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White Privilege Studies Across the Country

corporate media covers anti-racisism movement ...
Hue and Cry on 'Whiteness Studies'
An Academic Field's Take on Race Stirs Interest and Anger

"It's the suppressed history I'm interested in teaching," says University of Massachusetts professor Arlene Avakian, shown in class on the "socal construction" of race, with students Natalis Forte, left, and Kate Rodriguez. (James Schaffer - For The Washington Post)

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2003; Page A01

AMHERST, Mass. -- Naomi Cairns was among the leaders in the privilege walk, and she wasn't happy about it.

The exercise, which recently involved Cairns and her classmates in a course at the University of Massachusetts, had two simple rules: When the moderator read a statement that applied to you, you stepped forward; if it didn't, you stepped back. After the moderator asked if you were certain you could get a bank loan whenever you wanted, Cairns thought, "Oh my God, here we go again," and took yet another step forward.

"You looked behind you and became really uncomfortable," said Cairns, a 24-year-old junior who stood at the front of the classroom with other white students. Asian and black students she admired were near the back. "We all started together," she said, "and now were so separated."

The privilege walk was part of a course in whiteness studies, a controversial and relatively new academic field that seeks to change how white people think about race. The field is based on a left-leaning interpretation of history by scholars who say the concept of race was created by a rich white European and American elite, and has been used to deny property, power and status to nonwhite groups for two centuries.

Advocates of whiteness studies -- most of whom are white liberals who hope to dismantle notions of race -- believe that white Americans are so accustomed to being part of a privileged majority they do not see themselves as part of a race.

"Historically, it has been common to see whites as a people who don't have a race, to see racial identity as something others have," said Howard Winant, a white professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a strong proponent of whiteness studies. "It's a great advance to start looking at whiteness as a group."

Winant said whiteness studies advocates must be careful not to paint white heritage with a broad brush, or stray from the historical record. Generalizations, he said, will only demonize whiteness.

But opponents say whiteness studies has already done that. David Horowitz, a conservative social critic who is white, said whiteness studies is leftist philosophy spiraling out of control. "Black studies celebrates blackness, Chicano studies celebrates Chicanos, women's studies celebrates women, and white studies attacks white people as evil," Horowitz said.

"It's so evil that one author has called for the abolition of whiteness," he said. "I have read their books, and it's just despicable."

Whiteness studies, said Matthew Spalding, is "a derogatory name for Western civilization." Its study is important only to those who think "black studies and Chicano studies haven't gone far enough in removing the baggage of Anglo-European traditions," said Spalding, director of the Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

"The notion that you can get rid of a historical tradition as a way to further current . . . concerns strikes me as intellectually misleading," Spalding said. "It makes certain assumptions and looks for certain outcomes. It's close-minded."

Whiteness studies can be traced to the writings of black intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin, but the field did not coalesce until liberal white scholars embraced it about eight years ago, according to some who helped shape it.

Now, despite widespread criticism and what some opponents view as major flaws in the curriculum, at least 30 institutions -- from Princeton University to the University of California at Los Angeles -- teach courses in whiteness studies.

The courses are emerging at a pivotal time. Scientists have determined that there is scant genetic distinction between races, and the 2000 Census allowed residents to define themselves by multiple racial categories for the first time. Dozens of books, such as "The Invention of the White Race," "How the Irish Became White" and "Memoir of a Race Traitor," are standard reading for people who study whiteness. Recently, the Public Broadcasting System aired a documentary titled "Race: The Power of an Illusion."

"If you ask 10 people what is race, you're likely to get 10 different answers," said Larry Adelman, who conceived, produced and co-directed that documentary. "How many races would there be? Where did the idea come from?"

At U-Mass., those questions and others were raised in "The Social Construction of Whiteness and Women," one of two whiteness studies courses Cairns took last semester.

Read and Discuss

The students, about three-quarters of them white, slid into desks and unloaded giant book bags, which were stuffed with required reading. The books included Theodore Allen's "The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control," which argues, in part, that the collection of European immigrants into a white race was a political act to control the country.

Arlene Avakian, the chairman of the U-Mass. women's studies department, sat on a wide desk, let her legs dangle and asked the class to discuss the ideas of racial privilege, environmental comfort and social control. Not all of her students had taken part in the privilege walk -- it was conducted in another course -- but many of them had.

Winnie Chen, 22, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, said it pained her to deal with race every day when her white peers seemed to rarely think about it. She tried to discuss race with a white friend once, she said, but he felt ambushed.

