White Fatigue: Rethinking Resistance for Social Justice
reviewed by Christopher L. Busey & Tianna Dowie-Chin - November 01, 2018
Title: White Fatigue: Rethinking Resistance for Social Justice
Author(s): Joseph E. Flynn, Jr.
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433158957, Pages: 178, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com
Over the past two decades, educational researchers have either documented or relied upon critical theories of race as a counter-narrative to the overwhelming presence of Whiteness in teacher education (Hancock & Warren, 2017; Matias, 2016; Picower, 2009; Sleeter 2001, 2017). Regardless of theoretical framework, this body of literature often centralizes White teacher identity, and especially White women, as the ontological and epistemological proxy by which we come to understand how race and racism function in education. In White Fatigue: Rethinking Resistance for Social Justice, Joseph Flynn, Jr. adds to the extant canon on how White teachers negotiate their identity in response to anti-racist teacher education discourses that often challenge their biases, positionalities, and normed White worldviews. More specifically, Flynn focuses on the dis-ease (Marshall, Manfra, & Simmons, 2016, p. 61) these learning experiences often conjure for White teachers when confronted with discourses of race and systemic racism.
However, while adding to conversations on White fragility, guilt, resistance, privilege, and allyship in social justice teacher education, Flynn simultaneously attempts to distinguish his theorization on the self-negotiation of White teacher identity. Flynn suggests that educational research and teacher educators too often position White students as either agents of racism or as willing advocates for social justice, with the former serving as a paralyzing and alienating agent in educational race discourse. Contrary to this simplistic binary, White fatigue is described as:
...a temporary state in which individuals who are understanding of the moral imperative of antiracism disengage from or assume they no longer need to continue learning about how racism functions due to a simplistic understanding of racism as primarily an individuals problem. [...] It is another kind of resistance, a sort of quasi-resistance if you will, that recognizes there are in fact millions of White Americans who fundamentally believe racism is wrong, but nonetheless struggle through learning how racism functions. (p. 31)
Through a framework of White fatigue, anti-racist teacher educators are urged to eschew negative constructions of White teacher candidates and avoid binary discourses on racism that can potentially foster disengagement with anti-racist aims in education, even for those teachers who are consciously aware of the immorality and destruction of racism (p. 16).
Broken down over six chapters, Flynns writing on White fatigue is both inviting and accessible to a wide range of readers. Flynn also uses narrative and colloquial voice to make his theorization of White fatigue easy to understand, relatable, and applicable to a wide audience. In the introduction to the book, Flynn recounts how race and racism were central to his upbringing in a working-class Black family in Illinois. An emphasis on Whiteness resonates early in the text as Flynn describes his first memorable experiences with race and racism, from being chastised by his White peers in public school to his time in college, where he was challenged to defend his Blackness to Black classmates. Flynn lays out his academic and personal history to reveal his intimate relationship with race, racism, and more specifically Whiteness. This experience makes the book inviting for both Black and White readers.
Chapters One and Two broadly describe the challenges of addressing race and racism in teacher education settings. It is here that Flynn establishes the concept of White fatigue and how it ultimately functions to nuance [mis-]perceptions of resistance among White students when confronted with critical discussions of race and racism. In Chapter One, Flynn indirectly implies the intended audience of his book, whom he considers, to some degree, to be perpetuating White fatigue: educators and professionals who teach and work for social justice (p. 37). Overall, he argues that by seeing White teachers as purely resistant to racism, social justice advocates stand to alienate students and stall any progress in racial literacy development. To Flynn, this static interpretation of resistance hinders the dismantling of racism, which requires White allies.
In Chapter Two, Flynn further conceptualizes White fatigue as a theory for comprehending White folks who get individual-level racism but fail to have a deeper understanding of systemic racism. Flynn uses White racial identity development (WRID) to further complicate perceived resistance. For example, he positions White resistance in the earlier stages of WRID, while situating White fatigue in the latter stages of this development when students begin to seriously grapple with the ways in which curricula in U.S. schools privilege White, Eurocentric canons and marginalize minoritized others (p. 67). In doing so, Flynn encourages educators to view White fatigue as an opportunity to enhance White students understanding of White racial identity development.
After establishing a firm definition of White fatigue, Flynn situates Chapters Three and Four in our current socio-political context, namely the rise of Donald Trump and the ultimate miseducation of White folks (p.102). According to Flynn, White people have been miseducated through the near absence of critical ideas in K-12 curricula (p. 102). He argues that the election of Donald Trump reveals that many White folks do not fully understand the systemic nature of racism and therefore work against their own self-interest. This miseducation presents an opportunity for social justice educators to explore Whiteness in order to investigate how we are similar in order to understand how groups have been systemically pitted against each other to create and sustain a racial hierarchy (p. 130).
Flynn concludes the book with recommendations for moving forward in social justice education. He emphasizes seeing the humanity in all, particularly White folks who can be repositioned as potential allies, accomplices, and leaders. Flynn positions schools as sites to build racial literacy skills, starting in kindergarten. Additionally, he calls for more explicit recognition of White allies in order to highlight the long legacy of White anti-racist solidarity. Ultimately, Flynn cautions educators to be attentive in how we construct and engage White folks when they show signs of resistance (p. 172).
Overall, White Fatigue augments the canon of literature on White frameworks (e.g., Whiteness studies, White fragility, and White privilege) to provide another theoretical layer towards understanding how Whiteness operates in education. Flynns assertions are valuable in deconstructing deficit discourses on White teachers and, more importantly, accentuate the complex challenges that manifest as teacher education for social justice moves from an individual understanding of racism to a systemic one. However, what White Fatigue fails to provide is a focus on the humanity of those who experience the material effects of racism. This is especially glaring as Flynn underscores the humanity of White teachers (and personal friends) throughout the text. Furthermore, White fatigue fails to negotiate discourses of White supremacy and dominance which are crucial to decentering White teacher innocence in the replication of racist educational practices. While it is constructive to consider the complexities and provocations involved in unmasking racism in education, it is important that racism as a system of oppression be understood through the perspective of the oppressed. In this case, readers should consider how White Fatigue privileges the experiences and perspectives of the oppressor.
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