During the throes of a two-month white supremacist standoff-turned-FBI confrontation in Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge and the dawning reality of an increasingly legitimized Donald Trump candidacy, Portland Community College announced it would observe “Whiteness History Month.”
In what college officials promise to be an annual event each April — not a “celebratory” project — this observance seeks to become part of a conversation that explains how whiteness and privilege function in society.
This sudden need for critical insight into whiteness emerged during a time when white fraternal entitlement seeped from the Bundy family-led standoff and larger numbers of Americans feel totally comfortable spewing racist invective at Trump rallies and beyond, with no sense of shame, decorum or self-reflection.
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As a predominantly white institution in an overwhelmingly white state, it’s a fair assumption the community college wants to disassociate with the kind of whiteness now getting national attention. The challenge is doing so without leveraging the privilege that allow white progressives to hijack the specialized language that allows marginalized people of color to fight for their own liberation.
Meanwhile, white conservatives have lashed out at the very notion of such an observance, saying the event sounds like “Hate Whitey Month.” These critics fear white people’s historical accomplishments will be reduced to a mere discussion of white supremacy, something they grossly denounce as having anything to do with whites’ disproportionate amount of success in the United States. College officials say the project is actually about rejecting “master narratives of whiteness” and promoting “multicultural education and equity.”
Anyone or any institution with the slightest liberal underpinnings would want to differentiate themselves from hate groups like the Oregon militia, but how one accomplishes this is difficult. The fact that the school uses language such as “multicultural” and “diversity” is unsettling, as these post-integrationist concepts have created the opportunity for what University of California, Santa Barbara, sociologist Howard Winant calls “white racial dualism.” He explains, “Many white Americans can now join efforts to undo civil rights reform without recognizing their activities or opinions as participation in the contemporary reconfiguration of white power and privilege.”
Specifically, white liberals and colleges can reject overt patriotic racism but still perpetuate other forms of white privilege and entitlement. They do this by ignoring more subtle material gains of whiteness, while occupying ideological concepts like “multiculturalism” and “diversity” — concepts built more so for oppressed folks of color rather than white cultural narratives. In fact, this is exactly what the Bundy and Hammond families did in their rhetoric around their relationship with land ownership and the law.
To be sure, whiteness and privilege are difficult things to separate, as Robyn Wiegman, a women’s studies professor at Duke University, declared in “Whiteness Studies and The Paradox of Particularity.” The power of whiteness, Wiegman argues, does not just come from the position of universal and invisible power, rather it is the more contemporary version of whiteness that allows white people to be both universal and also particular as multicultural notions of race and culture are being co-opted by white “cultural” identity. This is certainly the case with the militiamen and the Northern Paiute, the Indigenous population that wildlife refuge lands were originally stolen from, a cultural narrative completely lost in all of this.
But making whiteness visible doesn’t fully address who holds power — something perhaps lost in the community college’s ideas about non-celebratory whiteness exploration. Hopefully, whiteness scholars curated for this month-long event will make clear the dilemma a multicultural approach to anti-racism creates, especially when “dualism” is not overtly addressed.
Moreover, college officials must admit they are exploring whiteness at this historical moment because they share borders with extremists who have been nationally mocked. And for those of us on the multicultural self-help circuit must admit our complicity in the condition that allows white liberals to scoff certain extremist behaviors but still bask in white privilege.