Breaking the bubble: Northampton native pens book on teaching social justice to white students

  • David Nurenberg

  • Northampton native David Nurenberg, a teacher and education specialist in the Boston area, has written a new book about teaching social justice to white students. He’s seen here giving a TED talk on the subject. Photo courtesy of David Nurenberg

  • David Nurenberg’s just-published book offers strategies on bringing elements of social justice education into high school classes.

Staff Writer
Published: 6/16/2020 6:22:52 AM

Northampton native David Nurenberg has made his home in the Boston area for over 20 years, after attending Brandeis University in the mid-to-late 1990s and then taking a high school teaching job in a suburban high school. He later went on the get a Ph.D. at Lesley University’s School of Education and now divides his time between teaching at the graduate and high school levels.

For much of that time, Nuremberg has also tried to make social justice a key element of the English classes he has taught in suburban Boston schools, which he says are made up overwhelmingly of white students, many from affluent homes. He recently published a book about his experience, “What Does Injustice Have to Do With Me?” that offers case studies and strategies for working on these issues with those students.

He didn’t time it that way, but Nurenberg’s book, subtitled “Engaging Privileged White Students With Social Justice,” has come at an opportune moment, as a number of fatal police shootings of African Americans have sparked nationwide protests against racism and police conduct — as well as calls for whites to do their part in building a more just society.

In an interview by phone and email, Nurenberg, who’s also a consultant and public speaker on educational issues, stressed that he hardly considers himself an expert on anti-racism education. “I’m a white guy, I was raised in largely all-white environments, I went on to teach at a largely white school,” he says. “What that means is that I don’t have to think about race, and the effect of race on me, if I don’t actively chose to ... I am very much still a work in progress.”

Nevertheless, Nurenberg says he has experienced some anti-Semitism in the past, and that — coupled with his experience talking to anti-racism educators and reading and taking classes on the issue — is why he started to include social justice education in his courses, in part by having his students read literature by African American writers such as Toni Morrison and Angie Thomas. He won’t name the suburban district he taught in for years in the Boston area but says it’s “a really great place with wonderful kids, highly effective and professional colleagues, and a supportive community.”

The following interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Daily Hampshire Gazette: When did you start working on your book? And what was your primary motivation?

David Nurenberg: In some ways, I’ve been working on the ideas behind this book for almost the last 20 years. That’s how long I taught at a suburban high school, and honestly, I loved working there, I loved the students ... But through no fault of their own, many of them — not all, but many — have been raised in such a bubble that they are surprisingly unaware of a lot of basic structural injustices, particularly where race is concerned.

But I think the seminal event that set me writing this book was a student who, about 10 years ago, wrote his final essay in my English class arguing — quite passionately, and with rhetorical flair — that I shouldn’t have made his class read Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech because it was outdated and irrelevant to him and his classmates.

While my first reaction was to pick my jaw up off the floor, I’d learned by then that we teachers need to listen to our students — here was a student telling me that he felt disengaged with talk of racial justice because he felt it had nothing to do with him ... That was a wake-up call for me to consider how I could make [social justice issues] relevant. In a weird way, I’m very grateful to that student.

DHG: Why do you think social justice education is important?

DN: In so many ways, these kids have had such a good education in terms of basic skills in and out of school [that] they arrive in ninth grade more than ready to pass state tests. But how can we send them into the world, into the positions of prestige and leadership so many wind up taking on, with such a limited understanding of the diverse country in which we live? If we don’t include this as an element of their education, then we risk yet another generation of leaders who play to stereotypes and continue the current system of privilege.

DHG: What are some of the challenges of doing this work?

DN: You can’t just hit kids over the head with this stuff — they’ll either resist, shut down or alternatively get consumed with feelings of guilt and hopelessness. So you’ve got to find ways to start small, to get them comfortable with being uncomfortable … get them seeing places where they may have a small bit of analogous or parallel experience to a marginalized person experiencing injustice.

What you want them to do is to think critically, to question what seems normal and self-evident, to engage in perspective-taking in terms of the experiences of people outside the bubble.

DHG: Have you specifically talked to white students about the issue of police violence against people of color?

DN: About two years ago, I built a unit around the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2017 Angie Thomas book “The Hate U Give.” My students had a sense of the issue but were pretty shocked when I had them go deep into the research of all of these cases like Tamir Rice, Treyvon Martin, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown … I kept hearing “Why did the police do this?” and “How did they get away with this?”

We also listened to testimonials by some police officers and got to exploring implicit bias, and I always thought this was relevant. But over the last three weeks, it’s been extremely applicable for obvious reasons.

DHG: Would you say your students have become more receptive to the idea of social justice?

DN: It really runs the gamut. A handful put up walls and and refuse to take any of it in, and that’s fine, it’s not my job to convince or indoctrinate, it’s enough that they’re learning research skills and argumentation. Some students sort of tentatively start questioning some of their previous assumptions.

And there are students who 100% believe racism exists but that it really has nothing to do with them. In some ways, those are the most challenging and interesting, because I know from experience it’s hard to move from thinking about one’s own whiteness and what that entails, and how we as white people both benefit from a structurally racist system and are also hurt by it. Bottom line is we’re involved in it — we’re part of the story.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at David Nurenberg’s website,, includes more information about his book and his podcast, “Ed Infinitum,” on education.


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