"He said I was pulling a Pearl Harbor on him," she said. "It is so difficult for them to think there is another lens. He talked about Irish oppression. I asked, 'Have you ever considered why you're no longer oppressed here when Asians, blacks and Hispanics still are?' "

A white student raised her hand and said she and a friend had gone to a hall reserved for black student affairs, and the friend said she didn't feel comfortable.

Brandi-Ann Andrade, a 21-year-old junior who is black, rolled her eyes. "So what?" she asked. "I never feel comfortable here. I'm a student at a school where most people are white. The only time I feel comfortable is when I'm at home."

Dan Clason-Hook, 24, a white senior, said, "White students would never say that we own the campus, but [whites] feel they do."

The desire to always feel comfortable in their skin is something white people feel entitled to, said Avakian, who is white. The dominant group wants to control its environment, to own it.

The students listened without objection, but they don't always. Avakian said two students in an earlier semester had challenged her, questioning why she taught the course. After some discussion, Avakian recalled, they concluded her reason was white guilt.

Avakian dismissed that conclusion. "It's the suppressed history I'm interested in teaching," she said. "White people can't know ourselves and our country without knowing this history."

Although whiteness studies teachers adopt different approaches for different courses, they draw on the same reading of history.

That reading traces the invention of race to the time and social class of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in the late 18th century not only that "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence, but also this, from his "Notes on the State of Virginia":

"I advance it, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind."

From such sentiments, whiteness studies advocates say, race was invented, and the idea of white superiority was crucial to justifying slavery and, later, the dispossession of Native Americans, Hispanics and Asians.

"Jefferson believed in majority rule, but what majority was he in?" said historian James O. Horton of George Washington University. "He wasn't in the majority in terms of gender. He wasn't in the majority in terms of class. The only majority he was in was race."

Horton said poor white workers often joined black slaves and freemen in popular rebellions in the 18th century. For example, he said, Crispus Attucks, a black man, was among the first to die when an interracial mob confronted British soldiers in the "Boston Massacre," five years before the American Revolution started.

But something happened between that time and Andrew Jackson's presidency in 1828, Horton said. "Property laws were struck down, allowing white people at the bottom of society to vote based on race in 1807. At the same time that was done, race laws were put into its place.

"There is this constant message hammered at poor white people," Horton said. "You may be poor, you may have miserable lives right now, but . . . the thing we want you to focus on is the fact that you are white."

In the 19th and 20th centuries, "race science" was used by Supreme Court justices to deny rights, property and citizenship to various Asian immigrants.

In the housing boom that followed World War II, black veterans were denied new federally backed mortgages that helped build white suburbs.

Avakian said that if American history curriculums "told that story, this would be a different country."

"Slavery and genocide coexist with democracy and freedom," she said, and that's what whiteness studies teaches. "President Andrew Jackson presided during the mass murder of Indians. If we knew in detail how slavery existed alongside freedom, we would have to change the national narrative."

After Class

Chen said Avakian's course made her more aware of how the sense of belonging corresponds to skin color. "I would never not choose to be someone's friend because they are white, but I think it's important to have friends of color," she said.

Jya Plavin, a 20-year-old sophomore who is white, said the course "was really, really hard . . . both personally and as a white person, because you really want to take the focus off you and your whiteness."

Clason-Hook said that the class was the only one he knew of that explicitly spoke of whiteness, and that it helped him realize that "other classes, like economics, politics and history, are about whiteness. They are written by and are about white people."

He said later that confronting whiteness, day to day, is challenging. "I am racist. It's not on the surface, but it's in me. Day to day I hear racist comments, and people don't even know what they're saying."

Andrade said she thought "the class was beneficial, because it brings to light that white people, too, are racialized."

Thinking back on the class discussion a few days later, Andrade wondered: "In a culture that puts whiteness on top, what is blackness? When you look at whiteness, blackness is always in the negative."

Cairns, who had sailed through the privilege walk, said whiteness studies helped her understand race a little better. "My social group has always been white," she said. "I've noticed that, and I've started to look beyond my group."

