race, whiteness, and anti-racism

Once intensive discussions of race, racism, and the social structures that perpetuate racism break out in your school, it can be a bit meaningless to concentrate on anything else.  I want to live and teach in a society, place, and community where people are striving for equality through explicitly anti-racist conversations, readings, and teaching.  And I'm beginning to think that white folks who intend to be anti-racist have a kind of endless "coming out" to do, because it is not at all visibly obvious which white people want to strive to overcome racism (internally and socially) and which are unconscious of their privilege.  On the one hand, coming out as gay or lesbian puts you in a state of vulnerability that "coming out" as anti-racist probably does not.  On the other hand, in a group of white people who are struggling with some of these ideas, revealing one's own anti-racist intentions and proposed actions may result in quick, defensive critiques from others who have benefited unconsciously from white priviledge.

Things I've read lately related to this include:

--Christine Pawley "Unequal Legacies:  Race and Multiculturalism in the LIS Curriculum" from Library Quarterly vol 76 no 2, pp. 149-168
Pawley's argument that the more comfortable topic of "diversity" is often used to obscure issues directly related to the less comfortable issue of "race" concludes with a call to arms for reexamining LIS curricula.  That is the space in which I find myself currently, as an LIS professor who teaches predominately in the area of youth services.

--Marilyn Frye "White Woman Feminist" from Willful Virgin:  Essays in Feminism (The Crossing Press, 1992)
Frye argues that "whiteliness" can be dismantled and avoided, much like "masculinity" as a privilege can be abandoned by men and "femininity" can be abandoned by women.  While intriguing, I found this argument full of mental acrobatics that suggest that such abandonments are intensive activities that actually deconstruct our own ways of being.  While I'm interested in this, I've seen too many women, people of color, and students in general subscribe to confidence-destroying self-examination activities that lack that quality of risk-taking and action that are so key to life-long learning.

--Gregory Jay, "Introduction to Whiteness Studies" https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/gjay/www/Whiteness/introwhite.htm
Like Pawley, Jay offers that the idea of "whiteness" stems from efforts to rethink "celebratory multiculturalism" in favor of "critical multiculturalism."  Celebrating difference, again, is not enough.  And yet Jay attempts to move the white reader beyond fear or defensiveness:  "Whiteness Studies is not an attack on people, whatever their skin color."  Jay goes on to talk about the historical appearance of the term "white" as a legal and social term that "determined who could vote, who could be enslaved, who could be a citizen, who could attend which schools and churches, who could marry whom, and who could drink from what water fountain."   

--Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Fegan, The First R:  How Children Learn Race and Racism
Much more to read in this book, but the gist is that, if children were "colorblind" and somehow nobly impervious to racism, racism itself would die out in a generation.  The authors demonstrate that even very young children are not only aware of race but will actually use racial epithets.  Adults look outside to see where this was learned *from,* and so fail to see the real causes.  More reading TBA.

--Karen Coates "Blinded by the White:  The Responsibilities of Race," chpt six in Looking Glasses and Neverlands:  Lacan, Desire, and Subjectivity in Children's Literature (Univ of Iowa Press, 2004)
Two folks I've been teaching lately have been using and referring to Coates, so I thought I'd refresh myself on this text.  Coates looks at how "whiteness" functions as a "master signifier," but also at how naming and thinking about that signifier destabilizes its power:  "When Whiteness itself is opened to interrogation and theorization, when it is revealed to be historically and culturally grounded in specific qualities, then it can be mobilized as one signifier among many rather than the unconscious support of a racist cultural system."  (p. 126)  I like the critical theory optimist of being able to get out of social binds via careful, thoughtful use of language, but I do remain a bit skeptical.  Destabilizing signifiers has its limits!


Aside from reading, things I've done in response to the ideas circulating at GSLIS include:

--Talking about the topic of race (which came up in a town hall meeting) in the storytelling class with the students, and making some space to listen
--Offering to teach a new course on Local to Global Intersections in Library and Information Science, with the help of a syllabus that a group of master's students drafted as suggested by the GSLIS Curriculum Committee
--Reviewing my own syllabi and working toward changing about 5-7of the 35 books I'll require for my fall course in Fantasy Literature and Media for Youth
--Locating sources about race, anti-racism, and work with urban youth for the new course 490YS
--Participating in three sessions of the May 5 day-long meetings in response to the Town Hall

Previews of coming reading attractions: