What's Whiteness got to do with it?

by Sue Shore

Exploring assumptions about cultural difference and everyday literacy practices

In recent times adult literacy practitioners and researchers have promoted the idea of literacy as a social practice. This view moves beyond simplistic understandings of literacy as a functional skill, or indeed something people don’t have, to views which encourage research and teaching based on the ways in which learners (and indeed practitioners) might use literacy as part of their every day lives. This view of literacy takes account of the cultural practices, local contexts and historical patterns shaping literacy use and, in my view, is an improvement on functional approaches. Nevertheless, this approach has its own assumptions which subtly shape what counts as literacy practice.

In this paper I want to talk about how Whiteness, as an example of ‘cultural difference’, is often ignored in analyses of every day literacy practices. Given the admittedly contested claim that improving literacy skills improves opportunities for adult literacy learners I want to ask how literacy teaching might be influenced by the relationship between daily life, every day literacies and the concept of Whiteness.

At this particular time in Australian history, this is risky business as my own interests in the pedagogies and practices of Whiteness may well get caught up with the parallel developments currently sweeping the nation. I am referring to developments mirrored in our political system and in particular the rise of One Nation as a political party. Unlike the rhetoric employed by One Nation members and leaders I do not want to foreground the [supposed] problems created by non-white people in Australia. I want to challenge the assumption that White people are not part of these problems.

I want to put notions of difference and diversity on the agenda because they are fraught with complexity and also because they are inescapably associated with literacy teaching.

Unlike some versions of multiculturalism which implicitly suggest a harmonious working through difference, I want to suggest that difference can be a positive force for social change only if those of us who identify as White acknowledge that this is a difference in itself; a dif ference which amasses significant amounts of privilege and must be understood and acknowledged as having differential effects depending on the context.

My work and thinking (my practice in a university) has been influenced by feminist writers and nonwhite women who know that celebrating diversity can be hard work for those always positioned as the diverse, the different. These writers (see for example Ang, 1995; Razack, 1993) know that working across difference doesn’t result in neat solutions. Rather, this work constitutes an ongoing process of change in which we all have a part to play.

So, in contrast to some of the positions outlined above, I want to put notions of difference and diversity on the agenda because they are fraught with complexity and also because they are inescapably associated with literacy teaching. More importantly, I want to raise these issues because I rarely hear terms such as difference and diversity used in relation to those folk who identify as White.

Perspectives on literacy practice

In the early days of adult literacy teaching, practitioners were encouraged to use language experience, a method that attempted to ensure that students’ experiences were reflected in classroom writing. I was among those who used this approach and actively promoted it as a viable way of working with new or ‘reluctant learners’ as some of us called them in those days. This method produced texts that were generally relevant to students’ lives, and at the same time provided an entry point for (volunteer) tutors uncertain about their capacity to teach reading. These language experience practices attempted to ‘give’ a legitimate literate voice to the social world inhabited by students in these early classes and this theme of ‘giving voice’ continues in much of the research, teaching and policy documentation of literacy work today.

In more recent times, it has been common to talk of literacy as social practice, that is, literacy that is “almost always fully integrated with, interwoven into, constituted part of, the very texture of wider practices that involve talk, interaction, values, and beliefs” (Gee p. 41). As James Gee has said, “You can no more cut the literacy out of the overall social practice, than you can abstract the white squares from a chess board and still have a chess board.”1

By taking a perspective which sees literacy as a social practice, texts of different kinds – papers, maps, forms, films, even bodies – for we do ‘read’ bodies – serve as a ‘text’ or point of engagement between the word and the world.

Moreover what critical literacy work has shown is that this process of literacy as social practice is not a reflection of learner’s experience unless networks of power are examined as part of the process. Therefore critical social literacy must engage with networks of power. It “makes explicit and overt the social relations of power around the text, and places squarely on the table for learners the issues of who is trying to do what, to whom, with and through the text” (Luke & Freebody p. 20, italics added). But this agenda also reflects an assumption that educators will already know what social relations of power are possible within the text and furthermore that they will be able to ‘see’ these relations of power and act on them.

