Academic Exchange Quarterly    Winter    2004    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 8, Issue 4

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The Consequences of Getting it White


Jayne R. Beilke, Ball State University

Nancy J. Brooks, Ball State University

Benjamin H. Welsh, Ball State University


All three authors are former high school English teachers who now teach multicultural education. Beilke is an educational historian specializing in Black educational history.  Brooks explores connections between academic curriculum theory and K-12. Welsh is currently researching Earl Barnes and the birth of child study.




Drawing upon the literary theory of Toni Morrison and the work of White study scholars, the authors propose a theoretical approach to using the deconstruction of Whiteness to teach high school English. Demonstrating this approach with Faulkner’s short story,  “Barn Burning,” the authors propose it may help students overcome “superstitious race thinking,”  if teachers equip themselves with the knowledge of White identity development theory.



“No one is born White in America.” (Thandeka, 2000)


In the prelude to WWII, while the U.S. was preparing for battle against the two racist regimes of Germany and Japan and still denying its own government-sanctioned apartheid, Barzun (1937/1963) was at work deconstructing the very notion of race. In his preface to the 1963 edition of Race: A Study in Superstition, he dismisses what he calls “race-thinking” as inherently “superstitious” or, literally, “‘standing over’ the facts” (p. x). Race-thinking overlooks, first of all, that human beings defy simple categorization both biologically and culturally – that we are all, in effect, multicultural, if not multiracial. Secondly, he points out that what has been used to distinguish one “race” from another shifts across cultures and time, depending upon the agenda of the person using the term.


Nonetheless, in spite of these facts, superstitious race-thinking persists. People everywhere continue to believe that human beings can be categorized into separate races and that a person’s race can be easily discerned. Why? Perhaps it is because humans have a need for the “Other” – what Barzun (1937/1963) describes as “…the need to give body to vague hostility, to find excuses for what goes wrong, to fear aliens or neighbors and curse them, while enjoying self-approval from the shelter of one’s own group” (p. x). In White, middle class America, the Other is usually composed of “nonWhite” groups, such as Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. This Other is used to secure the dominant place of the White middle class in society, morally, culturally, and economically.


We believe that high school English teachers are uniquely poised to correct the superstitious race thinking of their students and to make them aware of the subtle mechanisms of White dominance. Following Toni Morrison, we suggest they can accomplish this by leading students to approach literary works as cultural artifacts that contain implicit messages about power, race, and dominance. Furthermore, we suggest students may treat their own self-generated narratives in the same way. We will conclude with a caveat, however, that such an effort is not without its potential pitfalls.


Getting It White

A beginning point for the approach we propose would be to examine literature through the lens of “Whiteness.” In her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison (1992) discusses ways in which the “Africanist” presence in United States fiction calls for a reinterpretation of the literary canon. By Africanist, Morrison is referring to “a nonWhite, Africanlike presence or persona and its imaginative uses” (p. 6). By her definition, Africanism in White literature functions as a lens for “the connotative and denotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people” (p. 6-7). In regard to the uses of Africanism in literature, Morrison suggests that by “othering” Africans (and African Americans), White writers essentially created a cultural hegemony by subjugating African Americans within White literature.  Morrison’s remedy, however, is not simply to exchange works by White authors for literature written by Black. Rather, she seeks to use literary criticism to expose the useful presence of Africanism in the writings of White authors. In so doing, she addresses not only the powerful absence of racial and ethnic minorities in literature, but also the hegemonic presence of Whiteness in the national narrative.


In order to further this critical agenda, Morrison proposes four topics of inquiry. First, what are the dynamics of Africanist self-reflexive properties? In other words, how does Africanism enable White writers to think about themselves?  Second, how is Africanism used to establish difference? Often done through the use of Black idiom or language practices, difference is attached to characters to signify otherness and provoke fear, class distinctions, self-loathing, and so forth. Third, how is Africanism used to enforce the construct and implications of Whiteness?  That is, how do certain characters account for the actions and beliefs of White characters (or to put it another way, how do Black characters act as a foil for Whites)? And finally, there is the question of the narrative itself: how does the story of Black enslavement contribute to a discourse on ethics, codes of behavior, civilization, and reason?


