Students at Portland Community College, which is hosting a month-long exploration of race called Whiteness History Month. Photo courtesy PCC.
Many colleges organize events aimed at fostering diversity on campus, but Portland Community College is taking an interesting approach: Students and staff are organizing a month-long “Whiteness History Month” in April. Whiteness History Month, unlike heritage months like Black History Month, is not a celebration of white history. Instead, it’s a month-long project that aims to “challenge the master narrative of race and racism through an exploration of the social construction of whiteness.”
The idea that white people should think critically about race shouldn’t be earth-shaking. But judging by the response the project’s announcement received online this week, you’d think the sky was falling. After a conservative website announced that Portland Community College was dedicating an entire month to “whiteness-shaming,” the complaints and hostility started pouring in. On Twitter and Facebook, hundreds of angry white people called out the community college for “white-shaming.” National media outlets framed the story as the college “stirring up controversy.” The school received so many nasty notes that they feared violent repercussions—the director of public safety sent an all-campus email notifying its 83,000 students that they increased public safety patrols on campus and were monitoring social media and emails for potential threats. Thankfully, no violent threats have materialized.
Despite the scary backlash, the community college didn’t cave to the people upset about Whiteness History Month. In a statement, college president Sylvia Kelley made it clear the school supported the effort to study white identity and privilege. “We view this project as part of a larger national conversation around race and social justice on America’s college campuses,” wrote Kelley. “As Oregon’s largest post-secondary educational institution, it is our responsibility to help continue this courageous conversation.”
The astoundingly vociferous backlash to Whiteness History Month shows why interrogating whiteness is so important. The fact that a college can’t organize an event that examines white supremacy without facing a tidal wave of hostility says something sad about our country. But that means it’s a crucial conversation to have, especially in Portland, the whitest major city in America. This week, Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay McKesson talked about race with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. Colbert asked why Americans are so hesitant to talk about race. “I think people are uncomfortable talking about the racist history of this country and what we need to undo the impact of that racism,” said McKesson. “People like to act like we don’t have a legacy of racism here—but we can’t change it unless we address it, right?”
One of Portland Community College's four campuses. Photo courtesy PCC.
That’s exactly what this community college project aims to do: get people to address and talk about the current legacies of racism, so we can help make a better, more equal country (or, at least, college campus). “Typically we think about race and racism and examine people of color. We wanted to analyze this through a different lens by putting whiteness and the social construction of whiteness at the center,” says Amara Perez, who worked for five years as a multicultural center coordinator at one of Portland Community College’s campuses and who is helping organize Whiteness History Month. She says the event organizers expected pushback from within the community college, but they didn’t expect that the call to discuss whiteness would spark national media and such a huge response. In the middle of the backlash, Perez tries to keep perspective. “People have been creating fake emails and sending in aggressive responses. But they’re not the majority. People have these beliefs because they’ve been socialized to have these beliefs. We need to examine that.”
The schedule or speakers for Whiteness History Month aren't set, the organizers are still taking proposals for projects. What the Whiteness History Month organizers ask people to consider in their proposals some important questions—questions many white people would rather not have to ask. “What is whiteness and how is it socially constructed?” “In what ways does whiteness emerge from a legacy of imperialism, conquest, colonialism and the American enterprise?”
Talking about race makes many white people uncomfortable—and that’s exactly why we should be talking about it. Being white often allows us to ignore race, but the history of racism in our country impacts every part of our society, from our housing market to our justice system. Much of the backlash to Whiteness History Month has been people calling the event “reverse racism” against white people. Refusing to talk about race doesn’t make the problems of racism go away—instead, it allows them to remain. Dismissing conversations about whiteness as “white-shaming” or as “reverse racism” is a way of burying our heads in the sand. For too long, white people have not seen racism as something that is our responsibility to address and solve. But white supremacy is a white people problem. In many ways, it’s on us white people to use our privilege and power to change the racist systems of the country. Some white people clearly bristle at the idea that whiteness needs to be examined. Getting college students to think about how to do that is a necessary part of education. I hope that the reaction to Portland Community College’s Whiteness History Month inspires other colleges to pursue similar programs, racist backlash be damned.