You might already have seen headlines about “Whiteness History Month,” an upcoming event at Portland Community College in Oregon.

The event caused a little buzz online recently. It’s scheduled for April, though, and the organizers of “Whiteness History Month: Context, Consequences, and Change” are still taking presentation proposals, so that attention caught school officials a bit off-guard, said Kate Chester, PCC spokeswoman.

“We really don’t know what set this off yesterday,” Chester told The Washington Post on Tuesday.

Regardless, the story made the rounds online, and so this week, Chester found herself discussing the proposed project, which is expected to focus on exploring “the construction of whiteness, its origins and heritage,” according to its website.

“The intent was to look at whiteness as a social construct,” Chester told The Post.

To put it another way, that means talking about concepts like white privilege and examining them through an academic lens. The event “seeks to inspire innovative and practical solutions to community issues and social problems that stem from racism,” the website states.

Christine Emba and Karen Attiah of The Washington Post’s opinions section explain what “white privilege” means, how it originated and how it manifests itself. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

That kind of discussion can be challenging, Chester said.

“It’s complex, and people can latch onto ‘white’ instead of ‘whiteness,’ and it can become personalized and polarized,” Chester said. “So it’s complex. It’s controversial. It’s a sensitive issue.”

This isn’t the first time the term “whiteness” — which has been around for a while — has caused a stir on college campuses. In 2003, The Post reported that at least 30 institutions taught whiteness-studies course work.

The field is based on a left-leaning interpretation of history by scholars who say the concept of race was created by a rich white European and American elite, and has been used to deny property, power and status to nonwhite groups for two centuries.
Advocates of whiteness studies — most of whom are white liberals who hope to dismantle notions of race — believe that white Americans are so accustomed to being part of a privileged majority they do not see themselves as part of a race.

The point of whiteness studies was to attempt to impact how white students thought about race. Those who were critical of it, however, felt that this approach ran the risk of demonizing being white.

“Black studies celebrates blackness, Chicano studies celebrates Chicanos, women’s studies celebrates women, and white studies attacks white people as evil,” David Horowitz, a conservative social critic, told The Post in 2003.

Discussion for the event at PCC began in December of 2014, Chester said. The school serves about 90,000 students, according its website, and has four campuses as well as a handful of centers.

“We view this project as part of a larger national conversation around race and social justice on America’s college campuses,” Sylvia Kelley, interim president of Portland Community College, said in a statement. “As Oregon’s largest post-secondary educational institution, it is our responsibility to help continue this courageous conversation. We understand that this will be challenging and uncomfortable work, yet we have made a commitment in our strategic plan to take intentional action to advance diversity, equity and inclusion – for all we serve.”

The Oregonian reports that college officials “expect an agenda of events, speeches and discussion sessions at each of its four campuses to be announced in the next few weeks.”

It isn’t designed to “shame or blame” anyone, Chester said. Its website also notes that it is not celebrating something, in the same way that Black History Month does.

“This is an opportunity for the college to create a space for dialogue and learning,” Chester said.

This post has been updated.