Hue and Cry on ‘Whiteness Studies’; An Academic Field’s Take on Race Stirs Interest and Anger
Naomi Cairns was among the leaders in the privilege walk, and she wasn’t happy about it.
The exercise, which recently involved Cairns and her classmates in a course at the University of Massachusetts, had two simple rules: When the moderator read a statement that applied to you, you stepped forward; if it didn’t, you stepped back. After the moderator asked if you were certain you could get a bank loan whenever you wanted, Cairns thought, “Oh my God, here we go again,” and took yet another step forward.
“You looked behind you and became really uncomfortable,” said Cairns, a 24-year-old junior who stood at the front of the classroom with other white students. Asian and black students she admired were near the back. “We all started together,” she said, “and now were so separated.”
The privilege walk was part of a course in whiteness studies, a controversial and relatively new academic field that seeks to change how white people think about race. 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.
“Historically, it has been common to see whites as a people who don’t have a race, to see racial identity as something others have,” said Howard Winant, a white professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a strong proponent of whiteness studies. “It’s a great advance to start looking at whiteness as a group.”
Winant said whiteness studies advocates must be careful not to paint white heritage with a broad brush, or stray from the historical record. Generalizations, he said, will only demonize whiteness.
But opponents say whiteness studies has already done that. David Horowitz, a conservative social critic who is white, said whiteness studies is leftist philosophy spiraling out of control. “Black studies celebrates blackness, Chicano studies celebrates Chicanos, women’s studies celebrates women, and white studies attacks white people as evil,” Horowitz said.
“It’s so evil that one author has called for the abolition of whiteness,” he said. “I have read their books, and it’s just despicable.”
Whiteness studies, said Matthew Spalding, is “a derogatory name for Western civilization.” Its study is important only to those who think “black studies and Chicano studies haven’t gone far enough in removing the baggage of Anglo-European traditions,” said Spalding, director of the Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
“The notion that you can get rid of a historical tradition as a way to further current . . . concerns strikes me as intellectually misleading,” Spalding said. “It makes certain assumptions and looks for certain outcomes. It’s close-minded.”
Whiteness studies can be traced to the writings of black intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin, but the field did not coalesce until liberal white scholars embraced it about eight years ago, according to some who helped shape it.
Now, despite widespread criticism and what some opponents view as major flaws in the curriculum, at least 30 institutions — from Princeton University to the University of California at Los Angeles — teach courses in whiteness studies.
The courses are emerging at a pivotal time. Scientists have determined that there is scant genetic distinction between races, and the 2000 Census allowed residents to define themselves by multiple racial categories for the first time. Dozens of books, such as “The Invention of the White Race,” “How the Irish Became White” and “Memoir of a Race Traitor,” are standard reading for people who study whiteness. Recently, the Public Broadcasting System aired a documentary titled “Race: The Power of an Illusion.”
“If you ask 10 people what is race, you’re likely to get 10 different answers,” said Larry Adelman, who conceived, produced and co-directed that documentary. “How many races would there be? Where did the idea come from?”
At U-Mass., those questions and others were raised in “The Social Construction of Whiteness and Women,” one of two whiteness studies courses Cairns took last semester.
The students, about three-quarters of them white, slid into desks and unloaded giant book bags, which were stuffed with required reading. The books included Theodore Allen’s “The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control,” which argues, in part, that the collection of European immigrants into a white race was a political act to control the country.
Arlene Avakian, the chairman of the U-Mass. women’s studies department, sat on a wide desk, let her legs dangle and asked the class to discuss the ideas of racial privilege, environmental comfort and social control. Not all of her students had taken part in the privilege walk — it was conducted in another course — but many of them had.
Winnie Chen, 22, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, said it pained her to deal with race every day when her white peers seemed to rarely think about it. She tried to discuss race with a white friend once, she said, but he felt ambushed.
