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Shades of White: White Kids and Racial Identity in High School

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Essay title: Shades of White: White Kids and Racial Identity in High School

Shades of White is an ethnographic study of two high schools. One, "Valley Groves High School," was suburban, and the "whitest" high school in the region. Here the student body was comprised of non-Hispanic whites (83 percent), Hispanics (7 percent), Asians (5 percent), Filipinos (2 percent), and African Americans (2 percent). The other, "Clavey High," was metropolitan and more thoroughly multiracial--African American (54 percent), Asian American (23 percent), white (12 percent), Hispanic (8 percent), Filipino (2 percent), Pacific Islander (1 percent), and Native American (1 percent). Perry examines the making and living of whiteness in school life, asking about its formation through white students' interactions with one another and with peers of color. In this book the schoolyard is as important as are school curriculum, faculty, and administrators. Meanwhile, the familial and larger social contexts from which students arrive to complete each school day are deemed not so much stable, preexisting settings, as sites in relation to which selves and others must be reconceived and remade.

Contrasting two very different schools in different cities in the same region, the book argues that white racial identity formation must be understood by reference to processes of, "(1) association with people of color; (2) 'us-them' boundary making processes; (3) the ways class, gender and other identities interplay and influence one another; (4) the multi-racial self; and (5) the meanings derived from the structural-institutional context" (p. 180).

Perry draws extensively on young white students' voices, at times juxtaposing these with the language and self-descriptions of peers of color and of mixed heritage. The author intentionally makes room for long quotations from students, so that readers might follow Perry's own interpretive process, or indeed intervene and add their own. This makes the text thoroughly accessible, not just to scholars but to undergraduates and even high school students themselves.

Whiteness emerges here as more diverse than might have been expected. Suburban youth did not even "see" their whiteness, viewing themselves, whether in terms of race, culture, nationality, or style and music taste as "American," "ordinary," or "normal." The whiteness of Valley Groves High School students was, perhaps, to be expected in comparison with earlier work including that of the author of this review. (White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, Ruth Frankenberg, University of Minnesota Press, 1993.) By contrast, metropolitan white students had perforce to cultivate complex self-understandings as minority members of a school community while still, of course, part of the national, dominant racial category. The chapters and sections on this latter school, Clavey High were striking, as young men and women, made fully aware of their whiteness, strove to understand self, other, sociocultural context and even the value of spending four key life-years in a microcosm of the increasingly multiracial United States.

Across the gamut of the two schools, one sees the range of whiteness as it is currently conceived in the United States. Thus, Perry could readily interpret the "Homecoming Week" parade as a performance situated in an unreconstructed vision of a white dominant U.S. history, wherein there was little meaningful space for students of color. An undisturbed whiteness named by Perry (to my mind problematically) as "race-neutrality"

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