TKAM: I See (white) People

The primary lens through which we will teach To Kill a Mockingbird is that while it is a book about race and injustice, it is really a book about white people. We introduced the book with this clarification.  A lot of people think that because it is a book about racial injustice it is a book about Black people and therefore checks the box for “diverse curriculum” or “teaching about racism”. Pieces have been written about why this is not true, and there are SO MANY BETTER books to choose if that is the goal.  The beginning chapters are pretty dull unless you are mining them for information about white, southern Alabama small town culture. There is little to learn about Black people’s lives, joy, or even pain from this book.  They say we write what we know (or we should), and it doesn’t feel like Harper Lee knew very much about us. 

A lot of people also think it is a book about white anti-racist heroes.  We also clarify that, too, is not true.  Atticus Finch is a white widowed lawyer dad raising his two kids in a small south Alabama town. He does his job, upholds his family’s legacy, and makes choices he thinks align with his moral universe.  He is no one’s savior. Tom dies anyway. The town closes back in on itself, white supremacy intact. The system beats them all. 

Why am I convinced it is important to teach about whiteness? Because we cannot even begin to contemplate ending racism, particularly in schools, unless we do. If you are not familiar with white racial identity development, I recommend checking out the following resources.

Teaching While White podcast with Dr. Janet Helms

Ali Michael, PhD, Ted Talk

Ali Michael PhD – “What White Children Need to Know About Race”

The big picture is that white people do experience racial socialization and form racial identities.  There is a process for this racial identity development and it is composed of several non-linear stages. Without understanding this process and making intentional moves to develop a non-violent white identity, we get what we have always had – individuals, well meaning or not, who uphold a white supremacy that wreaks havoc on the world as it seeks to control and dominate people of color and resources.  To Kill A Mockingbird is proving to be an authentic text for introducing these ideas and making space for a necessary dialogue. I should mention that I teach in predominantly white independent schools where students of color are tired of having to carry the weight of these conversations. They find their classmates ill-equipped, and the white privilege and fragility exhausts them. I might not center this conversation if I taught primarily students who were Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. The needs of my students would be different and so would my curriculum. The context, as always, matters.

Recently, a New York City school came under fire for using the work of Dr. Barnor Hesse on The 8 White Identities.  These charts were posted and shared widely.  I won’t argue about the validity of this framework; it’s based on research and the progression lands for me.

The 8 white identities are a really interesting way to look at Atticus and the white people around him.   He is MAX a 6 at the height of his “heroism”, but he really doesn’t stay there very long. 3 is probably his comfort zone.  The town is definitely a 1. Young Scout is clearly a 2. 

Atticus actually loses Black readers early on in the book when he tells Scout not to say the n-word because it is beneath their class and to simply ignore her classmates who do say this racial slur. His advice does little to affirm the humanity of Black people and has much more to do with how he sees “their kind” of white people. The case was further sealed for me with Atticus’s later statement that “there’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance”, a patronizing statement that indulges racist beliefs about Black intellect while upholding the presumed superiority of white men within the system of oppression.  Young readers don’t learn anything useful about how respond to racism in real time from To Kill A Mockingbird. We can, however, learn about the motivations a white widowed dad raising his two kids in South Alabama might have for teaching his kid not saying the n-word as they relate to his family’s class and educational privilege among other white people. We can learn how a successful white lawyer doing the unpopular thing of defending a Black man can still fail to see that Black man as anything but less than him.

Rev. angel Kyoto williams has a really provocative teaching on the suffering that oppressive systems inflict on oppressors, in addition to those being oppressed.  She says, 

It is only when you find your story—when you realize the way you think and how you are has been utterly conditioned—that you will understand that even if on the surface you get to do all kinds of things, in truth, you have absolutely no choices at all. You have no choice at all other than to abide in this location and uphold it and be complicit in it for fear that to disrupt it will destroy who you are. 

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus fails to become an anti-racist hero when it matters most – in the quiet moments at home while raising his children. His platitudes about empathy fall short of him really wanting to challenge the status quo and use his privilege to improve life for the Black citizens of Maycomb. Placing too much emphasis on the ways in which he fulfills his tax funded work duties encourages mediocre racial justice work.

It is often argued that the Finches are confined by their circumstances, surroundings, and a set of perceived limits that require them to ultimately preserve the rules of whiteness they are conditioned to believe in. If so, then my students are blessed to be children of these times. By learning about the choices the white characters in To Kill A Mockingbird fail to make, I hope my students learn to create space for those choices in their own lives.

When we know better, we do better.