, 2017 at 5:32 pmWe are back to the Terror of the French Revolution.

No university administrator would take this seriously – except that they are too afraid to speak out, for fear of being labeled “racist.” It’s self-perpetuating nonsense.

Is chemistry racist also?

Franchesca WarrenNovember 29, 2017 at 9:16 pmHave you read her actual research or are you just going off of a headline?

Paul GillotteJanuary 1, 2018 at 6:14 pmI would like to ask about this math = white privilege. How do you equate that with the fact the 5 countries/cities/people best in math are people of color? Also how is being able to do advanced math, and/or graduating with a degree in a mathematical field, or being a mathematics professor “unearned privilege”? Last I know you had to be smart, and work your ass off to get said things. People have committed suicide over math and the stress it brings so how is it “unearned”? If I know you can do serious advanced math, or have a degree in math(or a field using it), or a math professor, yeah I’m likely going to give you some respect or something more than a average person because you’re not AVERAGE in being able to do such things. I can do some math but not serious math as when I was taught math it was’t like it is today so I give respect to the people who can.

Social Justice as Target - NCTEJanuary 24, 2018 at 7:45 am[…] concerning the “unearned privilege” it possesses in today’s society…” –“All Mathematics is Political: Post Session with Rochelle Gutierrez,” Interviewer Kasele […]