Academic journal article English Education

Reconceptualizing Whiteness in English Education: Failure, Fraughtness, and Accounting for Context

Academic journal article English Education

Reconceptualizing Whiteness in English Education: Failure, Fraughtness, and Accounting for Context

Article excerpt

This article focuses on Mr. Kurt,1 a white, first-year English teacher in an all-white context who has chosen to teach his students about whiteness, white supremacy, white privilege, and the many ways institutionalized racism is enacted in daily life. His story fleshes out the strikingly limited scholarship in the field of English education about the complex work of white antiracist teachers in predominantly white contexts (Borsheim-Black, 2015, 2018; Johnson, 2013; Thomas, 2015).

Moreover, the dominant framework for understanding white teacher identity almost invariably situates white teachers' work and development as the embodiment of unadulterated racialized privilege-that is, white teacher as problem to overcome (Berchini, 2016a, 2016b, 2016c, 2017; Laughter, 2011; Lensmire et al., 2013; Lowenstein, 2009). In this study, I borrow from Johnson (2013) to argue at the outset that "[t]his is not an article about a racist white teacher or a white teacher unaware of [his] whiteness" (p. 5). Rather, this is an article about a teacher who is well-aware of his whiteness and the existence of (his) racialized privilege; a teacher with a desire to "talk about the real stuff" (Mr. Kurt, interview)-defining "real stuff" as white privilege and other topics that make his white students uncomfortable. In this article, I draw from qualitative case-study data from Mr. Kurt's classroom-where I spent almost one academic year-to illustrate the contexts, tensions, opportunities, and challenges that shaped and reshaped how Mr. Kurt taught about race and white privilege in an all-white classroom. This article builds on existing research by paying close attention to the contexts within which beginning English teachers work. The broadest frame for my writing, here, is situated in studies of white teacher identity and whiteness studies in education (Borsheim-Black, 2015, 2018; Castagno, 2008; Haviland, 2008; Picower, 2009) and also critiques of this same field (Berchini, 2017; Lensmire, 2017; Lensmire et al., 2013; Lowenstein, 2009; Trainor, 2002). I draw from these fields to offer careful descriptions and theorizing of how institutional contexts influence and interact with the racial identities and the commitments of white antiracist teachers. I then offer implications for classroom practice at the K-12 and teacher education levels.

Whiteness in English Education: What Students Do and Do Not Learn about Racism

I center this article on classroom scenarios that highlight the challenges embedded in dealing with race and whiteness in curriculum and classroom discussion. There is currently little context-in English and literacy education-that deals with how teachers "handle conflicts and disconnections about race that emerge from English curricular content and classroom discussions" (Thomas, 2015, p. 155). Borsheim-Black's (2015) investigation of how a white teacher taught To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) in her predominantly white English classroom speaks to this dearth in the field. In her study, Borsheim-Black illustrates how whiteness operated and was maintained "at the individual, institutional, societal, and epistemological levels throughout the [TKAM] unit" (p. 424) and in the teacher's teaching of it. As one example of how whiteness operated in this classroom, teachers and students use "White talk" (p. 417) when discussing literature. BorsheimBlack defines white talk as the subtle ways teachers and students used language that ultimately "contributed to the normalcy and centrality of Whiteness" (p. 417) in the classroom and curriculum. The author cites the teacher's and students' use of pronouns (e.g., we, us, our, and my [p. 417]) in classroom discussion as an example of white talk, in that these parts of speech subtly function to exclude children of color who do not share in the same experiences of race, racism, and privilege. Pronoun use is one way by which Borsheim-Black describes how whiteness was assumed to be normal and maintained its centrality during classroom discussion of TKAM. …

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