Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Daughters of Suburbia

Lorraine Kenny, Daughters of Suburbia: Growing Up White, Middle Class, and Female (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2000)

This "autoethnography" has Kenny returning to her Long Island hometown (Shoreham-Waring River) to follow eighth-grade girls around for a year. It is not a book about "self-esteem" or any other Reviving Ophelia-style trope, thank God - it's about how whiteness and middle-class-ness articulate themselves in the form of absence. Kenny intersperses chapters about the kids at SWR Middle School with chapters about famous cases of media attention to white girls from LI - Amy Fisher, Cheryl Pierson (who hired a friend to kill her abusive dad), and Emily Heinrichs (a former white supremacist and teenage mother whose chapter was perhaps the most interesting, as her story was represented so many different ways in the media).

The most interesting sections of this book for me were the ones on narrative and on "multiculturalism" in an all-white school. The chapter on stories that teenage girls tell about and to each other resonated with me very much (as did many of the things that Kenny discusses here). Kenny writes that girls are so obsessed with story because they lead such "normal" or "boring" (aka, non-racialized) lives. "Girls' wild stories make being normal possible," she writes (101).

The chapter on "multiculturalism" and its failures in an all-white context shows how the silences surrounding the real stakes of racial difference create situations in which white kids don't recognize their own privilege - and how these silences are created by the adults around them. Kenny describes how the kids from this school did an exchange with the kids from a blacker adjacent school, and how the real differences between the pedagogical styles, social systems, and infrastructure between the two schools, which could have been a fertile topic of discussion, were instead left to the kids to parse themselves (or not, as the case may be). Adult failures to explicate how being white is actually a subject position leave kids without a leg to stand on when it comes to discussing race.

Kenny is apparently now working for the ACLU, for their Reproductive Freedom project, though I couldn't find any more information on her online.

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