Whiteness, meaning the institution that upholds white culture and affirms white ways of being as superior over other ways, seeks to sustain and protect itself. That’s how it survives.
Identifying its tactics is a necessary skill for understanding it. Understanding it is necessary if you seek to destroy it, as I, a Dominican woman and educator, do. I do not seek to destroy white people. I do seek to destroy white supremacy as the ideology and structure that has oppressed, killed and destroyed the rest of us since its inception.
Whiteness’ power is expressed in many ways, one of which is as property. For example, Whiteness claims ownership of the soil that is the United States today, but that land was stolen from the Indigenous nations that lived here. It claims ownership of government buildings, for example, that were built by enslaved Africans. We saw it in action in August 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white men marched, chanting statements like “you will not replace us” and “the South will rise again.”
No one is trying to replace them. In fact, their ancestors are the ones who have committed genocides and erasure and replaced people. We heard similar cries when insurrectionists raided the Capitol in January 2021. They, too, were aiming to “take back” their country and plant their flag. They, too, expressed an irrational fear of a monster seeking to devour them and take away their material belonging — materials and belongings their ancestors stole, and therefore they do not rightfully own it today.
We see similar sentiments expressed by people who blindly defend the American literary canon.
We hear their fear when they ask, What, instead, would there be to read? — as if no other writers have written anything worthy of reading or studying. We hear their claim of power when they cannot fathom someone not listening to or reading the words of their beloved white authors.
If we want to destroy white supremacy, we must teach our children to interrogate the white supremacy they encounter in the classroom. If we want to dismantle white supremacy in the imagination and work against the idea of Whiteness as property, we need to see how supremacist values have operated in our schools. Specifically, in books. Canonical texts are a great place to start.
If we want to dismantle white supremacy in the imagination and work against the idea of Whiteness as property, we need to see how white supremacist values have operated in our schools.
Canon defenders, among other concerns, are worried about losing their beloved pieces of writing, for which they have nostalgia and which they have concluded are iconic, classic, universal and the pinnacle of craftsmanship. To question this positioning in academia and schools is seen as blasphemous, disrespectful and anti-intellectual. To ask that these books be put aside to welcome others is deemed “cancel culture.”
To demand that our young people learn about global writers, multicultural stories and other nations and see them in their own power is perceived as a direct threat to white supremacy and Whiteness as property. If we no longer want to maintain the supremacy and power of Whiteness, what will we sustain? What will we center? An openness to new answers to these questions inspires fear in canon defenders — and hope in the rest of us. To ask that, if those books are to be taught, that they be taught through a critical lens, is deemed racist and must mean that those making the request never understood the books.
Consider teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird” by analyzing the way that Atticus, the beloved white savior, ends up protecting the (in)justice system due to his respect for it, instead of directly questioning its racist foundations and operation. Consider how, although he knows the names of the men in a lynch mob, he doesn’t report them or get them arrested for their violent threats and actions. Consider, also, how he lets the system kill Tom. He doesn’t pull the trigger, but he doesn’t fight the system that leads to Tom’s death, either.
He protects Whiteness through his inaction. His respect for his peers, for his town, for Whiteness, prevails. Don’t believe me? Let Harper Lee tell you herself in “Go Set a Watchman.”
What if students read “The Great Gatsby” and then were challenged to study how F. Scott Fitzgerald, by way of Gatsby, commodifies Whiteness, packages it in parties and materializes it as property? How he takes Whiteness and shapes it into an American identity belonging only to white people? Whiteness is a currency in Gatsby, and also in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In that novel, Jim, the formerly enslaved African American, now a fugitive, is juxtaposed with Huck, an adolescent. Huck’s Whiteness is currency for Jim, who needs to be with him in order to get through towns and past other white people. Whiteness is property in this book in that it affords credibility, freedom and quite literally life.
While all of these books are fiction, they very much reflect the cultural values present in our nation, both at the time they were written and today. These authors are not without fault, their writing is not void of cultural bias and Whiteness has seeped into their stories in many ways.
Interrogating these canonical texts is the right thing to do if we want to destroy white supremacy.
Questioning them, interrogating their authors’ biases and pushing back on the white gaze at the center of their narratives is how we help readers to develop a critical eye and not perpetuate the same mindset and actions. Instead of using the 1776 Commission (a textbook example of Whiteness attempting to protect itself), let us dream. Let us imagine what it’s like to welcome all people, voices and stories into our schools and curricula. Let us let go of Whiteness as a property or material that needs defending and put down the weapons of curricular violence; let us instead work toward love, toward the future that we want our children to flourish in. A future our nation so desperately needs.
Lorena Germán is a two-time nationally awarded Dominican American educator focused on antiracist and antibias education and co-founder of #DisruptTexts and Multicultural Classroom. She’s been featured in the New York Times, NPR, Rethinking Schools, EdWeek, Learning for Justice Magazine and more.
This story about an antiracism curriculum in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.