The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A course originally called ‘The Problem of Whiteness’ returns to Arizona State

University of Missouri students sang and danced in celebration of President Tim Wolfe's resignation on Nov. 9, after days of campus protests and strikes. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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Freedom of speech. Racial inequality. Student activism. Safe spaces.

These are the phrases that have been lobbied about over the past week, in tones both fervent and contemptuous, as University of Missouri students successfully campaigned for the resignation of their system president.

Mizzou is, of course, just the most prominent example. As The Washington Post’s Michael Miller pointed out Tuesday, similar debates are being had and protests held across the country, for instance at Yale University and Ithaca College.

At the center of all these debates is another word: whiteness.

[Protest shows colleges are once again becoming civil rights battlegrounds]

At some universities, there are classes dedicated to understanding the notions of whiteness, white supremacy and what the field’s proponents see as the quiet racism of white people. The professor of one such “whiteness studies” course, Lee Bebout of Arizona State University, announced recently that he would be teaching for the second time a course originally called U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness.

The syllabus described Critical Whiteness Studies as a field “concerned with dismantling white supremacy in part by understanding how whiteness is socially constructed and experienced.” Readings included works by Toni Morrison, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (“Racism without Racists”) and Jane H. Hill (“The Everyday Language of White Racism”).

For the coming semester, Bebout will add Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent book “Between the World and Me.”

Whereas disciplines such as African American studies and Asian American studies focus on race as it relates to communities of color, such courses as Bebout’s look at how race is experienced by white people, exploring institutional racism and the dominance of those considered “white” in America.

Bebout pointed out that the definition of what constitutes a white person has changed over time — in the past, Irish and Jewish people weren’t considered “white” — but white systems of power have existed since slaves were brought to the country.

“White supremacy makes it so that white people can’t see the world they have created,” Bebout told The Post. It’s a culture so pervasive that living in it, subscribing to it and upholding it feel as natural to most Americans as breathing air.

News of the class’s formation caused considerable outrage after it was first reported last spring by Campus Reform, a conservative news site.

Bebout, who is white, said he was promptly attacked for promoting discrimination against white people. Fliers appeared around his neighborhood which featured a photo of him and the declaration that he was “anti-white.” Bebout was still relatively new to the area at the time. “It was not the way I wanted to meet my neighbors,” he said, though many of them turned out to be supportive.

Fox News correspondent Elisabeth Hasselbeck called the course “quite unfair, and wrong and pointed,” whereas ASU student Lauren Clark told Fox News that the course “suggests an entire race is the problem,” according to the Arizona Republic.

Clark is the same student who wrote the original Campus Reform article about the course, which will be offered for a second semester next spring under the modified name of “Whiteness and U.S. Race Theory.”

Bebout said the demographic makeup of his 18-person class last year was diverse, including several mixed-race students. Next year, the course will be expanded to accommodate 38. He said the angry responses stem from a misunderstanding of what it means to study the “problem of whiteness.”

[It’s 2015. Where are all the black college faculty?]

He said the class is not a critique of white individuals, per se, but rather whiteness as a form of institutional racism, where the experiences of people of color are rarely validated. In Bebout’s words, this centers around the conviction that “my experience as a white male should be the experience of everybody else, and there is something dysfunctional about them if they don’t see the world in the way that I do.”

By this definition, you don’t necessarily have to be racially white to act “white” and support white power. It’s long been known, after all, that there are white supremacists who aren’t themselves white-skinned.

The study of whiteness has been around for decades. It began with American sociologist, historian and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, who first took this critical perspective in a 1920 book chapter titled “The Souls of White Folk.”

In 2003, The Post’s Darryl Fears reported that at least 30 institutions, including Princeton and the University of California at Los Angeles, had courses in whiteness studies despite widespread opposition.

The field has been criticized as being at turns biased and overgeneralizing.

Social critic David Horowitz told The Post in 2013, “Black studies celebrates blackness, Chicano studies celebrates Chicanos, women’s studies celebrates women and white studies attacks white people as evil.”

“It’s so evil that one author has called for the abolition of whiteness,” he said.

Writing in the Tulane Law Review in 2013, Dagmar Rita Myslinska argued that whiteness studies, by lumping all whites together, ignores the heterogeneity within groups of European descent, especially in regard to their immigration history.

In Bebout’s opinion, such criticism misses the point of whiteness studies. In fact, he said, the field is meant to divert attention away from the acts of individual white people and toward the systems that privilege them.

“Everybody can be individually bigoted,” Bebout said. “But not every group can have systemic power.”

Terrance MacMullan, a philosophy of race professor at Eastern Washington University, said because systemic power is generally invisible to those who hold it, white people tend to conflate all forms of racism with “invidious acts,” such as calling someone a racial slur or burning a cross on a black person’s lawn.

In fact, he said, the racism that exists today is much more habitual and understated, making awareness all the more challenging. He said that his students often remark: “Why do I have to talk about race? I’m white.”

Some commentators have chided protesters at Missouri and Yale for causing a furor over individual acts such as a poop swastika and an e-mail they deemed offensive about Halloween. But students of color have in turn pointed out that their movements are less about those individual incidents and more about the systemic racism that has permeated their lives on campus.

The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb wrote this week: “To understand the real complexities of these students’ situation, free-speech purists would have to grapple with what it means to live in a building named for a man who dedicated himself to the principle of white supremacy and to the ownership of your ancestors.”

(Cobb refers to a residential college at Yale named after South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, the antebellum congressman, secretary of state and U.S. vice president who was also a fervent advocate of slavery.)

This “critical race theory” concept — one at the heart of whiteness studies — is perhaps the hardest for most people to understand, MacMullan said. Namely, it’s entirely possible and in fact, normal, to not personally be a racist while still being complicit in a racist culture.

It can be challenging to teach the shift in perspective that this theory requires. While anti-racist in its intent, whiteness studies can often yield counterproductive outcomes.

“We all think of ourselves as decent people,” MacMullan said. “So it’s very disconcerting to see yourself as someone who benefits from systemic racism.” He said pointing out white privilege in classes has incited white students to bring up their personal struggles, turning the conversation toward their own “victimhood” and once again detracting from the experiences of people of color.

“One problem inherent in whiteness studies is that it might become a white pity party,” MacMullan noted. “Instead of talking about how whiteness is problematic, it becomes about the problems of white people.”

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