Disrupting the White Default in English Language Arts

I  acknowledge that I am writing this post from Treaty 6 land and the Homeland of the Metis, which has been a gathering place for a diversity of Indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

[Note: Throughout this post, I use the term “BIPOC” to collectively refer to Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Colour. Umbrella terms often fail to encompass the breadth and diversity of experiences that are encapsulated across and within these groups. For this post, it’s usage is meant to highlight a specific shared experience of these groups - underrepresentation in literature and schools.]

As a child, I voraciously devoured books and plunged headfirst into the different realms that each book brought me to. During holidays, I would anxiously anticipate a new book as a gift, and my family could consequently count on me spending the next couple of hours with my face burrowed in it. As an elementary school student, books were a constant companion. I would sneak pages wherever I could. As a pre-teen, I learned to shove a t-shirt in the cracks of my bedroom door to prevent light from peeking through and alerting my parents to my late-night non-compliance. On the occasions where they caught me, I had a small book light hidden under my bed that made itself useful under the covers. Trips to the local library were a highly anticipated excursion, and summer reading clubs became a personal challenge. Books were a safe place to explore new ideas and new worlds. Yet, despite all that, I can only recall reading a handful of books featuring BIPOC characters, and even fewer that were written by BIPOC authors. 

Take a moment to reflect on your favorite childhood books and picture the characters. If your experience is anything like mine, they were overwhelmingly white. 

When we hear the term white supremacy, many of us tend to think of violent, vitriolic hate groups, but white supremacy is also the system that allows white people to benefit from structural advantages that other races do not. From an early age, children are inundated with messages about their own identity and the identities of others, which affects their self-image and worldview. Consider things like book and TV characters, advertisements, children’s toys, make-up, band-aids, etc. and the subsequent messaging that whiteness is more acceptable. Whiteness is the default setting that exists as the silent norm, and all other races are named as different and “other.” That is part of why so many white people are uncomfortable hearing the words “white people” - they’re not used to having their racial existence pointed out. We need to be conscientious of terminology that is rooted in upholding dominant identities as the standard everyone else is measured against. By refusing to name whiteness, we are allowing it to exist unchecked.

Around the world, there has been an increasing number of conversations about racial justice and calls to affirm and celebrate the identities of all students in classrooms and the curriculum. Before beginning to talk about deconstructing the curriculum, teachers need to start with self-examination of their own identity and intentionally reflecting on their privileges and biases. We tend to associate with people who look, talk, and act like ourselves. At an institutional level, that often results in preserving the status quo and perpetuating harmful attitudes. The same way BIPOC unconsciously internalize messages of inferiority, white people unconsciously internalize feelings of superiority. When we think about the education system, we need to remember that the foundational perspectives were dominated by traditionally educated, economically secure, hetero-normative, privileged White men. The reality is that the system was not designed to be inclusive for all. We need to be willing to deconstruct systems that erase and tokenize the experiences of BIPOC. People often do not recognize what a privilege it is to not only have your identity reflected on the pages of textbooks and novels but also have teachers, administrators, and decision-makers who look like you, talk like you, and share and understand experiences similar to yours. It’s sometimes hard for people to understand the need for representation when they’ve never experienced a lack of it. 

Many ELA teachers grew to love “the classics” as students and continue to teach them now that they are in their own classrooms. When I have conversations with fellow educators about interrogating and examining the classics, the response is often to jump to espousing their literary merits and the need for all students to experience them. What’s often neglected is the fact that the classics are not relevant for all students. After further dialogue, it usually becomes clear that the devout preservation of the classics is often a surrogate for refusing to have difficult conversations about race. What this type of defensiveness fails to acknowledge, is that the conversation isn’t about minimizing whiteness, it’s about interrogating how we can do a better job of representing all students. Nostalgia shouldn’t be an excuse for impeding progress.

Last year I had a parent of one of my eighth graders email me and thank me for being the first of her son’s teachers to use a book written by a Black author. This child existed in the school system for at least 8 years without being able to experience a text where the main character looked like him. An ethical system is not one that forces people to fight to be valued and makes them grateful on the rare occasion it occurs. Teaching is a profession that is dominated by white people, particularly white women. Many of these teachers have been previously exempt from participating in conversations about race. They have never spent time considering how easy it is to transition from benefiting from white supremacy culture to upholding it. Black and Brown students are often demonized for their lack of engagement and unwillingness to learn. Rarely do teachers consider how their practices augment existing systemic inequities, which results in students disliking school due to their existence being constantly devalued.

We need to critically examine who decided on the classics and the historical context in which those decisions were made. Who constructed the circumstances that determined the classics? Who benefits from those books being upheld as the epitome of prestige? Whose voices are being silenced? Whose existence is being denied consideration? What is considered worthy of being a classics should be subject to constant interrogation and negotiation. When we question the classics, we’re also questioning our complicity in maintaining the status quo. 

Don’t mistake this as a call for censorship. Progress isn’t censorship. Critical analysis isn’t censorship. Curating texts that allow all students to feel valued and respected, isn’t censorship. Knowledge is constantly evolving, and so too should our literary expectations and selections.

