Sunday, May 05, 2019

‘Dying of whiteness’ — 'Who Will Save Whiteness from Itself?'

This column from today by Leonard Pitts references a book that's gotten a lot of attention authored by Vanderbilt University Professor of Sociology and Medicine, Health, and Society Dr. Jonathan M. Metzl.  The book is titled, Dying of Whiteness, where whiteness itself comes up as a risk factor for many whites' well-being.  He points to the ideology of white supremacy and individualism that masks it so well.  

So this is an ideology that any person could potentially be at risk of—at least to the degree that they buy into such notions.

If we extend this evidence and logic of whiteness as a risk factor to state-level, "official curriculum," then the cultural and linguistic chauvinism that it harbors, I would argue, makes it a risk factor to our youth as a whole, as well.  Stated differently, we need to incorporate in a full and complete manner the stories, histories, cultures, languages, theoretical frameworks, ways of knowing and being, into schools through Ethnic Studies and a critical multilingualism that embraces an Ethnic Studies approach to curriculum and pedagogy.  

This would not only help minorities feel and be included in meaningful ways in what counts as education, but it is an antidote to the power-evasive, power-neutral, white- and English-mostly blinders that are responsible for so much suffering in the world.

Can you even begin to imagine just how many people that went down a hostile, violent path and hurt or killed black and brown people, or women of any color, who could have been helped by an inclusive curriculum that is founded on the humanity of all?  

Lest you think I'm simplistic, do consider that curriculum reproduces consciousness, meaning what we know, how we know it, and the underlying assumptions of that knowledge.  This notion that curriculum reproduces consciousness is foundational to curriculum studies and the sociology of education.  Like schools, generally, curriculum not only reflects and maintains society, but it also re-creates it.  Why else are State Board of Education curriculum battles so high-profile and important?

There  are a  lot of helpful readings on white privilege and the ideology of white supremacy.  Here is a good one that I read today titled, My Fellow White People: This Is What’s Meant By ‘White Privilege.’  

Teachers, professors, and educators, we must incessantly chip away at the false narrative of white superiority.  As Dr. Metzl demonstrates, people's very lives and well-being are at stake. Thanks to Dr. Metzl for his life-saving work.  Kudos to Leonard Pitts, as well, for raising the crucial question of who or what will save whiteness from itself.

It is abundantly clear to me that we as a polity need to engage the politics of curriculum and address everywhere, in every school and district in every state, errors of facts, interpretation, and omission in that which is regarded as "official knowledge."

-Angela Valenzuela

Leonard Pitts: ‘Dying of whiteness’

FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2016 file photo, a couple leaves the grounds of the state Capitol in Jackson, Miss.,   after participating in a rally in support of keeping the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag. Attorneys say in written arguments to U.S. Supreme Court that the Confederate battle emblem on the Mississippi flag is “an official endorsement of white supremacy” and lower courts were wrong to block a lawsuit challenging the flag. The arguments were made in papers filed Friday, Oct. 27, 2017, by lawyers for Carlos Moore, an African-American attorney who sued the state in 2016 seeking to have the flag declared an unconstitutional relic of slavery. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

This is a column about saving whiteness. It’s precipitated by an incident last Saturday at a bookstore in Washington.

Seems that author Jonathan M. Metzl was giving a presentation when a group of white nationalists barged in. They formed a phalanx between him and the audience, and one of them harangued the crowd with an electric bullhorn, something about the white working class being asked to "trade their homeland for handouts." The group chanted, "This land is our land." They filed out, to a chorus of boos.

We will pass lightly over the irony of Woody Guthrie's words of harmony and inclusion ("This land is your land, this land is my land. From California to the New York island...") being repurposed as a white supremacist manifesto. Let's deal instead with Metzl's book, the one this group tried to shut down, thereby giving it greater visibility and increased sales.

It’s called “Dying of Whiteness” and it is a deep dive — lots of statistics, charts and graphs — into a provocative thesis: that white conservative voters, driven by fear of, and antipathy toward, black and brown “others,” support policies against their own self-interest, policies that diminish their lives and even kill them. Whiteness, argues Metzl, a white psychiatrist and physician, thus emerges as a risk factor for death not unlike smoking, depression or fast food.

One of his more compelling illustrations involves "Trevor," a 41-year-old white former cabbie in Tennessee whom Metzl describes as "yellow with jaundice," hobbling on a walker, with hepatitis C and an inflamed liver, dying, yet resolutely opposed to the Affordable Care Act, even though it might provide medical treatment he desperately needs and cannot otherwise afford. "Ain't no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it," he told Metzl. "I would rather die. We don't need any more government in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens."

You might wish to let that simmer for a few minutes. With his health as shaky as a Jenga tower, with his very life ebbing away, Trevor's greater concern — his greater fear — was of undeserving "Mexicans or welfare queens" benefiting from his taxes, however much that might be on the wages of a used-to-be cab driver eking out his last days in a low-income housing facility.

If that's sad and ridiculous — and it is both — it is also predictable. From the beginning, white fear has been a great, unspoken driver of this nation's sins against difference. So Trevor is just a link in an unbroken line that binds Lincoln fretting about retribution from newly freed slaves, to Roosevelt worrying about treachery from Americans of Japanese heritage, to Trump seeing terrorism in brown-skinned toddlers on the southern border.
Decade after decade, election after election, so much of the white conservative appeal is an implicit promise to defend whiteness from blacks and browns. Metzl argues that white people themselves have borne and are bearing a terrific cost for this "defense," that they are, in effect, killing themselves.

It's an interesting thesis, but people who came out to hear him explain it Saturday were forced to first sit through bullhorn guy and his backup singers who fear — that word again — the loss of a "homeland" stolen from the Seminoles, the Shawnee and the Paiutes. We will pass lightly over this irony as well.

Because Metzl raises an important question, one we have never answered nor even truly asked. So many people are so ready to save whiteness from the faceless "other."

Who will save it from itself?

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald.

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