As far as Lee Bebout was concerned, his Arizona State University course, US Race Theory and the Problem of Whiteness, was off to a good start. A multiracial, politically diverse group of undergraduates was enrolled. He’d prepared a syllabus and was ready to lead them in seminar-style discussions, assigning basic readings and weekly papers on the history of race in America and other topics.
But the class had met exactly once in the beginning of the 2015 spring semester, when news of it — or its title, at least — spread past campus. Bebout was at lunch with his wife in January when a producer for a conservative radio show reached out to book an interview about the course. Next, Fox News wanted to talk.
"I thought, ‘Oh god, this might not be a good thing,'" Bebout, who tends to talk about the controversy in bemused understatements, remembers.
Then came the hate mail. Lots of it. More than one message commanded the 38-year-old professor, who is white, to "go live in Africa." The outrage reached a fever pitch that transcended the everyday internet trolling that goes hand in hand with just about any news that relates to race.
"Things got obviously weird," he says, "when white supremacist groups came to my neighborhood."
It was more than weird — it was scary. He received death threats. All for daring to talk about whiteness.
The people campaigning against the course were incensed at what they understood to be an entire semester dedicated to slamming white people. But the Problem of Whiteness wasn't designed to convince students that white people are a problem. The negative language in the course's title was simply a nod to how tough it can be to talk (or even think) about what it means to be white, when white is so deeply etched in the minds of many Americans as a synonym for "raceless" or "neutral." The reaction to the course seemed to prove this thesis.
Bebout, then an assistant professor of English (the school stood behind him, and he's since received tenure and is a full professor) had previously taught courses like Transborder Chicano Literature and American Ethnic Literature. He says he created the Problem of Whiteness for practical reasons: "I can study Chicano studies, I can do critical race theory to some degree, but without understanding whiteness, it felt like there was this big gap that I wasn't able to understand in the field."
In other words, you really have to understand the idea of whiteness to even begin to talk about race in America. As Columbia University historian Barbara J. Fields told the producers of PBS's series Race: The Power of An Illusion, it was self-identified white Americans of European descent who "invented race during the era of the American Revolution as a way of resolving the contradiction between a natural right to freedom and the fact of slavery." Slavery is over, but whiteness remains the identity against which ethnic groups are compared and the identity that racism protects.
One white teenager profiled in the new MTV documentary White People put it in plain language: "White is the default. It's the default race." That film, which premiered July 22, is a high-profile exploration how young white people perceive their racial identity in a country that's more ethnically diverse by the year, and where they stand to be outnumbered by people who identify as something other than white by 2042.
It's not the first recent effort of its kind. Last year, an interactive film project, The Whiteness Project, gave a platform to the unfiltered views of white Americans, who answered questions like, "Can you describe any benefits your receive from being white?"
In June, after NAACP official Rachel Dolezal was exposed for going to incredible lengths to distance herself from the white identity she was born with and "pass" as black, and white supremacist Dylann Roof was arrested for a deadly attack on a predominately black Charleston, South Carolina, church, the New York Times Sunday Review asked, "What Is Whiteness"?
The idea that whiteness is deserving of scrutiny is unfailingly and uniquely controversial. Many fret that contemplating what it means to be white is no more than a setup to make white Americans feel "ashamed," as one disgruntled father of a teen featured in White People complains. Others worry that this focus distracts from the plight of members of racial minority groups, or that it irresponsibly offers a new platform to old racist views, without providing sufficient context or correction.
But what's clear is that the days of pretending that whiteness is invisible are over. The turmoil surrounding it is just one of the growing pains of a country that's rapidly changing and struggling to rethink old ways of talking about and analyzing race.
The study of whiteness isn't new, but mainstream attention to it is
One reason Bebout didn't fully anticipate the intense backlash against his course is that the topic wasn't revolutionary. Examining what whiteness is — analyzing it as a race, a culture, and a concept that has fueled racism — isn't new, particularly in academia.
Bebout's assigned reading list included books that had been around for years: The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (1998), Critical Race Theory (1996), The Everyday Language of White Racism (2008), Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1993), and more. Bebout points to James Baldwin's introduction to The Price of the Ticket, written in 1985. Tim Wise wrote White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son in 2005.