Our personal beliefs and values permeate all aspects of our classroom and teaching practice. White teachers who want to disrupt the white default, also need to disrupt their biases, disrupt how they view literature and disrupt their pedagogy. While it’s critical for all students to see themselves reflected in literature, it's equally important for their teachers to critically examine their own positionality. I regularly see ELA teachers in Facebook groups debating the contextual appropriateness of non-Black teachers using the n-word in an academic setting, discussing the merits of problematic texts because they provide “teachable moments” and “opportunities to learn”, reinforcing the white savior narrative, and amplifying the work of white authors discussing race because it’s viewed as more poignant than BIPOC authors whose works apparently lack rigor. It’s not only about updating texts, it’s about updating the lens that we use to examine texts. If a book is written from a different perspective than our own, we need to ensure that the character’s experiences are being portrayed accurately and authentically. We also need to make sure we are doing that author justice when we teach their work. There are too many good books to continue promoting problematic texts and/or authors. Teaching a book with a BIPOC character is not the same as decentering whiteness.

Writing by BIPOC authors is often viewed as inherently political. This attitude often minimizes the depth and complexity of characters and hyper focuses on race. White writers rarely face the same criticism and their racial identity goes unexamined as it silently imprints itself onto the pages. These are not small issues that exist in a vacuum. Editing and publishing are still industries that are predominantly white, which influences the texts that are available for consumption. White authors have the privilege of writing a story, whereas BIPOC authors are treated as if they are writing the story for all people of their race. This frame of mind completely erases the diversity that exists within racial groups. That only amplifies the importance of text selections - we are signaling to these industries that there is a demand for more stories by BIPOC authors, across genres and text types.
When we do teach these perspectives, are we limiting ourselves to showcasing suffering, or are we also celebrating successes too? In Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s book, Cultivating Genius, she shares that “...it is our job as educators to not just teach skills, but also to teach students to know, validate, and celebrate who they are.” Too often, stories of BIPOC characters and communities are written and told through a white-centered lens, which results in inaccurate or stereotypical portrayals. This type of representation contributes to a long and storied past of devaluing and marginalizing BIPOC voices. We need to consider who is writing these stories and whether we are prioritizing #ownvoices from within the communities being represented. Can texts be replaced with ones that are more authentic and relevant? Why should we keep financially rewarding authors for inaccurate writing when we could be buying books from people depicting their own cultures?

First and foremost, listen to BIPOC voices and trust the work that’s already being done. Just because it’s new to you, doesn’t mean it’s new to the universe. Speaking up is important, but not at the expense of speaking over those who are already in the thick of it. Value the experiences of your colleagues of color. Not just their racialized experiences, but their content knowledge and expertise as well. BIPOC educators, if you’re reading this, know that your voice is valuable and worthy of being heard.

Recognize that you have the ability to opt-in and out of these conversations at their own convenience. Understand the daily microaggressions and racial fatigue that your BIPOC colleagues are subjected to. Do what you can to alleviate it instead of adding to it. Take responsibility for educating yourself. Don’t expect other people to squander their energy providing simple explanations for you. Google is free! Find ways to expand the perspectives you’re exposed to in your own life.

Leverage your privilege. We need to understand that white supremacy culture is insidious and has seeped into every aspect of the school system. Do you speak up against discriminatory policies in your school/district? Do you question the lack of BIPOC in a multiplicity of teaching and leadership positions? Are you putting pressure on your school board to incorporate anti-racism/anti-bias work into schools? Are you emailing representatives to ask about the lack of representation in the curriculum (across subject areas)? The burden can’t be on only BIPOC teachers and students to ask for these changes. You will be uncomfortable (growth), you will irritate some people (oh well), and you will most certainly make mistakes (recognize and apologize.)

In the words of Brittany Packnett Cunningham - “spend your privilege.” What businesses/products are you supporting? What books are you buying for your personal learning? Are you compensating creators on social media for the resources you consume? If you’re financially able, send them a quick Venmo or PayPal for a cup of coffee! Specifically as teachers - looking at sites like Teachers Pay Teachers - whose resources are you purchasing?

Audit your classroom and the community you’ve cultivated for your students. What’s missing or requires improvement? Maybe it’s realizing that all the artwork in your classroom and the clipart in your PowerPoints primarily depicts white people. Maybe it’s realizing that the section in your classroom library labeled “Diverse Books” further propagates the idea of othering. Maybe it’s adding a land acknowledgment to honor the Indigenous lands you live and learn on. Maybe it’s realizing that you still can’t comfortably utter the words “Black Lives Matter” and you still have more work to do to cultivate an environment that’s safe for all students. 

Allow for multiple viewpoints, but challenge your students (and coworkers) when you hear them making prejudiced comments. Prepare for these types of remarks and practice what you will say and how you will respond when you do hear them. It may be awkward and flimsy at first, but the more you do it, the easier it will get. For more on addressing race in class, I recommend reading:
  • Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom
  • Letting Go of Literary Whiteness: Antiracist Literature Instruction for White Students
  • This Book is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do The Work

Lastly, it’s important to remember that identity is multifaceted. While this post largely focused on decentering whiteness, the default is by no means limited to race. We also need to consciously de-center other dominant identities. By acknowledging and valuing differences, we can actively challenge bias and stereotypes when we see them. How are we opposing not only racism but homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism, classism, ageism, etc. and all the intersections thereof?

Megan Tipler is a Métis teacher who lives and works in amiskwacîwâskahikan, also known as Edmonton. She is a secondary ELA teacher who is committed to empowering and validating all learners and ensuring their identities are valued in her classroom. She strives to incorporate texts that are representative and inclusive and is particularly passionate about integrating Indigenous perspectives into her teaching. You can find her on Instagram @tiplerteaches
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