Cri de Coeur
Some years ago, in a workshop on whiteness I was leading, a delegation from the local Friends’ Meeting was among the participants. One of them was a very elderly woman, so disabled she was nearly bent double and moved slowly, with great difficulty. I’m saying she had every excuse to stay home. But she was there, fiercely engaged, very thoughtful. Midway through the workshop, I was holding forth when she burst out. “Oh! It’s so hard to hear this white, white, white! I’m just not used to it!”
She was not objecting; on the contrary, her voice said that hearing white was nasty medicine she knew she needed to swallow. We were all able to laugh, and I could use her genuine cri de Coeur to open a discussion about why white people have such difficulty seeing themselves as white—a central component of facing racism.
I think about this woman often—how honestly and authentically she owned up to a discomfort most of us white people muffle and deflect in denial, resentment, or rage. She remains a marker of an insight I was just coming to at the time: that the dangerous territory in talking about racism is not so much the experience of people of color; it’s the nature of whiteness. It’s always the unexploded bomb. In American racial discourse, white is That Which Must Not Be Named.
Things not to be named, a selective list:
- The family secret
- The elephant in the room
- The Emperor’s lack of New Clothes
- God (sometimes known as G_d, or YHWH, who introduces himself as follows: “I am that I am”)
- Power, specifically groups that control and benefit from unjust systems.
Some decades ago, when I was first flailing urgently through feminist analysis, I noticed a contradiction in the men around me: They insisted that their perspectives, systems, language, institutions, and authority remain intact, but they reacted with anything from annoyance to fury if the word men or male was introduced. Ah, I concluded, male supremacy must endure, but it must not be named.
Why does Dominance proscribe the mention of its own name? Because to name is to specify the general, to particularize the abstract, and so to disclose and demythologize. The Generic/Universal Human turns out to be Shakespeare’s naked, forked creature, suddenly finding itself accountable for the control it wields. This creature has been allowed to believe in its invisibility has been seen, and known. Scariest of all, there is some danger that it might know itself.
To forestall this disaster, the Unnamable enforces silence. Across the United States, small eruptions of silence begin. In Oklahoma City, a history teacher has begun to think very carefully before using the word ‘white’ to describe supporters of slavery.”
A Book of Nightmares
Laura Murphy, the Virginian who strove to get Beloved removed from her son’s high-school curriculum, stressed that it was about the cows. To be sure, the depiction of slavery was very upsetting,, but on top of that there was “bestiality.” Her son, Blake, was a senior at the time—2013—reading the novel for an A.P. literature course. His review: the novel was “gross,” “hard to take.” He had to “give up on it”—a telling way to describe not finishing an assignment, as if it were the assignment’s fault. His mother said he shouldn’t have been subjected to such a book. The novel gave him nightmares.
This all happened nearly a decade ago, but Glen Youngkin, running for governor of Virginia in 2021, dredged it up in order to star Laura Murphy in a campaign ad that was part of his battle against a hobgoblin called Critical Race Theory in the Classroom.
It seems to be a law of nature that where you find white people frenzied about clear depictions of racism or slavery in their children’s reading assignments, there you will find Toni Morrison—and probably Beloved. Having read and taught it many times, I can understand how its power might disturb the peace in white classrooms and homes. Blake’s nightmares are not surprising, for the novel is the stuff of nightmares. To enter it is to enter into a nightmare state, one in which Sethe, the protagonist, lives permanently. Her nightmare functions as an extended metaphor for the American nightmare that is slavery. Precisely because the novel is fictional (though rooted in a true story), it may provide a white kid’s first entry into that nightmare from the point of view of an enslaved person. Fiction is the genre that hijacks the imagination, subsumes it in an alternate reality. No historical account, not even a fine documentary, could have done what Beloved did to Blake, as to many other readers, including this one. Beloved is a work that ought to produce nightmares.
But the argument, in Fairfax, Virginia, and many other places, seems to be that kids should not have nightmares. The mobilized parents hasten to insist that the problem isn’t teaching about slavery. Tina Descovich, a leader of a group called Mothers for Liberty, has defined the issue succinctly: “To say there were slaves is one thing, but to talk in detail about how slaves were treated, and with photos, is another.” To paraphrase: students can be aware of slavery (to the extent that “there were slaves” tells them anything about the institution), but they shouldn’t have to understand anything like its impact on human bodies and minds. More succinctly: students can know about slavery, but they cannot be allowed to know it. They should not get familiar with it. That might produce nightmares.
