Voices in Education

The Limits and Dangers of McIntosh’s Ideas About White Privilege
Recently, a new member, Sam Tanner, joined our collective. Sam is a high school drama teacher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota. Since one of the main goals of the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective is to support individual members in their work on race and whiteness, our last meeting was focused on discussing Sam’s wonderful dissertation research. Sam is writing about a year-long theater project he conducted with high school students. As part of the project, Sam had the students research whiteness and white racial identity, write a script for a play, and then rehearse and perform the play for the public. After some initial wariness, school administrators and parents ended up strongly supporting Sam’s students. At the same time, a local conservative radio show host attacked Sam and the play, describing them as “un-American.”
At our meeting, Sam shared a series of texts that were created by one of his brilliant and complicated students across their year of work together. The texts included two complex essays; a hilarious, but deadly serious, Venn diagram, that put Depression and Whiteness into relation with each other; and the segment of the script for the play that this student had written. As we read the texts and began the joyful work of trying to interpret, together, what this high school student was up to, we realized that it made the most sense for us to think of this student as a theorist of whiteness. We then explored what this theorist helped us understand about whiteness, what new insights she provided, and what limits there were to her theorizing.
Sam pursued a complex, arts-based critical pedagogy with his students. In “McIntosh as Synecdoche: How Teacher Education’s Focus on White Privilege Undermines Antiracism,” the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective argues that, too often, learning about whiteness and racism is reduced to learning about white privilege. In our article, we examine how McIntosh conceptualized white privilege in her classic 1988 “invisible knapsack” essay. We draw on two narratives written by members of our collective—Jessie and Mary—to explore the serious limits of McIntosh’s concept of white privilege and to show how her ideas can lead to dangerous misreadings of student resistance. We also criticize how white privilege pedagogy reduces antiracist action to the confession of white privilege. Thus, the purpose of our article is to open up our theorizing and teaching practices to more nuanced treatments of how we might work with white people on questions of race, white supremacy, and antiracism. 

About the Author: Timothy J. Lensmire is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. He is coauthor, with his colleagues in the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective, of “McIntosh as Synecdoche: How Teacher Education’s Focus on White Privilege Undermines Antiracism” (Harvard Educational Review, Fall 2013).