Beyond the protests, race symposiums and demands for diversity funding, some students are looking at race in a new light: by academically examining the experience of white people.
Whiteness Studies is a new field of academic inquiry, taught in approximately 20 universities around the country. Presently an upper-division class in the sociology department, Whiteness Studies investigates topics such as the “White Racial Identity,” “Representation of Whites in the Media” and “Seeing Whiteness in the Social Structure.”
A recent racially themed death threat against student government tri-executive Mebraht Gebre-Michael, who is black, sparked protests and community gatherings on campus and inspired students to outline specific pro-diversity demands to the administration. Following on the heels of this unrest, the sociology department hosted a symposium on white privilege on Monday night. Both Hubbard and Rinehart, who are white, spoke at the symposium.
“White privilege” is the idea that white people have certain advantages that they do not notice and take for granted.
“I can turn on the television and see people of my race widely represented,” wrote researcher Peggy McIntosh, who was repeatedly referenced at the symposium and is read in Whiteness Studies. “I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race.”
The students in Whiteness Studies dedicated a full class period to discussing the racist threat Gebre-Michael received.
“I’m not sure there is a distinct line between academic inquiry and social engagement,” said Rinehart. “I’m not sure that the line needs to be hard and fast. Activism is legitimate in academia to the extent that it gives students something else to react to in formulating their views.”
Rinehart said instructors can present their personal views in the classroom, as long as they allow their students to criticize and disagree with those views. In the Whiteness Studies course, he said, his student’s reactions create the line between instruction and indoctrination.
“You push white people too hard, they get defensive and shut down,” said Rinehart. “The balance of pushing learning without creating the defensiveness keeps us too far from indoctrination.”