Audre & Tiffany: Moving Toward an Understanding of Whiteness in America

 If you're not angry, you're not paying attention.We all get angry. I remember vividly a bumper sticker “If you aren’t angry; you aren’t paying attention” from years ago. Back then I didn’t yet understand the gravity of many of the world’s injustices, and I’m not certain the owner of that bumper sticker and I would agree on the injustices, but even then I knew something was wrong. While I recognize the need for Audre Lorde to address the uses of anger in her piece The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism in Sister Outsider was not written with me in mind (as white scholars appropriating scholars of color and Audre Lorde in particular is rampant and problematic see here, here and here) and is largely a piece responding to white supremacy; I can honestly say that this piece has gotten me through hard times in the past.

As an active educator for social justice, trudging through the muck and mire of education, I often get angry at the injustices I feel, and while Lorde’s piece has helped me, it’s also been a piece that I have share often with my students who are angry, and either don’t understand why, or are apologetic. This is a poignant piece that helps all educators understand the productive and meaningful aspects of anger. Anger is something that in our culture is looked upon as a vile emotion. An emotion that is less than desirable. There are a few of these emotions, typically equated with the Seven Deadly Sins of the Bible.

Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg, in their first chapter of their book White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America (first chapter found here), address the ways in which anger has been propagated as a tool of racial superiority, a concept I have seen deployed in my career. In fact, this chapter supports much of my work in philosophy. I have for a while now, identified as Caucasian-American as a tool to raise awareness and “denormalize” being white. It seems all hyphenated Americans have been relegated to a second class citizenry in contemporary America, and that Caucasian-Americans do not have to think about their identity as it’s the standard un-hyphenated American identity.

I have often considered the role of the good white and the role that it has played in my life. I have been aware of racism and it’s evils. It was always something that other white people took part in and that I wasn’t like that. While I may have never purposely been an active racist, I am racist by the very nature of my identity. I benefit everyday from many aspects of my identity. I have also othered racist white people and white people in general. I remember distinctly working in an alternative school in Chicago and proclaiming to my class that I didn’t much care for white people, in an attempt to bond faster with my class that consisted of all students of color.

This is problematic due to the selfishness of the act. Instead of owning my identity and the ways in which it can be used to help other’s struggle I tried to cast aside my privileges (impossible) while gaining social capitol in a space to make my life easier. As whiteness is something that is owned, yet cannot be lost according to Cheryl Harris is Whiteness as Property, this was a logical fallacy that could not be accomplished and served to further Tiffanyize my relationship with my students.

I was Tiffany in that classroom long before I read Audrey Thompson’s Tiffany, friend of people of color: White investments in antiracism, and there are likely times in which I still unintentionally deploy my inner-Tiffany. Every time that I witness an act of racism and give a look of superiority to those individuals propagating hate, I am Tiffany. Every time I use that example in a classroom I am Tiffany. We often do this to make ourselves feel better, rather than to create better worlds. We need to stop being Tiffany and start being active.

Going again back to the Kincheloe & Steinberg article, the element where they discuss what a white studies program might look like was of great interest to me. I think this is truly due to the challenges I get in my job as a critical multicultural educator. I often find students asking why we don’t have a curriculum of white studies, or why we don’t have an office for white students. Perhaps the answer is to actually have this office, or to have this program, and base it around ways in which our white students too can have a role in the work for equity, as truly they, we, have an investment in seeing equity become a reality.

I recognize there are problems in this plan, as some may deploy this curriculum as a tool of supremacy, but I think if developed well, it could be something that could help white people understand our role in anti-racist work in contemporary America. I know for one, it would have helped me come to terms with my own power and privilege far earlier than I did. I see master’s of education students even, all the time not recognizing or being comfortable in their own skin due to white guilt. How can these students be effective teachers of all if they are not comfortable with their own identity? We have a long road ahead of us in order to create a more perfect world.

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