2003 The Washington Post Company

homepage: homepage: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14386-2003Jun19.html?nav=hptop_tb

right wingers 20.Jun.2003 17:41


i thought this story was totally cool. I love it when anti-racist people are quoted admitting that they still have internalized racism in them. how often does that happen, in corporate or alternative media? however, i'm posting not just to waste keystrokes but to comment on the fact that this story is linked to by whatreallyhappened.com as "more white bashing" i go to that website almost every day and i know alot of other folks do too and i don't know how to deal with the fact that utilizing resources created by right-wing anti-war types comes right allong with dealing with their racist, sexist bullshit. whatreallyhappened.com once linked to a STUPID story from rense.com i think it was, titled "CIA used feminism to destroy american family" written by some asshole who responded to the fact that gloria stienem was paid by the cia to draw the conclusion that the cia wants to destroy families, since that's what feminists want of course. what to do about this kind of stuff? i have a hard time refering my femnist friends to like rense.com or even GNN (we love eminem) or even fucking narconews likes eminem. of course the people with the strongest anti-sexist anti-racist critiques aren't the same people that have the time to sit around 24-7 being news webmasters, but come on, can't things be better than this? any advice from other anti-oppresion attuned researchers? and don't fucking tell me i just have to get allong with people whose perspectives are "different" from mine, either.

White people *are* evil 21.Jun.2003 02:01

White guy

Yep, we really are evil. We have a grand plot to enslave all non-white people. Not only that, but we're going to sterilize non-whites so that in a few decades, there will only be white people. Shit... then who are we going to be racist against? I guess we should keep a few blacks and hispanics around in zoos so we can poke them with sticks. In the eye. Repeatedly.

This is weird 21.Jun.2003 02:33


I don't get it. I agree entirely that race is an invention. So, if it's such a harmful social construction, why make a big fuss about pointing it out? Why call it whiteness studies when it makes more sense to call it "American Race Studies?"

Maybe it's just my whiteness speaking, but the the privledge walk seems like it says more about voluntary segregation than it does about race privledge. These are middle class college students we're talking about here. Yes, there are still bank officials that discriminate according to race, and, yes, this is horrible and racist. But any middle class person of any race with a good credit history can walk into a competing, non-racist bank and get an equal loan if they're unlucky enough to walk into a racist bank on their first try. The walk isn't a blind statistical study. The students in the privledge walk are going to suffer from both self-reporting bias and expectation bias. Let's say I just walked into a bank a few hours before the privledge walk and signed the promissory notes on my latest student loan. Now I go to class and I'm standing there and the professor says "today we're going to demonstrate how purple people and turquoise people are different." I'm standing with my turquoise peers when the loan question is asked and all the purple people step forward, but the turquoise people don't step forward. You can't tell me that you wouldn't feel pressure to go along with the expectation of the exercise.

More to the point, many of these students are more acutely aware of race than is necesarily the truth. If a white person gets an obscenity yelled at them by an unseen stranger, they just say, "what the fuck was that all about?" If a black person gets an obscenity yelled at them by an unseen stranger, they've been told to be on the look out for racists so they're more likely to think it might have been racially motivated. In fact, it might have been racially motivated, but my first example might have been racially motivated too.

This is the really weird part. As a white male, I feel that unfair gender and race roles hurt me too. In fact, I feel that any inequality hurts me because it hurts my friends and it hurts my society. However, there are some social constructions that hurt me explicitly as a white male and I'd like to talk about them without being drowned out by cries of "yeah, but I have it worse." I don't want to get in an argument about who has it worse, because I recognize that all human individuals must face suffering in their lives and that is the part of the human condition that binds us together in empathy. I'm a white male and I feel uncomfortable in my skin. I feel uncomfortable in my environment and in my society. I truly feel like I have no place in the world. I don't want to hang out with all the white frat boys, but I don't think I'd fit in at the Asian Cultural Center, either. I will believe you and listen to you and validate you when you speak of your pain, but I'd really appreciate it if you listened to me, too.

White Privilege Shapes the U.S. 21.Jun.2003 03:18

Robert W. Jensen

copyright Robert William Jensen 1998
first appeared in the Baltimore Sun, July 19, 1998

by Robert Jensen

Here's what white privilege sounds like:

I am sitting in my University of Texas office, talking to a very bright and very conservative white student about affirmative action in college admissions, which he opposes and I support.

The student says he wants a level playing field with no unearned advantages for anyone. I ask him whether he thinks that in the United States being white has advantages. Have either of us, I ask, ever benefited from being white in a world run mostly by white people? Yes, he concedes, there is something real and tangible we could call white privilege.

So, if we live in a world of white privilege--unearned white privilege--how does that affect your notion of a level playing field? I ask.

He paused for a moment and said, "That really doesn't matter."