And contemplating what it means to be white goes back even further than these contemporary texts, to the late 19th century and early 20th century writing of thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois. Attention to whiteness has had more practical moments, too, like in the curricula of the freedom schools of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when, as Bebout puts it, "a lot of black activists were saying, ‘Okay, we need to understand social conditioning of white people.'"
In 1988 came Peggy McIntosh's essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, anchored by a 50-item list of small benefits that white Americans enjoy every day — like "I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race," "I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop and find someone who can cut my hair," and "I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me." Still widely considered the simplest, go-to explanation of "white privilege" — which is fast becoming a household term — it set off a surge of interest in whiteness studies scholarship in the 1990s that's since ebbed and flowed, but has never been a secret.
In recent years, though, something has changed. Energy around the idea that white people have a race and a stake in conversations about race and racism has, very clumsily, begun to go mainstream.
"Controversy about this spikes every five or 10 years. The difference is now we have the internet," Bebout says.
This development means the topic has emerged from its cozy, nuance-friendly place in academic and progressive circles. In the hands of the public — sharing articles, offering reactions on Twitter, and typing paragraphs in comment sections — it's simultaneously been treated with skepticism, infused with new life, and violently garbled.
Whiteness, packaged for millennials
In MTV's White People, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas travels the country to interview a cross-section of young, white Americans: teachers at a predominantly Native American elementary school, a kid from an all-white town who attends a historically black college, a recent high school graduate who frets that she's missed out on scholarships because of her race, and the leader of a workshop on white privilege. Their narratives are supplemented by interviews with experts, and statistics and charts about demographics and attitudes that flash across the screen.
The point? "We cannot have an honest and real conversation about race in America if we can't talk about what being white means in America," Vargas told the LA Times in a pre-premiere interview.
That concept sounds straightforward enough, but it hasn't been easy to digest.
In part due to the provocative language of an initial casting call that asked potential subjects, "Are you being discriminated against for being white?" and, "Are you being made to feel guilty because you're white?" in addition to, "Is something making you question the advantages you've had as a white person?" and the release of a trailer that featured white subjects' unfiltered musings ("You say the wrong thing, and suddenly you're a racist"), the film was met with dread.
Anticipatory critiques rolled in. There was knee-jerk negativity from the usual — often conservative — suspects who resist most any conversation about race, and who seem to sniff out that scrutiny of whiteness might lead to thinking critically about racism in America in a way that clashes with their ideology. (They're right: It often does.)
Rush Limbaugh, for example, dismissed Vargas as a "a renowned illegal immigrant" and then, honing in on the use of the term "white privilege" in the trailer, offered his conservative listeners an ominous description of the film, whose potential damage, he seemed to argue, had been underdiscussed.
But the disapproval runs deeper and is more complicated than that. Mention "whiteness" as an area of study, and some will recoil at the assumption that it's code for "white supremacy," as in the antagonistic "White History Month" campaigns that tend to crop up as pushback against African American History Month and what critics see as out-of-control multiculturalism. From others, it will elicit eye rolls in anticipation of petty complaints about imagined hardships and reverse racism.
"I can't tell if this is actually supposed to be funny or serious but it's kinda hard not to laugh when a white dude exclaims, "You say the wrong thing and suddenly you are racist!" before the words "WHITE FRUSTRATION" wrote Kristen Yoonsoo Kim for Complex.
"The white people featured in the documentary come from all walks of life, but they have one thing in common: They all seem like a bunch of whiny white people," wrote Yesha Callahan of the African-American news site the Root.
The film has also been criticized by those who saw it in its entirety and thought its aims were worthy but worried that it fell short at times, presenting some white subjects' unsophisticated attitudes and statements without sufficiently challenging their premises. In a conversation between Slate TV critic Willa Paskin and staff writer Aisha Harris, the two agreed that it would make an insufficient teaching tool. Paskin dubbed it a "pretty great idea for a documentary that was a little too remedial with and gentle on, well, white people." Harris agreed, noting, "But we spend so little time with each of them, and the conversations are edited so heavily, that it always felt rushed. "
It's true, White People is short — under an hour long — and it was heavier on feelings than on history or scholarship of American racism. But it was, after all, made for MTV. And despite the short viewer attention span that it seemed to anticipate, it managed to offer some instruction, dispelling the myth that white students are at a disadvantage when it comes to college scholarships, criticizing colorblindness as a tool for combating racism, and even giving viewers a peek into an actual classroom lesson on white privilege.
