The Western Canon Low-Key Ensures White Supremacy
James Baldwin once famously stated, “ The crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society.”4 Every English teacher knows reading and writing are intertwined. We gain insight in how to write by reading and we gain more fluency in reading by writing. Ideally, the older students become, they become advanced and through practice and exposure to different texts, eventually, a student finds their style, voice, and individualized craft.
A fundamental issue with the aforementioned rhythm is, as it stands, the traditional English curriculum is dominated by Whiteness. In discussing Whiteness, I must first make a crucial distinction. Whereas white skin, with a lowercase w, is a physical feature of the human body; Whiteness, with a capital W, is a social construct stemming from the earliest chapters of American “settlement” and was designed to increase the political power and privilege of European colonizers.5 Whiteness empowered the rationale to exploit the land, resources, and bodies of those deemed non-white. White is an invented idea that was embedded into American law, sanctioning the oppression of those deemed non-white--including humans who have white skin.6 White is a social construct that empowered redlining and housing discrimination.7 Race in its very beginnings is a construct of racism. Although today, the most visible institutional markers of blatant white supremacy including, systems of slavery, Jim Crow and Eugenics are no longer legal, what remains are the more subtle and hidden forms of racism. This subtle racism, operating in a structural way in contrast to interpersonal, operates to strengthen the privilege of the White population and continue systemic disadvantage to communities of color.8
With this understanding of Whiteness in mind, I revisit the traditional English curriculum. The authors who are canonized are predominantly White. The protagonists within the text read in academic settings are predominantly White. And the curators and stakeholders in determining what is deemed worthy of literature, again--White. I am positive that the problem I just referenced is a fact you already know and probably tired of hearing; but if you want a quick refresher go on google and search for “famous American authors.” Take a look at who pops up. To be clear, I want to name two things up front. First, I will not be suggesting and justifying a long list of authors of color who deserve to be canonized. Secondly, my criticism of the canon being predominantly White--this is far from an issue in representation. The history of the construction of the Western Canon is tied to America solidifying its national identity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This didn’t only include the taking of land, and spread of religion, but also the spread of ideas. A nation’s identity is constructed by literature being read, and in this time period, what was being thrusted at the forefront were the ideas of White European Men.9 Just as the texts canonized is a choice rooted in empowering Whiteness, the heavy resistance to reconsider and make structural changes to the literature we study is still a choice to empower and sustain Whiteness. Without a nuanced understanding of history and structural racism, attempts in rethinking and changing the canon amount to decades of interpersonal disagreement and decision making.
The Limits of “Diversity” and “Inclusion”
The following is an excerpt produced from the International Literacy Association titled “Expanding the Canon: How Diverse Literature Can Transform Literacy Learning.”
Extending Our Reach Beyond The Classics:
As educators who teach with literature, we need to reflect constantly on the literature landscape shaping the classroom. Books selected for instructional focus should demonstrate high-quality word craft, the study of which will enhance students’ abilities to think, reflect, write, and present with increasing levels of skill and cogency.10
What’s explicitly stated here is a challenge to reflect on the literature landscape, and to think of a book that will enhance students’ abilities to an assortment of skills. What’s subtle here is two things; first the establishments without explicit naming of “classics” and secondly, the active definition of what shapes “high-quality '' prior to the list of what’s named. Colorblind reflections in reshaping the canon, absent a lens of power, will lead to solutions under the banner of representation.
Regardless of where and whom you teach, many of the following scenarios might sound familiar:
- A diversity expert has come to your school to facilitate a workshop on diversity and inclusion.
- A teacher created a new unit at the end of the year centered on a book by an author of color.
- A teacher used Black History Month as the perfect opportunity to go hard in planning lessons for poets Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, and if the teacher is feeling passionate, throw in Black musical artists as well.
- A teacher has recently incorporated quotes and facts for Hispanic and Asian American Heritage month.
- A teacher attained funding to open up a new section containing books by authors of color.
For each attempt at diversification, its effectiveness and success varies upon the dynamics of each individualized classroom. What’s guaranteed however, is that attempts at diversity as a means of “representation” regardless of who is included, guarantees the canon remains as is--White. Responses in “inclusion” are a way to change the racial-makeup of a curriculum and create an implicit misconception that studying texts from the viewpoint of a person of color comes at the expense of academic rigor. It simply isn’t enough to include books from authors of aggrieved populations, meanwhile, maintaining the same approach to reading.11 What’s ignored is the level of richness and rigor that comes with race-conscious reading, which would inherently challenge readers to engage through different perspectives. It is the ongoing standardization of the works of White, antiquated, colorblind texts that underpin the dominant methodologies in teaching English.
