Hurtado and Stewart (p. 299) in fact connect these notions of loss and resentment for the Other to the deeply discomforting, and I would suggest largely unrecognized, processes by which some of us actually do discover our Whiteness, and thus come to see that we do have colour. This awareness occurs precisely through the loss of privileges (often through loss of jobs) which are so much an assumed part of being White. This loss of privilege is deeply embedded in the precarious political economies of Western states in the 1990s where by many White people have lost the relative financial security afforded the working and middle class as a result of these unstable political economies and are faced, often for the first time, with the realization that we can no longer assume access to employment as a right. Popular political and social discourses of the times provide no way to speak into existence the complexities of these issues and therefore many people in these positions do not come to the realization that their resentment is in part due to a sense of loss of our White privilege.

Nailing down the specificity of White knowledge is difficult,
particularly where discourses of Whiteness collude with
discourses of dominance and ‘the mainstream’.

What can literacy researchers and educators do?

In the early days of working through these ideas about Whiteness it was suggested to me that I needed to be careful about asking (White) practitioners, researchers and academics to challenge the privilege of their own positions when so many in this marginal field of practice – or indeed the marginal field of studies within universities – were feeling so done over by bureaucracies, so overworked, undervalued, exploited and stretched to the limit. It was suggested that I needed to be careful that my work was not used as a tool against educators, while structural reform was ignored. I understand this concern that my suggestions may be viewed as yet another way of telling teachers or researchers that their practices are the problem; teachers have got it wrong; once again individual educators must be responsible for addressing the deep and systematic wrongs in the world – and all of this is to be done while institutions manage to avoid providing the necessary resources to support the work which needs to be done to promote change in students’ lives.

Yet I maintain that ‘thinking through’ whiteness (Frankenberg) is both a personal and political/structural issue. It is not just about being white (skinned), it is about White ideologies that have the power to discipline and regulate both white and non-white bodies to ‘know’ what social practices will count as legitimate literacies; it is about the very structures that make up most of the institutions (in public provision, workplaces and community settings) for which many of us work.

It has become clear to me that there is a rich heritage of adult literacy writing which borrows heavily from the field of adult learning, commonly citing ‘adult learning principles’ as a key source of theory to inform pedagogy. I think we have to acknowledge that much of this work erases issues of colour and diversity by using terms such as ‘us’ and ‘them’, terms which then proceed to mark implicit (White) standards for actual social practice.

What I am suggesting is a process of reading and writing against a grain which posits White as the norm; a process which makes us rethink our relationship, not only to our (white) selves but to our (White) histories as well. So what would this require us to do ‘in the flesh’?

First I think this requires that those of us who identify as White think of ourselves as having culture and ethnicity and that this culture may have effects not of our choosing; that is the effects are at times experienced by Others as oppressive, whether we mean them to be or not.

Whiteness is rarely identified explicitly with culture, but is often implicitly assumed to be the centre, that place where everything happens.

Given the mainstream resistance to taking adult literacy seriously in some academic and training circles, it has been understandable for some of us to talk of ‘a field’ and ‘the field’. This has served as a useful device to promote the concept of unity and coherence across an emerging area of work which in practice maintains an uneasy alliance across many divisions – for example ESL, numeracy, indigenous programs, genre theory, whole language, critical literacy, feminist practice and so on. However, this way of speaking has erased some of the specificity of diversity within the field and I want to suggest another aspect of difference it has obscured. I want to suggest that using the term ‘we’ to create a sense of coherence and unity has resulted in a linguistic and social practice which assumes a white subject (practitioner, learner, bureaucrat or researcher) at the centre of much discourse and ignores the exclusions this attempt at linguistic inclusivity generates.

I think there are a number of strategies researchers and educators can adopt to move beyond this form of colour blindness but most of these strategies require first and foremost that those of us who identify as White become more responsible for understanding and acknowledging the ‘invisible knapsack’ of differential privilege we carry with us every day.

As Donna Haraway has noted, this is a project of learning how we have come to see, of understanding how Western Science has been implicated in our thoughts and practices and at the same time knowing that there are other ways of naming the world. For those of us who identify as White this involves a conscious choice (Moreton- Robinson pp. 39 - 44). Many of you may have heard the saying “If you are not part of the solution, maybe you are part of the problem.” While I agree with the sentiment, I think the simplicity of the message is deceptive in that it suggests there is a solution. I’m not sure there is ONE solution. What I do know is that understanding the relationship between Whiteness and dominance, and unlearning my privilege, is a long journey of personal and collective change. The outcomes have not always been those that I would have wanted. Part of this journey involves recognising that I won’t always have the answers , that this may leave me feeling frustrated and wronged and that this too is part of a racialised reaction that is bound up with my desire to have some level of comfortable closure around my Whiteness and its effects on my pedagogy. I don’t think this kind of comfort is possible if critical social literacy practices address the problem of white privilege.

Sue Shore is Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of South Australia, and Past Chair of a national committee funded to promote practitioner research in adult literacy and numeracy in Australia ( She is a key researcher in the Centre for Studies in Literacy Policy and Learning Cultures and her research interests include the uses and abuses of practitioner research, explorations of literate subjectivities, and understanding the effects of whiteness on theory building.


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This paper is an edited version of a paper published in 1998 Conference proceedings of the 21st National Australian Council for Adult Literacy, Literacy on the Line. Sue Shore (ed.) Adelaide: Document Services, University of South Australia. pp. 21-27. Reprinted with permission.

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