Haunting as Historical Thinking: Learning to Construct Whiteness in History Classrooms


How we remember, narrate and teach the past is an inherently political and ethical act. This is especially true when teaching about race and racism within the context of United States history. In this dissertation, I ask: how do young people narrate the durability of racial inequality in the United States? This dissertation unfolds in two parts. In the first part, I do the bulk of my empirical work and draw on observations, interviews, and close reading of texts from my time in high school history classrooms. From this data, I explore how young people used two ideational resources, or tools - the concept of transhistorical whiteness and the rhetorical practice of causal storytelling - to explain the durability of racial inequality throughout United States history. I further explore some of the possibilities and limitations in narrating racial inequality throughout time in this way before focusing on one student’s learning trajectory as she became more confident and flexible in her use of those two resources. I argue that through relating the past and the present in these particular ways, young people in the contexts I studied engaged in a form of historical thinking that cannot be neatly described as “presentist” or “disciplinary”. Rather, they engaged in what I call “haunting” as a form of a historical thinking, where the past continues to work in the present to reproduce unequal out- comes along racial lines. In the second part, I turn to the speculative in order to tease out the implications of the empirical work presented in the first part. I provide what a call speculative field notes and hypothetical classroom interactions to imagine what the outcomes of a different way of structuring learning environments might be. This sustained focus on an imagined space allows me to pose questions to help guide continued thinking about how to design learning environments that support young people’s critical thinking about race and racism, historically, in the present, and into the future. In the concluding chapter, I situate the implications of this work in a larger field of whiteness studies in an effort to help history educators rethink what race talk may look like in histo- ry classrooms.

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