Morrison points to examples of the uses of Africanism in the works of several authors whose works are included in the United States literary canon. In The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Edgar Allan Poe employs Africanism to discuss the concept of space, specifically the borderlessness and emptiness suggested by the Western frontier.  In Huck Finn, Mark Twain not only distances Jim from White characters through the use of dialect, but by focusing the plot on Huck’s moral decision-making in respect to Jim.  Harriet Beecher Stowe peoples Uncle Tom’s Cabin with Black characters that illuminate the moral/immoral qualities of White characters like Mr. Shelby and Simon Legree. In the case of In the House of the Seven Gables, Morrison points out, Nathaniel Hawthorne “others”  Native Americans by simply banishing them from the narrative. He ignores the historical event of the Indian Removal Act by telling readers that Whites were the original occupants of New England and includes the Native American presence in the novel only as obscure and romantic myth.



To successfully dispel the bifurcation of White as normative and nonWhite as Other through the study of literature, students must be appropriately prepared on multiple levels, Morrison suggests. They must be taught to recognize how a nation’s cultural identities are represented by literature (see Powell, 2000). Students must also develop a sense of the socio-cultural, political, and historical contexts in which the work being examined was written and/or the period to which the work refers. Finally, they must be provided with opportunities to express themselves, explore their feelings, and examine their own identities through self-generated narratives.


While English teachers may be familiar with linking a single work of literature with the greater culture of the day, they may be less familiar with gathering contextual information relevant to understanding the operation of Whiteness within a work. Although such information can be gathered from biographies, historiographies and the like, we prefer to rely on primary source material in order to avoid giving the students the impression that there is one, ‘true’ interpretation of the past.  Involving our students with finding and interpreting primary source material also helps to accomplish this. Thus, in order to more fully appreciate what is not said about Native Americans in In the House of the Seven Gables, we would have students read and discuss the Indian Removal Act and contrast it with narrative by Native Americans from the period. Introducing secondary source material such as historiography written from the Native American and White European American points of view might further delineate the competing perspectives. Internet search engines such as makes such material easily accessible to anyone with internet access.


The tools of narrative inquiry are already familiar to us through the teacher-as-researcher paradigm. They include reflective journals, dialogue journals, autobiographies, biographies, case studies, ethnographic descriptions, and field notes. In the context of an English class confronting Whiteness, we propose that students be encouraged to use such narrative tools to enhance and deepen their understanding of the literature, their identities, and their world-views, in order to uncover the Others who populate their world-views. By obtaining glimpses into their own identities in this way, students are provided the opportunity to observe their own superstitious race-thinking and to deconstruct it.


As long as what is not mentioned in a work of literature is considered in an analysis, then virtually any work of literature could be analyzed through the lens of Whiteness. To our repeated disappointment, however, we have found that many of our students struggle with looking beyond the text (or ‘reading between the lines’) to that which is not stated.  Consequently, we would avoid beginning a literary journey into Whiteness with In the House of the Seven Gables, no matter how potentially profound its lesson. Instead, we prefer to start with literature in which ‘otherness’ is in evidence, such as Huck Finn. Southern fiction, in general, and the work of William Faulkner, in particular, provides us with a wide array of possibilities. And it is “Barn Burning,” a short story by William Faulkner (1939/1977), to which we turn for our extended example of using literature to deconstruct Whiteness.


“Barn Burning”

“Barn Burning” is a remarkably well-crafted story about the Snopeses, a destitute White sharecropper family in the post-Civil War South. The title refers to the way that Abner Snopes, the male head of the Snopes household, handles conflict with the landowners for whom he works. Whenever Abner feels threatened by the landowners, even if the conflict is of Abner’s own making, Abner burns their barn and moves to the next town. The story is told through the eyes of Abner’s youngest son, Colonel Sartoris Snopes (named after a local Civil War hero) in a limited dialect that befits the boy’s locale, his lack of schooling, and his child-level perception of the dilemma imposed upon him by his father. Colonel Sartoris is torn between his sense of right and his father’s arson that he considers wrong. In the end Colonel Sartoris’ sense of right wins out.


By looking at Abner Snopes through the lens of Whiteness, we see an extremely poor White man struggling for survival, on one hand, and dignity, on the other, in a world turned upside down by ‘someone else’s war.Abner did not fight in the Civil War nor does he appear to have believed in the cause of either side. Nonetheless, he finds himself an economic casualty of it. Without property of his own, Abner must beg for work from White landowners. His humiliation is intensified by the fact that he must go through the former slaves who answer the door to get to the landowner. Where plantation owners retained their land and former slaves retained their jobs as paid servants, Abner and people like him lost everything and had to scrounge for minimum subsistence. “Barn Burning” reminds us that, although the South was the ‘official’ loser of the war, the (mostly White) landless poor and working poor that shared Abner’s socio-economic status were perhaps the real losers. Abner had been rendered penniless by circumstances beyond his control. As a result, he seethed with bitterness and rage, like a wild animal caught in a cage, lashing out at “others” with violence and blame. And it is in Abner’s bitterness and rage that we see the genesis of the thinking that spawned institutions such as the Ku Klux Klan and the racism (and ‘reverse’ racism) that now pervades the United States.


