"We Always Talk about Race": Navigating Race Talk Dilemmas in the Teaching of Literature

By Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth | Research in the Teaching of English, November 2015 | Go to article overview

"We Always Talk about Race": Navigating Race Talk Dilemmas in the Teaching of Literature


Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth, Research in the Teaching of English


A decade ago, Allan Luke described English education as a primary curricular space for "political interventions, struggles over the formation of ideologies and beliefs, identities and capital" (2004, p. 86). One such political intervention, desperately needed in contemporary American life, involves racial equity. Numerous literary texts provide opportunity for dialogue about race in our society. Novels like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, plays like Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, and the work of poets like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou have been part of high school English curricula in many districts and states for nearly a generation. Reading literature that wrestles with both the history of race in the United States and contemporary race relations encourages a critical view of social and cultural reproduction (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990), with the ultimate intent of creating ethical and literate citizens (Alsup et al., 2006). Because conversations about race in literature index and mirror conversations about race in our society (Anagnostopoulos, Everett, & Carey, 2013), they can be fraught with difficulty. Such conversations can further lead to disconnections and ultimately disengagement from talk about race, whether in text or society.

In English classroom interactions, race talk dilemmas arise as teachers and students wrestle with the narratives they are studying, and as they talk and write about those narratives. Yet there is limited research about how everyday classroom teachers handle conflicts and disconnections about race that emerge from English curricular content and classroom discussions. It is only after we, as researchers, know more about how teachers currently handle such conflicts-documenting their successes and their failures-that we can develop tools to help them navigate conflicts around race in the future.

To examine how English teachers handle race talk dilemmas that arise while teaching literature, this article looks closely at the classroom discourses of two veteran English teachers-one a Black man, the other a White woman1-in a racially diverse high school, showing how teachers employ different strategies to navigate similarly fraught conversations. My research led me to the following questions:

* What are teachers' linguistic strategies and tactics for handling race talk dilemmas that arise during the teaching of literature?

* What challenges do teachers confront while attempting to navigate these dilemmas? How do they attempt to resolve the challenges?

Race Talk Dilemmas in the Teaching of Literature

The novelist Toni Morrison (1992) noted some time ago that "in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse" (p. 9). Discursive silence and evasion can encode race without naming it, thereby circumventing debate. Morrison (1992) further observed that this "habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture" (pp. 9-10). More than two decades later, discourses about race remain problematic in literature, schools, and society. In everyday classroom interaction, teachers and students evaluate characterization, plot, setting, theme, authorial style, and the nature of story conflicts, empathizing with or critiquing characters' actions and comparing them with the choices they would have made (Juzwik, Borsheim-Black, Caughlan, & Heintz, 2013, p. 25), concomitantly developing social, cultural, and political attitudes in students alongside the teaching of reading and writing, and forming shared ethical positions around the most pressing contemporary issues (Christie, 1999; Christie & Macken-Horarik, 2007). Because this aspect of teaching literature is implicit rather than explicitly stated, race talk dilemmas may surface for teachers while they are engaged in literary instruction.

My definition of race talk dilemmas-moments in conversations about race that have the potential for conflict-is derived from educational anthropologist Mica Pollock (2004). …

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