University of Utah Whiteness Theory and Education Spring 2009
Office: 308C MBH Audrey Thompson mailbox in 307 MBH
Office Hours:
Tues 2:00-4:30 & W 2:00-4:00
and by appt. 587-7803
ECS 6624-001 & 7624-001 voicemail: 587-7803
meets W 4:35-7:35 in 235 OSH


Whiteness theory is intended to make visible the ways in which normalized (that is, taken for granted) racial dominance and privilege organize the distribution of social goods. Insofar as cultural and political assumptions and practices are treated as universal, they are assumed to be free of race values. Whiteness theory exposes the ways in which some seemingly neutral or universal values are articulated to expectations of white centrality and dominance. Although in many ways consistent with the aims of multicultural theory, whiteness theory is also distinct from mainstream multiculturalism. Multicultural theory usually seeks to foster an appreciation of cultures other than the dominant culture; in its more radical forms, multiculturalism also involves problematizing the assumptions of the dominant culture. But because mainstream multicultural approaches are concerned primarily with developing authentic understandings of non-dominant cultures, they usually do not concentrate on how white power operates to foster and maintain white privilege and dominance. (Indeed, some multicultural theorists charge that whiteness theory shifts the focus back to whites, and thus away from more pluralistic projects.) Whiteness theory focuses specifically on whiteness as a political and cultural position — a position and an identity that benefit (albeit in different ways) those designated as white or as honorary whites, at a cost to most people of color.Because white cultural norms are systematically enforced in the schools (usually without any recognition that they are white-referenced norms), whiteness theory is particularly important for educators. A teacher (whether white or of color) who can deconstruct his or her own investments in whiteness is better positioned to see why prevailing pedagogical and curricular patterns might not work to alter inequitable relations. Even white teachers who are fully committed to multiculturalism often fail to see how their own investments in “universal” scholarly values may get in the way of their good intentions vis-a-vis students of color. Despite wanting to resist white dominance, educators of color may also find themselves at times reinforcing the privilege and centrality of the dominant group.

Among the topics with which the course will be concerned are whiteness as epistemology, whiteness in relation to pedagogy, whiteness in relation to texts and the curriculum, and the politics of different approaches to whiteness education.


The class will meet once a week, each time discussing the readings on the syllabus. We also will be doing some deconstruction of images, films and documentaries, and children’s books. To participate actively in class, it is essential that you read carefully, prepare questions, and jot down any issues you wish to discuss. I will make short presentations to provide necessary background information. My primary role, however, will be to ask questions, clarify points raised in our discussions, and summarize the important issues that we discuss.


Almaguer’s book is on reserve at the first-floor reserve desk at the Marriott Library and is available for purchase from the University Bookstore. The articles will be on electronic reserve at the Marriott Library or, in a few cases, will be made available as handouts or as links on the electronic version of the syllabus.

Marriott Library electronic course reserves (see library website, and enter your student ID#)

Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994/2009).

Course Requirements

In addition to the assigned reading, regular attendance, and participation grounded in the readings, course requirements include a one-page paper, a two-page paper (connected to an in-class project), a midterm (5-7 page) paper, and a longer final paper (12-15 pages). You will be required to turn in a good draft of the final paper two weeks before the final due date. There is no final exam.

Both the short and the final paper must be vitally informed by the course discussions, lectures, activities, and readings. You should cite any references that inform your analysis; wherever possible, give specific page numbers, even if you are not citing the text directly. Other than that, it does not matter to me which citation system you use or whether you make up your own, as long as I can follow your system and can locate the passages you (should) have indicated. If you plan to write academic papers or a master’s or doctoral thesis, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with whatever citation format is most common in your field (e.g., MLA, Chicago, APA), as it is best to have made formal citation habits more or less automatic before you get to the thesis stage. However, this is up to you. For my purposes, it is enough that you indicate the relevant author and page numbers of any work on the syllabus (e.g., Pratt, 35-36). However, please provide full bibliographic information for any outside readings upon which your paper draws.

