Studying "Whiteness" Threatens Whites?

Lee Bebout, an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University, is teaching a Topics in Critical Theory course this semester. From what I can tell, it’s one of those courses passed around from professor to professor based on a proposed theme for the semester, one generally approved by a departmental committee. Bebout’s theme is “U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness.” It’s an intriguing topic, and Bebout is an appropriate teacher for leading a course in it. His Purdue dissertation became the book Mythohistorical Interventions: The Chicano Movement and Its Legacies. The reading list consists of George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Temple University Press), Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (NYU Press), Jane Hill’s The Everyday Language of White Racism (Wiley), Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Penguin/Random) and Patricia Williams’ The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (Harvard University Press). As an English professor with interest in the study of “whiteness” (one of my books concerns American Scots-Irish based culture), I’m quite impressed with the outline of this course: I would love to take it.

Studying white cultures through the eyes of other cultures is probably the best model for moving toward understanding white cultures–or any cultures, for that matter. That’s probably an understatement, but it will do. For, the fact of the matter is that Bebout’s course needs no defending. On its face, it presents a legitimate scholarly exploration that would be useful to both undergraduate and even graduate students. The reading list is undeniably strong and the instructor has an appropriate background. Though we tend to couch questions of race in liberal/conservative terms, there is nothing particularly “liberal” about asking students to learn more about themselves (if they are white) or about the dominant American culture in relation to race (if they are not). This course, in all of its aspects, is representative of the best of American education.

Yet Bebout now finds himself at the center of one of Fox News’s faux controveries:

Photos of Bebout and his mixed-race family have been shared on neo-Nazi and white supremacist message boards, such as Stormfront and The Daily Stormer, along with contact information for his wife – also an ASU professor.

Right-wing extremists in the Phoenix area have posted lengthy rants about Bebout online, promising to force ASU to remove the course from its catalog or otherwise make “a bold statement to the militant Left that their anti-White agenda will not go unchallenged.”

Robert Poe, a PhD candidate who teaches courses at ASU’s School of Social Transformation, offered an impromptu discussion about the course last week on campus, where he was confronted by a white supremacist citing the controversial “Bell Curve” book on race and intelligence.

The man recorded video of the debate, which has been widely shared on white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites.

This is rabble-rousing of the worst kind (Poe has received death threats, and Bebout has been threatened, too). Not only will this sort of thing, if it continues, cast a pall over course offerings everywhere, but it increases the racial divides in America, divides that can only be overcome by careful considerations of race in the country–of just the sort Bebout is offering.

What a sad and upsetting irony this “controversy” is!

9 thoughts on “Studying "Whiteness" Threatens Whites?

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  3. You don’t see a “Problems With Whiteness” course as defamatory and stereotypical?

    If it was a critical race theory course on “Problems With Browness” you don’t think La Raza would raise hell?

    Also, I challenge you to show us these so-called “death threats”! I think you are a liar and deliberately misrepresenting the protest.

    • You think? I doubt you do. Show the lie and prove it.

      Seeing a “Problems with Whiteness” course as “defamatory and stereotypical” is itself racist on the face it it, for it shows that you are willing to take advantage of the perks of “whiteness” without examination. So is making the assumption that “browness” is equivalent to “whiteness” somehow has validity. You are ignoring the realities of the imbalances of our history.

      I’m tired of nonsense such as your comment being accepted without challenge.

      • The idea of seeing “whiteness” as a problem is itself racist and xenophobic. European whites have been nothing less than “the light of the world.” Our entire modern world (from the printing press, to cars, computers cell phones, etc…the transistor itself, the foundation of the information age, was brought into being by Bill Shockley) was invented and brought into being by that ONE group.

        In turn, that one group brought much of Asia, including the subcontinent of India, as well as sub-Saharan Africa, often kicking and screaming, into the modern age.

        The “imbalances in human history” are the result of significantly more and greater contributions by that one group. While I’d agree that it is abhorrent to compare ANY other group to European whites (at least in terms of human contributions and value produced), it IS absolutely true that black bigotry and white bigotry are absolutely equivalent. That is, if “black pride” is considered OK, then “white pride” is equally acceptable. If white bigotry toward blacks is to be condemned (and it SHOULD be) then so MUST black bigotry toward whites, which according to one of the only people actually researching such issues (Colin Flaherty is far more prevalent.

        • First, if “white pride” is fine, then so is “seeing ‘whiteness’ as a problem.” They are simply different sides to the same coin. Second, if you had spent any time in Africa or Asia (I have, over five years in total), you would know that no one there is being pulled, “often kicking and screaming, into the modern age.” Third, the very idea of a cohesive body of “European whites” is itself a construct and not a reality–there is great diversity there and very little cohesiveness in Europe. Fourth, the influence on American culture of Africa is as strong as that of Europe. Fifth, there can be no equivalency of “black bigotry and white bigotry” in a society where the power imbalance dramatically favors the whites. Sixth, there has been more death and destruction brought forth by the putative “white” European culture than by any other group of people, anywhere or anytime. I don’t think I need go on, but there are “eighth,” “ninth” and “tenth”–and more just itching to be enumerated.

