Thursday, April 20, 2017

RWW Interviews: Elizabeth Denevi & Teaching While White

By Elisa Gall

I’m excited to continue our RWW Interviews series today with a conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Denevi. Elizabeth is the Associate Director for Mid West Educational Collaborative, a nonprofit that works with schools across the United States to increase equity, promote diversity pedagogy, and implement strategic processes for growth and development. Before that, she served as Director of Studies and Professional Development at the Chicago school at which I work - and she is a current parent in my school community.

Elizabeth writes and presents nationally on topics of social justice, equity, and diversity as educational excellence. She recently co-founded (alongside Jenna Chandler-Ward) Teaching While White, a new blog and podcast resource for promoting racial literacy and helping educators build skills to create anti-racist classrooms. I look forward to learning from TWW and I hope everybody adds it to their resource lists and bookmarks toolbars.

How did you get started doing anti-racism work? What has changed over time?

I started when I was teaching ethnic studies courses. As I got more into American history and literature, it became impossible to ignore issues of race. I went back to do my PhD so I could study racial identity development and to develop strategies for teaching about racial identity and racism in schools. Unfortunately, not much has changed over 25 years. We are still struggling to understand how race affects teaching/learning. And most teachers do not know that racially diverse classrooms create higher levels of critical thinking.

Can you share with our readers your definition of “diversity?”

“Diversity” is simply the presence of difference. In a school context, we are referring to differences which impact learning. Since we can correlate racial identity development with academic achievement and the social construction of race in schools, we know that racial differences matter. We need to explore our own racial identity as teachers so we can help our students to explore theirs.

Can you tell us about your new site?

I felt like I needed a way to keep my Whiteness front and center in my work with schools. And I don’t like to do anything alone, so as Jenna and I continued to talk about the kind of work we wanted to do with teachers, this felt like the right way to go. Writing has always been a way for me to consolidate my thinking, so I was eager to try the blog format. And Michael Brosnan has been a wonderful writing partner for years as he published the first piece I ever wrote about being White. Jenna had the brilliant idea to do a podcast, which is both terrifying and exhilarating. I think it’s a very powerful medium that I’m eager to learn more about.

Who are your heroes, both within and outside the education world?

Oh, my. This will sound corny, but my husband, Randolph Carter, is one of my biggest heroes. He was a Black Panther and has spent his life working for social justice in all kinds of contexts. He never quits and never backs down. He is uncompromising when it comes to the lives of children and people of color in schools. And he has raised three amazing children.

In your opinion, can classrooms or libraries ever be “neutral?” Why or why not?

Absolutely not.  This is such a critical issue. I am talking to teachers across the country who are terrified to talk about race or what is happening around race and ethnicity in our country right now. Most are White teachers who are scared to death of getting in trouble for saying or doing the “wrong thing.” They have seen their colleagues sanctioned, and even fired, for challenging racism and racial privilege in our current climate. They hope their silence, or even their decision to avoid any “controversial” topics, will keep them safe. The problem is that it’s an illusion. Because staying quiet is the same as keeping the status quo in place. And this collusion with racism extends way beyond classrooms and into administrative offices and boardrooms. The leadership structures are just as complicit, hoping they can just “go along to get along.” It’s an old story, but one that will always have the same ending. Teachers make choices every day what to teach. There is no generic curriculum. We have so much content out there, and we carefully choose what to teach based on many factors. Not one of those factors – be it our experience, identity, or location – is neutral.

Do you have a favorite children’s book to share? Can you recommend a professional book?

What a hard question! Because I’m a mom of multiracial kids, I love Black, White, Just Right because it names and affirms racial difference as just that -- different, not deficit. I’m also a huge fan of Todd Parr because his books do the same thing: affirm difference. For teachers, I love Mica Pollock’s work and Robin DiAngelo’s scholarship on White fragility. I’m also a fan of Paul Gorski  because he has held our feet to the fire on promoting equity. He reminds us that our work to make schools more just and fair is not about “inclusion” or “cultural competence.” It’s about being excellent, informed, well-trained teachers who know how to manage all kinds of differences so all children can thrive.

