"You Could Argue It Either Way": Ambivalent White Teacher Racial Identity and Teaching about Racism in Literature Study

By Borsheim-Black, Carlin | English Education, April 2018 | Go to article overview

"You Could Argue It Either Way": Ambivalent White Teacher Racial Identity and Teaching about Racism in Literature Study


Borsheim-Black, Carlin, English Education


Ms. Kinney1 brought the cartoon below into her ninth-grade English classroom during their study of A Raisin in the Sun. She teaches in a rural and predominantly White community located in close proximity to a larger, predominantly African American community; racism and segregation are relevant to their immediate context. She introduced the cartoon to open a discussion of contemporary racism to make the point that racism is not a thing of the past. The following exchange took place during a whole-group discussion after Ms. Kinney asked, "What is this cartoon saying?"

BRANDON: I'm pretty sure they're in blackface because of the gunpowder.

MS. KINNEY: Well, right, of course, but you could argue, "What is that saying?" It's because of the gunpowder, of course.

BRANDON: I know but like you can draw anything now and people will find a way to think that it's racist.

MS. KINNEY: Absolutely. You could look at this and argue that it's not racist because they're the ones who look like idiots. You could take it either way.

I open with this exchange because I find it both problematic and informative. It is problematic to the extent that the discussion perpetuates misconceptions about racism, suggesting that racism is a matter of interpretation attributed to people who are overly sensitive or too politically correct. But that analysis, which describes the ways racism circulates in classroom discussions of race, has been well-documented in existing scholarship. English education researchers have established that White teachers and students often reinforce racism despite expressed intentions of doing the opposite (e.g., Haviland, 2008; Lewis, Ketter & Fabos, 2001; McIntyre, 1997; Segall & Garrett, 2013; Thomas, 2015).

English education scholars have called for research that goes beyond the "gotcha" approach to analysis and strives to understand these types of instances in terms of the emotional or persuasive appeal of racist discourse (e.g., Trainor, 2008), constraints of institutional and curricular forces (e.g., Berchini, 2016; Borsheim-Black, 2015), or complex White racial identities (e.g., Johnson, 2013; Jupp & Slattery, 2010; Lensmire & Snaza, 2010; Mason, 2016). Building on this scholarship in this study, I strive to understand Ms. Kinney's sometimes contradictory pedagogy, especially as it relates to her White racial identity. Lensmire and Snaza (2010) suggest that surface contradictions-like Ms. Kinney initiating a discussion about racism and then shutting it down-might be understood as a reflection of a deeply conflicted, ambivalent White racial self. The purpose of examining ambivalence is not to let White people off the hook for racism or to make racist instances more palatable; rather, the purpose of this article is to understand how Ms. Kinney's complex White racial identity may have shaped and ultimately undermined her attempts to teach about racism, with the ultimate goal of contributing to the development of more productive antiracist pedagogies.

To that end, this article presents a case study of one White English teacher teaching about racism within literature study in a predominantly White context, guided by the question: How might White racial identity shape English teachers' purposes and practices for teaching about racism in literature study in a predominantly White context? Analysis of data from interviews, observations, and teaching artifacts collected before, during, and after a literature unit was informed by theories of White racial identities.

White Teacher Identity Studies

First-wave White teacher identity studies served to name ways that White teachers and students evade, resist, and subvert productive discussions about race and racism in teaching and learning, often despite the expressed intentions of doing the opposite (Jupp, Berry, & Lensmire, 2016). These first-wave studies were foundational for understanding White identities as race-evasive, a term that Jupp et al. …

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