Understanding how whiteness-at-work ideologies and practices can negatively affect academic advisors of color and students of color 

This study describes the key characteristics of current academic advising practices that uplift white power structures and ignore the race and experiences academic advisors of color and students of color. 

Reviewed by Drisana Hughes


As a front-line resource for students, academic advising plays an essential role in student success at universities and can be a determinant of success at the beginning of a student’s career. This study investigates whiteness (in the form of ideologies, behaviors, attitudes, and attributes) as a pervasive presence in academic advising that deeply disadvantages students of color. It argues that when “whiteness-at-work” permeates into academic advising, it obscures academic advisors’ individual and professional responsibility to work toward dismantling whiteness to better serve students in an anti-racist manner. 

Furthermore, this study provides a theoretical framework for understanding whiteness in academic advising and provides concrete suggestions for academic advisors to move towards anti-racist advising practices. Because the field of whiteness in academic advising is underresearched, this study plays an important role in further examining white power structures within higher education. 

Geneva L. Sarcedo is an academic advisor in the School of Education and Human Development and First-Year Experience and Ethnic Studies instructor at University of Colorado Denver. Her qualitative research centers race, whiteness, and marginalized student success in higher education. Geneva is a multiracial Black, Puerto Rican, and Native Hawaiian ciswoman. As a first-generation college graduate from a lower socioeconomic background, Geneva brought her own, personal lived experience into the research process. Her approach aligns with the use of critical race methodology, which focuses on amplifying the experiences of marginalized voices in education to challenge normative white power structures.

Methods and Findings

Sarcedo relies on the paradox of “whiteness-at-work” (Yoon, 2012) to lay the groundwork for the study. Whiteness-at-work refers to the discourse and behaviors that are intended to address the harms of whiteness, but practically do nothing, often even perpetuating the behaviors of whiteness. The study then uses Composite Counterstory (CCS) in the tradition of Critical Race Theory to create a theoretical framework for whiteness-at-work in academic advising. Counterstorytelling emphasizes marginalized student and educator stories in order to combat current white narratives, which are biased in their nature. 

Sarcedo relies on auto-ethnographic experiences as an academic advisor and professional of color in addition to informal accounts from social media, personal advising notes not protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and advisor meeting minutes. In order to analyze these sources, Sarcedo performed an inductive analysis; this process involved creating analytical units called codes, grouping those codes into larger categories, and developing themes based on the codes and categories. The analysis was conducted using Dedoose, a computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software. Two additional academic advisors of color worked as peer reviewers. 

Through the CCS framework, Sarcedo recounts the story of Issa, an academic advisor of color, and her meetings with two students in the same class: Becky (white, female) and Ty (Black, non-binary). Sarcedo’s analysis yields five types of behaviors connected to whiteness-at-work present within academic advising: 

Nice counselor syndrome
Scenario: In the CSS story in the study, Issa chooses a more neutral response to Becky’s use of derogatory and deficit-based language, instead of directly naming “the whiteness and deficit-based thinking it represents”.

  • Takeaway: Nice counselor syndrome describes the tendency to choose niceness, wrapped up in false notions of professionalism, over addressing bad behavior and systemic issues. Sarcedo proposes that in order to circumvent whiteness-at-work, counselors must name whiteness in interactions and directly address problematic behaviors with students. 

Advice-taking and -giving behaviors 

Scenario: In the CSS story, Becky acknowledges but dismisses Issa’s suggestion to attend a white ally workshop. Issa adjusts to Becky’s dismissal and provides alternative suggestions to Becky as opposed to reiterating the importance of the workshop.

  • Takeaway: Students and advisors only giving and receiving advice that is rooted in whiteness or endorsed by white voices will only serve to reify whiteness. Sarcedo suggests that advisors should resist these behaviors and advocate for a culture within their university that uplifts the expertise of administrators and teachers of color. 

Course recommendations
Scenario: In the CSS, Issa practiced this correctly by recommending ethnic studies classes to Ty.

  • Takeaway: When advisors rely solely on a prescriptive list of courses, their course recommendations can become a function of whiteness-at-work. If course options that do not reinforce whiteness are available, Sarcedo recommends advisors share these options with students and actively encourage enrollment. 

Enacting an enforcer role

Scenario: In this case, Ty asks Issa about filing a formal complaint against a white professor who exhibited problematic and racially-charged behavior. Issa provided recommendations to Ty, but also underscored the limitations and disadvantages of the process.

  • Takeaway: Whiteness-at-work can manifest in advisors enforcing university policy without interrogating how it amplifies whiteness. Similar to Issa’s delivery to Ty, Sarcedo recommends that advisors have a strong knowledge base on how procedures and policies may perpetuate white norms and ideologies, and that they are able to articulate this insight directly to their students, and especially students of color.  

A misplaced ethic of care
Scenario: During her academic advising session, Issa describes to Ty the importance of self-care but does not explicitly name whiteness-at-work as the main cause of harm. 

  • Takeaway: Sarcedo emphasizes the importance for students and advisors to exercise self-care as they operate within a system that disadvantages and harms them. A misplaced ethic of care implies that people of color require extra grit to be successful, without acknowledging the system of white supremacy at large.


A theoretical exploration is just the beginning of understanding whiteness-at-work within academic advising. Sarcedo advocates for future empirical research into the topic. 

The study concludes that academic advisors cannot disrupt whiteness-at-work without clear procedures in their advising practices, alignment around the institution’s mission, and the support of their administration. “Overall, institutions must take up the call to disrupt whiteness and white supremacy without placing the onus on its staff, faculty, or students to do this work in isolation without institutional support.”

Sarcedo suggests the following steps for institutions of higher education to address whiteness-at-work within academic advising moving forward: 

  1. Write and publicize an explicit directive to work on dismantling systemic racism in policies and procedures.
  2. Implement policies and outline concrete steps to make college campuses welcoming to students of color.
  3. Administrators and university leadership must undertake the burden of dismantling whiteness and white supremacy without delegating the work to staff, faculty, or students alone. 


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