March 2019
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DECENTERING WHITENESS IN TESOL
Scott Stillar, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA

When I speak to an audience that may be disinterested in social justice, I admittedly struggle to hedge my more radical musings in exchange for transformative discourses that tread lightly upon White fragility. However, considering the audience for this article and my reasonable confidence in the reader’s expertise in matters of social justice, I am faced with a different struggle. What can I tell you that you have not already heard many times before? What insights can I, a member of the most privileged race, class, and gender combination in the entirety of human history, possible express? Truth be told, I have no suitable answer to either of these questions. However, I do have a story and a unique perspective gained from decades of experience. It is my hope you will consider what little insight I have to offer.

My Critical Moment

Early in my 19 years as a TESOL educator, the most profound transformative moment of my life came not in a classroom, but at a dinner table in Japan. Somehow or another, the topic of racism came up and four White English conversation teachers emphatically lectured my friend, Lenisha, about our experiences with discrimination. Upon being bombarded with banal tales of racism, such as “Everyone stares at us,” “People won’t sit next to me on the train,” and “People just think they can use us for free English lessons anywhere,” Lenisha began to giggle. Her giggle grew into outright laughter with every vapid tale of perceived discrimination. Her laughter ceased when a member of our party stated, “I think racism in Japan is worse than it is back home [in the United States].”

Lenisha, a fiercely intelligent and well-traveled African-American woman, calmly nodded and said with a slight smile, “Oh you poor, poor White people. At least for you, there is a home you can go to escape it. All I can say is that in Japan, there ain’t nobody trying to kill me just cause I’m Black.”

While my other coworkers struggled to find apt responses, I remained silent and utilized every last gram of willpower in my meager possession not to weep. At that moment, Lenisha’s words forever shifted how I frame my race, my culture, my privileges, and my position in the world. At that moment, Lenisha “frame shifted” my consciousness away from the White supremacist habitus in which my racial identity was forged and allowed me to envision my personal role in her suffering via an overwhelming sense of empathy. At that moment, I simply listened, believed, and internalized the voice of one whose lived experience of disadvantage echoes an ongoing struggle that has continued for generations immemorial.

Frame Shifting

Fast-forward 15 years to the United States and my first semester as a doctoral student. As I meandered across campus amid a sea of wide-eyed Midwestern youth basking in early autumn weather and unexamined racial privilege, I witnessed a confident young man walking off the sidewalk to avoid the blinding wall of Whiteness that descended toward him. As I drew nearer to him, I noticed he was wearing an unseasonably warm, red, hooded sweater with bold letters stating a bold message, “All white people are racist.”

For a fleeting moment, it stung. The devil on my shoulder began prattling on about essentialism, determinism, and even the bosh concept of “reverse racism.” However, upon reaching my destination, I sat down and silenced my unwelcome, yet perennial shoulder-resident in a daze of introspection I refer to as a frame shift. I shifted away from feelings of being personally attacked. I shifted away from the desire to impose my White gaze upon a brave social protest. I shifted away from my implicitly tribalistic instinct to defend “my people.” Instead, I began to entertain the idea and honestly asked myself, “Are all White people racist?”

My first line of inquiry began by questioning the definition of racism. As one may imagine, I conceived the most convenient possible definition that exonerated me from any such accusation. But I was left unsatisfied. The question is deceptive in its simplicity, yet strong enough in its ambiguity that it begs for further inquiry. Have I benefited from racism, both historically and contemporarily? Yes and yes. Does being White confer upon me a host of unearned privileges? Absolutely. Does the White privilege I possess and benefit from come at the cost of disadvantage for people of color? Yes. So, if I benefit from systemic racism, does that make me a racist? ...Yes.

Though I wholly agree with the rationale behind it, it would be dishonest to say I don’t still struggle with the sentiments expressed on the young man’s sweater. After all, when we think of a racist, usually images of unhinged White men with bad spray tans and execrable hairstyles materialize in our imaginations. Until that point, I certainly never thought of myself as a racist. After all, I’ve dedicated my career to being a co-conspirator in the fight for social justice, my wife and children are racial minorities, and I’ve even marched in protest against White supremacy masked as legitimized authority. Yet, despite my best efforts, my continued benefaction from White privilege is the most pertinent litmus test, and it is one I most clearly fail. Thus, from this perspective, there is most certainly a valid case to be made that I, and every individual who shares my phenotype, are indeed racists.

Reframing Whiteness

In my experience, I’ve found it is not uncommon for these kinds of discourses to lead to even the most ardently progressive White people feeling personally attacked. After all, racism is (rightfully) equated with all manner of personal deficiencies. However, I cannot stress enough that critical discourse surrounding Whiteness is not an attack on those of us who inhabit White bodies, but rather it is an attack on the social construction of Whiteness as a hegemonic entity. Thus, when I mention frame shifting, I describe a deliberate disassociation with our tribalistic ethnoracial instincts in order to adopt a view of the social construction of Whiteness as a representation of structural racism and not the entirety of White people as actively promoting racial animus. Flores and Rosa (2017) more appropriately describe this concept:

The White speaking and listening subject should be understood not as a biographical individual but rather as an ideological position and mode of perception that shapes our racialized society. In this sense, White listening subjectivities are inhabited and enacted not simply by individual White people, but also potentially people of color, as well as seemingly inanimate objects such as institutions and assessments. Thus, it is crucial to analyze the ways that a range of actors and entities privilege hegemonic Whiteness. (p. 177)

What About TESOL?

As a critical TESOL educator, I am torn between my recognition of TESOL as a field that is uniquely brazen in its adoption of a colonial lens that normalizes Whiteness versus the opportunities TESOL allows for advocacy for disadvantaged linguistic and ethnoracial minorities. The question we must ask ourselves is, “As educators, where do we stand?” Do we stand with the practice of hiring a predominantly White staff in order to cater to the students’ raciolinguistic ideologies that relate Whiteness to unerring proficiency in the English language? Do we stand with racialized conceptualizations of “White English” as “standard English”? Or, do we stand together in recognition and rejection of the undue influence of White supremacy on the field of TESOL?

In my most humble opinion, to best serve our students, I contend that both TESOL educators and the field itself are in dire need of a frame shift. We must consciously decenter Whiteness from our schools, our curriculum, and, most especially, ourselves. In doing so, we turn the White gaze in on itself and open new channels for the problematization of White supremacy and its global impact. Moreover, by decentering Whiteness, we open new channels for emancipatory discourses that can assist in the formation of new gazes that perceive and help sustain the inherent value in all our students’ beautiful ways of being.

Reference

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2017). Do you hear what I hear? Raciolinguistic ideologies and culturally sustaining pedagogies. In D. Paris & H. S. Alim, Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world (pp. 175–190). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.


Scott Stillar is currently a third year PhD student in second language acquisition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests include raciolinguistics, critical Whiteness, critical pedagogy, and onomastics (study of names).
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SRIS Open Meeting
Please join us at our open meeting on Wednesday, March 13th from 5:00 pm - 6:30 pm in the Walnut room. We will also livestream the meeting on our facebook page.
Next Issue's Theme: Social Justice and the Arts
How do social justice and the arts intersect with language teaching? What arts projects have you done with your students on social issues? Submissions due 15 April, 2019.