Making Whiteness visible

I have had a lot of faith in critical social literacy practice in the past, and still do, but more and more I believe that we – particularly those of us who think of ourselves as a White ‘we’ – do not ‘see’ or experience power relations within the same event in quite the same way as non-white people. Our histories, our schooling, our friendships, our personal and professional practices, our private spaces, do not prepare us for seeing the world through the hearts, bodies and minds of Others. In fact, I think it is questionable whether it is possible to ever fully understand from the Others’ perspective. This is a view of the world advanced by liberal educators which is underpinned by Western rationalism, a view that actively encourages the belief that we White people can in fact know the Other.

I want to shift the focus away from common understandings of diversity and difference. I want to ask how common framings of literacy as a social practice ‘forget’ that dominant discourse in adult literacy education is deeply structured and framed by White Western understandings of textual and social practice. Yet these understandings are not always visible to those of us (White folk) who take them for granted.

I want to ask how common framings of literacy as a social practice “forget” that dominant discourse in adult literacy education is deeply structured and framed by White Western understandings of textual and social practice.

I want to suggest that particular forms of Whiteness saturate the social and cultural forms of literacy we use and that this may often have an oppressive effect that those of us who are White take for granted and either ignore or simply do not notice as oppressive. It is also true to say that White practice doesn’t have to be oppressive always. White educators have little control over the effects of particular practices, nevertheless this should not be a reason for us to make no effort to understand the effects of our Whiteness on our pedagogy.

If the same experience of literacy is lived differently by different people, on the street and in the classroom, using the terminology of literacy as a social practice is misleading if it encourages us to think that the effects of these practices are the same on all bodies.

Critical social literacies involve understanding the kind of knowledge(s) available for use but more than this these literacies also assume that we understand what is required to participate in literacy events. Many advocates of critical social literacy propose that we need to be able to draw on literate practices at the very same time as we are aware that these practices are but one means by which we can communicate. The critical in critical social literacy is about knowing how knowledges are used at the same time as we make choices about whether it is strategic to contest those knowledges. Moreover in terms of thinking about Whiteness and its impact on pedagogy, the ‘critical’ in ‘critical social literacy’ is about knowing when and how those of us who might identify as White, unwittingly use language to reinforce our White social privilege.

The key point I want to make today is that what I call ‘White’ knowledge frames much of what is valued in the world, but nailing down the specificity of White knowledge is difficult, particularly where discourses of Whiteness collude with discourses of dominance, and ‘the mainstream’.

I have found that moving outside adult literacy and adult education literature there is a wealth of writing about what constitutes the White body. Many of us who are White, and even those who would not identify as White, often think of Whiteness as skin colour. However this is only one way of representing Whiteness.

What is Whiteness?

For Ruth Frankenberg, Whiteness is

A location of structural advantage of race privilege... a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed.

from The social construction of Whiteness: White women, race matters. London & New York: Routledge (1993).

A useful introduction to this perspective is included in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, by Peggy McIntosh. She says,

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.

“White Privilege” is excerpted from Working Paper 189-- “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women's Studies” (1988), available for $4.00 from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley MA 02181 USA

An Aboriginal perspective

Aileen Moreton-Robinson, a Keonpul woman from Quandmooka (Moreton Bay), Australia, reminds us

...most white people give little or no thought to the way that Whiteness makes its presence felt, or how stressful it can be for Indigenous women, men and children living in their country controlled by white people... White race privilege means white people have more lifestyle choices available to them because they are ‘mainstream’. Belonging to the ‘mainstream’ means white people can choose whether or not they wish to bother themselves with the opinions or concerns of Indigenous people.

from Moreton-Robinson, Aileen (1998). “White race privilege: Nullifying Native Title”. Bringing Australia Together. The structure and experience of racism in Australia. Woolloongabba: Foundation for Aboriginal & Islander Research Action. 39-44.

Patti de Rosa thinks of Whiteness as three things: the description; “those who are light-skinned with Western European physical features; the experience (in the US) of unearned privileges: and the ideology representing a system of exploitation based on White supremacy” (de Rosa cited in Thompson p. 357). Authors who cite de Rosa’s work note that these three categories do not necessarily provide sharp clarity given that “White people are symbols and individuals at the same time” (Ibid). That is, we act as individuals but we are also influenced by the long and complex history of ideas associated with our (White) cultures. Whiteness is complex and not readily conflated to an homogenized self. However, many writers also remind us that Whites as a group still receive many benefits through a range of “universalised measures of merit, hiring criteria, grading standards, predictors of success, correct grammar, appropriate behaviour, and so forth, all of which are said to be distributed as differences in individual effort, ability, or intelligence” (Scheurich p. 7).