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  5. Aaron Barlow: You state:

    #1 “if “white pride” is fine, then so is “seeing ‘whiteness’ as a problem.”

    In that case if “black pride” and “brown pride” is fine they too should be subjected to “critical theory” and criticism. However you would rather take on a patronizing paternal tone with different ethnic groups and treat them as if they were weak perpetual victims and then reserve your elitist snobbery to what you view as “lower” class whites. It is easy for you to criticize “whites” because our society encourages it.

    #2 “if you had spent any time in Africa or Asia (I have, over five years in total), you would know that no one there is being pulled, “often kicking and screaming, into the modern age.”

    Wow, you spent 5 years in Asia and Africa, what intellectual acumen you must have regarding those cultures. I spent 6 months in Saudi Arabia, does than mean I understand the entire Middle East? Thank God those “people” are adopting America’s consumerism and materialism.

    #3 “the very idea of a cohesive body of “European whites” is itself a construct and not a reality–there is great diversity there and very little cohesiveness in Europe.”

    There is more genetic diversity within Africa; should blacks not strive for unity or cohesiveness because of all the in-fighting going on between their ethnic groups? Making a broad generalization regarding “European Whites” being a construct is about as lame as a creationist denouncing the theory of evolution. Pretending everyone is the same is just plain superficial. Is “black” just a social construct? Your intellectual range is skin deep.

    #4 “the influence on American culture of Africa is as strong as that of Europe”

    What does this have to do with the price of tea in China? You love throwing out sweeping generalizations that are suppose to prove what?

    #5. “there can be no equivalency of “black bigotry and white bigotry” in a society where the power imbalance dramatically favors the whites.”

    Again sweeping generalizations and stereotypes. Blacks as the poor helpless victim of whites. This point of view is more about painting yourself as the morally enlightened “savior” and defender of the black man while disassociating from your own people (that is if you are white). It is pretty condescending but ones narcissism thrives on it.

    #6 “there has been more death and destruction brought forth by the putative “white” European culture than by any other group of people, anywhere or anytime.”

    Wouldn’t the death and destruction be a direct result from technology developed within European cultures? The civil war was fought under the pretense of abolishing slavery; has any other culture went to war with itself over its treatment of a different ethnic group? By the way I think China under Mao Zedong killed 80 million.

    • Where are “black pride” and “brown pride” not subject to critical attention and to theory?

      As one whose ancestry is what you call “lower” class whites, I think you are painting me with your own preconceptions rather than seeing the reality. I do see a real split between American white cultures, one based on the Scots-Irish who came to the colonies through Ulster Plantation and who settled in the west of the colonies in the eighteenth century, first in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, moving west to often be the first European Americans settling what would become the new states of the nation. These are my own ancestors. The other white culture arises also from the British Isles, but from the earlier settlers whose culture was strongly affected by Enlightenment thinking. I am descended from some of them, too (my first American ancestors came to Connecticut in 1630), but I have never felt the same affinity for their cultural descendants that I have for the “Borderers” (so named for the border between England and Scotland, long the poorest area of Europe, from whence they came). I even wrote a book about them, The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth. It’s not uncritical of them (of “us”), but I don’t believe that love means never pointing out faults.

      Five years is not long enough to completely know one culture, let alone two. My point has nothing to do with my knowledge but with the danger of thinking you know something of a place without having been there at all. As to people “adopting America’s consumerism and materialism,” well, here again, I think you are writing without knowledge. Africans are not often doing so willingly but are being forced into a monetary economy. You might want to read Walter Rodney’s How the West Underdeveloped Africa. It could teach you a great deal about what really goes on in so-called “developing” countries.

      Who is pretending everyone is the same? Not I. In fact, the entire concept of “race” is a pretense and one I reject for Africa as much as I do for Europe. Mine is not a broad generalization but a recognition of distinction. You did not read what I wrote carefully: I do not pretend “everyone is the same.” You do, when you make your claims of the superiority of Europe. It seems, then, that you are directing your criticism at yourself.

      By denying the importance of Africa on American culture, you are aligning yourself with an imagined “European” tradition that doesn’t exist. When you extol Europe, you do so in a way that purposefully denigrates the rest of the world. My point is that even you have been strongly influenced by African cultures. Also, you might want to look up the word “generalization.” You use in inappropriately over and over.

      I never say that blacks are helpless victims. On the other hand, I do recognize that, in the history of the United States, the power has always been in the hands of the whites. It is today, even with a president whose father was African. You are the one making assumptions, not I. And I do not paint myself as a savior–black people can do that on their own, if given the possibility–and I certainly do not disassociate with my own people. See this post of mine. My family helped found this country (my 5x-grandfather, for whom I am named, fought in the Revolution–along with others of my ancestors–and his brother was the second American diplomat to ever die in service), helped tear it apart and keep it together (I had ancestors on both sides of the Civil War), and were wounded in service (both of my grandfathers served in France in WWI, one losing a leg). I love it when people like you try to claim I ‘dissociate’ from my own people, for I am proud that my family has done as much as any for this country and you give me a chuckle.

      Your last point makes so little sense I can see no way to respond. What is your point about the Civil War? When you bring in Mao, I can only assume that you are thinking back to the price of tea in China.

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