Curriculum History

White innocence and legality

History and social studies teachers should be wary of the ways that whiteness shaped and shapes who is included and who is excluded.

My earliest known American  forebear was a seventeenth-century migrant, Peter, who traveled from Flanders to New England.  In a political season when legal questions surrounding migration have been hot, it is tempting to ask: was he a “legal immigrant?” I have no idea, and to pretend otherwise is to innocently conflate Whiteness, Americanness, and legality.  Such conflation is the flip side to the blase attitude that many white Americans take toward a more authoritarian US.  The White presumption of innocence evinces a lack of understanding and curiosity about how their ancestor’s lives may have interacted with the state.  Teachers of history are uniquely positioned to challenge this historicized innocence, and we should.  Owning up to how all of our ancestries are mixed–including, but not only–legally, is an important element to building an inclusive understanding of what it means to be an American.

Transgressions, later legitimized, have been at the core of the Euro-American story from the very beginning. The Pilgrims immigrated illegally, and not just from the Wampanoag perspective.  They had no charter from the King, the head of their government.  Undocumented, they landed where they did not belong.  Later, the Puritans, who did have a document, included the Pilgrim settlement in their chartered colony.  They became documented. Legitimate. American.  Peter Flanders may have similarly broken rules and later been legalized, whether when leaving the Spanish Netherlands, entering the Massachusetts Bay Colony, or moving west into Vermont. Once in Vermont there was, as with the Pilgrims, the double possibility of violating natural law by taking Native American land and by running afoul of English positive law though squatting property claimed by another.

I’m currently reading and enjoying American Revolutions. Early in the book, Alan Taylor’s  outline of the pre-Revolutionary trans-Appalachian West illuminates how whiteness (again) facilitated shifts from illegal to legal. Duplicitous toward Indian nations, their government, and each other, White settlers and land speculators in today’s Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee  created a legal mess in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries.  Like with the Pilgrims, however, these transgressions were legalized as the Ohio River Valley became a part of the United States of America.  This process repeated a century later as Anglo-America conquered its new, trans-Mississippian West.   In the wake of the Mexican-American war, legal machinations dispossessed Hispanic families of lands that had been in their families for decades and legalized Anglo-American squatters and speculators.
Another of the tricks of whiteness was to preemptively render some people legal. The first Congress, which declared that only “free white persons” could be naturalized as citizens instantiated the notion that Whiteness is a component of Americanness (useful timeline showing this as foundational).  The Jacksonian era, during which White men gained the right to vote while propertied free black men lost it in many states, strengthened a possessive investment in Whiteness  as an element of citizenship.  The growth of the American welfare state in the 1930s and 1940s is just one example of a return on this investment as White Americans were  included while people of color and American Indians were excluded from housing, labor organizing, and social insurance programs.

These are just a few examples. I am suggesting that history and social studies teachers should be wary of the ways that whiteness shaped and shapes who is included and who is excluded.  History educators can help our country have more honest and worthwhile discussions of issues such as immigration and voting rights by exposing how whiteness has worked to legitimize some at the expense of others.   I hope that this work can contribute to interrupting institutionalized racism, and thus work toward equity in education.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

Let me know what you think!

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