Last week I went to a lecture called “White Privilege and the Politics of Identity” as part of the Conversations on Diversity, given by Dr. Jill Swiencicki. It was an overview of the study of Whiteness scholarship today, mostly an introduction designed for people who hadn’t heard of the topic before.
Whiteness studies focus on how white people benefit from racism, and the inherent privileges that come from being classified as white in our societies (and possibly others). Basically it “pays to be a member of a dominant racial group.” When part of a dominant racial group, it’s difficult to acknowledge. It emerged with slavery, and has become ingrained in society. Whiteness means that white people get more trust, money, and jobs than people who belong to other races.
It was actually less a lecture than a conversation series, more than usual, perhaps. Dr. Swiencicki gave us several topics and a little history and then prompted conversations with our neighbors. I went with a friend, and since I’m not very outgoing I ended up talking with her for all of the conversations. This wasn’t really a bad thing, I knew I could be more honest with her than I would dare with a stranger. And after each small conversation, then there would be a group discussion.
We heard some interesting thing. One man said that he didn’t realize until he went to New Zealand that he wasn’t being watched in stores all the time. Instead, he was The American. Another guy, I think a business major, said that he had to dress better for interviews than others. A woman mentioned that she got fewer call-backs for jobs. Several people mentioned their school experiences, where people would claim the cafeteria lunch tables based on race. And while one person said that when they came to CSU, Chico from a primarily white suburb they found the campus to be very diverse–another said they were surprised by how homogeneously white it was.
I confess I had that same impression when I first came to Chico. I remember coming on campus my first semester and thinking “it’s so white!” I don’t know if that would have been my though right out of high school, though perhaps it would have been. I’m about as white as one could be although there may be some fraction of Native American on my dad’s side. And both sides of my family have been in the US for generations, which means there may well be lots of different contributions from unknown donors. That sounds odd, but really, there’s no such thing as race under the best of circumstances, and things only get murky once people actually begin interacting. Anyway, I spent two years in Santa Clarita, CA going to community college. One person here in Chico called it the place with “all the pretty girls”–the model types. But apparently it counted as less white than Chico.
But there I met my favorite professor, and probably the smartest person I’ve ever actually met. Professor Varga had some sort of descendant tie to Alexander Hamilton and was mostly Hispanic–but he had blue eyes and light skin. I had him for the Modern History of Latin America class. Apparently, at one school, they didn’t want him teaching Chicano studies because he looked too white.
So I guess that brings me to the one thing I didn’t like about the lecture. It wasn’t anything in the real lecture itself, mostly the subject itself. Not even that, really. My point is that I don’t like separating racism, which is basically just prejudice with an obvious visual element. Makes it harder to avoid, yes, but it just seems divisive to start a subject called “Whiteness studies” when it’s just an aspect of racism. Of course, to me it seems obvious that the impetus behind racism [prejudice] is for a privilege. People spend a lot of time–no matter how educated or enlightened–looking for ways in which they are better than others.
So as far as I’m concerned the way to stop, at the very least, racism, would be to simply not divide people into races anymore. See–there you go.
No, it isn’t that simple. But honestly, I can be really naive, and I don’t see why not. People, just be smart already.