“How can you not know all the things you do not know?”
“What are Americans always so insistently innocent of?”
Two good questions, to which I’ll add a third: For what reason would people want
education to keep students from knowing something? The answer is obvious, and also complicated.
The outcry against teaching white kids about racism belongs to a broader backlash against an increasing insistence by people of color that their histories and experience should be known, and that their frameworks for reality are critical to all of us. But the determination to preserve white kids’ safety from disturbing information belongs also to a five-hundred-year-old tradition: the coupling of whiteness with innocence.
The word innocent carries a slippery double meaning, captured by the pairing of Baldwin and Morrison passages above. Literally, it means unknowing. But it also means not guilty. These meanings have often overlapped–to devastating effect in cultural attitudes toward woman’s sexual “innocence” or lack thereof.
The linkage of knowledge with guilt drives the Judeo-Christian origin story, where acquisition of knowledge isthe transgression. To know is to fall, to suffer, to incur consequences, to enter into responsibility—i.e., to grow up. To introduce students to painful, often obscured realities is to draw them out of innocence. The glory and empowerment of learning carries a darker underside, less often mentioned, involving loss, confusion, anger, grief, perhaps even nightmares. And one other burden: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). In the classroom, as in Eden, loss of innocence brings self-knowledge that can be liberating—and also startling, debilitating, embarrassing, and painful. To know one’s nakedness, as in that dream we all have, is to know one’s vulnerability.
The association of whiteness with innocence was already in place by the time Europeans began to identify themselves that way. They became white only in opposition to the darkness they named negro, with all the established associations of blackness. As millions of Africans were hauled to American shores to live and work in brutal conditions, whiteness had to become more insistent on its innocence. In the face of the ever-increasing, damning evidence to the contrary, the notion of white innocence could be maintained only by force—physical and mental, legal and linguistic, cultural and educational. As Baldwin puts it, “There is a great deal of willpower in the white man’s naivete.”
Whiteness works hard at not knowing. Innocence requires repression, the pushing of disorienting, disruptive knowledge into an anxious subtext. The violence of this repression answers the violence whiteness wreaks upon people of color. The crimes of racism are compounded by willful, enforced unknowing. “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime,” Baldwin concluded, because “anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence, long after the innocence is dead, turns himself into a monster.”
White unknowing, then, is fraudulent. What Wendell Berry wrote of white southerners can be extended to white people collectively: we know “the real content of our history,” but only “in a deep and guarded privacy”—like a dreadful family secret or a trauma we claim we have “gotten over.” We have paid the usual price of repression and denial: confusion, anxiety, duplicity, contradiction, what Baldwin termed “personal incoherence. ” What we rarely talk about is the genuine suffering of white people as a result. I have seen it in the white tears and alarm in discussions of racism, lurking beneath the protestations of innocence (“I’m not racist!”). I heard it in the voice of the woman in my workshop who was so pained by having her whiteness brought to the foreground.
What happens when the repressed is brought to light, the family secret outed? It’s not pretty, often explosive. The outrage when white kids are meaningfully introduced to racism is just that. Many developments in American society and culture have coincided to insist that the unknowing should cease, certainly at the classroom door. But inside that door sits white innocence. When the innocence crumbles, white kids feel the measure of its loss—the exposure, the sense of responsibility, the dislocation within a new paradigm. To be known as white people means seeing ourselves to be somehow involved in a monstrous crime, one that is not a historical “anomaly,” as some curriculum reformers would have it, but alive and ongoing. To wish this understanding on a kid of whatever age requires the deepest conviction that not understanding is worse. To teach a white kid about whiteness is to bring about a complicated, evolutionary movement. The self-recognition waiting on the far side of knowing is the real nightmare stalking white innocence. As in actual nightmares, our frantic efforts to escape only drag us backward toward what pursues us.
I showed a video one day in a class, I think a first-year seminar. One of its strategies was to juxtapose distorted, cartoonish white media representations of Black people from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries with images of reality, including lynching photographs. I had warned the class that some of the images would be very difficult to take in. When the video ended, the students filed out of the room , except for one white woman who remained at her desk, still, head bowed. I moved to a seat beside her and asked if she was all right. Her voice was very soft. “I didn’t know. I really didn’t know about these things.”