That statement, I suggested to him, reveals the ultimate white privilege: the privilege to acknowledge you have unearned privilege but ignore what it means.

That exchange led me to rethink the way I talk about race and racism with students. It drove home to me the importance of confronting the dirty secret that we white people carry around with us everyday: In a world of white privilege, some of what we have is unearned. I think much of both the fear and anger that comes up around discussions of affirmative action has its roots in that secret. So these days, my goal is to talk openly and honestly about white supremacy and white privilege.

White privilege, like any social phenomenon, is complex. In a white supremacist culture, all white people have privilege, whether or not they are overtly racist themselves. There are general patterns, but such privilege plays out differently depending on context and other aspects of one's identity (in my case, being male gives me other kinds of privilege). Rather than try to tell others how white privilege has played out in their lives, I talk about how it has affected me.

I am as white as white gets in this country. I am of northern European heritage and I was raised in North Dakota, one of the whitest states in the country. I grew up in a virtually all-white world surrounded by racism, both personal and institutional. Because I didn't live near a reservation, I didn't even have exposure to the state's only numerically significant non-white population, American Indians.

I have struggled to resist that racist training and the ongoing racism of my culture. I like to think I have changed, even though I routinely trip over the lingering effects of that internalized racism and the institutional racism around me. But no matter how much I "fix" myself, one thing never changes--I walk through the world with white privilege.

What does that mean? Perhaps most importantly, when I seek admission to a university, apply for a job, or hunt for an apartment, I don't look threatening. Almost all of the people evaluating me for those things look like me--they are white. They see in me a reflection of themselves, and in a racist world that is an advantage. I smile. I am white. I am one of them. I am not dangerous. Even when I voice critical opinions, I am cut some slack. After all, I'm white.

My flaws also are more easily forgiven because I am white. Some complain that affirmative action has meant the university is saddled with mediocre minority professors. I have no doubt there are minority faculty who are mediocre, though I don't know very many. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. once pointed out, if affirmative action policies were in place for the next hundred years, it's possible that at the end of that time the university could have as many mediocre minority professors as it has mediocre white professors. That isn't meant as an insult to anyone, but is a simple observation that white privilege has meant that scores of second-rate white professors have slid through the system because their flaws were overlooked out of solidarity based on race, as well as on gender, class and ideology.

Some people resist the assertions that the United States is still a bitterly racist society and that the racism has real effects on real people. But white folks have long cut other white folks a break. I know, because I am one of them.

I am not a genius--as I like to say, I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I have been teaching full-time for six years, and I've published a reasonable amount of scholarship. Some of it is the unexceptional stuff one churns out to get tenure, and some of it, I would argue, actually is worth reading. I work hard, and I like to think that I'm a fairly decent teacher. Every once in awhile, I leave my office at the end of the day feeling like I really accomplished something. When I cash my paycheck, I don't feel guilty.

But, all that said, I know I did not get where I am by merit alone. I benefited from, among other things, white privilege. That doesn't mean that I don't deserve my job, or that if I weren't white I would never have gotten the job. It means simply that all through my life, I have soaked up benefits for being white. I grew up in fertile farm country taken by force from non-white indigenous people. I was educated in a well-funded, virtually all-white public school system in which I learned that white people like me made this country great. There I also was taught a variety of skills, including how to take standardized tests written by and for white people.

All my life I have been hired for jobs by white people. I was accepted for graduate school by white people. And I was hired for a teaching position at the predominantly white University of Texas, which had a white president, in a college headed by a white dean and in a department with a white chairman that at the time had one non-white tenured professor.

There certainly is individual variation in experience. Some white people have had it easier than me, probably because they came from wealthy families that gave them even more privilege. Some white people have had it tougher than me because they came from poorer families. White women face discrimination I will never know. But, in the end, white people all have drawn on white privilege somewhere in their lives.

Like anyone, I have overcome certain hardships in my life. I have worked hard to get where I am, and I work hard to stay there. But to feel good about myself and my work, I do not have to believe that "merit," as defined by white people in a white country, alone got me here. I can acknowledge that in addition to all that hard work, I got a significant boost from white privilege, which continues to protect me every day of my life from certain hardships.

At one time in my life, I would not have been able to say that, because I needed to believe that my success in life was due solely to my individual talent and effort. I saw myself as the heroic American, the rugged individualist. I was so deeply seduced by the culture's mythology that I couldn't see the fear that was binding me to those myths. Like all white Americans, I was living with the fear that maybe I didn't really deserve my success, that maybe luck and privilege had more to do with it than brains and hard work. I was afraid I wasn't heroic or rugged, that I wasn't special.

