You’re a freshman in college and there’s a legion of majors to select from. You can earn a Bachelor’s degree in Music, English & Literature and even Africana Studies, but if Whiteness Studies were offered, would it be a popular choice for incoming students?
CNN in America interviewed several critical race experts to examine the burgeoning field of Whiteness Studies. Though no university has an established degree-program in the field, several including American University in Washington, D.C. and University of Texas at Arlington, offer Whiteness Studies courses.
Whiteness Studies is interdisciplinary, with scholars from political science, sociology and several other disciplines incorporating the work within their scholarship. CNN in America defines Whiteness Studies as:
The field argues that white privilege still exists, thanks largely to structural and institutional racism, and that the playing field isn’t level, and whites benefit from it. Using examples such as how white Americans tend not to be pulled over by the police as often as blacks and Latinos, or how lenders targeted blacks and Latinos for more expensive, subprime loans during the recent U.S. housing crisis, educators teach how people of different races and ethnicities often live very different lives.
Though Whiteness Studies is considered a new field, since it emerged in academia in the 1990s, its roots can be traced to the work of W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin and other critical race scholars and writers.
DuBois writes in the Souls of White Folk:
“The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing,—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed. The ancient world would have laughed at such a distinction. This assumption that of all the hues of God whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness or tan leads to curious acts; “But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?”
Whiteness is the marker from which many of our expectations and understandings of the world are posited against. From naming children to speaking, Whiteness has inherent values that many strive to achieve.
However, Whiteness Studies has a singular detractor: President Barack Obama.
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a professor of sociology at Duke, is the author of Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. It is considered a fundamental text in the development of Whiteness Studies. Bonilla-Silva sees Obama’s presidency as a distraction from the real issues plaguing people of color.
“Having Obama is, in a curious way, putting us behind,” he told CNN in America. “You have a growing racial apathy. People are telling you, I don’t want to hear about race, because we’re beyond that. But we still have a white America and a black America.”
Tim Wise, a White man examining Whiteness (how ironic), agrees with Bonilla-Silva. He claims Whiteness bestows White privilege, leading to systemic imbalances like wealth and achievement gaps. Wise writes:
Despite the notion that somehow we have attained an equal opportunity, or color-blind society, the fact is, we are far from an equitable nation. People of color continue to face obstacles based solely on color, and whites continue to reap benefits from the same. None of this makes whites bad people, and none of it means we should feel guilty or beat ourselves up. But it does mean we need to figure out how we’re going to be accountable for our unearned advantages. One way is by fighting for a society in which those privileges will no longer exist, and in which we will be able to stand on our own two feet, without the artificial crutch of racial advantage to prop us up. We need to commit to fighting for racial equity and challenging injustice at every turn, not only because it harms others, but because it diminishes us as well (even as it pays dividends), and because it squanders the promise of fairness and equity to which we claim to adhere as Americans.
In other words, race is still relevant in the age of Barack Obama. We see it in the courtroom as Don West berates Rachel Jeantel. It’s evident in New York’s stop-and-frisk policies. It’s everywhere. Yet, no institution has organized a Whiteness Studies degree-program.
Schools offer minors in Hip-Hop studies and degrees in African-American Studies, Caribbean Studies and Feminist Studies.
But if Whiteness Studies were offered, would you major in it? Or is Whiteness still off-limits for analysis?