I thought about her recently. If that scene occurred today, in a public school, what blowback might I have faced? I had surely destroyed some part of her innocence. I had “made” her feel . . . what? Guilty? Sickened? Grief-stricken? To what extent had she seen herself in the perpetrators of the horrors she had glimpsed in the video? I had certainly not made her comfortable. I had created discomfort. These days that is a dangerous pedagogical sin.
To be clear, the issue is not the comfort of all students. Whether students of color feel comfortable in their classes seems to be negligible. On The View, Condoleezza Rice voiced the popular view that “somehow, white people now have to feel guilty for everything that happened in the past.” In a classroom, she continued, “I don’t have to make the white kids feel bad for being white.” The worst effect of the uproar is that a white kid’s genuine and complex discomfort in confronting terrible realities gets processed and packaged as self-loathing– “feeling bad for being white.”
State legislators across the country have come to the defense of white kids’ comfort. A bill recently under consideration in Indiana would make it illegal that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, responsibility, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or political affiliation.” Jamelle Bouie, reports that Florida bill “would give parents and state regulators broad authority to ban books or teachings that cause ‘discomfort’ in students, and would put lessons on ‘the Civil War, the expansion of the United States to its present boundaries, the world wars, and the civil rights movement’ under careful review”—in other words, the particular chapters of our history that contain, and might provoke, nightmares. In South Carolina they’re taking no prisoners. Their proposed Freedom from Ideological Coercion and Indoctrination Act veers closer to revealing its hidden subject. It would prevent any state-funded institution from stating that:
a group or an individual, by virtue of his or her race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, heritage, culture, religion, or political belief is inherently racist, sexist, bigoted, ignorant, biased, fragile, oppressive, or contributive to any oppression, whether consciously or unconsciously.
If this exhaustive list leaves any question as to the race of the person in need of shelter from educational abuse, the word “fragile” is the giveaway. It alludes directly out to Robin di Angelo’s widely respected and reviled work, White Fragility.
These bills are written such that they can claim inclusivity; they tick every box. Including everybody in general, they mention nobody in particular. But they do implicitly protect particular segments of the student body. The children of privilege and power shall not be faced with their legacy, lest they be discomforted. Since “whiteness” exists only within the history and relations of racism, it may not be spoken of, lest it feel itself known, seen—accused. Silence falls, even as the talk about race continues, edited into superficiality and meaninglessness. Whiteness hovers in the air, invisible and inarticulate but palpable. A ghost in the classroom where white students may never learn that once it actually did wear a white sheet.
We, the People
In January of 2022, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked by a reporter about concern that Republican voting suppression initiatives would have the effect of keeping African Americans from voting. “Well, the concern is misplaced,” he responded, “ because if you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.” The question of who Mitch McConnel’s “Americans” are swamps the fact that he dodged the reporter’s question.
In making themselves “white,” Europeans assigned to themselves the color especially associated with silence, absence, erasure. It’s simple for a mind unmindful of its own whiteness to represent itself simultaneously as all Americans and as the “real” Americans who define the category by those it leaves out. From its origins, the slippery notion of whiteness allowed it to be this contradiction, an exclusionary generic.
The unspoken equation of “American” or “America” with “white” is stamped deeply into the core of white people in this country—and of many non-white people for different reasons. “American” is one of the many places where whiteness hides, maintaining its invisibility and its dominance at once. That is the precise goal of the state legislative efforts. What happens, educationally, when whiteness is permitted its invisibility cloak? Consider just two sentences I preserved from a student’s essay. Ironically, she is addressing American repression of history. “Why has America seemed to deny its past?” she begins, in high liberal dudgeon. And then: “Our ancestors came here because they opposed the lack of freedom they had been given in Europe.” So in one sentence the writer decries denial of racism, and in the next she relies on characteristic tropes of whiteness: an implicitly white “we” that excludes anyone not of European descent; national mythology rather than facts about the many reasons Europeans came to North America; and the complete erasure of those who did not come seeking freedom but were brought here forcibly in chains.
It’s just garden-variety goofy student writing, I know. It’s also confused, factually incorrect white student thinking, the kind that it is becoming dangerous, if not illegal, to interrupt. Students learn critical thinking by having their assumptions made visible to them. Will they be angry? Possibly. Embarrassed? One can only hope. Will they learn to think and write better? If some genuine teaching takes place, I think we can count on it. If this student’s default patterns are not interrupted in school, then when? She might grow up to talk like a senator.
