Kincheloe, Joe L.; Steinberg, Shirley R.; Rodriguez, Nelson M. and Chennault, Ronald E. (Eds.) (1998). White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

xiii + 354 pp
$27.95 (Cloth)         ISBN 0-312-17716

Reviewed by Barbara Applebaum
Ohio University

February 11, 1999

Blindness and invisibility have traditionally characterized the production of white identity (Frankenberg, 1993; McIntosh, 1995), and, as a result, awareness must be the first and fundamental element in reconstructing whiteness. But then what?
For those educators who are becoming increasingly aware of the crucial role deconstructing whiteness plays in challenging social injustice and who appreciate the importance of reconstructing a positive but moral white identity for their students, White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America is an important and useful book. This collection of articles focuses on what whiteness is and does, analyzes different types of white responses to this knowledge, and offers a penetrating critique of the cultural terrain in which whiteness is subtly embedded and reproduced (as bell hooks puts it, "the normalization of Whiteness"). Moreover, the overriding concern of all the contributions is the articulation of a constructive pedagogy of whiteness. Indeed, the book's unique feature and the one that, I believe, has important educational implications is the positive stand it takes regarding the possibility of reconfiguring white identity.
We are living in a time when white anger is fueling conservative attacks on affirmative action and other social justice initiatives. White anger is, in fact, reinscribing whites as victims. At the same time, guilt- producing anti-racist, anti-dominance education has immobilized many whites whose commitments might, under other circumstances, compel them to work for social justice. Not only educators but critical theorists as well are beginning to recognize the need to move beyond self- criticism and deconstruction to a more proactive and constructive position (Alcoff, 1998). As author Ronald Chennault explains, one of aims of White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America is "to redefine what whiteness should be or to spell out ways to combat the oppressiveness that is a part of whiteness, thus trying to rescue its productive content" (p. 300).
The book presents sixteen articles by various scholars working in critical theory, critical pedagogy, and cultural studies. Although these articles are subsumed under the two major sections of the book (Theory and Pedagogy and Culture and Pedagogy), to me they are better classified under three categories of inquiry: analysis of the meaning of whiteness, examination of the different types of responses that white people have to learning about their whiteness, and cultural critique focusing on the various ways that whiteness becomes normalized.
Almost every paper in the collection added something to my understanding of whiteness and thereby contributed to my understanding of the effects of my white social location. Moreover, almost every paper helped me to see effective ways to encourage my students' self- reflection about their whiteness. In the limited space of a review, however, I cannot describe all of the papers nor can I recount all of the insights I gained from them. Instead I will focus on the papers that had the most significant impact on me, raising difficult but important questions about the pedagogy of whiteness.
The lead article, "Addressing the Crisis of Whiteness: Reconfiguring White Identity in a Pedagogy of Whiteness," serves as a superb introduction to the topic. In this article Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg deconstruct the meaning of whiteness and its function in the self-definition of white people. Lucidly describing the debilitating consequences of the contemporary identity crisis that white people are facing, they reconfigure white identity more constructively, rendering it capable of guiding a "pedagogy of whiteness." A powerful claim opens the discussion and delineates the crucial linkage between positionality and the social construction of knowledge: “Individuals cannot separate where they stand in the web of reality from what they perceive”(p. 3). Fundamental to an understanding of whiteness, the concepts of "positionality" and the "social construction of knowledge" form a framework that enables understanding of how social inequality in our society develops and is sustained. Because position partially determines what one sees, one's own positionality often seems transparent. This is all the more so when, structurally, whiteness is naturalized and universalized. To reveal white positionality to white people, it must be brought out from behind its naturalized invisibility.
Kincheloe and Steinberg attribute the formation of whiteness to the Enlightenment ideology that cast Reason at the apex of human progress. Whiteness came to be synonymous with rationality, and rationality came to be synonymous with "the good." Similarly, non-whiteness became identified with irrationality and deficiency. For this reason, Kincheloe and Steinberg claim that a constructive pedagogy of whiteness depends upon a reconfiguration of Reason.
But what exactly about Reason needs to be reconfigured--its content and structure or the uses to which it has been put? If we were to demote Reason, construing it as just one among a multitude of different human accomplishments, would this be change enough? Moreover, what is the role and value of rationality in a reconfiguration of white identity? Should we (indeed, can we) reconfigure Reason without making use of it? Finally, how guilty ought each of us to feel for our (irrational?) attachments to Reason?
Despite their neglect of these questions, Kincheloe and Steinberg contribute an important insight by describing the situational and historical construction of whiteness, which is “always shifting, always reinscribing itself around changing meanings of race in the larger society.” (p. 4) Whiteness, as Kincheloe and Steinberg argue, is a social construction. It is not fixed; it has no essential character. Rather, whiteness undergoes change and, for that reason, whiteness can be changed!
Nelson Rodriguez's paper, "Emptying the Content of Whiteness: Toward an Understanding of the Relation between Whiteness and Pedagogy," both focuses and elaborates upon many of the points made by Kincheloe and Steinberg. Rodriguez's unique contribution is his discussion of the need to base a pedagogy of whiteness on a map of the content of whiteness. Rodriguez maintains that whiteness, although always changing and seemingly invisible, has content. And the content of whiteness must be recognized and taken into account if one is to understand how social inequalities are perpetuated. In a trenchant quote from Coco Fusco, Rodriguez underscores this point, “…to ignore white ethnicity is to redouble its hegemony by naturalizing it.”
Whiteness comes to be seen as natural by constituting and at the same time adhering to certain norms. These norms make particular social relations appear timeless and natural so that people accept them without question, Rodriguez argues. To name these socially constructed norms, for example, the norm of heterosexuality, is one way to interrogate whiteness, unmasking its content and destabilizing its power. Such a critical interrogation of the content of whiteness, Rodriguez contends, is a necessary aspect of a pedagogy of whiteness.
Whiteness itself, Rodriguez maintains, concerns more than race and racism. Rather whiteness cuts across various axes of social categorization, including race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and age. For this reason, whiteness should be considered broadly as a "normalizing technology, " that is, as a vehicle for the production and perpetuation of oppressive standards and norms. This is an important point because whiteness has often been viewed--and sometimes with deleterious effects-- only as a feature of identity politics, as a facet of individuality on a par with ethnicity or skin-color. The concept "reverse discrimination" exemplifies this misconstruction, relying on the false equation between racism and the purportedly discriminatory effects of affirmative action. Rodriguez describes this dynamic well in his discussion of the "strategic rhetoric of Whiteness" and its "everydayness." A pedagogy of whiteness must take pains to explicate the connections between whiteness (or more specifically white identity) as just one identity marker among many and whiteness as a normalizing mechanism. The distinction between whiteness as a structural mechanism and whiteness as an identity marker, and the relationship between the two, is crucial for pedagogy. Without such a distinction the eradication of whiteness may be conflated with the possibility of transforming white identity in a way that does not demolish it.
