31-03-2015

Reflecting on #DTMH Reading Group: Whiteness, An Introduction by Steve Garner

Valentina Migliarini

I am a white Italian woman, an educator and a doctoral student in ‘race’ and ethnicity in education. Growing up and being educated in a fairly white context, I was never made aware by my parents, or from the Italian society more generally, of my whiteness and the array of privileges that this status entails. White teachers from nursery to university educated me; I studied subjects mainly focused on Europe, if not only on Italy (in particular history and geography). Later on during my BA in education, I read and was examined on white and European pedagogues, or Greek and German philosophers, considered as the main source of influence for what is called the “modern history of pedagogy”.

My first experience with what is defined by the above white mainstream society as “the Other” happened during the second year of pre-service training to become a “community educator”, when I worked for an organisation providing nursery care for migrant (and only migrant) children in the suburbs of Rome. At the same time I was attending a course on “cultural mediation”, taught by a white, male, Italian professor. Despite reading interesting books by Ken Saro Wiva, Wole Soyinka, Hanif Kureishi and Buchi Emecheta, my feeling was that the so-called “Other” was always depicted as a “second class citizen”, or at best as an exotic entity. At practical level, the main educator in the nursery service constantly told me about the vulnerability of these children and their “disrupted” families. There was something in this picture that was not convincing me.

Not satisfied with the language of human rights, and after years of research and work in different countries, I have now found a framework to justify my resistance to such a reductionist “intercultural” view. Thanks my supervisor and other professors in UK universities I have been exposed to Critical Race Theory and Critical White Studies, an approach that shows how people not racialized as White are in fact resilient to the “business-as-usual” forms of racism.

The “Dismantle the Master’s house” (#DTMH) reading group, focused on the critical reading of Garner’s book Whiteness. An Introduction has boosted not only my critical views on racism, but it has also contributed to a radical change of focus on the “racial problem”. It has contributed greatly to the process of building a critical consciousness, or “conscientization” as Paulo Freire will put it, on White hegemony. Not forgetting to mention the fact that the reading group has been superbly co-ordinated by Dr. Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman- the first black academic I have ever met in my career.

Highlighting the different forms that White power can take, Whiteness makes the familiar unfamiliar and offers an opportunity to gain heightened understanding of it. Almost every chapter has really pushed me to think of undefined and blurred forms that Whiteness can take, juxtaposed to the firm and solid idea of “Blackness”, of “Otherness”. The idea of “Whiteness as respectability”, which “orders the values and enables people to identify devalued behaviour (of Others) and valued behaviour” (Garner, 2007, pp. 62), fits particularly well with the Italian discourse of whose migrants or refugees have a ‘good’ behaviour and thus deserve to be ‘integrated’, and those subjects that are seen as a threat because they have a different way to adapt to a neoliberal society. Thus, I found that the idea of respectability is a powerful tool to shift the attention from a racist system and to work powerfully to maintain a White idealised norm and deflect attention from race disparities in education and in society, more generally.

Another interesting aspect that this book presents and that has been widely discussed in the various sessions is that of how Whiteness blurs “the Other”, categorizing all the subjects racialised as non-White under the threatening category of asylum seekers. In doing so, it is quite easy to see how the idea of an imaginary homogeneous community (one of predominantly white and Christian subjects), that has the power to decide “who is in and who is out”, “who belongs and who does not belong” is reinforced and perpetuated.

To conclude, I believe that reading the book in a atmosphere such as that created in the reading group, where people from different backgrounds united to exchange views on crucial topic, has enriched me significantly as a person and has made me an even more radical educator.

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