And with this topic, even a flawless production would have had to contend with a different issue: not hostility to the message, but disinterest. Some members of the main group that must buy into analysis of whiteness for it to work — white Americans themselves — simply don't see the appeal of scrutinizing their own racial identity. And it's fair to ask: If they don't have an academic interest like Bebout's, what's in it for them? As Nell Irvin Painter, a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of The History of White People, wrote for the New York Times, whiteness is often perceived as being "on toggle switch between ‘bland nothingness' and ‘racist hatred,' neither of which is particularly appealing."
The idea that "we all have skin in the game" — even white people — is taking hold
"Whenever the words ‘whiteness' or ‘white privilege' get uttered by nonwhite people, people's reflexes go all the way up," Vargas told BuzzFeed News in November 2014, anticipating reactions to the documentary.
Perhaps he was primed after the response to The Whiteness Project, the interactive investigation designed to explore how Americans who identify as white think about and experience their ethnicity. The project elicited similar reactions the moment the series of video interviews in which residents of Buffalo, New York, responded to questions like, "What does it mean to be white?" hit the internet.
"White people think race is something outside themselves, and they don't consider themselves a race," Whitney Dow, the 53-year-old filmmaker behind the project, said, echoing a common talking point among people campaigning for attention to whiteness.
In many cases, his interviews made his point for him, with subjects seemingly wanting to weigh in on anything but whiteness, railing against diversity or affirmative action in responses like, "I just don't buy into the nonsense about discrimination," and, "Because slavery happened, does that mean we owe black people something?"
Dow said the people who initially criticized the concept made up two main groups. "One is from the right, on the conservative side, who say, ‘Why are you stirring something up? Everybody needs to forget about race and stop talking about it. We just need to move on.' The other side is from the left, who are saying, ‘You're just another white guy who won't let go of the microphone. You're putting all this stuff out here that's incredibly wounding for us to hear, and it's really, really outrageous what you're up to.'"
Dow ultimately got to explain the project's intended message — mostly, that white people do have a racial identity, and that it almost never gets any serious attention — in a series of interviews (including this one, with Vox). He said plenty of others looked past the often abrasive — and, yes, racist — statements of the interviewees to glean larger lesson of the project. While he says the intended audience of the project was his fellow white people, one of his favorite examples of a positive response is from a black woman who he said told him, "It was incredibly cathartic and relieving to see that white people are grappling with the same thing, that they feel like their whiteness is somehow defined in opposition of blackness. Seeing that we're grappling with the same things gave me some sort of inner peace."
But the whiteness trend is not just fodder for films and internet debates. It's gaining a foothold in American culture — the real-life, in-person kind.
New York City's private Fieldston Lower School made headlines in May for a new program that splits up kids, starting in third grade, into racial "affinity groups" where they are encouraged to have frank conversations about their identities and experiences, and then reunite for a curriculum designed to "foster interracial empathy."
What makes the program unique is that it isn't just for the black, Latino, and Asian students. White students have their own group, too — and participation is mandatory. Mariama Richards, the school administrator behind the program, told New York magazine's Lisa Miller that when other schools have affinity groups, "they send the white kids to recess." But true integration, she said, "doesn't happen if only half the people are talking about it.
"What I am suggesting is that we all have skin in the game. I'm suggesting that we all need to be involved in this conversation," Richards said.
That idea — that white people have an identity worth thinking about, and a natural stake in tackling racism — is taking hold.
While the Fieldston kids don't have any more of a choice in participating in their groundbreaking, mandatory program than they do in studying math or English, the adults in one Boston organization do, and they're coming in droves.
This is the description for potential members of Meetup.com's Boston Knapsack Anti-Racism Group, just one of the many groups around the country for and by white people who are committed to racial justice.
This is a meetup group for folks who see racism as a white problem and/or are interested in learning about the systemic role of whiteness in our society. We'll feed y'all (nothing fancy) and let you peruse the largest collection of anti-racist literature in New England (not to mention, you'll meet some great folks). Sometimes we'll have a reading, a talk, a movie and/or sometimes, we'll just put up our feet and rest and/or roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty ;)
Typical events include "Book group: Reproducing Racism — How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage" and "Strategies for Moving White People Into Racial Justice." The group's name is a nod to Mcintosh's "Invisible Knapsack" essay on white privilege.