The purpose of the short paper assignment is to give you practice in using the tools of whiteness theorizing in a specific analysis. Accordingly, this paper asks you to provide an analysis of 1) a classroom situation in which you were either the teacher or the student, 2) a curriculum (or a part of the state core curriculum), 3) an article, textbook or chapter from a textbook, 4) a policy, or 5) a popular culture text (movie, song, political ad, etc.) using one or more forms of whiteness theorizing. In developing your analysis, be sure to draw on at least three of the readings in detail. The readings you choose should all be taken from the first part of the course.

The final paper allows you to evaluate whiteness theories as tools for understanding racial injustice and inequality or, alternatively, to extend whiteness theory to new areas. The final paper may either examine some aspect of whiteness theory in depth (e.g., the limits and possibilities of whiteness conversion narratives, how whiteness pedagogy intersects with or jeopardizes multicultural pedagogy, or the uses and limitations of stage theories) or explore some implications of whiteness theorizing for an area of research to which so far it has not been much applied (e.g., children’s literature, ethics, medical education, higher education policy, or qualitative or quantitative research methodologies). If you choose the latter option, your paper may need to take into account two or three outside readings in order to do justice to your project. However, it should be distinctively a paper for this course, not a paper from another course that you have tweaked or padded with references to the course readings. The final paper must be centrally informed by the course readings, lectures, and discussions, and at least two of the readings must be from the final part of the course. If you use a reading from the first part of the course, it should not be one of the readings you discussed in your first paper.

Check the syllabus for dates to turn in a thesis statement, outline, and draft of the final paper.

Clarifications, Cautions, and Ground Rules

This course will require all of us to think about how we are mobilizing and reproducing particular forms of dominance and privilege, including race, class, culture, and sexuality. I also want this to be a course in which students engage one another as co-learners and co-educators. This expectation sets the course apart from a class in which the emphasis is on individual, consumer-type learning. The emphasis will be on the shared project of denormalizing forms of whiteness that typically exact a cost from people of color. Because we will have different understandings of and investments in that project, I will be setting some ground rules and also revisiting our shared expectations from time to time. At regular intervals, we will also talk about the classroom dynamics and how these might shift to address particular concerns.

My most general expectations are that 1) all of us will have read the texts closely and refer our discussion to the texts; 2) students should try to learn from others in the classroom, and, as far as possible, listen to one another as educators and co-learners; 3) the learning of white students must not be privileged over the learning of students of color; 4) students should frame their contributions to both large and small group work in such a way that they are not talking at people, lecturing them, or just holding forth; 5) we need to recognize that due to power asymmetries, the interactive roles will not always be the same for all students; 6) we need to pay attention to how their own and others’ arguments and analyses are organized by master narratives or particular cultural codes and discourses; and 7) it is okay to get angry; it is not okay to be condescending. Don’t lose sight of the educational project in which all of us share.

For white teachers, it is important to see when and how white privilege matters and what can be done about it. This course will ask you to look at exactly how whiteness affects various relations and situations. Whiteness has an enormous organizing effect on other forms of power and privilege. Accordingly, we will be talking about how race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, and other positionalities interlock to create, maintain, and support white privilege. You will be asked to look at the nuances of relationships, at various privileging mechanisms, and at specific racialized patterns; it will not be enough to talk about privilege either in sweeping, absolute terms, or in terms that bracket whiteness as something. Thus, we will not be ranking the various kinds of privilege and oppression, but will be talking about race privilege in context. (If you were homeless, for instance, it might not be not much consolation to be a member of the elite category of straight white males — yet your whiteness might nevertheless be relevant to your chances of avoiding arrest, for example.)

Because whiteness is a social construction, whiteness and white privilege are not issues only for whites. Light-skin color privileges, English-language privileges, class, and “honorary white” privileges may be extended (usually only provisionally) to people of color as well, in particular cases. Moreover, questions of privilege connected to symbolic whiteness become particularly significant in academia, where objectivity, neutrality, discipline, and other values may be articulated to whiteness.

