Conquistadores

Whiteness teaches white people that whiteness doesn’t exist. Among all the rules, codes, and products of whiteness, its greatest trick is to remain invisible to those privileged enough to reside inside it. It is always centered, always operating, woven through nearly every aspect of our contemporary social fabric. Educational institutions are no exception.

I wipe the flecks of silver onto my jeans, and tuck my nose and mouth into my shirt to avoid the fumes. Usually, I desperately avoid spray paint and its noxious odors, but this is important. Holding the helmet at arms length, I douse the helmet in a final shower of silver and lay it down beside the others. I am surprised when I find it looks good. We have been working on them for weeks, first coating balloons in several layers of papier-mâché, and then painstakingly bending cardboard around the bottom edge for the brim, and another piece on top to create the fin, a feature of the helmets I never quite understood. For the final realistic touch, we took dry peas that had been cut in half and glued them in lines along the brim and fin. I had been skeptical then, but after the paint the peas really do look like tiny screws. I pull my nose from beneath my shirt and admire our crafts; twenty-six glistening Spanish Conquistador helmets in a line on the blacktop, their excess paint trickling into tiny pools around their brims. Our unit on the discovery of the Americas is nearly over.

The first time I thought about my whiteness was in fifth grade. I was filling out the information section on a standardized test. At the bottom of the page, there was a box that read, “Please indicate your race.” Below it, there were a handful of check boxes. African America, Hispanic, Native American, Asian… I read each one, and found that none would apply to me. I was white –very white, with my “lily-white skin” as my mother was fond of saying, but none of the boxes offered that as an option. It was then I remembered that white people were sometimes called Caucasian, but I couldn’t find that box either. As I went through the check boxes again and again, I began to realize that I wasn’t supposed to fill out this section. I was white, and so race wasn’t something I had to pay attention to. This section was not intended for me, a white person – a normal person, but only for those who must be abnormal, those who have race. White skin is assumed, it is… default.

Whiteness is default.

I repeated the phrase in my head as I stared down at my test. Whiteness is default. The understanding was somewhat jolting, and at the same time, seemed undeniably true. If white was always normal, then color was always abnormal. My ten year old self then had two realizations in quick succession: the first was that this seemed profoundly unfair, and the second was a rush of gratitude that I belonged to this “normal” group.

It was the first time I had ever considered the idea of “normal” or “ordinary” as a privilege some folks were born into –or not. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I had stumbled upon something white folks weren’t supposed to know. I have struggled for a while to figure out what test I could have been taking that would omit “white” from racial groupings, or only ask participants to indicate if they weren’t white. Even given the vast structural racism in the US, and specifically its school system, it seems a stretch that a standardized test could make it to print with such an oversight. It’s true that the memory is over twelve years old, and pretty blurry in places. The clear things are the setting, the realization, and the fact that it was so fleeting. It’s possible it was a local form, perhaps even only school wide, and so it escaped the more thorough checks of state and federal standardization. It’s also possible that a major test really was that blatantly Eurocentric. Still another alternative is that I am remembering wrong. Was there something else in the information section of that test that suddenly thrust the constructed normalcy of whiteness into my ten year old view?

In the end, I don’t think it matters. Even if the memory is somehow factually “incorrect” the specifics of its incorrectness are also illuminating. How did the demography section of a school test suddenly cause a child to realize their whiteness? The simple answer is it didn’t – not without tapping into already unconscious notions of whiteness and color; the rules governing my behavior as a racialized subject I had been internalizing for ten years already. The fact that I didn’t find this realization important or pressing enough to talk to my white teacher about it, or my white parents, or even my white friends speaks volumes about the persistence of these rules. White people do not talk about their whiteness. And so my early but brief thoughts on racial identity were dropped off along with my test on the teacher’s desk. It would be nearly ten years before I thought about whiteness and my own privilege in these terms again.

Jo is reading again. She is sitting four people down from me, and this means I have a while. We don’t read from the textbook, much. Mr. Baugh says kids don’t remember as much when they just read. I like reading aloud. I am good at it, and I like it when the whole class listens to me. I run my finger down the page and count the paragraphs, hoping we won’t reach the end of the section before it is my turn. “Con….Con…” Jo is struggling.

