Timothy J. Lensmire is our latest Routledge Featured Author. Read our interview to discover more about his recently-published book, White Folks: Race and Identity in Rural America.
My book, White Folks: Race and Identity in Rural America, is grounded in the stories of eight people from a small rural community in Wisconsin—the community in which I was born and raised. Drawing on in-depth interviews with Delores, Frank, William, Erin, Robert, Libby, and Stan, as well as on my own experiences, I explore how white people learn to be ‘white’ and how white racial identities are dependent on people of color, even in situations where white people have little or no contact with racial others.
The portrait of white people in my book highlights how our relations to people of color and their cultures are seldom simple and are characterized not just by fear and rejection, but also by attraction, envy, and desire. I illustrate the profound ambivalence that has characterized white people’s thinking and feeling in relation to people of color for at least the last two hundred years in the United States. There is nothing smooth about the souls of white folks.
White Folks is an expression of my longtime commitment, as a scholar and educator, to figuring out how schooling might contribute to education for radical democracy. In my early work, I pursued this commitment in relation to the teaching and learning of writing in elementary schools. Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings on carnival and polyphony, and John Dewey’s on creative democracy, helped me examine, criticize, and reconstruct our ideas of the teacher's role, student voice, and community within what are called process or writing workshop approaches to the teaching of writing.
As a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota, I teach courses on literacy, critical pedagogy, and race. My hope is that my courses—as well as my attempts, in White Folks, to re-imagine white people as racialized actors in U.S. schools and society—contribute to educational and political efforts meant to mobilize white people for anti-racist and social justice action.
After I had finished my second book exploring progressive and radical approaches to the teaching of writing, I realized that, while I had been willing in these books to examine how social class and gender played out in classrooms, I had for the most part stayed away from the workings of race and racism. This seemed a fairly serious lack in my work, given the significance of race in U.S. schools and society.
I hope to help white people understand that it is not just people of color who have racialized identities in U.S. society. I’m asking white people, especially working and middle class white people, to consider the role that they have played in our society’s racial drama and whether or not they actually want to play this role any more, given that taking up this role both privileges and harms them.
I explore in White Folks how white people use people of color (real or imagined) to create themselves as white. However, it is not just understanding this relationship to people of color that is crucial for conceptualizing how white people learn to be white. It is also crucial to examine white people’s relationships to other white people—across different ages, social classes, and genders, as well as within local hierarchies of social standing and worth.
I am in the early stages of a project with playwright and professor of Theater Arts Sarah Myers. We hope to write a play about what became known as the “Dewey Commission”—especially that week in 1937, in Coyoacan, Mexico, when Leon Trotsky, John Dewey, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera, among others, were all gathered together, as Trotsky defended himself against charges made in the Moscow show trials. Also, I’m considering writing a book that attempts to describe, theorize, and evaluate the teaching practices I’ve been pursuing, now, for over 30 years in elementary schools and universities.
Timothy J. Lensmire is Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches courses in literacy, critical pedagogy, and race.
His early work focused on how the teaching of writing might contribute to education for radical democracy. His current research seeks to build descriptions of, and theoretical insights about, how white people learn to be white in a white supremacist society.
Click here to visit Timothy J. Lensmire's website.