Racism 101: Why We Need Courses on "Whiteness"

While The New York Times reports on action by the University of Oklahoma, kicking out Sigma Alpha Epsilon for a racist chant, a Daily Kos blogger argues that the chant has roots elsewhere, that there’s a pervasive though hidden racism throughout the fraternity and, by implication, elsewhere. No, not by implication. The blogger reproduces pictures of lynchings to back up his point. After all, the version of the chant used in Oklahoma does mention hanging “n****rs” from a tree.

I recently wrote about (here and here) the furor over Lee Bebout’s course, English 401, “U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness” at Arizona State University. Someone left a comment, asking (rhetorically) if I didn’t find the course “defamatory and stereotypical.” No. After the University of Oklahoma incident, I’m beginning to think it necessary.

In a follow-up comment, that “someone” called me “a self-hating ethnophobe.” I trashed the comment–it has no place here. It came from someone at The American Freedom Party, whose “platform” demands:

Freedom of association. Return to Americans their traditional right of freedom of association, including freedom in racial matters, along with the abolishment of all forms of government- and corporate-mandated racial discrimination and racial preferences, such as affirmative action, quotas, and all forms of “sensitivity training.” Freedom of association means that all races, ethnic groups and religions may openly celebrate their heritage and beliefs without interference or harassment from government and from media outlets and privately financed organizations.

The “party” pages assume that real Americans are whites with a commonality of attitudes defined by the “party.” Even “liberalism” is considered a foreign imposition. I guess I’m “self hating” because my view of “whiteness” differs from the party line. I guess I am not free to celebrate my “whiteness” in a way not in keeping with the “party” idea of what white “heritage and beliefs” should be. Not without being a traitor to my race, that is.

People such as the supporters of The American Freedom Party, who clearly want to restrict my freedom to associate with whomever I will, are trying to steal my heritage–and I do not like it at all, and this is one of the reasons I support without hesitation Bebout and his course.

The heritage of the United States contains racism in large doses, so large that they continue to have an impact today–as the American Freedom Party site testifies. When we try to deny this, we perpetuate it, as the Oklahoma incident testifies. In response to the reality of racism, we need to push for even more attention to it in our college classrooms.

For me, this is a matter of pride, not self-hatred. Three of my great-great grandfathers fought for the Confederacy; one of them owned slaves. The pride is that we, as a family, have changed, that we can recognize our family past yet can see what was wrong with it. The “featured image” of this post is of Seymour Newlin, a man my great-grandfather in Ohio could not save from a lynching. The guilt from that was carried by my grandmother; to deny it would be to deny a part of my heritage.

Desmond Tutu, writing about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, says:

Psychologists have now found that to forgive is good for our personal, physical, psychic health, as well as our health as a community, as a society. We discovered that people experienced healing through telling their stories. The process opened wounds that were festering. We cleansed them, poured ointment on them, and knew they would heal.

We Americans have never been willing to explore our stories–too many of us have not been, that is. We can never heal from racism until we do. Using our classrooms as avenues for this not only furthers educational goals but can make our whole country start to heal.

That would make me proud.

2 thoughts on “Racism 101: Why We Need Courses on "Whiteness"

  1. Aaron, you were right to block the comment on your post. There are some argumentative positions that do not warrant the dignity of being treated as credible, alternative points of view.

    There is a huge difference between hating yourself because you’re White and not wanting to hate people of other races simply because you’re White and they’re not.

    If you don’t understand or accept that difference, you aren’t really concerned with preserving your own racial and ethnic heritage; rather, you are concerned with denying others with a different racial and ethnic background an equal right to honor their heritage.

    Anyone who thinks that race is no longer a defining issue in this nation–for instance, the majority of justice currently serving on the Supreme Court–is simply ignoring the very obvious resurgence in the open expression of racial prejudice and the insistent assertion of racial prerogative that have resulted simply from the election and re-election of the first African-American president.

    Nothing else has really changed in America since 2008. Any progress that African-Americans and other racial minorities have made has continued to be incremental–indeed, even more so because any severe economic crisis, such as the Great Recession, always affect the poor much more pointedly than any other segment of our society.

    If White privilege is being eroded, it has not been to the benefit of Americans of other races. Rather, what we have seen is the erosion of the standard of living of many working-class and middle-class Whites to the benefit of the most affluent Whites.

    But we, like many other peoples worldwide, have a history of being much more willing to make race a scapegoat for economic inequality.

    The failure to transcend that pattern of behavior has done and continues to do more to undermine the concept of American exceptionalism than anything else.

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