Nathan Tanner On Confronting Whiteness In Our Own Backyard
As a system, whiteness is working in Utah.
Hi there. I’m Nathan Tanner (he/him). I grew up in Spanish Fork, Utah, love eating the super cheese from Glade’s Drive-In on Main Street and lived in Utah most of my life. In the last decade, I worked as a social studies teacher in Salt Lake City School District, and have since relocated to Urbana, Illinois to pursue a Ph.D. in education policy, organization, and leadership. I decided to press pause on teaching because I was interested in researching a phenomenon that I felt I knew about but didn’t have the language to describe. I now study and teach others about a topic known among scholars from many disciplines as whiteness and how it persists in education across the country.
I realize it is necessary for people like me who benefit from and perpetuate whiteness to consider our place and part within a discriminatory system. I would like to share ideas about what whiteness is, and how Utahns can become more action-oriented in approaching whiteness in our economy, politics, and society in general.
Years ago, I had a conversation with a dear friend and childhood neighbor toward the end of my teacher preparation program. While neither of us had seen one another in our hometown for at least five years, the memories of our adolescence were fresh in our minds. Carefree drives through the river bottoms, bike rides through the Wolf Hollow neighborhood, and shakes at Barry’s Drive-In came to mind. At one point, my friend stated as a matter of fact, “Nathan, we grew up in the Hundred Acre Wood.”
Reflecting on this conversation, particularly my friend’s reference to the whimsical forest popularized in Winnie the Pooh, I can’t help but think about the metaphor my friend used to describe our upbringing, and the way it relates to what I’m now researching and teaching. While I hardly believe either of us had a perfect upbringing or escaped adolescence unscathed, something in the Hundred Acre Wood metaphor reminded me of what writer Ta-Nehisi Coates identifies in his book, Between the World and Me, as “The Dream.” Like “The Dream,” which Coates explains is simply a “belief in being white,” the Hundred Acre Wood can represent both a physical and metaphysical escape from reality, a place where people are raised to believe that those who are white are free from accountability, culpability, and reflexivity. In other words, we need to consider our behavior and its social impact.
The Hundred Acre Wood metaphor works well because it shows how we, and our “South County” neighbors and peers, were not only ignorant about—but largely ignored—much of the discourse around whiteness that made our enchanted childhood possible. The metaphor captures the way we were, and in many cases still are, content to avoid thinking about how whiteness operated in our lives, and more importantly, how it was codified to ensure protection and comfort, much like the fictionalized antics of a stuffed bear, pig, and rabbit.
What Is Whiteness?
In the most basic terms, whiteness (or white supremacy) is a system of control and power that gives economic, political, and social benefits to a dominant group at the expense of everyone else. Racism is indeed a part of this; however, where most white people are taught that racism is made up of “individual acts of meanness,” whiteness explores the ways individual acts contribute to creating “systems [of] racial dominance” as Peggy McIntosh writes. That is to say, while whiteness is manifested by those running around with the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis, and the so-called “alt-right,” it is also individual acts of “niceness,” acts of silence in the classroom or the public forum, or the choices we make about what literature we read, whose history we celebrate, and even which religious holidays we take off from work.
Whiteness is also calling the police when you see Black kids playing with squirt guns in the park, asking your Latino(a/x) neighbors working on home renovations if they are part of the construction crew, or when you skirt the mask-mandate rule at Home Depot to protect your belief in “personal liberty,” at the expense of the teenager working the register who lives with their multigenerational family.
As a system, whiteness is working in Utah. Here are some examples of how those of the dominant group, white identifying LDS men and women, benefit economically, politically, and socially—at the expense of everyone else.
Whiteness in Utah’s Economy
Utah consistently ranks high among states for having a robust GDP and as a center for entrepreneurial endeavors. Yet, it is predominantly the white electorate in Utah who opposed legislation like HB361 that, had it passed in 2021, would have increased the minimum wage for thousands of workers in the state. Workers of color are far more likely than white workers, for example, to be earning the federal minimum wage. At $7.25, these poverty wages can never produce the sort of income or wealth that many white people—the dominant racial group in Utah—have accumulated.
Additionally, Utahns have historically been against labor unions, and one need look no further than Chapter 34 of the Utah Code, enacted in 1969 by the State Legislature, to grasp a long commitment to Utah’s “right to work.” It’s helpful for Utahns to know that this anti-labor legislation has strong ties to the intellectual efforts of libertarians like James Buchanan and Robert Welch, who worked for six decades with Jim Crow Segregationists to condemn labor organizing as an affront to economic liberty.
That their efforts paralleled those of President Lyndon Johnson, whose “Great Society” aimed to help the poor—White, Black, and Brown, alike—and push policy to racially desegregate American institutions is not a coincidence. Unions have provided workers of all races opportunities to disrupt the status quo by having a say in negotiating the terms of their employment—their wages, yes, but also collective safety. I realize that just by writing the word union, I’m committing a Utah heresy; but therein lies the problem. Political legislation can’t be created in a vacuum without playing to the fantasies created by whiteness. It befits us to consider the ways Utah’s “right to work” statute may be hurting, not helping, people of color.