To lead our students to such an interpretation of “Barn Burning,” we would begin by having them read the short story to develop empathy for Abner. While Colonel Sartoris is undoubtedly an important character, he is confused. Like so many of us, Colonel Sartoris is trying to set his moral compass in a world that, at times, seems filled with hate that he does not fully understand. In contrast, Abner’s character offers us the opportunity to move closer to an explanation for that hate by unpacking the Civil War Reconstruction and its impact on poor and working poor Whites. This is a part of U.S. history that is regularly overlooked or underplayed—a part of history that appears to have left an indelible mark on the emotional terrain of the United States. Accordingly, we would have our students locate the laws that allowed the plantation owners to keep their land and to find out what actually happened to Southern currency under the Johnson administration. Also, we would have them look at the justifications for the Jim Crow laws and the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan. Finally, we would have them look at the legacy of the Reconstruction period by asking hard-hitting questions such as “To what extent do the racial and economic issues left unresolved by Reconstruction shape socio-political and economic realities of today?”  and “How can Abner’s story help us to better understand the racism found in our own families?” The tools of narrative inquiry (listed above) could be incorporated throughout to deepen students’ understanding of their own perspectives and deconstruct them.


Taking this type of approach to literature is not without its risks, however. Solloway and Brooks (2004) illustrate how asking some students to mine their own reading responses for new understandings about personal and cultural issues is too threatening for them and can result in the phenomenon that Howard (1999) refers to as “reintegration” or “retrenchment” (p. 91). As Britzman (1998) notes, for some students the “difficult knowledge” inherent in facing one’s racism may be acted out as a “passion for ignorance” (p. 57). Attempting, then, to make students aware of Whiteness and its role in their personal and cultural existence should not be undertaken without an understanding of the possible consequences of success.

“Truth” and Consequences

Teaching a group of young people is always a tightrope walk. For instance, the teacher must strive to generate student interest in the material, but not “entertain” so much as to distract students from their own engagement with it. Challenging students of varying skill levels without discouraging them is another such balancing act. Indeed, a teacher’s every move comes with a need to find a balancing-point, like a tightrope walker’s careful steps out onto a tightrope. But, unlike the tightrope walker whose steps are influenced by physical factors such as the width or tension of the rope, steps out onto the tightrope of teaching are delimited in part by the norms and expectations of multiple constituents, including students, parents, administration, and government. In the U.S., at least, many of these norms and expectations are rooted in what Kincheloe (1993) calls the “one-truth epistemology”(p. 3).


Under the one-truth epistemology, knowledge is decontextualized and essentialized into “information.” Information is presented as fact and learners are given the false impression that there is only one right answer to any given question and that that answer is “truth.” Familiar norms that support the one-truth epistemology range from standardized tests (such as those fostered by the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act) to “participation credit” for “correctly” answering a question asked in class. The study of Whiteness directly challenges the one-truth epistemology by acknowledging that a given cultural artifact, such as a literary work, cannot be boiled down to single a set of “facts.” Indeed, White study scholars would argue that one cannot begin to appreciate a cultural artifact until multiple contexts (which lead to multiple interpretations), including the Whiteness context, have first been explored (see Fine, Powell, Weis, & Wong, 1996; Kincheloe, Steinberg, Rodriguez, & Chennault, 1998). When using Whiteness as a teaching tool, truth is neither absolute, as in “one right answer,” nor completely relative, as in “it’s an opinion therefore it must be true.” Rather, it is multifaceted and dialogic. Alternative interpretations of the same evidence are encouraged. Through comparing different interpretations, class members move closer to a truth that honors both their own understandings and the understandings of others. As Bakhtin (1984) proposes, “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (p. 6-7)


Ellsworth (1997) points out that such a postmodern approach to text is far easier said than done. She suggests that the Whiteness perspective could be particularly problematic for the unprepared student-reader because the introduction of race and dominance into an interpretation politicizes and personalizes it simultaneously. Thus, when a teacher confronts Whiteness in her classroom she must be aware that she is doing much more than offering a “multicultural” approach to subject matter. She is challenging a belief system that is deeply etched into the U.S. educational (and cultural) landscape, in part because it is used to perpetuate White dominance itself (see Kincheloe, 1993; see also Howard, 1999). Thus, when the teacher/tightrope-walker confronts Whiteness she is no longer practicing her craft under the big top with a safety net. Instead, she is stepping out onto a rope suspended between two buildings ten-stories up above the traffic. And the wind has started to blow.