I let go of some of that fear when I realized that, indeed, I wasn't special, but that I was still me. What I do well, I still can take pride in, even when I know that the rules under which I work in are stacked in my benefit. I believe that until we let go of the fiction that people have complete control over their fate--that we can will ourselves to be anything we choose--then we will live with that fear. Yes, we should all dream big and pursue our dreams and not let anyone or anything stop us. But we all are the product both of what we will ourselves to be and what the society in which we live lets us be.

White privilege is not something I get to decide whether or not I want to keep. Every time I walk into a store at the same time as a black man and the security guard follows him and leaves me alone to shop, I am benefiting from white privilege. There is not space here to list all the ways in which white privilege plays out in our daily lives, but it is clear that I will carry this privilege with me until the day white supremacy is erased from this society.

Frankly, I don't think I will live to see that day; I am realistic about the scope of the task. However, I continue to have hope, to believe in the creative power of human beings to engage the world honestly and act morally. A first step for white people, I think, is to not be afraid to admit that we have benefited from white privilege. It doesn't mean we are frauds who have no claim to our success. It means we face a choice about what we do with our success.

Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism in the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at  rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.

dear *m* - Eminem entertains with domestic abuse - is that cool with you? 21.Jun.2003 14:15


SARCASM: I love it when on his first album Eminem killed his wife! HAHAHAHHAHAHA! That was SOOOO funny!

What kind of feminist finds domestic abuse/murder funny? I'm just curious. Does mass media need more of that schitt, do you think?

Thanks for posting 21.Jun.2003 21:10

m. lafarge

the 1998 Jensen piece--definitely one of the most concise arguments in support of affirmative action I've ever read.

American Racial Studies 22.Jun.2003 17:59

Joe Professor

Great to see this discussion on Indymedia! Thanks for posting!

Of course to the denigrators out there who kneejerk their "liberal self-hatred" nonsense without adding any substance or real critique... if you feel threatened but don't know why, a better strategy might be trying to pay closer attention. Ask some questions. Get informed.

I agree that American Racial Studies may be a more appropriate concept-- at this point in time-- to describe the color based systems of oppression that can be traced throughout American colonial and post colonial history. It is interesting to know that different nations and localities throughout the hemisphere have different understanding of racial hierarchies and definitions of racial groups. And these have also changed through time. Here in the USA in different times different groups have been admitted to that club of white privilege. Irish, Italians, Hungarians, Bohemians... Here in the turn of the century Pacific Northwest Swedes were not considered white!

Part of this work is knowing the history of immigrant groups and their interactions with people of Indigenous and African ancestry. Another part is understanding the actual systems of power and oppression. And most of it is written between the lines of what we consider American history-- which is really a lot of "nationalized mythology."

Other local resources... go to Laughing Horse books and check out their Racism section. Also look for "ReThinking Columbus" and the work of anthropologists James Clifford and Jack Forbes.

Looking forward!

Good, but also bad 23.Jun.2003 11:43


It's great that people are working towards a less racist society. That's fantastic!! However, one thing that is really glaring about this article is the implicit assumption that only white people are racist, and that every other person on earth is fine and dandy. Nonsense.. I was reading an article about Thailand recently in the NY times, and one of the bars they visited had a sign in the window saying "No Middle Eastern men please. We do not want you killing people and molesting our women."... or something like that. Japaense people are very racist, Japanese society is one of the most closed, homogenous societies on earth. In Rwaanda a few years ago, you had Hutus slaughtering Tutsis on a scale comparable with the Armenian massacre.

And so on.

Racism is a problem in almost EVERY society - not just white-dominated ones.


hey gringo starrs 23.Jun.2003 12:48


g.s. what are you freaking out about? Perhaps i didn't clearly enough attribute the love of eminem to the Guerrilla News Network and Narconews, not myself. No one has responded to my original question about how to deal with the racism of anti-war right wingers in our midst. Just a bunch of ignorant reactionary quotes by people in severe denial about white racism. barfy!

You are correct, *m* 23.Jun.2003 21:09


True, "m," you did not at all make it clear that it was not you who is a fan of Eminem.
I was freaking out at the oxymoronic situation where a feminist would enjoy Eminem.

Freaking the #*^%$^&*! out.
It's what I do.