White Happened to You

In January, MSNBC effectively banned a guest from appearing on its network. Those of us who have been shaking our heads at CNN personality Don Lemon's recent series of on-air gaffes may already be familiar with the guest: Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human rights lawyer perhaps better known as "The Muslim Guy." Iftikhar, who thanked Lemon and his panicked query about ISIS for "making me famous," appeared on MSNBC's Now with Alex Wagner saying that, in furthering the myth of Muslim no-go zones in Europe, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who is Indian American, "might be trying to scrub some of the brown off his skin." Following Jindal's condemnation of the remark and general outrage from within conservative circles, a spokeswoman for MSNBC told CNN that "We found this guest’s comments offensive and unacceptable, and we don’t plan on inviting him back." What, exactly, was "offensive and unacceptable" about Iftikhar's language? While Iftikhar may not have done himself any favors with his tone and word choice, I suspect that MSNBC was troubled by Iftikhar's barb that Jindal would rather be white and, more importantly, by the insinuation that there is something wrong with being white. MSNBC sets a dangerous precedent by dictating how we can discuss race in open forums, lest we be banned. In this blog entry I will discuss how even in higher education, the dominant, institutionalized ways of talking about the meaning of white skin do not tell the whole story, particularly to white people. Some vigorous scrubbing may not be a bad idea for all of us.

Bobby Jindal is not the first Indian American to be accused of wanting to be white, nor will he be the last, but the honor of the Indian American with most interesting story in this regard goes to Bhagat Singh Thind. Memorably profiled in the indispensable PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion, Thind was a Sikh from India who immigrated to the US as a young man. After his naturalized citizenship was revoked, he famously took his case to the Supreme Court in 1923. Until well into the twentieth century, only "free white persons" and persons of African descent (thanks to the 14th Amendment) were eligible to naturalize as American citizens. Only months before the Court heard Thind's case, it had ruled against Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant who sued for his right to naturalize based on his beliefs and values, which he argued were as "American" as any white man's. Ozawa lost because the Court ruled that he could not be considered white by any accepted scientific measure. Thind seized upon this ruling by claiming that his high-caste, northwestern Indian ancestors were, by the anthropological definitions of the day, Caucasian and not Mongolian. But Thind lost too. The Taft Court effectively decreed that race was a social construct by ruling that being Caucasian on a technicality did not make one white: "Whiteness was what the common white man said it was." Japanese and Indian immigrants were not the only ethnic groups contending for whiteness and therefore American identity at the time; they were simply two of the most prominent to have lost.

Ozawa and Thind and so many others knew the value of whiteness in their time, value made tangible by the access to rights and resources that whiteness promised. Following United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, many immigrants of Indian descent also had their citizenship revoked, some losing title to property because extant alien land laws were now applicable to them. One man, Vaishno das Bagai, committed suicide. According to Neil Foley, the decision to create a separate racial category for "Mexicans" in the 1930 census was strenuously protested by Mexican Americans (previously assigned to the "white" category) as well as by the Mexican government itself. Very simply, whiteness guaranteed access to an array of possibilities in life closed to people of color. In her influential 1993 Harvard Law Review article, law professor and critical race theorist Cheryl Harris argued that whiteness is valuable because it is, in fact, a form of property. White identity maximized personal liberty for those lucky enough to have it, revealing a greater range of choices in life, beginning with whether and where you could live, how you could learn and work for a living, and whether or whom you could marry. This meaning of white skin has become the dominant one in social justice-oriented higher education today, the knowledge of its social effects institutionalized in the field of study known as "white privilege." But approaching the topic of white privilege only as a possessive phenomenon, something that gives but never takes, can attenuate even the best-intentioned antiracist pedagogy.

Several years ago, an administrator at my university made a disappointing comment to me. "David, what you try to do is make white students feel guilty for being white," he found it necessary to say. I responded by inviting him to watch me teach. (He never did before he moved on to another institution.) I work at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) in the Midwest, and given that the literature defines a PWI as having a majority white student body, we probably qualify as a Super PWI. Approximately 90% of our student body is white. That figure correlates with the share of white students enrolled in my three classes, in aggregate, last semester. We instructors recently received our student evaluation results for the fall semester. I realize how flawed this evaluation process can be, but, like most instructors, I would be lying if I said that I didn't care about them and didn't want my students to feel as though they learned a lot during our time together. The evaluations, frankly, were through the roof. I'm not mentioning this to boast but to make the point that virtually all of my students, again all but a tenth of them white as far as I know, felt as though they had a positive experience learning about racism and white supremacy, and not just for a unit or a few weeks here or there. Every. Single. Class. What was so compelling to my white students, if not guilt and shame?