Whiteness theory does not address whiteness as a question of racial guilt or innocence based on skin color but as a system of dominance and privilege that is maintained discursively, institutionally, and materially (as well as other ways). What this means is that all of us are likely to participate in maintaining the codes of whiteness. Even challenging others to be anti-racist, depending on how it’s done, can be a way of “proving” our own superiority and thus suggesting (for example) that we (often those of us who are progressive whites) are “good whites.” Be prepared to rethink some of the values and practices you think of as anti-racist.

For many white teachers, whiteness as privilege is a new idea and it is difficult to avoid being defensive. If you are new to the idea of white privilege, try to monitor your defensiveness about whiteness; on the other hand, if you are comfortable with talk about race privilege, remember how complex a process the development of that awareness is and how problematic your or anyone’s current understanding is likely to be. Complacency is often more of a dead-end than defensiveness is. Keep in mind that no one in academia, regardless of color, escapes whiteness altogether. Many of the values and privileges of whiteness are built into academic discourse. If you have made it this far, you are participating in some of the privileges of whiteness, even if you are a person of color.

I will be asking everyone to engage with others as educators and co-learners. If you lead with your ego, it’s hard to listen. Try to lead with an ear for possibilities you might not have considered without the group. If you have a different understanding of particular materials than do others in the class, make that understanding available to others without lecturing them. If you feel threatened by particular people in the class, think about how to address them so as to get past the impasse: how can you teach them how you would like to learn from them? Thinking as educators means attending to the conditions of learning as well as to whether everyone is learning. This doesn’t mean that everyone should always be “nice,” but it does mean showing respect and interest.

Regardless of your situation, it is likely that you will at times find yourself uncomfortable with the arguments and analyses you encounter in a course such as this, and in some cases you may find the theories intimidating. Not only are such experiences unavoidable but they are desirable insofar as they are part of unsettling what we think we know about ourselves and others. It takes time and study to move beyond anxious discomfort. While the course will not attempt to eliminate discomfort, it will try to make your discomfort interesting.

Schedule of Class Topics and Reading

Wed. 14 Jan. Introduction

Wed. 21 Jan. Whiteness in Historical Perspective, I
  • Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines, 17-74
  • Anderson, “How We Learn about Race through History”
  • Younge, “Racism Rebooted: Philadelphia, Mississippi, Then and Now”

Deconstructing whiteness in documentaries: PBS’s The Civil War

Wed. 28 Jan. Whiteness in Historical Perspective, II
  • Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines, 75-213
  • Bennett, “Tea and Sympathy: Liberals and Other White Hopes”

Wed. 4 Feb. Whiteness and Rationalization
  • Hamilton, “Revolutionary Principles and Family Loyalties: Slavery’s Transformation in the St. George Tucker Household of Early National Virginia”
  • Petonito, “Racial Discourse and Enemy Construction: Justifying the Internment ‘Solution’ to the ‘Japanese Problem’ during World War II”
  • Martinez, “Mexican Americans and Whiteness”

One-page paper due: Choose a theme in the readings for today and explain what it teaches about the ways in which white supremacy is normalized.
Deconstructing whiteness in film: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Wed. 11 Feb. Material and Structural Whiteness Theorizing
  • Lipsitz, “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the ‘White’ Problem in American Studies”
  • Sanchez, “Reading Reginald Denny: The Politics of Whiteness in the Late Twentieth Century [Response to Lipsitz]”
  • Taylor, “The Hidden Face of Racism [Response to Lipsitz]”
  • Williams, “A Tragic Vision of Black Problems [Response to Lipsitz]”
  • Lipsitz, “Toxic Racism [Response]”

Wed. 18 Feb. Race and Place
  • Sharfstein, “The Secret History of Race in the United States”
  • Adelman and Gocker, “Racial Residential Segregation in Urban America”
  • Finkelpearl, “The City as Site”
For next time, watch Spanglish

Wed. 25 Feb. Discursive Whiteness Theorizing
  • Lubiano, “Like Being Mugged by a Metaphor: Multiculturalism and State Narratives”
  • Kidder, “Colonial Remnants: Assumptions of Privilege”
  • Hill, “Language, Race, and White Public Space”
Deconstructing whiteness in film: Spanglish

