How White Bias Becomes Institutionalized in Literature Classes: An Introduction

“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”
—Squire Bill Widener (although usually attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt, who quoted Widener in his 1913 Autobiography)

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
—Arthur Ashe (first African American tennis player selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only black man to win the singles title at the US Open, Wimbledon, and the Australian Open)

Yesterday (Thursday, June 4), there was an editorial in The Washington Post by Condoleezza Rice, who was the National Security Officer (first woman in that position ever) and then Secretary of State (first African American woman in that position) under Republican President George W. Bush. In that editorial Rice, who grew up in segregated Jim Crow Alabama, issued a call to action to turn our temporary outrage over recent killings by police into long-term change. She ended her piece with this question:

So I ask my fellow Americans: What will each of you do? My personal passion is educational opportunity, because it is a partial shield against prejudice. It is not a perfect shield, I know, but it gives people a fighting chance. In my conversations, I want to discuss why the learning gap for black kids is so stubborn and what can be done about it. What is your question about the impact of race on the lives of Americans? And what will you do to find answers?

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/04/condoleezza-rice-moment-confront-race-america/

This is part of my response to the bipartisan call to action issued by many of our nation’s greatest leaders.

One of the truisms of teaching writing is to instruct our students to “write what you know.”  While I’ve been an educator for 30 years and have taught many, many, MANY things (I was a homeschooling mom and leader in our local homeschool group, not to mention a long-time Sunday School teacher), for the past 7 years my focus has been teaching group literature classes to homeschool middle school and high school students.  

I believe teaching is a great public service that is not adequately compensated financially by the public for the impact its has on our future—our children.  I believe most people go into teaching because they love people, especially children, and want to make the world a better place.  There have been, and there continue to be, teachers who are prejudiced against some people for the color of their skin, for their religion, for their gender or sexual orientation, or other factors.  But I believe that is not true for most teachers.  Most of us want to make a positive difference in the lives of our students, regardless of things like race or religion.

Still, looking honestly, I can see that in US high school literature classes, there is a bias towards teaching books written by white people, particularly male American white authors.  I don’t believe it is intentionally racist.  However, I want to explore over the next few blog posts how this bias can get institutionalized.

I do this not just to talk about literature classes.  I want to show that curriculum development is a complex matter, but I still hope we can change things to be more broadly inclusive.  But I also offer it as an example for all of us to look at how maybe not racism–as we perceive it–but bias is built into the systems of whatever arena we are engaged in: medicine, finance, sports, retail, whatever.

I offer this as my small way of helping us all to move towards the America that lives up to our foundational documents that promise liberty, justice, freedom, and equality for all.

I also offer this caveat:  this is my personal assessment of my profession.  This is not, by any means, “the truth;” it is my perception.  That means it is the perception of someone who teaches homeschoolers and who is not bound by all the regulations of a public or private school teacher.  It is also informed by my studies in the School of Education at George Washington University, where I got my Masters degree in Education. This is my interpretation, but I don’t assume to speak for all educators.

Finally, I think we need to look at these things honestly, but with compassion towards all, including ourselves.  The whole idea of white privilege is that it is something that those of us who are white were born into and may be not even be aware of the ways we have benefitted from those things.  It is like the old story about asking the goldfish how the water is, and the goldfish replies, “What’s water?”  Only when the goldfish is removed from the goldfish bowl does it realize that water exists.

I think we want to raise awareness without producing guilt.  Feeling bad about ourselves or our past doesn’t help create a better future. But learning about and understanding our benefits and realizing those aren’t available to everyone can empower us to work towards extending those benefits towards all.  That is my intention in these posts.

So to see that we can pursue this intent with gentleness, forgiveness, and humor, I give you this post:

Oh, and by the way…just to finish the goldfish story…

I’m not a goldfish, but I’m assuming that it is scary and uncomfortable for a goldfish to leave its bowl and to discover that water is not everywhere.  But if the goldfish makes it successfully to a pond, it can develop from being that little two-inch goldfish, whose growth was stunted by the tiny bowl, into a two-foot long goldfish.  I think the lesson is that this may be a hard time for all of us, and the process of getting from here to where we want to be will be difficult. However, if we navigate it properly, we all—white and whatever other shade you can imagine—will be bigger, better people for it.

That is the vision I am holding as I write these posts.

Come back tomorrow to read about what I think is the first factor that institutionalizes white bias in literature studies.


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