One of Rodriguez's original and stimulating contributions is his discussion of the role of trauma in getting students and other individuals to question their whiteness. Although he recognizes the problems with this approach, especially the fact that trauma may produce guilt and anger, I think Rodriguez is pointing to an important issue here. As he correctly points out, trauma (particularly in its less intense forms of bafflement and confusion) may be necessary to shake students up and to decenter their taken-for-granted understanding of whiteness. It may motivate them to reflect about themselves and rework their identities in ways that are constructive and progressive. "Constructive" and "progressive" are the operant words here. How do we determine when trauma will be constructive and when it will be immobilizing? Is it a matter of quality, quantity or timing? Inquiry into these questions is sorely needed; hopefully Rodriguez’s paper will stimulate further scholarship on this approach to pedagogy.
Echoing Iris Marion Young (1990) and others who have underscored the white/non white bianarism, Peter McLaren, in "Whiteness is...: The Struggle for Postcolonial Hybridity" elaborates upon the normalizing mechanism underlying the meaning and performance of whiteness:
People do not discriminate against groups because they are different; rather, the act of discrimination itself constructs categories of difference that hierarchically locate people as "superior" or "inferior" and then universalizes and naturalizes such differences. (p. 64)
Whiteness not only is, whiteness does. In a symbiotic way, whiteness reinforces itself as it creates "Others" by exclusion and subordination. But, as McLaren points out, the "them" is always located with the "us" (p. 68). The only way whiteness can be undone is if this symbiotic binarism is demolished--not just ignored or overlooked--but actually eradicated. Doing this will require much hard work at both the personal and the cultural and institutional levels.
It was particularly valuable for me to see a number of articles dealing with types of white reaction to white discourse. As a white educator who teaches predominantly white pre-service teachers, categorizing these responses and examining how they function to maintain the status quo helps me understand myself as well as my students. For example, in "Is the Benign Really Harmless? Deconstructing Some 'Benign' Manifestations of Operationalized White Privilege," Frances Rains discusses what she refers to as the "vaccination effect," the process of self-protection that enables academics to avoid the implications of their theories for their everyday lives. Recognizing that theory is important, she cautions us that "awareness can too easily become an endpoint rather than a beginning" (p. 79) and underscores the importance of taking action in ways consistent with what we teach. Rains also points out a number of reactions that academics have to the accusation that racism in academia is endemic. She delineates five different reactions and argues that such responses are far from benign. Rather, they sustain the invisibility of social inequalities in academic institutions. As Rains contends, it is extremely important for academics to get their own house "in order." If they fail to do so their hypocrisy will serve as a bad example for students.
In a similarly self-reflective piece, Connie Titone recounts her professional development as a white teacher, identifying two stances toward "Others." First, she recalls responding as the "White Savior," a response also quite common among my white pre-service teachers. Then, Titone discusses her years intellectualizing about multiculturalism in a doctoral program at a highly esteemed university. Titone explains how both of these stances are flawed, functioning to keeps social injustice in place. Without deprecating the value of intellectual work on racism, Titone is cognizant that the type of self- reflection that white teachers need is more than intellectual work. What is needed, in her view, is a paradigm shift, which requires "a work of the spirit" (p. 168).
Borrowing from and elaborating upon Beverly Daniel Tatum's (1994) notion of "White Teacher as Ally," Titone outlines some guidelines for teaching white pre-service teachers. Among the many useful insights she provides is her identification of the need for college teachers themselves to acknowledge and continuously work through the implications of their social positionality. She exemplifies this principle in the story of a class in which fertile moments of educating for whiteness were lost because the teacher became uncomfortable with and could not handle the emotionally charged discussion that arose. Knowledge of the self, knowledge of the "Other," and knowledge about how to take action--how to lead--are the characteristics of the anti-racist, white teacher as ally.
Since racism is embedded in the institutional, cultural, and symbolic aspects of everyday living, it is not enough to base a pedagogy of whiteness on the personal reactions--however transformative--of the white teacher as ally. An essential part of a pedagogy of whiteness must also involve activities to deconstruct culture. In an eye- opening article entitled "Developing a Media Literacy of Whiteness in Advertising," Daniel Nicholson explains how racism and sexism are manifest in advertising, not only in what we see but also in what is not there to be seen. Nicholson argues that students require a certain type of "media literacy" from which to understand how, as consumers, their choices can indirectly exact their complicity in perpetuating social injustice. Deconstructing Diesel Jeans and Workwear advertisements, Nicholson reveals how these two companies deceptively use the notion of "resistance"--not to advance democratic aims but, rather, to promote the commodity fetishism on which capitalist production depends.
There are five other articles, included in the last part of the book, that deal with cultural deconstruction. These articles demonstrate how whiteness is implicated in all facets of daily life. These articles trouble me, however, because they fail to recognize the important distinction between exposing dominance and teaching in order to raise awareness of dominance (Applebaum, 1997). The former task strives to reveal the subtle places where whiteness hides. Those who are already cognizant of their social location and who understand relations of dominance and oppression will find this type of work invaluable. But the latter task is a different type of work, requiring sensitivity to the level of awareness of one's audience.
Recognizing that many pre-service teachers are naďve about the cultural messages they receive, I strongly believe students must be encouraged to identify and interpret the implicit messages that are conveyed to them through popular culture. These messages in part shape the ways they see themselves, others, and the world around them. Nevertheless, as an educator, I am concerned both to expand my students' awareness of social injustice and, at the same time, to support their efforts to reconfigure white identity. This double purpose of teaching-- challenging and supporting--makes me worry about the possible unwanted consequences that may result from exposing students who may not be ready to handle it to such an exhaustive treatment of whiteness. This treatment may have the effect of alienating or immobilizing those readers who are still struggling with their white identity. Whereas each article in this part of the book works to deconstruct whiteness, the overall negativity of the section may have the opposite effect--actually impeding rather than supporting whites' attempts to construct positive, anti-racist, white identities and nurture bonds of solidarity with people of color and other oppressed peoples. I think positive suggestions, giving white people a picture of a progressive white identity, must be offered at the same time that whiteness is deconstructed.
In the foreword to the book Michael Apple underscores the significance to education of deconstructing whiteness. As Apple claims, "...issues of whiteness lie at the very core of educational policy and practice. We ignore them at our risk" (p. xii). Moreover, Apple reminds us of another risk associated with a pedagogy of whiteness, a risk that also must not be ignored. In turning attention toward whiteness and its deconstruction, white people must take care not to buttress its centrality and, thereby, turn their attention away from the palpable concerns of Others for social justice.


