In Portland, Oregon, a brave community college launched a new project that “seeks to inspire innovative and practical solutions to community issues and social problems that stem from racism.” It’s called Whiteness History Month. And it has received equal parts scorn as well as praise.
It should be noted that the endeavor itself isn’t “White History Month,” (which would imply the celebration and accomplishments of white individuals), but rather Whiteness, which directly refers to the social construction of white supremacist culture. Those four little letters provide an important distinction that has been lost as a number of online media outlets unleashed unabashed knee-jerk fury, accusing the school of “white shaming.”
The deep irony, of course, is that Portland Community College (as well as many universities around the nation) have been discussing whiteness as an academic subject for years. The messaging from anti-racist speakers, the establishment of multicultural resource centers, the recruitment of diversity and inclusion staff hasn’t changed – and those efforts reflect the spirit of Whiteness History Month. Yet, the same angry mob has been relatively silent throughout those numerous activities.
Why does indignation only occur for a dedicated month when classes on white supremacy and critical race theory are held all year long? Those same angry individuals will tell you it is the content, despite the fact that the content and activities haven’t even been announced yet. Talk about ignorance – people are getting upset at what they think will take place when they don’t even know what it is yet. They have an equal opportunity to submit proposals, attend, and get engaged on the subject, but they’ll most likely just resort to armchair activism by shaking their heads, posting passive-aggressive notes on Facebook, and complain about “PC culture.”
I think it’s important to take a step back and reframe the conversation. When questioned, none of the angry callers will say their fury is rooted in the idea of a month. In fact, most are upset because they want to take “America back.” They genuinely believe our country has gotten too sensitive, that there is a culture of reverse-racism, and that racism remains only a problem because people keep talking about it instead of letting it die in the past. Some will even proclaim and they themselves are not racist, they just feel whites are constantly being guilt-tripped for events of the past. The people who complain the most about reverse-racism has never actually studied racism at all, just like the people who complain the most about being “white shamed” never have bothered to study the history of whiteness.
Despite study after study after study after study after study after study, most whites don’t believe that racism is a major problem today. In fact, some white Americans believe that they face more racism than black Americans. It doesn’t matter what the facts are about racial discrimination, or that the notion of reverse racism is a myth, or that we’re seeing bigger disparities based on race than ever before, some people will ignore those facts because they don’t feel like they’re being heard.
That’s why messages from Donald Trump still resonate with some Americans, even when they know he is being racist. That’s why people feel like they can protest a college program when they don’t know anything about the subject. Most of them don’t know the difference between racism as belief and racism as a social structure. Most have never engaged in a meaningful, but uncomfortable conversation about racism.
A major national study revealed that people with “white sounding names” are 50 percent more likely to be called back for a job interview than those with “black sounding” names, even when all other credentials are the same. First-time arrests for black youth have an incarceration rate that is 48 times higher than white youth, even when all other factors of the crime are identical. Black Americans are 2,100 percent more likely to be fatally shot by police than white Americans. In fact, the average black male has a one-in-three chance of going to prison in their lifetime.
To explain these staggering statistics either you believe that people of color are naturally criminally inclined, have a poor work ethic and are predisposed to engage self-endangering behaviors, or you believe that we have a systemic wide problem across our political, legal, education, financial and health sectors. Either way, it confirms the existence of prevalent racism. And it confirms the need for Whiteness History Month so we can actually have some space to talk about solutions.
We would never try to solve hunger by refusing to talk about the issue. No one believes that they can cure cancer by ignoring the problem. Homelessness is not eradicated when we only focus conversations around homeowners. Like any other major social problem, we need to tackle this by acknowledging its existence, addressing the symptoms, and focusing on the root cause.
But complaining about a school that is holding Whiteness History Month? That’s just racism talking. The same racism, with the exact same messaging that got us into this mess to begin with. It’s time for racism to shut up and for someone else to step up and take the mic.