“Con-fed-er-ate,” Mr. Baugh corrects her, and lets her finish the sentence. “Okay, thank you Jo, I think that’s a good place to stop. It looks like its time to start our own Civil War!” I perk up at this. Most other students do too. We know what it means when Mr. Baugh talks like this.

“Now, in this exercise all of us will be playing soldiers in the Civil War. Half of you will be soldiers for the North, and half for the South. Two of you have been named generals of the armies, and it will be your job to lead your side to victory in our trivia wars!” The class begins to babble excitedly, wondering which two of us has earned those distinguished roles. Mr. Baugh steps out from behind his desk and walks into the middle of the classroom. “Introducing Ulysses S. Grant, General of the Union forces and future president of the United States of America…” He pauses dramatically, grinning. Everyone seems to lean in. “Mical!” Mr. Baugh walks over and places a nametag reading “Grant” on my desk as my face burns crimson.

Mr. Baugh is one of the most universally beloved teachers I’ve ever had. Since my kindergarten year, when my brother was in his fifth grade class, I heard tales of the games the older kids would play, and the crafts they would make. He was known for his disdain for textbooks and propensity towards experiential learning, and is single handedly responsible for convincing me that school could be fun. In many practical ways, Mr. Baugh’s pedagogy was admirable and something I hope to emulate. Each unit we covered that year – the Vikings, the discovery of the Americas, the founding of the United States, the Civil War, were learned through various games and artistic endeavors. Like in the preceding memory, students were often assigned the roles of historical figures and learned their importance through role playing and jeopardy-like trivia games. During the Civil War unit, I was thrilled to be named General Grant and relished the chance to best my friend and chief intellectual rival, Ella Beckett, who led the South as Robert E. Lee in our trivia challenges.

Mr. Baugh’s tactics were refreshingly non-traditional, but the curriculum he drew from was not. The whiteness of the traditional approach to history – as in most classrooms – remained thoroughly uninterrogated. Hostility toward native populations (let alone genocide) was rarely remarked upon, and when it was the instances were regarded as “a few bad apples.” After all, how could we pretend to be Conquistadores in our role plays if they were anything but the heroes of history? The Civil War was similarly whitewashed: The North was fighting to preserve the Union, the South was fighting for states’ rights. Slavery was just an issue the sides disagreed on, the proverbial match to the South’s gasoline.

That a social studies teacher in a primarily white, middle class elementary school taught mainstream American history is, on its own, unremarkable. What interests me here is the tension between a seemingly progressive pedagogy which engaged children so successfully and a curriculum which was accepted and transmitted so uncritically. He employed many of the principles found in radical pedagogy, including experiential learning models, a utilization of local knowledge (he often invited parents and community members to share their work in the classroom), and a respect for children as full people. That these progressive educational principles exist alongside an at best Eurocentric curriculum attests to the insidiousness and resilience of racism and other oppressions within the education system.

And yet, I enjoyed school my fifth grade year more than I had any other year since kindergarten. Mr. Baugh created an exciting and dynamic learning environment, and this should not be overlooked. While studying the Vikings, we constructed shields, swords, and nameplates from cardboard and tin foil, etching our names in Viking runes. With the assistance of the neighborhood optometrist, we dissected cow eyeballs to learn how our vision works. We drew the schematics of our dream houses to learn how architects employ blueprints. And we made Conquistador helmets for our glorious roles as Cortez and his men.

Whiteness teaches white people that whiteness doesn’t exist. It convinces them that the color of their skin has little or nothing to do with their everyday experience. It teaches white people that they have no color, and thus, no race to speak of. And yet, it is always there. Whiteness is default. It truly is an exquisite contradiction; the hypervisibilty of white bodies and culture, and the deliberate push to never discuss that visibility. Whiteness operates quietly and constantly, and so much of its success hinges upon it going unmarked, and unremarked about. So what happens when everyday whiteness is called out? What happens when we force its visibility and name it?

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