What advice do you have for other White people working on anti-racist practices?

Challenge racism because it’s bad for White people. If you try to end racism for people of color, then you can choose to fight or not. And if you get tired, or it gets hard, you can stop. If you do it for you, because it’s the only way you can get up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror, then you won’t stop. And you will see why racism is bad for everyone. The effects of racism clearly impact White people and people of color differently. But as B. D Tatum noted, it’s a kind of smog, and we are all breathing the same air.

Monday, April 17, 2017


By Elisa Gall

Photo from
 In two weeks, a few of us from RWW will travel to Kansas City, MO alongside teachers, librarians, academics, nonprofit leaders, activists, counselors, members of spiritual communities, high school and college students, and more to attend the 18th annual White Privilege Conference, or WPC. If you haven’t heard of the conference before, you might have questions about what it is all about. 

The WPC website offers several explanations:
  • WPC is a conference that examines challenging concepts of privilege and oppression and offers solutions and team building strategies to work toward a more equitable world.
  • It is not a conference designed to attack, degrade or beat up on white folks.
  • It is not a conference designed to rally white supremacist groups.
  • WPC is a conference designed to examine issues of privilege beyond skin color. WPC is open to everyone and invites diverse perspectives to provide a comprehensive look at issues of privilege including: race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, etc. — the ways we all experience some form of privilege, and how we’re all affected by that privilege.
  • WPC attracts students, professionals, activists, parents, and community leaders/members from diverse perspectives. WPC welcomes folks with varying levels of experience addressing issues of diversity, cultural competency, and multiculturalism.
  • WPC is committed to a philosophy of “understanding, respecting and connecting.

The conference was founded by Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. and it “looks at White Privilege intersectionally, in the context of various systems of privilege.” (You might also recognize Dr. Moore from the documentary film, “I’m Not Racist...Am I?”)
Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr.
Photo from
If you are attending WPC, there are pre-conference workshops held on Thursday. The main conference starts on Friday and goes through Sunday. There are a few keynote talks each day, and several sessions from which participants can choose. There are also daily caucus meetings where people with shared identities can get together and process learning from each day. There are early morning walks and discussions with Dr. Moore, and at night, there are film screenings, dinners, fundraisers, performances, and additional community events. All of these sessions offer learning opportunities for people to practice the process of anti-racism work.
You can register for WPC here. In addition, the Association for Library Service to Children is supporting a meetup at 7 p.m. on April 29 for members and prospective members interested in joining together to discuss their learning and conference experiences.  All are welcome to that event, even non-librarians and folks not registered for the conference. Click here for more information and to R.S.V.P. for that meetup. Allie, Ernie, and I will be there and look forward to meeting and learning with everybody. Please spread the word!
If you can’t make it to Kansas City this year, follow along with participants as they share their learning via #wpc18. ALSC members will also use #alscatwpc. If you are planning your professional development for the year ahead, note that WPC is always around the end of April. We believe this conference is a learning opportunity not to be missed, and we hope our conversations and tweets encourage even more people to engage in this work and perhaps attend the conference next year.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Reviewing While White: The Secret Project


by Sam Bloom, Allie Jane Bruce and Elisa Gall

After reading Jonah and Jeanette Winter’s The Secret Project (Beach Lane Books, 2017), a few of us at Reading While White wanted to discuss our own reactions to it and what we have learned from reading and reflecting on criticism including Dr. Debbie Reese’s review at AICL. During this conversation it also came to our attention that Reese’s critical review was posted to the All The Wonders promo page and later taken down, adding another layer of complexity to our discussion (we recommend you read “What Happened to “A Second Perspective” at All The Wonders?” by Dr. Reese as well). Feel free to join our conversation and add your questions and/or thoughts in the comments!

