The Construction of Whiteness in an American History Classroom: A Case Study of Eighth Grade Mexican American Students

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The Construction of Whiteness in an American History Classroom: A Case Study of Eighth Grade Mexican American Students

We are never as steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence. Naiveté is often an excuse for those who exercise power. For those upon whom that power is exercised, naiveté is always a mistake.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1995, p. xix).

Soon after participation in a unit on nineteenth-century westward expansion, Daniel, a Mexican American student in the eighth grade, discussed lessons his American history teacher had presented on "Westward Expansion." "She [the teacher] should teach about our past and our culture," Daniel asserted. "It's okay that gueros [whites] know their roots...but she only teaches about her past and her culture.... She only talks about the American stuff." Perla, Daniel's classmate, echoed his view about their American history class. In Perla's view, her teacher "just talks about what whites did.... It seems that whites are the only ones who have history.... She doesn't talk about Indians.... She doesn't say that Mexicans were here [in the United States] first."

These remarks, obtained during a microethnographic study of one eighth grade American history classroom, showed that teacher and pupils encountered American history across a significant cultural divide. Mexican American adolescents, who formed one-quarter of the students, found problematic their teacher's "white" Construction of American history.(1) The white history teacher, however, did not recognize as problematic her construction of the American past. In short, American history was a separate -- not a mutual -- construction.

In recent years, scholars have uncovered how "whiteness," in A. L. Keating's (1995) words, "has functioned as a pseudo-universal category" that "operates as the unacknowledged norm against which all so-called `minorities' are measured" (pp. 904, 905). According to Sleeter (1993), white teachers, such as the one observed during this study, too often bring unexamined assumptions about the historical, social, and cultural experiences of students of color whom they encounter. In other words, white teachers tend to treat students of color as if they were white. If history teachers fail to acknowledge and examine experiences of people of color, then they tend to foreground unproblematically a white construction of the past. This white view of history represents a powerful ideological resource for perpetuating inequities in American schools and other institutions.

A middle school teacher's two-week unit on "westward expansion" provided an opportunity to investigate how one white teacher and her Mexican American students constructed American history. The instructional unit, which included the Texas War of Independence (1835-1836) and the War between the United States and Mexico (18461848), held potential for providing students with an inclusive American history -- one that attended both to European American and Mexican American elements. However, the teacher framed her presentation of westward expansion from an exclusively European American or white perspective.

We approached the research site with the following questions: How did the teacher construct the history of the American "West?" During analysis of field notes and interview protocols, other questions emerged: How did the teacher construct ethnic experiences (e.g., Mexican Americans, Native Americans) in her unit on westward expansion? How did the teacher construct the history of the Texas War of Independence and the War between the United States and Mexico? How did Mexican American students construct American history and process lessons on westward expansion offered by their teacher?

We recognized that historians have revolutionized American history with refined interpretations of the experiences of people of color (e.g., Foner, 1997; Nash, 1995; Takaki, 1993). …