Why a White Guy Doesn't Want to Belong to a "White" Group

This post is an addendum to Aaron Barlow’s post on the attacks on Prof. Bebout’s course on “Whiteness,” a post which you should probably read before reading the rest of this post, especially if you are unfamiliar with the controversy.

The most obvious irony is, of course, that this sort of virulent response to Prof. Bebout’s course serves to illustrate very pointedly why the course is needed.

It should be very obvious that, whatever his critiques of “Whiteness” may be, Prof. Bebout is not engaging in the sort of unapologetically hateful rhetoric and self-aggrandizing public posturing that these Far Right groups, and their media enablers, are employing in a very obvious effort to bring attention to themselves and to intimidate other viewpoints into silence. And, let’s be clear, they aren’t at all interested in what Bebout actually has to present or to say on the topic.  Furthermore, beyond using the defense of Western cultural traditions and values as a rhetorical device, they seem largely determined to prove that one can defend a set of principles by gratuitously violating them. Indeed, what they seem primarily interested in demonstrating is that they are relevant and that they can silence him or anyone else whom they decide to target.

Think about it: if not for their attention to Bebout’s course, only some very limited number of students, who have chosen to enroll in his course, would have been exposed to the ideas in the course readings that those who are objecting to the course are bringing to broader attention–and not just among their followers but, ironically and unwittingly, among those many others who may never have been so pointedly and uncomfortably aware of what they are actually doing.

Still, the most profound irony in all of this is that in purporting to defend American values, these groups are actually undermining the most fundamental American values. They are not just trying to insure that their viewpoint is heard; again, they are trying to insure that other viewpoints are not heard. What they are, in fact, defending is not American values but their own sense of–or more accurately, their own desire for– entitlement and power, their ability to deny fundamental American rights to those who don’t look like they look or who don’t think as they do.

I say “desire for” because this sort of vehement insistence on privilege and power is generally an implicit admission of a lack of such privilege and power–and the very determined desire to have it. The White people who actually have most of the power and influence in this country do not typically belong to or explicitly endorse these “White” groups. But, in order to sustain their privileged status, the people with power and influence are often willing to condone and to exploit the divisions that these groups create.

This sort of critique of what is occurring, like whatever treatment of the topic Prof. Bebout is presenting in his course, is almost always framed by these extremists as an attack on “Whites” for “who they are,” as an attack of the most basic elements of their identity–ignoring, of course, that most White people don’t really believe that their values are inherently tied to their race or that those values are under attack for racial reasons. (To be clear, I am not saying that many of us don’t feel that our values are under attack. I would not be writing this post and others if I didn’t feel as if my values are under attack.)

Framing this sort of critique as an attack on “Whiteness” also ignores the reality that those who object to these kinds of positions and tactics characteristic of “White” groups generally find them equally reprehensible among non-White or non-Western extremists, of which there are many in those many parts of the world in which Whites are not the majority race. Indeed, in its broad outlines if not in its specific grievances, this sort of very parochial extremism is all too commonplace worldwide, and it is all too responsible for the senseless animosities and violence that continue to disrupt basic human progress. So, if “Whiteness” can be said to be “under attack,” it is just this perverse, parochial defense of privilege as a rationale for hate that is being critiqued.

And although they are not chopping off people’s heads, the defenders of “Whiteness” are, ironically, more like ISIS and other extremist groups (which they would readily but selectively denounce) than they are like most Americans. Indeed, one of the recurring observations about Islamic extremism is that each time that we think that we have eliminated it, it resurfaces under another name or in a somewhat altered form. Still, we believe that if we maintain our opposition to such extremism, it will eventually exhaust itself or the broader masses of people around the extremists will finally have had enough of it.

We believe this because we have had much the same experience with extremist Nativist groups throughout the history of our own country. They keep resurfacing under somewhat different names and in somewhat altered forms, and each time we tolerate them for a while until they expose themselves for what they really are: not anything truly American but an American aberration that under certain circumstances somehow appeals to the worst in at least some of us.

Finally, in contrast to those who are obsessed with their “Whiteness,” I accept that it is an indication of inherent racial privilege that I have very seldom had to be conscious of my own “Whiteness.” But, it is also true that, like most “White” Americans, I feel that I have become much less focused on the racial differences among those who surround me in my daily life. So, although we have obviously not moved, individually or as a society, completely “beyond race,” or completely beyond preconceived notions about race and other differences, I believe that there is much evidence that we are moving in the right direction.

And Prof. Bebout’s course is one evidence of that progress, whether the self-appointed guardians of “Whiteness” are capable of recognizing it or not.

Moreover, the degree to which the university and the state government under whose auspices the university operates choose to deal quietly with this controversy is the degree to which they are very loudly legitimizing, and implicitly condoning, the attacks on the course and on Prof. Bebout and his wife. Anything short of very vocal and repeated denunciation of the attacks is unconscionable. The axiom about having and demonstrating “the courage of one’s convictions” is applicable to many more people than just Prof. Bebout and his wife.


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