By Carlin Borsheim-Black and Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides, authors of Letting Go of Literary Whiteness: Antiracist Literature Instruction for White Students

Sophia has a framed poster in her living room of Mark Twain performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a sign of how much she has revered Twain’s humor, and, yes, his treatment of racism, for decades. This love of Twain and Huckleberry Finn began during her junior year of high school, when she learned this adulation from her English teacher, who inspired her to teach English herself. Via setting analysis, this teacher traced the increase in human cruelty as Huck and Jim descended further south on the Mississippi. She helped students notice the humor of Twain’s satire in the novel through Huck’s colorful phrasings. And Sophia’s teacher emphasized the poignancy of Huck’s decision to help Jim even if he believed that it meant going to hell. Sophia remembers feeling so good “participating” as a reader in Huck’s noble decision to help Jim, joining other readers of this canonical text who understood the importance of the scene.

Many White teachers, like us, enter the field enamored of characters like Huck for what they allow us to feel as White people, especially in relation to people of color: heroic, on the right side of history, doing our part to combat racism through our teaching of literature. This is partly why so many of us reach for a text like Huckleberry Finn when we think about how it is that we (think) we address racism through our literature instruction. It feels good to “join” Huck in his decision to help Jim. And pointing out this decision through our teaching feels like we are doing work towards antiracist ends.

A critical focus on Whiteness, however, helps us to see that Huck, like other celebrated literary characters (e.g., Atticus), is a White savior character whose decision to go to hell on Jim’s behalf gets lauded through our teaching in part because it represents White desires to feel and be seen as a “good White.” From this perspective, too much of a focus on this moment—of Huck’s seemingly selfless decision to save a runaway slave—shields so much more that is going on in the text that, without sufficient attention through our teaching, may work to perpetuate racism.

For Sophia–and for all White teachers, “Letting Go of Literary Whiteness” means recognizing these White desires, White investments and effects serving White interests that are at work when we select texts, engage in class discussion or literary analysis, and design assessments, even when we think we are doing so towards antiracist ends. “Letting Go of Literary Whiteness” involves beginning the work of refiguring our White racial identities so we can teach literature that pursues antiracist goals.

So what do we “let go of” in “letting go of literary whiteness”?

  1. It involves a letting go of a confidence about our teaching of literature as White teachers or in White-dominant contexts when we hope for or intend antiracist outcomes without a sustained, critical consideration of the role of Whiteness in our moves and decisions.
  2. It involves a letting go of curriculum that has for too-long served White interests.
  3. It involves a letting go of pedagogy that may perpetuate or reinforce Whiteness rather than upend it, even when our intentions are the opposite.
  4. It involves losses, a letting go of activities, interpretations, assessments that we may have enjoyed and appreciated, perhaps in part because they support White identities and perspectives.

Disruption hurts. Participating in this process of disruption as a teacher and a White person will involve losses, a “letting go” of ties to a curriculum and a pedagogy of Whiteness that has for too long served White interests and stood in the way of antiracist efforts. What we hope becomes evident through such perceived losses tied to literary texts and characters—and portrayals of heroic Whiteness on behalf of Black people—are the enormous gains towards larger racial equality for all that we get to participate in through our work in English classes.

“Letting Go of Literary Whiteness” involves being racially literate enough to see when our proclivities as White readers “unintentionally” perpetuate racism as we strive to teach our students to love literature. While the “letting go” signals the requisite losses—or perceived losses—that will come with revising the way we see key texts and characters in our curriculum, there is much that can replace such losses. Antiracist literature instruction is a set of practices that bolsters literary analysis with a more robust treatment of the race-related issues already in texts; guides the design of assessments to reinforce the need for racial literacy as a component of literary analysis; and offers teachers and students lenses through which to see and to respond to literature in ways that increase racial literacy and race-consciousness, especially for White students likely unaccustomed to doing so.

Featured Image: Huckleberry Finn with rabbit, public domain via Wikimedia commons.