Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

The Consequences of Getting It White

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

The Consequences of Getting It White

Article excerpt


Drawing upon the literary theory of Toni Morrison and the work of White study scholars, the authors propose a theoretical approach to using the deconstruction of Whiteness to teach high school English. Demonstrating this approach with Faulkner's short story, "Barn Burning," the authors propose it may help students overcome "superstitious race thinking," if teachers equip themselves with the knowledge of White identity development theory.


"No one is born White in America." (Thandeka, 2000) In the prelude to WWII, while the U.S. was preparing for battle against the two racist regimes of Germany and Japan and still denying its own government-sanctioned apartheid, Barzun (1937/1963) was at work deconstructing the very notion of race. In his preface to the 1963 edition of Race: A Study in Superstition, he dismisses what he calls "race-thinking" as inherently "superstitious" or, literally, "'standing over' the facts" (p. x). Race-thinking overlooks, first of all, that human beings defy simple categorization both biologically and culturally--that we are all, in effect, multicultural, if not multiracial. Secondly, he points out that what has been used to distinguish one "race" from another shifts across cultures and time, depending upon the agenda of the person using the term.

Nonetheless, in spite of these facts, superstitious race-thinking persists. People everywhere continue to believe that human beings can be categorized into separate races and that a person's race can be easily discerned. Why? Perhaps it is because humans have a need for the "Other"--what Barzun (1937/1963) describes as "... the need to give body to vague hostility, to find excuses for what goes wrong, to fear aliens or neighbors and curse them, while enjoying self-approval from the shelter of one's own group" (p. x). In White, middle class America, the Other is usually composed of "nonWhite" groups, such as Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. This Other is used to secure the dominant place of the White middle class in society, morally, culturally, and economically. We believe that high school English teachers are uniquely poised to correct the superstitious race thinking of their students and to make them aware of the subtle mechanisms of White dominance. Following Toni Morrison, we suggest they can accomplish this by leading students to approach literary works as cultural artifacts that contain implicit messages about power, race, and dominance. Furthermore, we suggest students may treat their own self-generated narratives in the same way. We will conclude with a caveat, however, that such an effort is not without its potential pitfalls.

Getting It White

A beginning point for the approach we propose would be to examine literature through the lens of "Whiteness." In her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison (1992) discusses ways in which the "Africanist" presence in United States fiction calls for a reinterpretation of the literary canon. By Africanist, Morrison is referring to "a nonwhite, Africanlike presence or persona and its imaginative uses" (p. 6). By her definition, Africanism in White literature functions as a lens for "the connotative and denotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people" (p. 6-7). In regard to the uses of Africanism in literature, Morrison suggests that by "othering" Africans (and African Americans), White writers essentially created a cultural hegemony by subjugating African Americans within White literature. Morrison's remedy, however, is not simply to exchange works by White authors for literature written by Black. Rather, she seeks to use literary criticism to expose the useful presence of Africanism in the writings of White authors. In so doing, she addresses not only the powerful absence of racial and ethnic minorities in literature, but also the hegemonic presence of Whiteness in the national narrative. …

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