“Whiteness Studies” and Campus Activism

Dan Kemp

Controversy arose last December when Notre Dame’s Sociology department offered a seminar on “White Privilege.” But this is not a new field of academic interest (not that new, anyway). In 1999, Princeton offered a course called “Whiteness in Historical Perspective,” which intended to show the fluctuations of “whiteness” through history. This was the first among many such courses offered at colleges and universities around the country. As odd as it sounds to the ear, more and more schools are offering courses on “whiteness.”

Courses in general race theory have been offered for decades, but “whiteness” classes bring something new. Shannon Sullivan, professor of philosophy at UNC Charlotte and author of Good White People, argues that academic attention to the white race is warranted by the tendency to study particular European ethnicities without regard to “white people” as the dominant race of the West. In this case, she says, “it’s too easy for whiteness and white privilege to function invisibly, without recognition of the inequalities that support white class privilege.” Whiteness classes allegedly expose this blind spot.

In 2012 journalist Alex P. Kellogg infamously argued in a CNN op-ed that “whiteness” courses were no longer needed. They were on the decline, says Kellogg, because many students doubted the assumptions of the course; for instance, that young Americans doubt that white supremacy limits the opportunities available to minorities. Unlike Kellogg, Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology department at La Salle University in Philadelphia, believes that whiteness courses are necessary because racism remains a structural problem, but agrees that students no longer believe that it is. “Racism is always in the past for this generation,” echoes Gallagher. He asks, “How do we talk about race or racism in the United States if people think racism is gone?” According to him, the inauguration of a black President was enough for many students to falsely believe that “whiteness” courses were unnecessary.

You might think offering “whiteness” courses is itself a decline of some sort. Of the West and America, for starters. Be that as it may, warnings about the decline of “whiteness” studies is altogether false. In fact, they appear to be on the rise. Middlebury’s Laurie Essig, associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies, regularly offers—what the catalog lists as FYSE 1357A—“White People.” At Arizona State University, Lee Bebout teaches an English course called “U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness.” At the University of New Mexico, “Whiteness Studies” is a rolling course. UCLA offers an online history course titled “Understanding Whiteness in American History and Culture.” Mount Holyoke College has “Whiteness and the Construction of Identity.” Add to these the many courses on race that include various topics on whiteness and I suppose the world itself could not fill up the books.

Recently, several students from the University of Oklahoma were caught on tape singing a reprehensible sing along with lyrics that alluded to hanging “n****rs” from a tree. When it came to light, protestors gathered outside the home of one of the students and chanted “racism is taught!"

If racism is taught, then it seems right that it should be un-taught—right? So says Aaron Barlow, professor of English at New York City College of Technology: “after the University of Oklahoma incident, I’m beginning to think [whiteness courses are] necessary.” Racism is so prominent in America’s history, Barlow claims, that it persists today in seen and unseen ways: “When we try to deny this, we perpetuate it, as the Oklahoma incident testifies.” Barlow finds the obvious solution to racism to be “even more attention to it in our college classrooms.”

I’m not so sure. College is a time for education and intellectual experimentation. To judge a professor or a course’s merits by its alignment with an ideology is to violate the academic principal of political neutrality. In his scheme, curricular choices become tied to socio-political activism.

Treating the campus as an antidote to social problems is nothing new. But professors like Barlow want to see their students in action. Rory McVeigh, chair of the sociology department at Notre Dame, justified the course on “White Privilege” by arguing that “as a Catholic institution, [Notre Dame] is really serious about investigating issues related to social justice.” But “investigate” is not the right word. According to the course description, “the goal for each participant is personal transformation: to leave the class and conference more aware of injustices and be better equipped with tools to disrupt personal, institutional and worldwide systems of oppression” (emphasis mine). Anything that can be disrupted prior to investigation is something that a campus community holds to be false. This is a window into seeing what is permitted on campus and what is not. Charles Mills says of his course that, “Ideally, students would not merely be better informed about the history of race and racism after such courses, but more likely to support the cause of racial justice.”

Similarly, the subtitle to the course taught at UCLA promotes, “Deconstructing White Privilege for the Reconstruction of an Anti-Racist White Identity.” Words like “transformation,” “critical engagement,” or “activity” are euphemisms for political activity.

There are exceptions to everything; and it’s possible that even such tendentious subjects as whiteness studies can be taught with, well, an even hand. Essig claims that she tries to de-politicize her course by appealing to the academic value of studying white people. She says, “My course is hardly meant to solve issues of racism.” As to whether it might have political effects, she answers, “If we believe being a critical and engaged scholar about the world around us might lead to a better world, then perhaps this course along with others that I teach might be part of that larger project.”

Let me give Essig the benefit of the doubt. Such evenhandedness is meant to be the m.o. of academics working in the liberal arts, at least ideally. But the open-mindedness of professor Essig would be a single flake in a blizzard of professors using their courses for ideological promotion.

To say that many think the university can “cure” racism would be an overstatement. But this hyperbole quickly becomes reality when professors react to incidents like the Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Class time can be a platform for reform, Barlow suggests, who hopes whiteness studies can do for America what racial re-education has done in Rwanda two decades after the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. He says, “Using our classrooms as avenues for this not only furthers educational goals but can make our whole country start to heal.”

Here is the trouble with whiteness studies writ large: Barlow clearly assumes that institutional racism dominates America. The difference between this educational philosophy and Essig’s courses is monumental. Professor Essig’s leaves room to debate its assumptions, at least in principle, because her goal is intellectual rather than political. In courses like Barlow’s, the material is the means by which students will “dismantle systems of oppression.”

Perhaps more academics will take on Essig’s approach to their race-based courses. Mark me as doubtful that they will.



Images: Pixabay, Public Domain

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