Wed. 4 March Institutional Whiteness
  • Stein, “Strategies for Failure”
  • Gilmore, Smith, and Kairaiuak, “Resisting Diversity: An Alaskan Case of Institutional Struggle”
  • Guinier, “Confirmative Action in a Multiracial Democracy”

Electronic handout summarizing whiteness theory frameworks:

Extra credit will be offered to students who wish to attend Gary Howard’s Jones Lecture and to write a short (1½ pages) response paper about the talk. His keynote address will be on

March 10, 2009 from 4:30 - 6:00 p.m. at the Officers’ Club, upper campus

Wed. 11 March Struggling with White Identity
We will be attending Tim Wise’s talk at the Union at 4:00 and will meet afterwards to discuss his talk as well as the readings for today.
  • Pratt, “Identity: Skin Blood Heart”
  • Woodson, Mis-Education of the Negro, Preface and Chapters 1 & 3
  • Thompson, Schaefer, and Brod, “Chip Berlet”
  • Thompson, Schaefer, and Brod, “Rick Whaley”

Midterm paper due on Friday 13 March, by 5 p.m.


Wed. 25 March Reconstructing White Identity
Guest speakers:Megan Hallett and Eugene Tachinni:  Performing Visual Inventories
  • Helms, “Toward a Model of White Racial Identity Development”
  • Frye, “White Woman Feminist”
  • Berubé, “How Gay Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays”

Wed. 1 April Representing Others
  • Albers and William R. James, “Utah’s Indians and Popular Photography in the American West: A View from the Picture Post Card”
  • Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others”
  • duCille, “Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of Difference”

In-class project: Bring to class an illustrated children’s book (fiction or biography) that includes people of different races or ethnicities but has a white person as at least one of its protagonists. The book doesn’t necessarily have to have race as its overt topic. Read the book in full, in advance, if it is fairly short. If it is a longer children’s book, read several chapters. (The six city libraries have good children’s book selections, or you may want to check the Marriott Library or your school library.) We will be deconstructing whiteness in children’s books during part of class, working in groups of three or four.

Two-page paper due: Focusing on the children’s book you have chosen, explain how whiteness theory helps you frame a critique of its treatment of race issues. If you have chosen a picture book, focus on the illustrations as well as the written narrative.

Wed. 8 April Whiteness and Pedagogy
  • Jones, “The Limits of Cross-Cultural Dialogue: Pedagogy, Desire, and Absolution in the Classroom”
  • Boler, “All Speech Is Not Free: The Ethics of ‘Affirmative Action Pedagogy’”
  • Berlak, “Confrontation and Pedagogy: Cultural Secrets, Trauma, and Emotion in Antioppressive Pedagogies”

Handout: Whiteness theory teaching tips

Brief sentence outlines and thesis statements for final papers due. Bring four copies to class, for small group discussion.

Wed. 15 April Preparing Teachers
  • Bennett, “Reading, ’Riting, and Racism”
  • Montecinos, “Multicultural Teacher Education for a Culturally Diverse Teaching Force”
  • Hernández Sheets and Chew, “Absent from the Research, Present in Our Classrooms: Preparing Culturally Responsive Chinese American Teachers”

Wed. 22 April Teachers and Whiteness
  • Kohl, “The Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott Revisited”
  • Sleeter, “How White Teachers Construct Race”
  • Lawrence and Tatum, “Teachers in Transition: The Impact of Antiracist Professional Development on Classroom Practice”

Good drafts of final papers due

Wed. 29 April Organizing Change
  • Bailey, “Taking Responsibility for Community Violence”
  • Thompson, “Resisting the ‘Lone Hero’ Stance”
  • Gitlin, Buendía, Crosland, and Doumbia, “The Production of Margin and Center: Welcoming/Unwelcoming of Immigrant Students”

Wed. 6 May Final paper due by 5:00 PM
You may bring the paper to the main office, 307 MBH, or to my office, 308C MBH, or you may send it as an email attachment. If you do the latter, be sure to check back soon after to make sure that I was able to open the attachment.

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