Why 'Whiteness History Month' makes everyone uncomfortable

Portland Community College plans to dedicate a month to the study of whiteness as a social construct, eliciting a range of reactions online – not all positive. But any meaningful discourse on race comes with contention, some say.

An Oregon community college’s announcement this week that it has designated April as “Whiteness History Month” has sparked controversy online, reigniting discourse on race and racism and raising questions about the best ways to approach such issues.

The initiative by Portland Community College (PCC), which has about 90,000 students, is geared toward the study of whiteness, its origins as a social construct, and its impact on society, according to the project’s website. Though organizers were quick to distinguish it from Black History Month – which celebrates notable people and events in African-American history – the plan has drawn everything from interest and skepticism to confusion and outrage  across the Internet.

Yet some say the range of responses to the project only underscores the reality that discomfort and conflict are essential to any meaningful conversation about racism, diversity, and discrimination.

“I don’t think there is any way you approach race in America without contention,” says Randal Jelks, a professor of American Studies and African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “People try to avoid contention. But slavery was contentious and brutal. Native removal was contentious and brutal. So there’s no way you can avoid conflict in this issue.”

Not that the project was started with conflict in mind.

Whiteness History Month began as an idea toward the end of 2014, following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the ensuing protests nationwide, says Luke Givens, coordinator of the school’s retention and multicultural center and a member of the project’s planning committee.

The diversity council at PCC’s Cascade campus ran with the concept, and by June a group of faculty members and staff were presenting the idea to student groups and fellow teachers. They billed it as a month-long effort to foster nontraditional discussions of race across PCC’s four campuses.

“Oftentimes, we talk about the effects of race on people of color,” Mr. Givens says. “But we don’t really attempt to look at how race was actually constructed, how racism operates at an institutional level.”

In October, the group invited people from within PCC and the surrounding community to propose ways to advance the conversation. Among the proposals they received: a film that would document how different students define whiteness; a workshop that would examine how the concept of whiteness has changed over time; and a study of Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” as a way of using music to talk about racism. The organizers said they see a distinction between whiteness as a construct and white people, and were in no way targeting the latter.

“The event itself is in no way about blaming people or shaming people,” Givens says. “It’s not targeted at a group or folks on an individual level. We’re talking about a social construct. If you’re open to that, then I think it’s going to be for your benefit.”

But although Givens insists that the project seeks to promote calm, rational discussion of difficult issues, even he acknowledges that disputes and debate are inevitable.

“Are there going to be some people who aren’t going to be open to it?” he says. “Absolutely.”

'Dismantling whiteness'

The stiffest opponents of the project dismiss PCC’s explanation, calling the endeavor an attack on white people and white culture: “Whites accomplish too much, and progressives don’t intend to let us keep doing it. The explicit objective of the program is to explore tactics for ‘dismantling whiteness,’ ” writes Dave Blount at Right Wing News.

The American Conservative dubbed the project, “Hate Whitey Month,” and described it as “plainly designed to convince white students to despise themselves and their culture.”

Conservatives are not the only ones who are critical.

“I think that the way they are going about this is just too targeted and polarizing,” writes Niah, a computer information systems major at PCC who asked that only his first name be used, in an e-mail to the Monitor. “What we need is a campus-wide discussion on not only whiteness, but blackness, Asianness, Hispanicness, Middle Easternness, Pacific Islanderness … To have a discussion about how all races are to be treated equally, you must include all races.”

Part of the problem with PCC’s approach, some say, is it appears not to recognize the sense of loss and injustice that has emerged among working-class whites in the wake of the Great Recession.

“The common approach to these whiteness workshops and education is only to talk about white privilege,” says Peter Rachleff, a former labor history professor who is now founding co-executive director of East Side Freedom Library, a social justice nonprofit in St. Paul, Minn.

That approach, he says, is “paternalistic, ignoring the frustration and limitations that white working class people themselves are experiencing.”

Telling whites – especially those in low-income communities – that they have to continue to pay for the sins of their forefathers is neither fair nor constructive, Mr. Rachleff says. It also fails to engage a group that could be vital to ending oppression of people of color.

“I think the question should be: what do white working-class or poor people have to gain by taking apart the system that they have grown up in. Not just because it’s unfair to people of color, but also because this has promulgated an ideology that has told them they will continue to benefit from this system – even as they are alienated and not able to chase their actual dreams,” he says.

'Unmerited gain'

To others, however, that line of thought is perhaps the reason something like “Whiteness History Month” is necessary to jumpstart conversations about the expectations people form on the basis of race.

“When we talk about white supremacy, we make people uncomfortable – it’s the idea of unmerited gain,” says Gregory Jay, a professor of English and founding director of the Cultures and Communities Program at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “It’s a terribly deep-seated part of the American dream that people get what they earn. And when you suggest to people that what they or their family or their friends have is not entirely earned, they get really defensive.”

The sentiment is understandable, even true: “They watched their friends and families work really hard for what they have,” Professor Jay says. But it is also short-sighted, he notes.

“No matter how hard they’re working, they don’t have to work as hard as others,” he says. “You ran a hard race, but the others in the race are handicapped.”

At Portland State University, Kaitlyn Verret, multicultural affairs director of the school’s student association, says she and some of her fellow students would gladly adopt a similar project.

“I think it would be really great for PSU,” says Ms. Verret. “I don’t know if it would be welcome [in the broader community], but I think it’s necessary. It’s not a targeting attack; it’s just a way to create dialogue.”

She acknowledges that for many students, talking about whiteness is uncomfortable. But “so is 400 years of oppression,” she says.

'It's all about the conversation'

The varying and often conflicting perspectives that come alive in any real discussion of racism, justice, and equality make some skeptical about PCC’s ability to succeed with Whiteness History Month.  

“It comes from a good motive. But I can guarantee you this will be largely misinterpreted in the public, and reactionary groups will join the fray,” says Professor Jelks at KU.

“[Race] is already a very polarizing topic by its very nature. People feel obligated by their race to ‘join their side of the argument,’ ” writes Niah, the PCC student. “This will spark many discussions, yes, and some may be very informative and educational, but I fear that many people here will just be incited to anger through this movement.

“Don't get me wrong, the movement means well,” he adds, “but the community just won't receive it that way.”

Still, even on a subject as contentious as race, patches of common ground exist.

To Rachleff, for instance, who opposes highlighting the concept of white privilege, the key to true equality lies in finding the place where the problems of people of color intersect with those of white people – and encouraging them to work together to solve them.

“If we create a space where we get people to come in and tell people to tell their own story” – whether white or Somali or Korean or anything else – “they will discover how much they have in common,” he says.

His remarks echo those of Garrett Duncan, an associate professor of African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., who sees race as a social construct that needs to be analyzed to be broken down.

“It’s all about the conversation,” Professor Duncan says. “Opening up this conversation will allow us to be truth-tellers and be honest, and it can be transformative.”

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