Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

"It's Pretty Much White": Challenges and Opportunities of an Antiracist Approach to Literature Instruction in a Multilayered White Context

Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

"It's Pretty Much White": Challenges and Opportunities of an Antiracist Approach to Literature Instruction in a Multilayered White Context

Article excerpt

Ms. Allen (all names are pseudonyms) felt unsatisfied with the ways she and her ninth graders typically talked about racism during their study of To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM). Ms. Allen, a White woman, worried that her students, most of whom were also White, tended to "wrap racism in a neat little bow." When she encouraged them to consider racism in more sophisticated ways, they often claimed colorblindness or relied on familiar stereotypes. She worried that their study of the novel reinforced a "trite" notion of racism. In response, Ms. Allen revised her TKAM unit to address racism in a more deliberate way. She applied principles of antiracist pedagogy: she prioritized a focus on institutional racism, she integrated texts to honor voices of people of color, she engaged students in reading against racial ideologies in TKAM, and she encouraged students to reflect on Whiteness through open dialogue (c.f., Au, 2009; Banks, 2004; May, 1998; Nieto, 1999). She wove aspects of antiracist pedagogy together with more traditional aspects of literature instruction, including literary analysis and reader response, in what I refer to as an antiracist approach. As she implemented her antiracist approach, she encountered new challenges in the form of departmental norms for teaching literature, parents' concerns with teaching about racism, and her own uncertainties about whether antiracist goals count as "English." Over six weeks, I observed challenges and opportunities Ms. Allen encountered while implementing her antiracist approach to To Kill a Mockingbird in her predominantly White teaching context.

English education researchers have explored the kinds of challenges English teachers face as they employ antiracist pedagogy, approaching these challenges from a variety of angles. One line of research has focused on responses of White students (e.g., Beach, Thein, & Parks, 2007; Bolgatz, 2005; Gordon, 2005; Marx & Pennington, 2003; Sleeter, 2011; Sleeter & Bynoe, 2006). This research has illustrated ways students subvert and resist instruction that asks them to question their assumptions. Haviland (2008) and McIntyre (1997) found that even when students do not overtly resist, they often engage in White talk, which can sabotage productive discussions about racism. In fact, Lewis, Ketter, and Fabos (2001) found that members of their teacher book club frequently sustained norms of Whiteness despite their expressed goal to disrupt them. This research illustrates the ways Whiteness is constructed and reinforced, even amid antiracist intentions, in individual and day-to-day interactions.

Research has also explored the ways students' individual responses are shaped by White contexts. Beach et al. (2007) studied student responses to multicultural literature in a school they described as racially and culturally diverse yet dominated by a White discourse. They found that students were more likely to consider multicultural viewpoints when they were less invested in dominant discourses such as competitive individualism or meritocracy. Similarly, in her study of students' responses to literature in an all-White high school, Trainor (2008) found that working-class values of working hard and maintaining a positive attitude actually scaffolded students' racist discourse. This research emphasizes the importance of considering how individual responses are shaped by institutional and sociocultural contexts.

Another body of research has explored Whiteness in literature curriculum itself. For decades, research has documented the dearth of literature written by authors of color in typical secondary literature curriculum (e.g., Applebee, 1993; Stallworth, Gibbons, & Fauber, 2006). Although specific titles have changed over time, there has been remarkable stability in the dominance of White authors. The lack of voices of people of color in typical literature curriculum, this research asserts, constitutes a hidden curriculum that perpetuates Whiteness as normal and neutral. …

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