Alcoff, Linda Martin (1998). What Should White People Do? Hypatia, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Summer) pp. 6-26.

Applebaum, Barbara (1997). Good, Liberal Intentions are Not Enough: Intention, Racism and Moral Responsibility. Journal of Moral Education, 26/4, pp. 409-421.

Frankenberg, Ruth (1993). The Social Construction of Whiteness: White Women, Race Matters. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McIntosh, Peggy (1995). White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondence Through Work in Women’s Studies. In M. Anderson and P. Collins (Eds.), Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology. Belmount, CA: Wadsworth.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel (1994). Teaching White Students about Racism: The Search for White Allies and the Restoration of Hope. Teachers College Record Vol. 95 No. 4.

Young, Iris Marion (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

About the Reviewer

Barbara Applebaum is Visiting Assistant Professor at Ohio University teaching courses in Education and Cultural Diversity. Her research focuses on the point where ethics, education and commitments to diversity converge, and is heavily informed by feminist ethics and philosophy. Barbara Applebaum has published papers on respect for diversity, the meaning of dominance (with Dwight Boyd), and multicultural and anti-racist education in such journals as the Journal of Moral Education and Educational Theory. She has a special interest in teachers' self-reflections on their own teaching process and in this area, has written articles on caring, building trust, and the role of authority in the classroom.

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