“He said I was pulling a Pearl Harbor on him,” she said. “It is so difficult for them to think there is another lens. He talked about Irish oppression. I asked, ‘Have you ever considered why you’re no longer oppressed here when Asians, blacks and Hispanics still are?’ ”
A white student raised her hand and said she and a friend had gone to a hall reserved for black student affairs, and the friend said she didn’t feel comfortable.
Brandi-Ann Andrade, a 21-year-old junior who is black, rolled her eyes. “So what?” she asked. “I never feel comfortable here. I’m a student at a school where most people are white. The only time I feel comfortable is when I’m at home.”
Dan Clason-Hook, 24, a white senior, said, “White students would never say that we own the campus, but [whites] feel they do.”
The desire to always feel comfortable in their skin is something white people feel entitled to, said Avakian, who is white. The dominant group wants to control its environment, to own it.
The students listened without objection, but they don’t always. Avakian said two students in an earlier semester had challenged her, questioning why she taught the course. After some discussion, Avakian recalled, they concluded her reason was white guilt.
Avakian dismissed that conclusion. “It’s the suppressed history I’m interested in teaching,” she said. “White people can’t know ourselves and our country without knowing this history.”
Although whiteness studies teachers adopt different approaches for different courses, they draw on the same reading of history.
That reading traces the invention of race to the time and social class of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in the late 18th century not only that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, but also this, from his “Notes on the State of Virginia”:
“I advance it, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
From such sentiments, whiteness studies advocates say, race was invented, and the idea of white superiority was crucial to justifying slavery and, later, the dispossession of Native Americans, Hispanics and Asians.
“Jefferson believed in majority rule, but what majority was he in?” said historian James O. Horton of George Washington University. “He wasn’t in the majority in terms of gender. He wasn’t in the majority in terms of class. The only majority he was in was race.”
Horton said poor white workers often joined black slaves and freemen in popular rebellions in the 18th century. For example, he said, Crispus Attucks, a black man, was among the first to die when an interracial mob confronted British soldiers in the “Boston Massacre,” five years before the American Revolution started.
But something happened between that time and Andrew Jackson’s presidency in 1828, Horton said. “Property laws were struck down, allowing white people at the bottom of society to vote based on race in 1807. At the same time that was done, race laws were put into its place.
“There is this constant message hammered at poor white people,” Horton said. “You may be poor, you may have miserable lives right now, but . . . the thing we want you to focus on is the fact that you are white.”
In the 19th and 20th centuries, “race science” was used by Supreme Court justices to deny rights, property and citizenship to various Asian immigrants.
In the housing boom that followed World War II, black veterans were denied new federally backed mortgages that helped build white suburbs.
Avakian said that if American history curriculums “told that story, this would be a different country.”
“Slavery and genocide coexist with democracy and freedom,” she said, and that’s what whiteness studies teaches. “President Andrew Jackson presided during the mass murder of Indians. If we knew in detail how slavery existed alongside freedom, we would have to change the national narrative.”
Chen said Avakian’s course made her more aware of how the sense of belonging corresponds to skin color. “I would never not choose to be someone’s friend because they are white, but I think it’s important to have friends of color,” she said.
Jya Plavin, a 20-year-old sophomore who is white, said the course “was really, really hard . . . both personally and as a white person, because you really want to take the focus off you and your whiteness.”
Clason-Hook said that the class was the only one he knew of that explicitly spoke of whiteness, and that it helped him realize that “other classes, like economics, politics and history, are about whiteness. They are written by and are about white people.”
He said later that confronting whiteness, day to day, is challenging. “I am racist. It’s not on the surface, but it’s in me. Day to day I hear racist comments, and people don’t even know what they’re saying.”
Andrade said she thought “the class was beneficial, because it brings to light that white people, too, are racialized.”
Thinking back on the class discussion a few days later, Andrade wondered: “In a culture that puts whiteness on top, what is blackness? When you look at whiteness, blackness is always in the negative.”
Cairns, who had sailed through the privilege walk, said whiteness studies helped her understand race a little better. “My social group has always been white,” she said. “I’ve noticed that, and I’ve started to look beyond my group.”