Thursday, January 05, 2017

On the Problem of Whiteness at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Beyond

This piece titled, "In Defense of 'The Problem of Whiteness'" is vastly indicative of the reactionary force that whiteness has become within the context of a Trump presidency. To wit, a Wisconsin legislator uses his status and yes, white privilege, to go against a single course with this title that is scheduled for the Spring, 2017, semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  

Columnist Miles Brown does a good job of defending it, however what should be added is that there actually exists a subfield within the larger—indeed, vast field of Race and Ethnic relations called "White Studies" or "Critical White Studies" that I would venture to say based on my expertise in the field of Race and Ethnic Relations in Sociology and a doctoral degree in it from Stanford University that the field has been largely spearheaded by white scholars themselves.  

Without having taken the course, my take on this is that "the problem of whiteness" is the problem of whiteness as an ideology that leaves no one untouched, regardless of race.  

It is a problem in my view in Mexican American or African American communities to privilege whiteness even in the intimacy of our families.  Babies barely take their first breath with parents and relatives commenting on their skin color, often in coded terms that we all know too well what they mean.  

"Salió güerito (he or she came out fair-skinned)," met with approbation.  "Salió morenito (he or she came out dark-skinned)," can be positive but is most frequently negative.  Light-skinned children even get nicknames like "Güero" or "Güera" that practically become their actual names.  Stories abound of lighter-skinned children getting favor over darker-skinned ones.

In the intimacy of my own family network, I was in that category of being among the darker-skinned cousins because my fair-skinned mother rebelled against her parents and married the darkest-skinned, good-looking Mexican that she could find.  I am, of course, glad that she made that choice, but it was not without its consequences. Boy, could I have used a course like this in elementary or middle school!  Among other things, it would have helped me to attain a positive sense of self which for so many of us, is a life-long struggle precisely because the problem of whiteness or race.

Among my larger family network in southern Mexico, there is this naturalistic, if jarring, discourse—somewhat jokingly and somewhat serious—that in marital choices,"hay que mejorar la raza" ("one needs to improve the race") which basically equates "marrying up" to "marrying white."  In Mexico, mind you, this is what is said in the most casual of conversations!  And it's probably experienced and felt throughout if not always said.

Another way to think about this is with what Mexican intellectuals in Mexico call, "el Malinchismo," capturing a phenomenon where Mexicans in Mexico, particularly of the upper classes, abhor things Mexican and prefer all things (white) North American or European.  Such individuals, oftentimes unknowingly, harbor prejudices not only against mestizos and indigenous people and their ways of knowing and being in the world, but they also eschew the identities that attach to that very blood mixture within themselves.  Very profound and yes, consequential.  

A little education and knowledge on the historicity of race as a construct could be illuminating, if not liberating.  Race is a modern concept that comes into existence with the wars, conquest, slavery and colonization of people on this continent.  The term, "white," comes into existence with the consolidation of slavery in the early- to mid- 1600s.

The problem of whiteness" is thusly a global phenomenon that tracks back to the Western European colonization of the world, beginning for us on this continent with Christopher Columbus' so-called discovery of the "New World."  

This historical experience of colonization resulted in enduring trauma and hierarchical social relations inflected by race, class, and gender that continue into the present.  Volumes have been written on this. El malinchismo comes from this exact same source, suggesting that no one on the planet is left untouched by the ideology of white supremacy. That's why courses like this are massively important—for whites and non-whites alike.

I remember in the early 1990s when White Studies first appeared on the scene and I was a bit skeptical that this, too, was and would be yet another reinstantiation of white privilege in the academy with whites taking jobs from faculty of color like myself specializing in race and ethnic relations.  I'm actually not sure how all of this has panned out, but I am pleased to see how White Studies has expanded and deepened our understandings of white identities, and most particularly illuminated whiteness as an ideology to which none of us are fully exempt.

All of humankind needs to take a course like this one so that we can begin to reflect deeply on this historical, socially constructed notion that continues to stratify and stigmatize, and in so doing, inflect social relations in profound, unspoken ways.  

In some ways, a Trump presidency makes "whiteness" more visible as a discourse, however, in other ways, it may also simultaneously render it invisible (or "invisiblize") to the extent that whiteness means that it can legislate or draw parameters for discussion, debateand in this case, a coursethat fall outside of what it deems acceptable.  Hence, the importance of just such a course....

Angela Valenzuela

A new round of political uproar has emerged with education in the state of Wisconsin. But this time, people aren’t taking umbrage over draconian cuts to public education and teacher benefits. Rather, some seem to be up in arms over a course to be taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this spring.
African Studies 405, or “The Problem of Whiteness,” is a course that explores “how race is experienced by white people,” but also looks at how white people “consciously and unconsciously perpetuate institutional racism.” These are very important issues that do not get nearly enough attention. But not everyone sees the class in this manner. State Representative David Murphy has said of the class, “I am extremely concerned that UW-Madison finds it appropriate to teach a course called, ‘The Problem of Whiteness,’ with the premise that white people are racist.”
Okay. Let’s start with, “the premise that white people are racist.” That would be pretty problematic. Luckily for Rep. Murphy, the course does not do that. At all. Nowhere in the course description does it say that white people are racist.
The stance of Rep. Murphy and others regarding this course is not only patronizing and deeply hypocritical. It is also dangerous, because people as delusional as Murphy is on race relations will forever hold power, and will forever try to prevent reality and logic from latching onto the forefront of how we communicate with one another. If what this class is teaching is “garbage,” as Murphy has stated, then it should not be an issue for him to refute the notions this class was built upon, instead of bullying the university into scrapping it entirely.
Rep. Murphy also mentioned the existence of the class as making race relations worse in this country. This is one of the dumbest arguments I’ve heard spewed out in opposition to racial progress. What alternate universe does he live in where talking about and bringing awareness to a problem makes the problem worse? His attitude is akin to someone yelling at their mechanic because the mechanic talked about their loose brake pads, and according to them made the brake pads worse by doing so.
Ultimately, it just sounds like Rep. Murphy simply does not want to have an honest, respectful dialogue about race in this country. I guess it’s fine if he wants to live life with his hands over his eyes and ears. But these are legitimate issues that a lot of folks are feeling the effects of. The course in question is one that tells the story of American society through a different lens than what we are used to. It is a course that many white students should jump at the chance to take because it is one meant to challenge their perspectives and preconceived notions of racial issues.
I understand that to some this class seems to be an act of piling on. Like the chocolate syrup on a white guilt sundae, if you will. But if you think it’s frustrating to hear it, try having to constantly say it, live it, and repeatedly have your existence and humanity questioned by people who clearly don’t have your best interests at heart. It’s exhausting, and a class like African Studies 405 goes a long way toward bridging the communication gap that exists with race relations in this country.
It’s not about white people being racist. It’s about a societal system in which people think it’s okay to question the intelligence and qualifications of someone just because a white person wanted their job. It’s about a societal system that writes off black boys and girls before they’re even out of their diapers. It is about getting people to see the legacy that things like slavery and Jim Crow laws have left behind, and how they both helped to build up societal systems that look out for certain people in ways they don’t for people of other races.
The most crucial part of this class is its aim to break down the notions embedded within our society that list whiteness and white people as a default standard bearer, and examining who the true beneficiaries of these systems are. There’s nothing racist in that, only a lot of uncomfortable truth. The sooner Rep. Murphy and others open their eyes and ears and start embracing said truths, the better off we’ll be as a state and as a society.

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