Teaching English While White

By Jenna Chandler-Ward

 

Canon

Our stars weren't meant for
Their sky. We have never known
The same horizon.

         — Clint Smith

I recently went to a reading by Angie Thomas, author of the New York Times best-seller The Hate U Give. If you don’t know this young adult novel, it is about a black teenage girl, Starr Carter, who is caught between the poor neighborhood she lives in and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. Starr also finds herself in the middle of white police violence and witnesses the murder of a childhood friend. This breathtaking novel explores many aspects and complexities of American identity today. Thomas is also a brilliant speaker with tremendous, humor, humility, and grace.

When Thomas finished speaking about how and why she had written this novel, young people, mostly black and brown students, lined up to ask questions. One by one, they stepped up to the mic, thanked Thomas for her book, and said how much the novel had meant to them. I listened to some of the students say that they had never liked to read, or that they had never seen themselves on a page before, and that the experience of reading this novel had changed them. One student said, through tears, that she had never thought reading was for (black) girls like her, until she had read this book.

This kind of deeply felt response to literature should not be a surprise — especially to those of us who teach English. Many of us chose this profession because, somewhere along the line, we recognized the power of good writing to make us feel seen, understood, and human. The written word holds power, and we know this. Yet we also know that not all of our students can find themselves in our curriculum.

Watching student after student of color stand to speak about the effect Thomas’s novel had on them, it highlighted for me the reality that in too many schools — indeed, in most schools — we still haven’t developed any sense of clarity about what we mean by “diversifying the curriculum.” Often, when white teachers talk about varying the curriculum, we do it with a vague sense of helping “other” children to connect with reading, because we know that we should. Most of us stick close to the traditional, and very white, literary canon. When we add a book or a short story by an author of color to the curriculum, it is performative inclusion without a clear understanding of the literary value of these “extra” texts. In fact, we seem to believe that teaching outside of what we personally know comes at the expense of academic rigor — as if there is an objective standard of what is significant.

This is a problem not just because students of color are not seeing themselves reflected in the majority of books we teach in schools. It is also a problem because white students predominantly see their race and culture reflected in the majority of books we teach. What happens when you see yourself reflected at the center of every curriculum over the course of your precollegiate education? What is the effect of continuing to teach the canon to our white students? When we continue to center the white voice in the narratives we read, we don’t just signal to students of color that their personal and cultural experiences are less valuable than that of white students, we also reinforce a mentality of cultural superiority by letting our white students believe that white culture is what is worth knowing.

Teachers are more likely to teach the way and the books that they have been taught themselves. But by teaching books primarily by white authors about white experiences, we put whiteness at the center of our curriculum. By making writers of color adjunct, by ignoring their many and vast contributions, we also let students know that they are not missing anything by not reading these writers. There is no loss in remaining racially isolated and racially ignorant. We lose nothing by being versed in only one literary tradition that continues to be self-referential and builds on the previous “great novels” before its time.

Aside from being totally wrong, we are setting up our white students to continue to be self-referential and unable to look at literature with a truly critical eye. We are reinforcing and perpetuating white supremacy for the next generation of future white teachers and parents.

As  R.O. Kwon points out in her article, 34 Books by Women of Color to Read This Year, “It is easiest to forget the shared humanity of people whose lives we haven’t tried imagining.” When we continue to ignore much of the population by not bothering to imagine our shared humanity, we are growing the next generation of white supremacists. Not just white people perpetuating a white supremacist system, but also actual individual white supremacists who believe they are being discriminated against the moment they are asked to live in a just and fair society. The kind of white adults who are angry when they feel that someone else may get a small slice of what they enjoy. We need to support learning that promotes empathy, and neither deflates or inflates any students sense of belonging in the world. We need all students to enter adulthood with their full humanity and dignity in tact.

What should a teacher look for when picking a book? Here are some suggestions. It is certainly not a comprehensive list, but it’s a place to start. These apply to any grade level and can be applied to race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability, gender, class, or any other aspect of identity.

  1. Most important, the book should exemplify good storytelling. Aside from an interesting plot, the writing is accessible and addresses engaging and important cultural themes and ideas. If it directly deals with a social justice issue, it is not done in a condescending, “poor them” tone.
  2. The book should avoid offensive cultural expressions, negative attitudes, or stereotypical representations. Yes, I am talking about To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn, among other popular English class texts. Unless you are prepared to teach, with Herculean effort, all of the context and history and impact of the N word and demeaning racial stereotypes, you can find other engaging stories and novels that are not written by white authors and that will not racially spotlight or re-injure any students.
  3. Speaking of non-white authors — the author of the book should be from the depicted social group. This can be tricky at times, but in my opinion it is always better to find stories that have a leading character from the same social group as the author. Check the author’s bio for a description of the author’s connection to the group being represented.
  4. The story acknowledges the diversity of experiences within a particular cultural group. As novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us in her Ted Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, it is important to read stories and novels to reach beyond cultural stereotypes to deeply felt lives. Books should avoid the idea that all people of any social group share a singular experience. This is also important to consider across the scope of a curriculum. Do we only see Asian characters in wartime? Are black characters only ever dealing with oppression and adversity?
  5. There are no shortages of suggested multicultural reading lists, too, available through organizations like Common Sense Media and We Need Diverse Books, and through publications like the School Library Journal. The Inclusive Schools Network also offers resources on culturally diverse books worth teaching.

Yes, it takes time and effort to find appropriate texts by grade level that are written by historically underrepresented groups. But not taking the time boils down to irresponsible teaching today. Sticking with the literary canon means we not only have a one dimensional idea of literary merit, it also means we are dividing our students between those who feel unseen, disengaged, and frustrated and those who feel they are at the center of the literary universe. We can do better.

 

Jenna Chandler-Ward is the co-founder of Teaching While White and teaches English and drama at the Meadowbrook School of Weston (Massachusetts). She is also the co-director the Multicultural Teaching Institute.