Over the years, I've had many conversations with colleagues who want to integrate learning about whiteness--including white privilege--into their curricula but don't know how to do so effectively. They know that doing so will provoke strong reactions from white students, from defensiveness to guilt to shame. Is it right to focus on white students this way, they ask, and how best to address their feelings? I tell them that I am just as concerned about the welfare of my white students as I am about the welfare of my students of color. Early into a semester, I announce that one of the key goals for the course is for students to develop what Beverly Daniel Tatum, citing Janet Helms, calls a "positive" racial identity. For students of color, this means that they begin to disrupt the internalization of white supremacy by refusing to believe all of the lies that our culture circulates about their "inferiority." White students begin to disrupt their internalization of white supremacy by learning how the superiority of whiteness is a social construct, knowledge that then must effect a disposition of responsibility rather than guilt. In other words, white students learn that whiteness happened (and is happening) to them, and the history of the process is shameful. (It is beyond the scope of this entry to detail this process, but the literature--see Joe Feagin and Ian Haney-Lopez to begin--is available and essential.) This is the reason why white students should never want to take pride in being white: doing so means embracing not a cultural identity like an ethnicity but an unjust and inequitable historical process working in their favor. Far from guilt or shame, my white students begin to feel another emotion once they learn about the history of whiteness.

Regardless of their race, my students eventually volunteer that they never learned about racism this way in high school or even in other college courses, and many say that they're angry about that. Anger is a natural response to this realization, I say, but do you know why you're angry? Students of color have clear and cogent reasons for their anger, but my question gives pause to white students. That's when I tell them about a former graduate student, a white woman who was in her fifties when she took a course from me. She'd also told me that she was angry that this knowledge had been kept from her, that it was not institutionalized in any required curriculum at any level, and that she had to happen into a course on it by sheer chance. We were sitting in my office, and our conversation drifted from the course to more personal matters. "I would have lived my life differently," she said firmly. That was it. My graduate student was angry because choices had been taken away from her. White identity, which many of my undergraduates understood only as the key to more choices in life--hence their initial guilt--also foreclosed and is foreclosing upon untold numbers of possibilities and opportunities in their lives, as it had done to their ancestors. How might all of them have lived their lives differently if white supremacy did not determine the range and depth of their relationships with other people?

The devastating power of racism is that it deforms the relationships we have with other people, particularly with people of a different race, or it precludes those relationships altogether. My all-time favorite headline from the satirical newspaper The Onion is this: "18-Year-Old Miraculously Finds Soulmate in Hometown." The faux dateline for the article is Peshtigo, WI, a city a couple of hundred miles from my university, and the two lovebirds in the accompanying photo are white. What's less funny about the article is the story of why these two imaginary teenagers have the same hometown, why huge swaths of Wisconsin and the Midwest are populated by mostly white people. James Loewen answered these questions in his crucial study Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. Sundown towns were communities that exploited black people for their labor during the workday but demanded that they leave town at nightfall. Loewen's thesis is that racism in the Midwest was worse than it was in the South because most Southern communities could segregate but not expel whole populations of black people (Loewen's website is a public history project that allows users to learn about and contribute to the sundown history of their hometowns). Many Midwestern towns were home to more black people in 1890 than in 1930, while suburbs across the country like Levittown, NY were whites-only enclaves. (This recent article describes how communities in Oregon went even further with their ordinances, creating what might be called sunup-to-sundown towns.) What does it mean, I ask my white students, that your experiences and those of your parents and grandparents may have been racially-engineered in this way? What does it mean that larger forces decided who you would live next to, befriend, or fall in love with? How incomplete, how meager, those possibilities in life must seem now.

Today, we exist in a state of confusion about the meaning of white identity. Arsalan Iftikhar is banned from MSNBC for hinting that whiteness is an index to something other than the amount of melanin in your skin. Billboards spring up off I-59 in Alabama to proclaim that white people are the real victims of racism and genocide. Fox News blasts an academic course on whiteness at Arizona State University as "unfair" and "wrong." Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is white to some, not to others. And white students sit in classrooms unsure how to talk about their white identity while their peers of color wait, fidgeting in their seats. Colorblindness and MSNBC-style color cautiousness are not the solution. I don't think any billboard or ten-minute news segment can expect to be. We deserve better. For this reason I'm excited to begin another semester with students eager to learn something new, most of them strangers. Paraphrasing Tim Wise, I will tell them what I have told all of my students in recent years. "If you're religious, then imagine that what I'm going to say to you comes from a higher power. If you're not, then imagine that your mother or other loved one is saying this to you. Whether you are a person of color or a white person, I want you never to forget something," I will say. "Never forget that you were meant for more than this."

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