Should We Study White People?

Laurie Essig, Chronicle of Higher Education, February 6, 2012

This semester I am teaching a new (for me) course: “White People.” The course considers the historical formation of whiteness as well as its current cultural and economic manifestations. For me, teaching “white people” is an obvious way to work through some of the key issues of critical race studies: How did our current racial categories form and under what conditions? How are these racial categories intertwined with one another? How does race depend on class, gender, sexuality and often geographic location to make sense?

Of course, when you teach a course called “White People,” you are bound to take some teasing. Someone suggested that it’s a course to “paint white people as bad.” Another friend said I’m just trying to “relieve my liberal white guilt.” But I reject both the claim that all white people are the same and the claim that to critically examine one’s racial position is motivated by “guilt” rather than the sociological imagination. To me, the question that motivates white studies is the same as the question that motivates sociology: How does social power operate in our everyday lives?

But according to Alex P. Kellogg, who wrote a piece at CNN last week called “Has ‘whiteness studies’ run its course at US colleges?” my new course may already be DOA. That’s because, according to Kellogg, most college students believe we live in a “post racial” America and “the election of Obama represents the culmination of decades of racial progress, they say.”

{snip}

That is hardly the white studies field I know. White studies, like critical race studies more generally, actually offers a far more nuanced notion of power and how it operates than “whites are bad.” {snip}

White studies is able to show the historical formation of whiteness as a racial category that has always been embedded with things like class, gender and sexuality (one need only think of the figure of the white lady alongside the figure of white “trash”). As such, white studies is hardly a simplistic and didactic lesson in racial privilege (although surely it can also explain the privileging of certain forms of whiteness).

{snip} But as disturbing as I found Kellogg’s description of white studies, I found the comments to his article even more disturbing. Consider these:

Let whites keep busy on the work of science and technology, advancing the human species. No! we must degrade whites and tell them they are racists and show no appreciation for what they are and have done for humanity. Does demeaning of whites help the cause of human progress?

and this:

“Whiteness studies” are a product of a genocidal anti-white regime. Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.

Indeed, reading the responses to Kellogg’s article is a reminder of how much resistance there is among those marked as “white” to even acknowledge that they have a racial position in the world, let alone a privileged one. How often have I had to tell white students that they must discuss race in their papers only to have them respond “but there is no race. Everyone I’m studying is white.”

If nothing else, this response is compelling evidence that white studies has hardly run its course. If anything, white studies has merely been absorbed into other courses—rather like much of gender studies has—so that any course that attempts to unravel social power is forced to deal with the race/class/gender/sexuality hairball that by definition involves both white privilege and white abjection.

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