Growing up in a rural town about an hour from Eau Claire, University of Minnesota professor Timothy Lensmire didn’t have much experience relating to people of color.
As he traveled to new and more diverse places, he tried to figure out who he was in relation to his new friends and co-workers of various backgrounds. He also began to reflect on how his personal experiences growing up in that town affected his views on race.
When he started at the University of Minnesota in 2001, he turned those thoughts into research, going through mountains of literature on race and race in schools. Sixteen years later, his research resulted in a book using firsthand experience from his hometown in north-central Wisconsin.
“Part of it is figuring out, even in an all-white community, what place do people of color, even if it’s just imagined or from stories or movies, what place do they have and how do we figure out what it means to a white person?” Lensmire said. “There are lots of things going on among white people that make it more or less likely they are going to take up good or bad relations with people of color.”
Lensmire will have a reading and signing for his latest book, “White Folks: Race and Identity in Rural America,” at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Volume One Gallery, 205 N. Dewey St.
He conducted one-on-one interviews to help answer his questions with seven people in his hometown, which he uses a pseudonym for in the book and doesn’t want to disclose to protect the identity of those sources.
Lensmire teaches courses in literacy, critical pedagogy and race at the University of Minnesota. His early work focused on how teaching writing in elementary schools can contribute to education for democracy, and he has written two books on the subject.
As the country’s problems with racism persisted on a national level, Lensmire began to notice how those things could also affect education.
With about 86 percent of teachers in the U.S. being white and the student population getting ever more diverse, he said there was more and more divide between those groups. While there is a lot of research on that imbalance, he said it is often centered on how white people interact with people of color.
“We tend to in this country talk about race as a black-white thing,” Lensmire said. “If we’re looking at white people, we’re looking at how they think about and interact with people of color. One of the most interesting things my book explores is how in a situation where it’s pretty much all white people, there are things about race going on among the communities.”
“White Folks” looks at how people can combat that divide, focusing specifically on understand white people’s thinking about race. He hopes getting people to reflect on personal experience can help move that conversation forward.
“I hope this joins a lot of other work that is trying to help us figure out how we’re going to live in our society in relation to race,” he said. “We have serious problems in this country right now. I’m hoping some self-understanding will start to help make things better.”
That’s what his friend Christina Berchini, an assistant professor of English at UW-Eau Claire, is hoping will result from Lensmire’s research and reading Saturday in Eau Claire.
Berchini worked with Lensmire as a graduate student, studying a field called critical whiteness studies at Michigan State University. Now she uses that background to teacher her English 272 class, “Perspectives in Popular Texts,” at UW-Eau Claire. The class focuses on issues of race as they are portrayed in everything from books to popular television shows.
“I look at white racial identity development, specifically for people who are going to be English teachers,” Berchini said. “(Lensmire’s) work informs my work pretty substantially.”
Though she has yet to read “White Folks,” she is familiar with Lensmire’s other writing and the area of expertise and thus was willing to declare, “Nothing like (‘White Folks’) exists.”
“Because I know the field, I can say that confidently,” Berchini said. “If there’s anything similar, it’s probably not nearly as thoughtful (or) as beautifully written.”
When questioned why this research is needed, she said it is important for communities, maybe especially majority-white communities, to have these conversations.
The fact there is backlash on a daily basis regarding racism, both locally and nationally, is reason enough, she said. More than that, though, is the idea of whiteness itself, which she said is more than a skin color but also an “ideology based on beliefs, values, behaviors, habits and attitudes which result in unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin color.”
“The venom, vitriol and hatred with which so many people respond to the mere mention of whiteness is evidence enough we haven’t gotten good at having these conversations,” Berchini said. “We don’t do it all that much and we are afraid of it.”
Even in her class in which her students are working to become more understanding on the topic, Berchini said she still feels her students — 34 of 35 are white this semester — don’t quite grasp the concept of seeing race and racism inside their own communities.
She’s offering her English 272 class extra credit for attending Lensmire’s talk on Saturday to help them get closer to this understanding.
“If students attend this talk, it will enrich the work we’ve been doing for the past 13 weeks,” she said.
“White Folks” follows the stories of seven people living in Lensmire’s hometown and personal stories he remembers about constructing his own ideas about race, combined with years of research.
He will share stories of some of those characters at Saturday’s reading, such as a woman named Erin who recalled vividly a group of African American children visiting her Catholic elementary school and how that influenced her thoughts on race later in life.
“With Erin, she had dreams of being the first female quarterback in the NFL and those dreams were wrapped up with her heroes, which were always black men,” Lensmire said. “There are things going on there that were very surprising, very interesting and very difficult but rewarding to figure out.”
Other characters include Frank, a male teacher who’s uncle stereotyped Ojibwe people living in their neighborhood, and Stan, a farmer trying to make sense of his identity as a white person.
He hopes listening to personal stories will inspire others who attend to think back on their own experiences.
“My main goal for people who come to the talk, especially for white people, is that they would understand themselves a little bit better,” Lensmire said. “I think there’s a lot of confusion around race, and part of that is self-understanding.”
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