Teaching about whiteness is a sensitive subject that requires tact, humility, and patience. While learning about whiteness is critical for all students, regardless of race, the subjective connections many white students have to whiteness itself can stir up intense emotions we must be ready to wrestle with. Learning about white privilege forces white students to grapple with the ubiquity of unquestioned worldviews and assumptions about their biographies. It also forces white students to interrogate their experiences as beneficiaries of a set of social, economic and political advantages. In short, confronting whiteness necessitates a self-imposed threat to one’s integrity and achievements attributed to individual will.
I. You can begin your lecture by presenting students with a couple of scenarios.
Active learning exercises
- Imagine a scenario in which a black woman and a white woman are both shopping in the same grocery store. After collecting all of their items, both women enter the same checkout line. The white woman is before the black woman in line. When the white woman is checking out, she presents the cashier with a check. The cashier accepts the check and completes the transaction. When the black woman is checking out, she also presents the cashier with a check. However, the cashier says “I’m going to have to see some identification.” The cashier also makes clear that the ID must be a state/government-issued ID (e.g. Driver’s license, passport). Student ID’s or employee badges are unacceptable. How did whiteness function (or not) for each woman?
- Kareem is a 23-year old African-American male. He’s applied for several jobs without receiving a call back from prospective employers. After several fruitless attempts to find work, Kareem decides to deliberately use his middle name, John, on all subsequent job applications. Within two days of submitting an application, Kareem receives a call from a prospective employer asking him to come in for an interview. How do you see Kareem’s interview unfolding?
II. Here are some questions to orient class discussion.
- How is a commitment to whiteness also a commitment to white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, and heteropatriarchy?
- Whose whiteness is accepted/declined? What social contexts promote one outcome over the other?
- How will your students become more responsible or achieve what some describe as “color consciousness”?
III. Next, introduce the image below.
IV. Ask students what they think this image implies.
V. Here are four metaphorical meanings to consider.
- Visa as the credit card. “It’s everywhere you want to be.” The issue is that it’s also everywhere I (and other people of color) want to be too.
- Visa (as a travel authorization document). I see whiteness operating as a sort of passport for some, as well as a pass-port for certain others (i.e. mixed-race or racially-ambiguous folk).
- Visa as a form of currency constantly being exchanged between all racial/ethnic groups within the interpersonal marketplaces of society. This means that whiteness is not solely exercised by whites, but also appropriated by nonwhites.
- Similar to an actual Visa credit card, whiteness is a transnational form of currency accepted worldwide and often wielded as a means of legitimating imperialist aims.
To learn more about whiteness and other un-interrogated cognitive frames, feel free to check out the following literature:
Feagin, Joe R. 2010. The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. New York, NY: Routledge.
Lipsitz, George. 2006. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Mills, Charles W. 1997. The Racial Contract. New York, NY: Cornell University Press.