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Taking Whiteness Personally:
Learning to Teach Testimonial Reading and Writing in the College Literature Classroom
Although aware of an emerging specialty called "whiteness studies," I did not begin to study my own white history until I read Jane Davis's The White Image in the Black Mind: A Study of African American Literature (2000). While reading Davis's book, whiteness became a personal issue for me, not only because Jane is a colleague and friend, but also because I was shaken by her answer to the question, "What is a white person?" She explains that in the black mind—that is, in the mind of African American writers—white people are "weak," "a burden to blacks," "dismissive," "off-putting, even when friendly," "ignorant of blacks' having figured them out," and "afraid to confront their own bigotry" (133–36). After reading three pages of this catalog of descriptors, I felt my anger growing: Why should I listen, I wondered, while someone tears down my hard-won self-esteem? Why should I heed someone who tells me that I am "in need of self-analysis," that I am "repulsively, self-denigratingly, and self-congratulatorily disrespectful," "jealous," "corrupted by power," "self-aggrandizingly sexist," "presumptuous," "self-righteously dangerous," "confused," "cowardly," "neurotically repressed" (136–43)? I grew increasingly angry and defensive as I continued reading Davis's descriptions of whites: "exploitive of blacks in order to hide from their own sterility," "perpetuators of sexist racism," "girlish," "narcissistic," [End Page 213] "self-deceiving," "nice," and "spiritually and religiously bankrupt" (143–48). Having read and taught most of the black writers whose images of whiteness Davis is summarizing—from James Baldwin to Richard Wright—I should have been prepared for this litany of negative adjectives, but I was not.
"Don't take it personally," I told myself, but to this admonition an inner voice replied: "Refusing to take it personally is irresponsible." Perhaps, I reflected, a few of these adjectives did fit: I may be "in need of self-analysis," and perhaps I was once "girlish" and "nice." But is it so bad, I asked, to be "nice"? I also wondered how, after reading Davis's list, I had managed to avoid seeing myself from the point of view of black writers. While reading Toni Morrison's Beloved, I recall imagining myself as Amy Denver, the poor white woman who helps deliver Sethe's baby; I too would have stopped to help Sethe. Nevertheless, despite my "whiteness," I certainly didn't identify with white characters who persecuted Sethe. In fact, I expended most of my psychic energy empathizing with the African American characters in the novel. But what exactly is empathy? What was I, a "white" woman, actually imagining as I read? Equally important, I began to wonder what my mostly white students were imagining while reading a multicultural canon. If most white readers cannot fully imagine, let alone empathize with, fictional characters whose race or gender or class is different from theirs, what are the implications for teachers of multicultural literature? I recognized, finally, that I had become angry and defensive while reading Davis's book because it called into question the effectiveness of my teaching. I could no longer assume, despite consistently high student evaluations and a university teaching award, that I am a "good" teacher. My reputation was at stake.
Having worked for more than fifteen years to expand the canon and to "teach the conflicts," as Gerald Graff recommends in Beyond the Culture Wars (1992), I wanted to be appreciated rather than attacked. After all, I countered, in silent self-defense, I have been committed to teaching a multicultural canon in my literature courses since the mid-1980s, when I completed graduate school. At Iowa State University, for example, I have taught two seminars titled The American Canon Debate. In addition, in 1996, with the help of graduate students in my English methods class, we designed an introductory course, U.S. Multicultural Literatures, to meet part of the university's...