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'White Conditioning'

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An insider offers her view of the fracas over San Francisco's required reading list.

In the media maelstrom surrounding the proposal to diversify the San Francisco school district's required reading list, I found myself in a unique, complicated, and eye-opening position. ("S.F. Board Rejects Race Quotas for Literature," March 25, 1998.)

Like many people, I watched and read news coverage with interest. Like some of these people, I had worked in public schools for years, frequently talking with students about how the curriculum affects them. And, on a personal level, I had seen the dialogue through the eyes of a white person. Most uniquely, though, I am married to Steve Phillips, one of the authors of this resolution.

As I have gone with Steve to his TV interviews, and watched the news coverage of his proposal, I have been struck by one element above all others: the ways that what I call "white conditioning" shapes the public response to this issue.

It is said that white people can't see their whiteness. White ways of doing things are the norm, and are thus invisible--they are simply the way things are done. But the response to the proposed English curriculum for San Francisco holds up a mirror for us white people to see ourselves, if we care to look.

As whites responded to the San Francisco proposal, certain discrepancies of logic became evident. We held positions on this issue that were inconsistent with positions we take on other matters. And here, in this double standard that occurs when race enters the educational equation, we can best locate how white conditioning creeps in to shape our thinking. Examining the following discrepancies and asking what is behind them will take courage and conscience:

  • 'Something is being taken away.' Often, the first response of white journalists and members of the public has been that the San Francisco curriculum proposal would mean that fewer classics of Western literature would be read. The first thing we think about is that the status quo could change, and take away some of what we have.

But if we were consistently concerned that great literature be read, wouldn't we be agitated by the fact that, up until now, classics by people of color have been neglected and ignored? Generations of students have been deprived of the writings of great thinkers from most parts of the world and from many groups within the United States.

We don't seem too worried about this. Maybe we don't even believe that there is a lot of great literature written by people of color because we have not been exposed to it and have not sought it out.

As a student at a college-preparatory high school and an English major at Stanford University, I never noticed that, with very few exceptions, all of the literature I read was written by white authors. Only after graduating from college did I begin to broaden the scope of my reading. Then I realized that there were enormous bodies of literature I had never been exposed to. Books like The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Lakota Woman, and Donald Duk conveyed whole periods in history and aspects of the human experience that I barely knew about. I learned about genres such as "magical realism" and a variety of nonlinear narrative structures that had been neglected in my literary education.

What makes us ignore the one deprivation, while expressing deep concern over the prospect of the other?

  • 'You can't dictate curriculum.' Another aspect that has troubled us is the prospect that this proposal would exert control over what teachers teach, requiring them to select books from a list. This seems dictatorial, distrustful of teachers, disrespectful of their professional status, and a venture into the dangerous waters of social engineering.

We do not express similar concern about other kinds of curricular choices. In most areas of curriculum, the state and local districts specify topics and subject matter to be covered within each grade and course; they choose the specific textbooks to be used, and make other determinations. This does not seem to bother many of us. In fact, most of us support more-stringent requirements for what courses students should take and more-specific standards for what should be taught within each course.

Why, when it comes to this proposal, do we object to requiring teachers to choose books from a list?

  • 'Forced participation.' In a similar vein, there has been a lot of talk about "forcing" students to comply. The proposal would "force" them to read authors of color, and "force" them not to read above a certain number of white authors.

Public schooling is based on a series of mandatory obligations, beginning, of course, with school attendance itself. Normally, when speaking of what students must do in school, we use the word "requirement." Each course has requirements in terms of what students shall study and read. Why, in this context, do we speak of forcing rather than requiring?

For most of us, it is painful to think about these questions and have to acknowledge the inconsistencies. We would rather explain them away by talking about extenuating circumstances and other factors. It is hard, after acknowledging the inconsistencies, to locate and deal with the assumptions and the fears that lurk behind them. But doing so will be taking a step toward real racial justice and understanding.


Susan Sandler is the executive director of Project Respect, a San Francisco educational reform organization focusing on rethinking racial and cultural relations in schools.

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