Regardless of what our opinion is of the canon, and teaching the canon, so long as we remain teachers in public American education--we are forced to engage with the canon. As students we learned the canon, in our teacher training and certification we learned the canon in more depth, then were tested upon our knowledge of the canon and the writing structures within it to become certified. What’s deemed the highest level of literature, AP Literature and AP Language of Language and Composition, are designed for students to again, internalize White dominant craft moves and rhetorical structures. The experience of White canonical authors is one absent from the experience of racism in America and the complications of navigating in a racist society. Their literary process lacked language, ideology, or consciousness and most bluntly-- their writing does not approach the complexities that come with being a person living in 2021. As a result, the major texts studied and taught in literature curriculums that we as teachers don’t have to pay for, stand as the primary examples of how to transcribe human experience into writing.
Students engage in a career-long series of comprehending canonical texts, and then writing about them, and then all of a sudden without meaningful engagement in introspection, or critical thought, are supposed to have the ability to write a personal narrative armed with knowledge of how to structure a story and craft moves in isolation. This dissonance is what leads to the silences and struggle engaging with writing personal narratives. For students of color, they’re being asked to write a story about their life using writing techniques and structures derived from experiences of White authors unattuned to questions of hierarchy, power, and struggle. For White students, they’re being asked to tell a story using writing tools crafted by White men who lived centuries before them.
The Writers Workshop Model
Again, reading and writing are intertwined. Reading is the internalization of literature, and writing is the externalization of understanding literature. The writers workshop model is a dominant practice in the teaching of writing. Students learn, write, get feedback, share, get feedback, and finalize. In the earliest versions of the traditional writers' workshops in university programs in the U.S, and even still to this day, the workshop leaders, participants, and grounding texts are predominantly white Professor Felicia Rose Chavez, characterizes the origins and current state of the traditional workshop model as an “institution of dominance and control.”12 She reflects on everything from workshop leaders, participants, required texts of study and the persistence of a system that ultimately silences authors of color. In his essay, MFA Vs. POC, author Junot Diaz, criticizes the domination of whiteness in his creative writing program at Cornell in the 1990’s:
In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.13
Twenty years after this experience, and now as an accomplished writer, Diaz reflects, “I’ve worked in two MFA programs and visited at least 30 others and the signs are all there. The lack of diversity of the faculty. Many of the students’ lack of awareness of the lens of race, the vast silence on these matters in many workshops.” Again, reading and writing is intertwined, and as it stands, the writers workshop structure is modeled through the thinking of canonical authors and its widespread facilitation, even at the highest of educational institutional levels, is built in a way to which its participants are meant to write in a specific type of way in contrast to exploring areas of creativity.
It’s haunting to read how even in these two separate experiences, I too, in my own practice, have focused entire class periods of writers workshops as an arena for students to practice a prescribed craft, encouraging silence in contrast to creativity. Attempts in student explorations of race and identity have always had an inorganic fit with the parameters of what I have assigned, and therefore, I’ve always had approaches in isolation in advising writing. My classroom is in a place where students simply ask me to give commentary on their progress, and students, when they share with each other, just like the experience of Chavez and Diaz, is through a mainly a structured process of giving advice again in alignment to their ability to replicate Standard English..
Sounding White and Linguistic Discrimination.
It’s always interesting to me how much students have to say verbally, but then when it comes to putting it on paper, for a multitude of reasons, it doesn’t translate. A few quick anecdotes. I graded and advised a students’ argumentative essay, and we were discussing their conventions together. After pointing out patterns of grammatical error, my student looked up like a lightbulb went off and asked, “Got it...so I gotta sound white?'' While supervising a study hall, my seniors were dressed up preparing for a scholarship interview talking to each other about the experience. Three of my students with a bit more interpersonal experience and who already went through the experience gave a piece of advice that grounded the rest, “It’s easy, just sound white.'' During class, while students were engaging in small group discussion, I listened as one of my students debriefed her understanding of the day’s passage. Another student looked at her and said “Yo, you sound white!” Annoyed by the comment, she responded “Um. I’m educated.” Everyone understood both the comment, and the rebuttal. None of these students were explicitly taught this understanding of “sounding white,” yet there is a universal understanding of what it means. In each context, white was associated with education, access, and higher grades. I've always struggled navigating this idea because--in a structure where employers and stakeholders for social uplift pay specific attention to body language grammar and social affect--“sounding white” actually isn’t bad advice. Also, in reading sentences with commas, semicolons, and with correct punctuation-- “sounding white” isn’t a completely inaccurate summation.