Recalling herself as an adolescent student of U. S. literature, Patricia Hampl concludes that she wanted:
in a self-righteous way as well as helplessly, the only American birthright I could imagine: to step off the Mayflower onto undefiled land, unlimited possibility, unwritten history. . . I wanted to find America innocent. . . Innocence was the only ‘national self’ I was prepared to acknowledge and pledge allegiance to.
Hampl links her adolescent yearning for freedom—a life “unindentured” (what a loaded word) to the past—to a larger cultural impulse “to return to the purity of abstraction, to the Mayflower moment, the radiant arrival in paradise before anything had happened. Ourselves—but rinsed of history.” But the Mayflower moment is innocent only by forgetting what happened a year earlier, in 1619, and un-knowing that people are already enslaved on these shores.
Abstract, undefiled, , historyless—this is the essence of the white American dream. The American Eden Hampl yearned for is a state of mind that education is always threatening. All Edens are static. In being “unindentured to the past,” they are outside of time and change, outside of life, deathly. Richard Rodriguez has written that “history and Eden are irreconcilable ideas.” Students urgently need to know that we walk through our lives bearing all the dirt of our histories, individual and collective. This inheritance is what white kids lose when they are protected from the knowledge of what “white” means. It is privilege, the security system of innocence, that allows these students their unknowing in the first place. To permit them to marinate in their innocence undermines their development into adult human beings and citizens of a country with a deeply complicated heritage. Entering into history as a white person, painful as it is, means, in Baldwin’s words, ‘you have finally entered the picture.” You become an accountable human agent rather than a ghost.
One of the nightmares of learning what it means to be white is a feeling of paralysis, of being constrained by history in a space of condemnation. Whiteness can seem to take the shape of doom, a curse visited by the ancestors on the children, or a life sentence for previous crimes. Feeling powerless against one’s historical legacy is another privilege of whiteness, but it is nonetheless painful to a young person looking into its face for the first time. But our willfully maintained innocence doesn’t free us from history. It does the opposite, argued Baldwin, who saw white Americans as overgrown children. It is when we leave Eden behind that we “begin to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.” If education is, as bell hooks insisted, “the practice of freedom,” then the task of teachers (including parents) is to guide students through the nightmares of history to new worlds of responsiveness and responsibility.
An indispensable guidebook in this educational passage includes the narratives of formerly enslaved people, which provide case studies in escaping the bonds of history. The one I taught most often is Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a regular offering in my women’s literature courses. It generated intense discussion and wide learning curves. One of its memorable characters is Mrs. Flint, the wife of the man who “owns” Harriet. Mrs. Flint is the archetypal plantation mistress: powerful and powerless, infuriated and frustrated by her husband’s sexual predations on Black women, sadistically and violently punitive to enslaved women.
In once class, after several days of discussion of the book, a white woman said, “I’ve been trying to identify with Harriet, because she’s the hero and everything. But I just realized that I can’t. I keep asking who I would have been in this whole situation, as a white woman at the time. And I realize that I would probably have been Mrs. Flint.” Her voice was flat, the voice of one who’d come to the truth and it had not set her free.
This student had seen herself in a monstrous mirror. But I was struck by her choice, as Mrs. Flint was not her only option. Jacobs’s book, explicitly framed to engage northern white women in abolition work, is full of white women who aid Harriet’s family, facilitate her escape, and help her reach the north, avoid recapture, and survive. One of them was Lydia Maria Child, who sponsored the book for publication, though her aggressive editing did some violence to Jacobs’s story This student had looked into the dark heart of history and seen only one white face looking back—a nightmare version of herself. The lifeline I threw her was a series of questions: what if you had been the woman who hid Harriet in her house? What if you had encouraged her to write her story? What if you had raised money to buy her freedom? What if we are not frozen into place as white people? What if we could, and can, choose what our whiteness will now mean and what it will do?
I was not entirely disappointed that my student had defaulted to Mrs. Flint as her point of identification. That might have been a salutary nightmare. Denying the possibility that she might have been Mrs. Flint would have been an assertion of innocence that would have kept her locked in place. Facing the potential Mrs. Flint inside her was part of a critical reading of the text that I would not have denied her. But I left class that day hoping that she believed me when I suggested that beyond Mrs. Flint there stood a battalion of courageous and compassionate white women waiting for her to recognize them.