A quite well-known paper by Peggy McIntosh (1988) chronicles the ways in which McIntosh believes her white skin gives her privilege in every day ways. I don’t want these descriptions to seem like some shopping list, where we can move down the aisle checking the boxes to see if we are a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ White person, because I believe Whiteness as ideology and experience must accompany whiteness as description. That is, we have to understand how our Whiteness is bound up in what we think and do, and how we are formed historically, as much as who we are individually.

Peggy McIntosh provides some help here. She suggests conventional schooling

gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor… I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will…When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilisation” I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is… I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial… My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.

In the Australian education settings in which I have worked over the past twenty years it has been possible for me to sit in curriculum meetings and not comment when racist or incorrect comments are made about indigenous people or people from various parts of Asia. I can choose to be quiet when white ethnicity is accepted as natural and unproblematic. I would suggest, though, that many educators are ready to explore these issues and focus on the White self as distinct from the Other as a strategy for understanding the ways in which we too are part of the problem when Whiteness is ignored or avoided in discussions of difference. The complex of factors making up White background is slippery. As McIntosh says :

White privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country… as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made inconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. (McIntosh p. 9,12)

McIntosh also suggests that the notion of privilege needs to be interrogated from the point of view of the psychic loss engendered by those Whites who recognize what it is that we lose when we subscribe to oppressive and narrow conceptions of identity which favour White superiority. Many indigenous women in Australia have also spoken of this loss. Lillian Holt (p. 7) describes the processes of formal schooling as “the check-up from the neck up” – a process which usually manages to dodge talk of spirit and soul.

Thinking about Whiteness and its impact on pedagogy is about knowing when and how those of us who might identify as White unwittingly use language to reinforce our White social privilege.

While McIntosh points out that White privilege takes a number of forms, her list subtly reinscribes forms of privilege which only White people would count as advantage. She eventually rejects the word ‘privilege’ as being woefully inadequate to describe the unearned resources which many White people accumulate but fails to fully recognise that her “brutally honest” (Hurtado & Stewart p. 305) list of White privileges comes from a comparison of the White self and the lack or deficits she implicitly reinscribes on the Other. The slippage in McIntosh’s writing reminds me that those of us who identify as White and who want to explore these issues, need to persistently rethink how we might unwittingly reinscribe the White centre in our efforts to think differently about culture and diversity.

There are numerous examples of this which occur daily as social literacy practices. For example, culture is often seen as something for others; Whiteness is rarely identified explicitly with culture, but is often implicitly assumed to be the centre, that place where everything happens.

Richard Dyer suggests:

The absence of reference to Whiteness in the habitual speech and writing of White people in the West... The assumption that White people are just people… is endemic to White culture... [t]here is no more powerful position than that of being ‘just’ human. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity. Raced people can’t do that – they can only speak for their race. (Dyer p. 2)

Two things in fact are happening here. Dyer suggests that not only is Whiteness ubiquitous, “ every where and nowhere”, it is also non-raced. In adopting this position of a non-race, White people and Whiteness frame what counts. The effects of this discourse range from generic use of the term ‘we’ to mean ‘White’ (Bannerji), to purportedly innocent questions (or indeed angry abuse) about one’s roots. See, for example Ien Ang’s work which draws on the persistent need felt by ‘mainstream’ people in Australia to categorise apparently non-White Anglo citizens as migrants who receive differential levels of welcome. In a similar vein, Yee’s work in Canada draws attention to the need by Anglos to sheet home [or secure ly locate] ethnic (Other) origins to some distant, foreign place; “the forces of racism that always keep [her] asking questions of identity, belonging, place and voice” (Yee p. 4).

Media debate in Australia in recent times has done little to provide a space to talk about the links between social practices and racism, except in terms of blaming or demonising the Other as the usurper of jobs and futures for (White) children. This type of media politics currently growing in response to the race debate in Australia builds a space of fear, silence or resentment. It does little to engender a discursive field which might move debate beyond simplistic notions of a benign multicultural Australian identity.

1 When I first read this quote I was intrigued that Gee had chosen the impossibility of removing the White squares. I wondered what kind of world would be needed to posit removal of black squares as an unimaginable condition.

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