This semester I’m using several recently published studies with one of my classes. Here are two, both of which discuss “whiteness” and “white privilege”, albeit from different perspectives and in different contexts.
Timothy Lensmire’s book, White folks: Race and identity in rural America (Lensmire, 2017) explores whiteness through in-depth qualitative interviews that the author conducted with people with whom he grew up in the small town of Boonendam, Minnesota. The book draws on interviews with seven people: Delores, Frank, William, Erin, Robert, Libby, and Stan. Lensmire explains in a methodological afterword that these narrative are drawn from a larger study involving 22 participants. The author asked participants to describe moments when they first “noticed that they were white and to narrate experienced in which being white somehow mattered or was important” (p. 92). This led to further discussion of the participants’ experiences interacting with people of color across different time periods (the larger study involved people from three generations that took in periods before, during and after the Civil Rights movement).
Lensmire’s book employs narrative strategies, in which he uses autoethnographic tellings of his own stories along with those of his participants. He explains that he purposefully did not separate himself from his participants, and did not want to imply in any way that he was in any way superior or different to them (p. 93). This commitment was coupled with a consciousness to the idea that people’s experiences were varied and multiple, and that he did not want to employ a white privilege framework that “tends to conceptualize white people as little more than the smooth embodiment of racism and white privilege” (p. 93).
In fact, it was in the context of discussions of “white privilege” that I first came across Lensmire’s work. In a lead-authored article (Lensmire et al., 2013), Lensmire and his co-authors discuss applications of Peggy McIntosh’s (2000) idea of “the invisible knapsack” as a way to explore white privilege. The authors argue that explorations of white privilege can also undermine antiracist work. Having read this article, I was very interested to read Lensmire’s book, and I was not disappointed. It is a short, readable book that has a lot to say, and leaves one with a lot to think about.
In the past, I had used Julie Minikel Lacoque’s (2013) article on racial microaggressions reported by the participants of her study of Latin@ students attending a predominantly white university in the US as an example of how critical race theory might be applied in a qualitative study. So I was also interested to read her book (Minikel-Lacocque, 2015) that reported on the larger study and was not disappointed.
Julie Minikel-Lacoque’s (2015) book, Getting college ready: Latin@ student experiences of race, access, and belonging at predominantly white universities, explores the experiences of six young people’s experiences at a university known as Midwestern University. Minikel-Lacoque provides in-depth narratives that tell the stories of these young people, prior to entering their first year of college, and at points during and after the first year of college. As I turned to the final pages of the book, I started to worry that I would not learn what happened next. Did these students graduate? Did they attain their career aspirations? So I was pleased to see a short afterword in which Minikel-Lacoque reports on the participants two years after the initial interviews. Minikel-Lacoque asserts that the “invisibility of White privilege and power is at the root of many, if not all, of the racial microaggressions discussed in the book” (p. 172), and provides good evidence to support this.
Both of these readable books explore aspects of racialized experience in contemporary US society through the eyes of different individuals. The narratives in both books suggest that peoples’ experiences and perceptions are multi-layered and complex. Reading these narratives provides a way to examine the “other” in relation to oneself. In doing so, one hopes, each of us might reconsider the value and importance of engaging in respectful and thoughtful interactions with others in our daily lives. In a fast-paced world that is increasingly characterized by shouting at one another (in person, or through textual means), it’s useful to pause, listen, and reflect. Both of these books provide points of entry to do that as we consider how we live in a multi-cultural society and develop greater understanding of others.
Lensmire, T. J. (2017). White folks: Race and identity in rural America. New York & London: Routledge.
Lensmire, T. J., McManimon, S. K., Tierney, J. D., Lee-Nichols, M. E., Casey, Z. A., Lensmire, A., & Davis, B. M. (2013). McIntosh as synecdoche: How teacher education’s focus on white privilege undermines antiracism. Harvard Educational Review, 83(3), 410-431.
McIntosh, P. (2000). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. In M. L. Andersen & P. H. Collins (Eds.), Race, class, and gender (pp. 95-105): Wadsworth Thomson Learning.
Minikel-Lacocque, J. (2013). Racism, College, and the Power of Words: Racial Microaggressions Reconsidered. American Educational Research Journal, 50(3), 432-465. doi:10.3102/0002831212468048
Minikel-Lacocque, J. (2015). Getting college ready: Latin@ student experiences of race, access, and belonging at predominantly white universities. New York: Peter Lang.