A Course Originally Called ‘the Problem of Whiteness’ Returns to Arizona State

Yanan Wang, Washington Post, November 12, 2015

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At some universities, there are classes dedicated to understanding the notions of whiteness, white supremacy and what the field’s proponents see as the quiet racism of white people. The professor of one such “whiteness studies” course, Lee Bebout of Arizona State University, announced recently that he would be teaching for the second time a course originally called U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness.

The syllabus described Critical Whiteness Studies as a field “concerned with dismantling white supremacy in part by understanding how whiteness is socially constructed and experienced.” Readings included works by Toni Morrison, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (“Racism without Racists”) and Jane H. Hill (“The Everyday Language of White Racism”).

For the coming semester, Bebout will add Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent book “Between the World and Me.”

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“White supremacy makes it so that white people can’t see the world they have created,” Bebout told The Post. It’s a culture so pervasive that living in it, subscribing to it and upholding it feel as natural to most Americans as breathing air.

News of the class’s formation caused considerable outrage after it was first reported last spring by Campus Reform, a conservative news site.

Bebout, who is white, said he was promptly attacked for promoting discrimination against white people. Fliers appeared around his neighborhood which featured a photo of him and the declaration that he was “anti-white.” Bebout was still relatively new to the area at the time. “It was not the way I wanted to meet my neighbors,” he said, though many of them turned out to be supportive.

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He said the class is not a critique of white individuals, per se, but rather whiteness as a form of institutional racism, where the experiences of people of color are rarely validated. In Bebout’s words, this centers around the conviction that “my experience as a white male should be the experience of everybody else, and there is something dysfunctional about them if they don’t see the world in the way that I do.”

By this definition, you don’t necessarily have to be racially white to act “white” and support white power. It’s long been known, after all, that there are white supremacists who aren’t themselves white-skinned.

The study of whiteness has been around for decades. It began with American sociologist, historian and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, who first took this critical perspective in a 1920 book chapter titled “The Souls of White Folk.”

In 2003, The Post’s Darryl Fears reported that at least 30 institutions, including Princeton and the University of California at Los Angeles, had courses in whiteness studies despite widespread opposition.

The field has been criticized as being at turns biased and overgeneralizing.

Social critic David Horowitz told The Post in 2013, “Black studies celebrates blackness, Chicano studies celebrates Chicanos, women’s studies celebrates women and white studies attacks white people as evil.”

“It’s so evil that one author has called for the abolition of whiteness,” he said.

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