Whiteness in Utah Politics
Perhaps the most recent, salient example of the political benefit of whiteness supported by many Utahns was the state and local elected officials’ push in 2020 and 2021 to reopen businesses, schools, and sports arenas before scientists and health officials deemed it safe, at one point even holding teachers at ransom in my former school district, one of the state’s most racially diverse.
At whose cost were these decisions made? Overwhelmingly, families of color lost loved ones to Covid-19, were forced to return to work in unsafe conditions, and may not have received federal or state stimulus because of employment or immigration status—further exacerbating the racial wealth gap. Just as Utah’s leaders did a century ago, decisions were made that mostly benefited white families and communities, to the detriment of the state’s communities of color.
Understanding the ways whiteness works in politics can make for tough work, but for a nuanced, in-depth understanding of the topic, I highly recommend reading Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well.
Whiteness in Utah Society
The codes of whiteness in Utah society are more nuanced than they appear in the economic and political sectors. In many ways, well-meaning white people may perpetuate whiteness despite their best intentions. For example, as an educator in Utah schools, I’ve heard people talking about “good schools.” Maybe you’ve heard something similar to these common refrains:
“The schools are just so much better in (insert neighborhood / town).”
“Well, our neighborhood school is (insert name of school), but the test scores at (insert name of school) are just so much better.
“I’ve been on Zillow looking for housing in (insert name of neighborhood / town) that is connected to ‘good schools.’”
Historian and education policy researcher Amy Stuart Wells has conducted hundreds of interviews with parents from around the country and has discovered that “good” or “better” schools in these scenarios mean “whiter.” By participating in this sort of dialogue, people reproduce majority white schools, white spaces, and white ways of thinking that disadvantage communities of color.
Whiteness also works in the way white people talk to friends and family about traversing physical spaces—“That’s a bad neighborhood,” or “I’d never be caught dead there after dark”—and even the role of our churches in determining who gets to be in charge, what ways of being and knowing are celebrated and supported, and whose beliefs are considered “right” or “true” in a given context.
So, What Do We Do?
Eliminating whiteness is “less about…unbecoming white and more about what kind of white [you] will become.” This includes coming to grips with the reality of whiteness in our world, its “crimes”—both historic and contemporary, and doing the hard daily work of developing an identity that is opposed to the economic, political, and social dominance whiteness affords.
Put another way, challenging whiteness doesn’t mean saying “I am not white,” but rather, “I will not act white.” It means reflecting on and resisting the codes of whiteness. It means white people must become “border crossers”—which itself is a racial privilege, but an important step nevertheless—to listen to and build alongside communities of color to create a more socially just and equitable world.
As Crystal Fleming says, this largely requires “giving up the need for quick fixes and girding our loins for a long struggle.” Where can you start? Consider joining Utah’s Chapter of Black Lives Matter. Speak out to preserve Indigenous people’s sacred lands in Southeastern Utah. Sign the petition to seek justice for Bernardo Reyes. Donate to Utah’s Coalition of La Raza (UCLR). Take note of the media voices and personalities you listen to and engage. Embrace the discomfort of calling out racist practices.
Sounds like a lot of work? It is. It’s also the least white people like myself (or maybe you) can do—just living in a world created by whiteness is physically and psychologically taxing for people of color.
Stepping Out of the Woods
My journey from the Hundred Acre Wood to the reality of Jim Crow’s persistence has awakened me from what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the Dream [that] thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers.” In other words, the Hundred Acre Wood, the world white people have codified for not only themselves, but everyone, survives because white people don’t question it. It endures because white people refuse to acknowledge reality, or what’s beyond the woods, so-to-speak.
To step out of the woods and face reality means asking questions about how our communities are created, who is being protected, and who is being left behind. It means learning to be uncomfortable. It means not privileging immediate answers, as the Ta-Nehisi Coates quote above mentions, or justifying our beliefs or behavior. Instead, it means taking responsibility for the ways our individual choices contribute to a system that disproportionately disadvantages and harms people of color.
While challenging the system of whiteness is the work of a lifetime, here are some ways you can start bettering yourself and your community today: Invest in art, literature, and music created by people of color to reassess your worldview and consider other perspectives; speak up at school or work in the defense of Affirmative Action policies that have proven to benefit people of color; volunteer your time or donate your money to organizations like BetterUtah that are committed to protecting the right to vote for society’s most marginalized citizens; amplify the voices of people of color whenever and wherever possible; and finally, as Crystal Fleming says, “maximize your impact” by leveraging your unique skills or talents to make the world a less harmful place for people of color and society’s minoritized people and groups.
Together we can commit to waking up, stepping out, and building a better world.
I appreciate you taking the time to read and think about the ideas I’ve shared here. I welcome the opportunity to connect with you on LinkedIn, and/or Twitter (@mnathantanner). I wish you all the best!
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