After learning in more depth about the history, purpose and patterns of whiteness however, I’ve learned first and foremost that having conversations about Whiteness absent of power inevitably lead to confusion. We have the ability and agreement to describe it, and universally agree on it--yet naming and describing Whiteness becomes an intellectual challenge. This is by design. White dominance gains, holds, and secures its power by being nothing in particular. 14There is a conflation between “White” and “professional.” America unfortunately has a past and ongoing present pertaining to discriminatory linguistic profiling. Individuals with “ethnic” names are viewed differently in applications through writing. Individuals with “foreign accents” are met with more resistance and criticism. Historically, each wave of immigrants were mocked in the struggle to master “good” English.15 Although the U.S has no declaration of an official language, those who do not have a level of mastery in “standard English,” have less access and privilege in society. It is in this same ethos, a hyperfocus in learning of “good English,” that causes a subsequent discrimination and relegation of language outside academic English. In his book, A Strangers Journey, he reflects on the witnessing the dismissal of Black Vernacular as “publishable” writing, and ties the struggle of being a writer of color, to an ongoing societal struggle:
Writers of color don’t have video proof of their reality, just their words. That their words and sense of reality continue to be dismissed, excluded, marginalized and distorted links them to a struggle taking place everywhere in American society, the struggle for their communities to be heard and their truths to be acknowledged.16
There isn’t only an understood requirement in what to read, and how to write--but also, how to sound. Any student who has an accent opposite to the dominant linguistic of their classroom, is at an automatic disadvantage in the literature classroom, even if they are actually fluent in English.
The Common Core and The College Essay
The glue that holds the dominant educational structure together in K-12 education is The Common Core Standards. The Common Core Standards are positioned as a universal set of guidelines for mastery of all subject areas in public education. There is no mention of race or intent in producing race-consciousness for anyone engaging in the standards; it is the quintessential colorblind ideology. With a fundamental and designed lack of race consciousness on the teacher's end, the creation of lessons, units and curriculums are guaranteed to reproduce the aforementioned White dominant constructs in literature, leading to the stifling of creativity and perspective of everyone involved. The Common Core Standards for 11-12th grade narrative writing, also identical for 9th and 10th graders, (ELA-W.11-12.3) states that students should be able to, “Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.” The connected standards for narrative writing include tidbits that define what the “effective techniques” “well chosen details' ' and what “well structured” consists of. This includes the usage of sensory language, dialogue, and writing that is structured in the form of problems, progression of coherent events, all leading to a resolution.17 It is important to note that it isn’t noted how these specific practices came to be deemed as “effective,” or “well chosen,” it is simply a stated declaration that they are. And it is in this moment we go back to what we know and what was taught to us. With these standards defining exemplary, narrative writing becomes significantly less about the experience of the writer, and more of a platform for usage of “Standard English.”
Methods in teaching narrative writing traditionally include various iterations of reading anchor texts with the heavy usage of imagery and dialogue, lessons in grammar rules in isolations, and then mimicking authors technique via reflection on personal experience. Different iterations of these practices repeat throughout all 4 years of a student's high school career. The ideal result, with repetition throughout the years, students are equipped to use what they’ve learned to be prepped for the penultimate personal narrative--the college essay. The college essay is positioned as a way for admission committees to learn more about the lives and personality of the applicant...but all know this isn’t the case. The college essay, just like the common core, is positioned as neutral, however, also like the common core, it is far from this. It is imperative to contextualize college admission prompts with the dominant practices in teaching English. Through this lens, although the parameters set can be perceived to encourage honesty, creativity, and personal experience, they are actually a hindrance. The 2021-2022 Common App, a universal college application used by over one million students yearly. Below are the three choices in the personal essay:
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.18
To help with approaching this essay, the following is on Harvard University’s website, advising applicants, “...Look at [ the personal narrative] as an opportunity to write about something you care about, rather than what you think the Admissions Committee wants to hear...Remember, your topic does not have to be exotic to be compelling.”19 Without parameters, the task of thinking about how many experiences fit the prompts is already cognitively difficult.Upon close examination of the questions, what seems like a creative challenge on the surface, thinking about a meaningful story, is actually a structural challenge in choosing the right story. I challenge you to think of an experience you would write about. This experience should include a setting and situation where you can include sensory details. This experience should involve a conversation. There also has to be both a clear problem, solution, and also well-structured events. Oh and remember, it doesn’t have to be “exotic” to actually be good. Although not named explicitly from the parameters of the prompts, the line of questioning leads to a specific structure accessible through mastery of techniques of the common core.
