Noticing and Naming Whiteness

Last Saturday was the 5th official day of work for We Got This!, and likely the hottest work day of the year. We went on our usual trash collection routes, noting how much easier the task has become since the first week back in June. We worked in the garden, some boys planting, some learning to distinguish beets and carrots from the weeds they were tasked with pulling, others learning the hows and whys of pruning the tomato plants that have exploded with growth in the heat. It was a great Saturday, but it's not the heat or the work that I was thinking about as I sat down to write. 

As noon approached, the boys lined up for their chance to cool off with an ice cream cone (a surprise, compliments of Mr. Andre). As I walked the line chatting with the boys, a younger gentleman (too young to work with the rest of the boys, he had been Mr. Andre's "assistant" for the day) stopped me with what seemed to be a pressing concern. 

"How come you've got tattoos?" He asked. "White people ain't supposed to have tattoos." 

Genuinely confused by his question, the only response I could muster was "Well, I guess I didn't know about that rule. Actually, I know lots of white folks with tattoos." 

The younger boy seemed satisfied, his curiosity satiated for the time being. Then he continued, "How come white people always be actin like they better than everyone else?" 

Shock registered clearly and immediately on the faces of the older boys around us, amidst a chorus of "Man, you can't say that. That's racist!" 

The youngest boy doubled down. "No really, white people always be actin like they better than you." Then he turned to me, his tone shifting, as if to reassure me of his sincere intentions. "Not you, though. You ain't act like that." 

The other boys clearly still horrified by this exchange, I again didn't have much to offer. "You know, I think that's a good question. I don't really have an answer for you, though." 

* * *

I'm sure there's lots that could be written about the way in which young people begin to notice race, attempt to account for nuance and the conflict between individual and systemic "whiteness," and so on. What interests me in this story, though, is the reaction of the older boys. It's the same reaction I've seen many times in my own students (4th graders) when I've named whiteness in our discussions of Michael Brown, or Ruby Bridges, or Vel Phillips - especially when naming myself as white in the context of these discussions. 

Since I began teaching, I've felt that it was important to not hide behind some illusion of colorblindness. As a teacher, I've always been upfront and honest in naming race, whether my own or in discussions of police brutality, housing segregation, and ongoing fights for justice (yes, with fourth graders). My experience in the classroom has often been similar to what I experienced from the older boys in the garden that day: a mixture of shock and discomfort, particularly in naming whiteness, alongside cries that such a label must be "racist." 

Priya Parmar and Shirley Steinberg echo this experience in a short essay titled "Locating Yourself for Your Students," which I had the opportunity to discuss with a group of colleagues while writing this post: "They [the students] said that they knew at every moment of their lives that they were not White, but they felt that White people did not know that they were White."  They describe students refreshed by an honest conversation that did not treat a teacher's whiteness as a sort of "secret." Indeed, that is what I had always hoped my approach would foster. 

Over the last week, though, as I've been reading and discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, Between the World and Me, with my partner Rachel, I've been struck by a sort of dilemma where this identification is concerned. Throughout the book, Coates borrows a phrase from James Baldwin, referring people of European ancestry in the United States as "Americans who believe they are white." Coates ties this need for belief in and identification with whiteness with what he calls "the Dream," - the preservation of an American history in which looting, violence and exploitation are remembered as the natural, inevitable, even righteous progression of things; "perfect houses with nice lawns ... Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways" immune from the brutality that enables them to persist. 

I'm left to wonder what the position of the white person (a person who cant help but notice that they are white?) is if it is not in support of the Dream, or if it is actively engaged in dismantling the Dream. Is naming this identity for myself (especially in a classroom, in a position of authority), in some sense, to speak it into existence, to confirm in some way the supposed "naturalness" of this imposed order? Coates says only this:

these new people [people who believe that they are white] were something else before they were white - Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish - and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. (7)

This is no short order. And in the meantime, I don't think Coates would suggest that we deny our inherited identities, clinging to the notion that race itself is but a constructed illusion as if that realization alone will absolve us of the sins we've inherited. On the contrary, it seems that it is a legacy that must be held in tension; that we must own and yet struggle against.  

Coates doesn't offer much of a suggestion as to what this struggle might look like (And why would he? His writing is addressed to his son, not to people who believe they are white.), but Parmar and Steinberg offer some useful insight into one necessary characteristic of this struggle for white educators - especially for those in racially mixed classrooms. They suggest that white educators ought to

name their own position in relation to the curriculum ... [in order to] engage their students in important inquiry that challenges the boundaries of all categories, including whiteness, frames all identities as changing and evolving, and critically engages the often unnamed dominance of whiteness in popular ideology.

This critical lens, I must admit, has at times - perhaps often - been missing from conversations in my classroom, even as I have had no issue "naming my own position." If naming is the first step, it seems that the next step is developing those questions that can move us along together in the struggle Coates discusses. Perhaps next time I'll be better prepared to guide curiosity toward critical inquiry; better equipped to stand in opposition to the Dream, alongside those Dreamers who must, as Coates says, "learn to struggle for themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all."