Whiteness Class at Colorado University Prompts Colorful Debate
People stare when University of Colorado student Maren Gauldin wears her “Black is Beautiful” T-shirt.
That’s because she’s White.
The shirt, Gauldin says, is like a tag that forces her to engage in conversations about race, forces her to feel a tiny bit like Black and Latino students on an overwhelmingly White campus.
“Every time I put it on, I feel uncomfortable,” Gauldin told students at a White-privilege symposium last month that filled an auditorium and spilled into a hallway. “It helps me think about the kind of activist I want to be.”
The symposium was one part of an introspective look by White CU scholars and students at the privileges they say are automatically afforded the White race. Awareness of the relatively new field, called Whiteness studies, is building at CU as the university examines its diversity and racial strife.
The field of study — by some accounts born 10 years ago at a conference at the University of California at Berkeley and now taught at hundreds of universities — has its critics, who call it White-bashing rhetoric that shows how far academia has strayed from mainstream society.
“Whiteness studies is not about White-bashing, and it’s not about White supremacy,” said Duncan Rinehart, who will teach CU’s fourth Whiteness-studies course this semester.
“As long as Whiteness is invisible, it’s contributing to inequality and injustice. There is a fair amount of just flat-out denial, not malicious, but denial nonetheless.”
Feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh, whose essay on White privilege often is required reading for students in Whiteness studies, defines it as an “invisible weightless knapsack.”
“I have come to see White privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious,” she says.
The growing discussion of White privilege at CU has attracted some negative response, and the attacks have spilled into the university’s examination of its lack of diversity.
The European/American Issues Forum — an organization that says it is not White supremacist but stands up for White rights — has e-mailed a couple dozen student leaders and filed three open-records requests with CU interim president Hank Brown asking for university expenses on ethnic clubs. One e-mail included statistics of crimes against Whites by Blacks.
The center tries to debunk the only two views in the United States concerning Whiteness — either as White supremacist or color blindness, a belief that Whites have no race and therefore don’t need to worry about it, Hitchcock said.
The course is popular at CU, though, and it’s mostly White students who take it, said Eleanor Hubbard, a retired CU professor who taught it.
Professors had to turn away students, capping the class at about 60 a semester. But the concept of White privilege is infused in many sociology and ethnic-studies courses.
To fight racism, Whites need to see they have advantages that are a “result of them being White, not for any other reason like they are smarter or have a better education,” Hubbard said.
“It’s not about feeling guilty,” she said. “That doesn’t help anyone. What is helpful is to use those privileges to make changes so that equality is possible.”
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