Race, Language, and the Passive Voice: Hardship narratives in U.S. Social Studies Textbooks from 1860 to the present

Jeremy Jimenez


While United States historians’ inclination to write in affect-inducing ways has waxed and waned throughout the past 150 years, racial biases concerning such writing have persisted through today. Adapting Mark Phillips’ (2013) concept of historical distance coupled with a form of linguistic analysis known as stylistics, I examine 50 U.S. history textbooks from 1860 to 2016 in order to analyze which individuals and groups are discussed as experiencing sufferin­g and whether or not these hardship narratives are apt to elicit compassion from their readers.  I find that textbooks published after the Civil War consistently contain discourses that encourage readers to be concerned with the welfare of elites and whites, at first exclusively focusing on white elites’ hardships and then eventually including all whites. At the same time, these texts consistently neglect to acknowledge the hardship experiences of domestic marginalized groups and, when textbooks do discuss their hardships, their narrative style is likely to limit readers’ capacity to have concern for their oppression. Specifically, I find that the most enduring textbook writing characteristic for U.S. textbook authors from the mid-19th century through the present day is to discuss acts of violence by non-white groups using the active voice while describing violence by white Americans towards non-whites in the passive voice, which impacts readers’ capacity to recall and empathize with the hardship narratives. Understanding how history textbooks continue to propagate these selective uses of compassionate discourses has significant implications for understanding and addressing not only history instruction, but for contemporary civil rights struggles as well.


social studies textbooks; racism; language; empathy; historical distance

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