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Composition Forum 19, Spring 2009

Trainor, Jennifer Seibel. Rethinking Racism: Emotion, Persuasion, and Literacy Education in an All-White High School. Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale, 2008: 176 pp.

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Meagan Rodgers

“[S]tudents’ racism doesn’t reduce to racism” (4). Jennifer Seibel Trainor identifies this statement as the focus of her new book Rethinking Racism: Emotion, Persuasion, and Literacy Education in an All-White High School. After a year-long study of two English classes at a predominantly white mid-Eastern high school, Trainor asks us to rethink the idea that racism stems from a need to protect white privilege or from ignorance or lack of exposure to difference. Instead, she suggests that we understand racism as “a series of ‘emotioned’ beliefs that are not necessarily about race per se” (3). Trainor draws on recent scholarship on the role of emotion in ideological processes to argue that common school practices sometimes inadvertently provide the emotional scaffolding that make racist discourses persuasive. In her focus on emotion and persuasion as the sources of racism, Trainor calls into question one of the key metaphors used to discuss race: whiteness as property. This metaphor suggests that owning whiteness (i.e. being white) is similar to owning property: those who own land and homes can access resources that non-owners cannot, and, historically, those who own whiteness have been able to access resources that non-whites cannot. (See Catherine Prendergast’s Literacy and Racial Justice for a fuller treatment of how this metaphor extends into literacy studies.) Trainor problematizes this metaphor in two ways: first, she contends that understanding whiteness as property can lead to an incorrect interpretation of apparently racist comments; and second, she argues that the property accessed by whiteness is not constant—economic class and emotion complicate the relationship.

Trainor sat in on two classes taught by Elizabeth, a progressive teacher at Laurel Canyons High School. This year-long ethnographic approach gave Trainor a history with the students that allowed her to consider students’ individual utterances in larger institutional, social, and affective contexts. Trainor describes her role as that of a co-instructor, helping Elizabeth craft lessons and assisting students in class when Elizabeth was unavailable. Through this process, Trainor came to feel Elizabeth’s classroom challenges as her own. She reports on conversations she had with Elizabeth regarding “the frustrating contradictions we experienced in our efforts to enact antiracist and critical education. We wanted to empower the students and to honor their points of view” (108).

Because Trainor immersed herself in these two classes, she observed relationships and interactions that are best captured in narrative form. Accordingly, Rethinking Racism contains both narrative and traditional forms of academic reporting and analysis. In crafting the narrative, she deliberately “played with order and sequence throughout the book” (31) in order to highlight selected themes. Because of these choices—consistent with the practices of creative nonfiction—the text is “a transparently created story, one deliberately constructed to convey the complexity of students’ literacy experience with, rhetorical constructions of, and persuasive investment in ideas about race at Laurel Canyons” (44). Trainor’s construction is seamless; the text shifts easily between analysis and narrative, making the book a lively piece of scholarship.

Throughout the text, Trainor illustrates how a white student’s apparent participation in a racist discourse can be interpreted first in terms of the metaphor that whiteness is a property that whites must protect and preserve, and second, in terms of the “emotioned rules” often taught, though seldom acknowledged, in school. For example, students in Elizabeth’s Advanced Writing class read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Several students responded by criticizing Angelou for blaming whites for her problems. Laura, one of the focal students, commented on this theme in her interview with Trainor:

[Angelou] might have, in the beginning, blamed [whites], but she learned to be tolerant of whites. She learned not to judge them. And I really respect that about her. I think everyone at this school should read this book. It would show them that if they take responsibility and work hard, it will pay off. All the people who don’t want to do that around here? The kids who don’t care, the rednecks and druggies—you know who they are, just look around—a lot of them are just bringing down the level for everyone else. (55)

Trainor offers a whiteness-as-property analysis of Laura’s statement: “Laura’s insistent erasure of Angelou’s race and her desire to distance herself from ‘others’ of all types, including her working-class white classmates, is a strategy that allows Laura to avoid confronting truths about racial inequality that would call her own privilege into question” (55). This race-inflected analysis shows how Laura engages Angelou’s work while ignoring how white privilege is implicated. Trainor does not disagree with this analysis but supplements it with a consideration of the emotioned rules taught via institutional practices at Laurel Canyons. She suggests that Laura’s need to distance herself from “the rednecks” and “druggies” may be “derived from lessons learned in school, where the fates of students who don’t perform or conform often figure in a pervasive, fear-based motivational rhetoric” (55). When Laura compares herself to her lower-achieving classmates, she is able to measure the benefit of her hard work, thereby reinforcing one of the values emphasized in her schooling.

Trainor also argues that the property value of whiteness is not universally applied to those who possess whiteness: “to characterize whiteness as a wage that confers systemic privileges, that indicates a particular economic relationship to literacy, to see whiteness as a wage that can purchase literacy and whites as thus owning it is to miss much about the contested nature of literacy, race, and class” (135). Trainor shows us this most clearly in the case of Michelle, a white student somewhere between working- and middle-class for whom access to literacy has been both granted and questioned by her teachers because of her race:

Positioned as possessing access to education—"you’re college material," her teacher tells her—[Michelle] is also alienated from it by her friendship with a person of color and, perhaps more complexly, by her own sense that education is more limiting than advantageous, an expensive waste that will take her away from friends and family and provide her with skills she and her family believe she won’t need. (137)

It is no surprise that analyses of race are intricately wound up with issues of class. Here, we see that class can complicate the value of the property of whiteness. Instead, then, of considering whiteness as property, Trainor suggests “a view of whiteness as [a] dynamic, emotioned, rhetorical process rather than ‘property’—metaphoric or actual—that gives way to racism as a rational way to hang on to what one owns” (128).

Considering students’ whiteness in this way prompts a look at the various factors which may make racist ideas persuasive to white students. In the case of Laurel Canyons, Trainor argues that the values ingrained in the school’s curriculum are worth reconsidering. She invokes the metaphor of the “hidden curriculum,” which has been used elsewhere to explain how social class values are taught in unacknowledged ways, suggesting that so too might race be inadvertently taught. At Laurel Canyons, the hidden curriculum emphasized particular emotional dispositions, including individual agency, and encouraged students to focus on the positive rather than the negative. In Elizabeth’s English classes, these lessons appeared in several students’ responses to Angelou. Trainor summarizes:

Assertions such as “Angelou complains too much” and “Black people whine about racism all the time” were meant by students not necessarily to dilute or neutralize critiques of racism, though clearly that was a result of such claims, but rather to make possible a place for action and hope that students felt was necessary to their futures. . . .In other words, for some students, pointing out that Angelou was whining felt like a helpful comment, a way to help her or other people move past racism. (90)

Clearly, Elizabeth’s ability to encourage students to critique racism is undermined by the internalized lessons on individual empowerment and success. Looking forward, this hidden curriculum must be considered if we are to move toward more effective antiracist educational practices.

Ultimately, Trainor's contribution is to show the need to shift the focus away from individual racist intent and onto individual and collective emotions and their relationship to institutional practices and values. How are the values taught to white students reinscribing racist and discriminatory opinions? Trainor asserts that exposing this hidden curriculum makes change possible: “Changing racism will thus require more than ending material inequity. It will also require changing the institutional and discursive practices of schooling—the emotioned rules that schools demand and that give racist ideas their persuasive power” (140).

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