Wright-Ing White: The Construction of Race in Women's 19th Century Didactic Texts

Article excerpt

"... until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as White. I am interested to know what that assumption has meant to the literary imagination."--Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

In this article, I focus on texts written by one minor but prolific White female educator who published from 1856 to 1902. The tracts are purportedly aimed toward improving women's domestic skills and teaching children in entertaining ways the seemingly raceless subjects of botany, astronomy, and natural science. Yet, amidst lessons about beetles, ants, and needlepoint, the texts bear the imprint of a gendered 19th century racial imaginary and circulating anxieties about the uncertain boundaries of Whiteness. However innocent or raceless educational tracts may appear, writing has tremendous power to manufacture, sculpt, and deploy narrations of race and racial identity, to translate imaginary renderings of human beings into seemingly concrete yet always insufficient entities, to freeze free-floating cultural sentiment into material and consumable symbols. Writing didactic texts in the 19th century, I argue, is a racial act.

I first present four elements of the theoretical and conceptual framework for my larger project which explores the discursive work of gendering race in women's 19th century educational texts. I then offer an overview of various ways race operates in the texts. I follow these examples with a close reading of the racial machinations at work in a lesson about ants taken from a science and nature reader for children. Collectively, the examples point to intricate and fluctuating constructions of race historically and the unexpected locations in which they lurk.

Also, the system of informal education the texts represent is significant for expanding our understanding of women's educational contributions in this period before their full presence in formal institutions was endorsed. Indeed, informal education continues to be a central site of cultural learning and transmission that some argue has come to replace or extend the potency of formal schooling. Chat rooms, after school centers, reading groups, even computer games (1) and media culture are informal educational methods that have potential appeal and usefulness for a wide variety of people whose family responsibilities, health, geographic/travel limitations, and/or working-class status may constrain their activities. Understanding the fuller picture of women's experiences in education necessitates looking outside of traditional formats.

Theoretical and Conceptual Framework

In White By Law, legal scholar Ira Haney-Lopez argues that the courts were often called upon to consider the viability of individual claims of White identity by those seeking American citizenship in the late 19th and early 20th century. One of the crucial measures for determining whiteness through the courts was "common knowledge," that is, popular, widely held conceptions of races and racial divisions. Denying citizenship to a Chinese applicant in the well-known case In re Ah yup, the court relied as much on the popular understanding of the term "White person" as on scientific evidence: "the words 'White person" ... in this country, at least, have undoubtedly acquired a well settled meaning in common popular speech, and they are constantly used in the sense so acquired in the literature of the country, as well as in common parlance" (my emphasis). (2) In this sense, educational tracts, popular fiction, and school books contributed to shaping the "common understanding" of Ah yup's physiognomy and nationality as not White, which became the basis of his rejection for citizenship. As critical race studies scholars have explored, whiteness as a racial category has been tied to class standing, economic advancement, educational privileges, housing access and protection from violence and discrimination in American history--in addition to an array of smaller daily privileges (3)--as well as fundamental citizenship rights. …