According to Michael Martin, a black 28-year-old software engineer from Springfield, Massachusetts, who is one of the largely white (he guesses about 60 to 70 percent) group's seven organizers, membership has "exploded" in the months since Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, drew national attention to racially biased policing and larger issues of racial inequality. A lot of white Bostonians wanted to know where they fit into the solutions.
"Once everything happened, there was an immediate response," he said.
The group now reports about 100 active members. Martin says they show up with varying degrees of literacy about racism, but with an earnest interest in combating it — and not in a kumbaya, colorblind, "I don't see race" sense, at least if he has anything to say about it. He considers it his responsibility, as one of the leaders and one of a handful of black members, to keep conversations on track by reminding members that American racism and white supremacy are bigger than one-on-one interactions. "We never let anyone get out of any of our space thinking that there isn't systemic racism that's happening," he said.
Martin is not surprised by the recent surge of interest in the group. "I definitely think there is a cultural moment" surrounding whiteness and white Americans' role in fighting racism, he said. "I think it needs to be pulled more and more out of academia. This is something that's affecting people whether they have a chance to go to a four-year university or not, and we need to have a conversation about it."
The whiteness learning curve
Scrutinizing what it means to be white in America is new, and it's hard. There's the fact that so many people have solidified the view that talking about race is bad or that ignoring the labels we all use is the best way to address it. But even once you get past that, there's a cognitive struggle even among people with the best intentions and most enthusiasm to grasp that "whiteness is not the planet all the other planets revolve around."
That's how Drew Philp, the 29-year-old author of a forthcoming book expanding on an BuzzFeed essay that grappled with his role as a white man moving into Detroit, describes the concept.
But he remembers when he didn't get it. As a student at the University of Michigan in 2007 he was selected to participate in the school's Program for Intergroup Relations — and part of his role was to facilitate a class for his peers.
The assigned topic: whiteness.
He was not excited. "Initially I was very resistant to it, personally," he said. "It was an idea I'd never been exposed to in any manner. I felt maybe that I was being cheated of some experience, and I didn't see the value in thinking about whiteness and why that would be important — I wanted to talk to people who were different than I was."
He's now come all the way around to appreciate whiteness studies, but the memory of his college experience means he understands people who don't.
"A new idea making its way through the culture is difficult in general, and people, myself in included, are trained in a lot of ways when it comes to race. Millennials are the first generation when it's been unacceptable to be an overt racist in all public spheres. So talking about whiteness triggers folks. [They worry], ‘Maybe we're going to make a wrong step.'"
He hasn't held back when it comes to publicly criticizing these missteps, though. In 2014, as a film critic for the Detroit Metro Times, he penned a scathing review of a White People, a stage production by Brooklyn playwright J. T. Roger, arguing that while "the conversation around whiteness is sorely needed," this particular piece of art went awry, with characters who "are all defined, not by their whiteness as something specific and definable, but by their descriptions of people of color and violent interactions with other races."
He slammed the show with an astronomy metaphor: "White People looks at the gravity and the satellite moons, forgetting the star. Everything but white people."
It's a common sentiment. Matt Johnson, who penned Loving Day, a novel in which a biracial protagonist navigates questions or race, color, and identity — and who's written about his own biracial identity — recently tweeted a concise take on this dilemma: "Whiteness can't take being focused on. Whiteness only accepts being the lens that focuses."
That could partly explain why Bebout is used to people recoiling and resisting the concept of his course. His tactic is to diffuse their anxiety with a joke (Yes, I teach about how white people are awful), and then, once they're disarmed, deliver a well-honed elevator pitch that tells a more accurate story: "Look, what I'm interested in is how white people have experienced race in the United States, and they have not necessarily experienced it the same ways as people of color. They experience it by not talking about it or not seeing it or talking about race in a very coded way. Or talking about race in one way at home and another way in public. I'm interested in how white folks experience race and how that experiencing of race is informed by and also reinforces racial inequality."
He makes the topic, which has proven to be so complicated, sound simple.
And he'll be teaching it again next semester.