Elisa: When I first read The Secret Project, I was immediately drawn into the visual narrative of the ending. It was so gripping that I found myself focusing on that part of the book and remembering little else. When I saw the critical review on AICL, I knew that I had allowed myself to be wooed by the final pages. Sometimes a “WOW” effect like that can lead readers to prioritize one successful piece of a book over its serious problems. To me, that choice to overlook is the epitome of privilege I carry with me as a White, non-Native reader.

Sam: I really liked it on first read. It’s embarrassing now, having seen the things Debbie pointed out, that seem so obvious. When I saw the spread with the Hopi man, I thought to myself, “I’m sure they got it right, this is the Winters we’re talking about.” That’s such a naive statement, but it was my first thought, so I just glossed over it. And like you, Elisa, I was gobsmacked by that ending.

Allie: My first reaction was just like both of yours.  That ending--so sad! So powerful! So, just, beyond words (literally)!  To be honest, I still feel that way.  That ending is one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in a picture book, ever.  This is where I need to practice my nonbinary thinking: The book has incredible merits; the book erases Pueblo people.  These things are both true.

Elisa: Sam, that hope (“I’m sure they got it right”) is something I’ve noticed myself having. I find myself wanting to take the easy route of just going with the flow and trusting that a book (especially from a publisher or author whose past work I admire) is authentic and accurate. Looking critically and asking questions can be tough work. It definitely pulls me “out” of the narrative, which is why almost subconsciously I find myself resisting and wanting to “gloss over” as you put it. I have grown accustomed to getting to stay “in” the books I read. I try to remember that so many readers NEVER get to stay “in” (and some never get “in” at all) because the world of children’s literature has never been inclusive to them.

Allie: What you’re describing is, I think, a set of skills that are not prioritized in library school.  I’m reminded of this post that Megan wrote about her process of letting go of A Fine Dessert a year and a half ago.

I need to practice that skill of letting go.  It is a professional skill.  When I love a book for a particular reason, and then find out that it contains one (or more) problematic elements, I need to do what Megan did with A Fine Dessert: Sit. Breathe. Think. Go through whatever mental process I need to go through.  Then, practice saying the words “I changed my mind.”

Megan’s older post is, in fact, so completely on-point here that I want to quote from it:

I cannot ignore the voices of those who have helped me understand something I didn't consider before: No matter how thoughtful the intent was in depicting this mother and child, the end result is that it can be seen as perpetuating painful imagery of "happy" slaves.

Am I ashamed I didn't see this myself? Yes. Because it's the kind of thing I'd like to think I wouldn't miss.

But I'm not so ashamed that I'm going to dig in my heels.

I can let go of A Fine Dessert.

Did I come to this decision easily? No. Am I sad about letting go of the book? Yes.

But it's a small sadness.

Yes, I still appreciate many other things about A Fine Dessert, but I can also accept that this is a fault it cannot overcome for me when it comes to recommending it to librarians and teachers.

Swap The Secret Project in for A Fine Dessert, and alter that second line to read, “No matter how thoughtful the intent was in depicting the setting, or how successfully it communicates the massive global and moral implications of developing nuclear weaponry, the end result is that it erases Pueblo people from this story.”

Elisa: Yep. It is admittedly tough to come to terms with the fact that a title you first thought was excellent, or even haven’t read yet but want so much to be flawless, misses the mark...but again, tough for whom? Is it as tough as being a Native reader who sees (to quote Debbie Reese’s recent post) The Secret Project as yet another book in the “ever-growing pile of books in which this or that topic is more important than Native people?” Whose reactions and feelings are being prioritized if criticism is ignored? And there is plenty to talk about with regards to the way the conversation about this book played out after concerns were being discussed.

Allie: I followed the way the conversation unfolded with great interest.  I had hopes that this would become a groundbreaking case of mainstream non-binary thinking, that we could acknowledge the merits of the book, and talk about how powerful that ending is, and also acknowledge the ways in which it erases Pueblo people, and what implications that has in the context of our history and our world.  Instead, I saw the same patterns as always, and found myself asking the same questions as always.