Out of all the words and messaging to choose to say, Harvard gives a reminder that topics don’t have to be “exotic.” Something can only be defined as “exotic” in commenting on “other” cultures. Meaning, the operating assumption is that the student reading the prompt is White. The emphasis on “exotic” is a nod to a myth that students of color have unearned advantage in their admission due to their background. In actuality,the design of this prompting has a unique disadvantage for students of color. They have the added psychological burden to perform higher than their negative perception in avoidance of confirming the existing negative stereotype--a concept coined as a stereotype threat..20 This time, the threat isn’t performing well on a math test--it’s a written evaluation on students’ ability to write about their life, and what’s on the line is college admission; the thing that Black and Brown students have been literally told is “freedom.” The widespread repetitive stories and inauthentic voice produced by students in their submissions of college essays are a direct result of the structure of the prompting, and the literal k-12 pathway leading upto the production of this essay. The human experience isn’t universal, the writing tools and methods used to convey the human experience shouldn't be universal. What if a student learned empathy, but through a moment of body language in contrast to verbal communication? And if there was verbal communication, what if it wasn’t in English? How does someone express the layers of challenge of being a student of color in a White dominant school through dialogue, sensory details, and plot structure? The college essay is yet another colorblind construct, lacking a fundamental understanding of intersectionality, henceforth encouraging assimilation into a way of being.
The Consciousness Gap and Sustainable Change
To reiterate, the creation and sustainment of the Western Canon upholds the standardization of Whiteness in literature--both in writing and linguistics. The writers' workshop has a sustained legacy of denying the perspective and presence of authors of color, and positioning elements of Whiteness as elite. The Common Core standards written around narratives ensure good writing is the mastery of specific techniques in contrast to meaningful experience, and the college essay is a penultimate task that ensures the White dominant rhythm in writing persists. These are four examples among countless others that operate in unison, reproducing a widespread result in stifling perspective and creativity, especially for students of color.
Before I move forward, I want to make a few things clear:
- Black and Brown students can absolutely learn valuable lessons reading texts from White authors, especially in literary writing.
- I do not believe White authors, professors, and major stakeholders who support the western canon as it stands are conspiring White supremacists with an intent to marginalize people of color.
- Although I do believe there will be impact, I do not believe replacing White authors with authors of color in all mainstream curriculums will enact major educational transformation.
- It’s possible, and there have been countless examples of students of color finding success in the ELA education system as it stands, and White students can be unsuccessful.
It is essential to understand how the multiple pieces function together and imperative to move away from criticizing the elements of teaching literature in isolation. But by design, again, we are not conditioned to think this way. What doesn’t exist in mainstream programs in teacher education, and education at large, is critical consciousness. Engaging in topics on educational change without critical consciousness, an understanding of systems and power, and also a study of history outside mainstream textbooks, will only lead to solutions that uphold the function of the system as it stands. As Dr. Dorinda Carter states, “Educators have to be able to say that ‘I work in a system that is inherently unequal.’”21 In the most cliché reminder, we cannot change the past. Something I’d add to this is that we can’t deny, rewrite, or be actively complicit to the past either. We must take the knowledge we have and do our absolute best to identity, acknowledge, and work toward changing legacies of our racist past in hopes for a more equitable future. We must also remain conscious of the present and the effect our choices have on those around us, and ourselves. I have yet to meet a teacher that has stated anywhere near something along the lines of, “The American Education system is equitable, fully functional, and prepares students for being an active citizen in our society.” I work with former teachers, advocates, and community partners who push for notions that absolutely everything needs to change and it needs to change now. I work with present day teachers who all believe something needs to be changed, disagree on what, however are all collectively overworked and exhausted. If we tried to change everything overnight, the result would be damaging for all stakeholders involved. If we change nothing, the result will be continuously damaging for all stakeholders involved.
In the rest of this unit, I will be outlining principles, pedagogies and methods that counter the dominant practices and structures referenced above. This is a mix of ideas I have found in my research, and original ideas created by me. It is important to note that all five pedagogical principles I name should be engaged together, not in isolation.