The wind in this analogy represents feelings and emotions. While a teacher might be able to get away with ignoring feelings and emotions when approaching material from the one-truth perspective, she does so at her peril when introducing Whiteness. Whiteness should be considered a fundamental part of everyone’s identity, because middle-class White culture tends to be the standard against which “deviance” is determined (Howard, 1999). For a teacher to confront Whiteness, then, is to risk being perceived as affiliated with the Other (or, in some cases, “the enemy”) and a direct threat to the students’ sense of self (or the self to which they aspire), potentially triggering strong feelings of anger, resentment, or worse. To prepare for the more dangerous tightrope walk, then, we suggest a teacher familiarize herself with identity development in general, and White identity development in particular, and the possible consequences of getting it right.


Learning to be White: Money, Race, and God in America opens with the following statement: “No one is born White in America” (Thandeka, 2000, p. vii). It reminds us that White identity formation is more of an enculturation process than a skin color. The book is devoted to describing the sorts of experiences that result in a White identity. Howard (1999) tells a more personal story in We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know, describing his journey from a “colorblind” middle-class White person, unable to see his own privilege, to a state of intercultural competence and a commitment to eliminating injustice and racism. The discussion of White identity development that ends Howard’s book suggests that others who consider themselves White might move through a similar series of stages when confronted with the legacy of Whiteness.  


In the first stage – Contact – a person may discover his or her Whiteness, often through experiencing some type of “wake-up call,” personally or vicariously (perhaps through literature). This stage is followed by Disintegration, a period of questioning (and often feeling guilty about) one’s Whiteness., Finally, after a period of discomfort and probably a number of failed attempts at intercultural competence, one may reach the stage of Autonomy by developing a thoroughly transformed, diversity-affirming identity. Here, the person is able and motivated to work deliberately to challenge oppression in both self and others. However, what is of particular relevance in classrooms is that not everyone who enters the Contact stage reaches the Autonomy stage. Some resolve the uncomfortable feelings stirred up by the initial confrontation with Whiteness by entering the Reintegration stage. Reintegration is characterized by “… regression to previously held prejudices and the reassertion of racist beliefs” (Howard, 1999, p. 91).


What should teachers do with students who appear to be entering reintegration? Obviously, the problem is complex and there is no magic wand to wave. As a first step toward being prepared for the situation teachers will need to familiarize themselves with identity development and also accept the need for perpetually examining and re-examining themselves and their own identities. Second, teachers must embrace the irony that the more successfully they deconstruct Whiteness in their classrooms, the more likely they will trigger reintegration in at least a few of their students. Consequently, blaming or judging (themselves or the student) or lowering the grade of the student for racist views would actually be counterproductive and must be resisted. Finally, teachers may use the tools of narrative inquiry in a respectful, dialogic, and non-judgmental manner to cultivate trust, recognizing that some students might move through the stage over the course of a semester or a year, while others may not.


We continue in both theory and practice to search for the perfect approach to helping students shed superstitious race thinking. Unfortunately, for now we find that the presence of reintegration in some students may be one of the unintended consequences of “Getting it White.”



Barzun, J. (1963). Race: A study in superstition. New York: Harper & Row. (Original work published 1937)

Bakhtin, M. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Britzman, D. P. (1998). Lost subjects, contested objects: Toward a psychoanalytic inquiry of learning. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Faulkner, W. (1977). Barn burning.  Collected stories. New York, NY: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1939).

Fine, M., Powell, L. C., Weis, L., & Wong, L. M. (1996). Off White: Readings on race, power, and society. New York: Routledge.

Howard, G. (1999). We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers, multiracial schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kincheloe, J. L., Steinberg, S. R., Rodriguez, N. M., Chennault, R. E. (1998). White reign: Deploying Whiteness in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Kincheloe, J. L. (1993). Toward a critical politics of teacher thinking. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.

Morrison, T. (1992). Playing in the dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination. New York: Random House

Powell, T. B. (2000). Ruthless democracy: A multicultural interpretation of the American Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Solloway, S. G., & Brooks, N. J. (2004).  Philosophical hermeneutics and assessment: Discussions of assessment for the sake of wholeness. Journal of Thought, 39(2), 43-60.

Thandeka. (2000). Learning to be White: Money, Race, and God in America. New York: Continuum International.