Particularly troubling to me was Matthew Winner’s comment on AICL, in which he says that All the Wonders enters into a “verbal agreement” with book creators to shine a positive light on their book.  If I were entering into an agreement, verbal or written, to promote somebody’s work to the exclusion of criticism, I would change my job title from “librarian” to “salesperson” and ask to be paid for this work.  Now, it’s not my prerogative whether anybody else follows that advice--except that it impacts our profession as a whole when leaders in the field refer to themselves as “teachers” or “librarians” but in fact serve as de facto members of publishers’ advertising teams (for more of my thoughts on this, see my post responding to the recent Wall Street Journal article here). I see so much personal, passionate “I looooooooved this book” from the “rock stars.”  By contrast, I see such rational, researched, informed opinions from Debbie.  But somehow Debbie is always the one who gets called “nasty” or “unprofessional” while the “rock stars” are seen as the pinnacle of the profession.

Sam: I think some of the backlash Debbie received is due to the fact that she is a woman, and the “rock stars” are men. I’ve been called a “rock star,” too. For doing the same damn thing an enormous number of women in the profession have done before. What’s that phrase about standing on the shoulders of giants? Well, I am certainly standing on the shoulders of giants to get to a point where I can get invited to the publisher dinners and shmoozy events, and guess what: pretty much EVERY ONE of those giants is a woman. And yet I, as a man (a White man, at that) may get up and read a story or two to kids; I may sing and dance and act goofy; I may do book talks for school age kids; and I’m the “rock star” even though there are how many women doing ALL of those things, probably with more skill and grace, who won’t get any attention for simply DOING THEIR JOB?

Elisa: I know we have shared Robin DiAngelo's work on White Fragility before, but it is worth sharing again to notice these patterns you’re describing. You make good points, too, about "librarian" versus "advertiser." I have been reflecting on this a lot. The line has definitely become blurred. Influence marketing works (which is why we see it),  but it is so important for our profession that it becomes clear if/when librarians are getting paid (or given benefits) to celebrate a book/author/publisher. Librarians DO spotlight and promote books and authors, but after careful evaluation. And even then, it is okay (expected!) to reevaluate your position after receiving new information. You might even change your mind.

It feels good to get a book sent to you because a publisher thought you'd like it, or invited to a dinner with a creator whose work you admire. These gestures can feel like agreements. Let's be real - it is business! It can be hard to separate those warm fuzzies from problematic texts. But it is imperative. I acknowledge my own participation in this system. I keep telling myself: you want to go to that dinner or schmooze with creators? Fine. But then be ready for the hard reality that at the end of the day, no matter what you’ve been given or how much you like that person, you have to do your job.

Allie: We spend much of our professional lives, by nature of the profession, in the thick of conversations about judging books, whether to spend budget money on this book or that, whether this book is good enough for this list or that award.  We form opinions, positive and negative, sometimes passionately so, informed by our expertise in book evaluation, our experiences sharing the book with kids, observations about a book’s accessibility, popularity, and so much more.  When it gets into that “passionate” territory, though, let’s face it:  It’s often hard to separate one’s personal love or hate for a book from a professional assessment, based on expertise, research, and knowledge.

Elisa: I agree. And going back to how critics can get accused of bullying or being “nasty,” I think there is a myth that it is somehow always easy or fun for critics to interrupt racism or bias in a text. It can be disappointing, alienating, and scary. If representation of your identity is at the center, it can be traumatic and in some instances, people’s safety can be put at risk. No matter how it is shared though (and even if/when it is directed at something I am passionate about), I am working to remember that criticism reflects care and commitment. It is how things improve, because I have hope that discomfort will lead to deeper reflection in the future, and more honest, thoughtful, and accurate books getting made as a result.