Opinion

Letter to the editor: Whiteness misunderstood as field of study

Christina Berchini, an assistant professor in the Department of English at UW-Eau Claire, hopes to inform students, representatives and others about the value of whiteness as a field of study.

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I have a dirty little secret. My secret could inspire public ridicule the likes of which I’ve not yet personally experienced. Given the third-class status of intellectual freedom in the state of Wisconsin, my secret could very possibly cost me a job that I love. But, in the spirit of my love for teaching and people, I’m going to share it anyway.

I am a professor in the University of Wisconsin System and I taught a course on whiteness this past semester. I’ll let that sink in for a second.

Specifically, my students (all 34 of them) and I examined race and racism in text (e.g. novels, music, and other forms), institutions (e.g. schools, prisons, and others), and our own experiences.

What does this mean?

It means that we examined our assumptions about race, and the foundation upon which our experiences with race rest. It means we examined racialized privilege and identity development. Which, by design, means we examined whiteness. I warn my predominantly white students in advance that the content we cover is provocative; it is rhetorically powerful. I clue them into the reality that painful emotions might emerge while engaging the kinds of concepts and ideas about race and whiteness that we cover during our fifteen weeks together. I remind them that anger, resentment, and hopelessness are perfectly normal responses to topics in a course that centers on the experience of race in the United States. Not only are such reactions normal, but if one remains openminded to this difficult learning, the reactions are temporary, and morph beautifully into a form of social action.

Just ask my students.

Representative Murphy, this is where you come in. I’ve got to say, it appears that you are experiencing a degree of pain. I understand this. As I have assured my students, responses like yours, to the very idea that a course on whiteness exists at a world-class institution, are perfectly normal. People like me who have made it their life’s work to contribute to this field of study are prepared to anticipate responses like yours. Yes, Mr. Murphy, whiteness is an actual field of study, dating as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century (and probably further). Moreover, it is a burgeoning field. I will gladly apprise you of the brilliant works that have contributed to whiteness studies over time. I have also contributed to this field, by way of research, scholarship, and teaching. My own scholarly and teaching contributions, now spanning eight years, renders me something of an expert in this field. I also won an award for my research on whiteness earlier this year. Could you even imagine?

I’m thinking you cannot imagine such a thing. Whiteness? Awards for whiteness? And that is okay, too. Incredulity in these matters is perfectly, completely normal.

Representative Murphy, there is just one more thing I would like to respectfully point out to you. A course on whiteness is absolutely a commentary on the educational system you oversee, just not in the way you might think.

World-class institutions make these kinds of courses available. World-class universities make available the kind of thinking and academic engagements about which you are clearly vexed. And the fact that you are holding tax-payer dollars over the heads of those who educate your state and the people in it as something of an extortionary measure with which to get your way only evidences more pain. This reaction, sir, is normal. But it is also dangerous. I conclude with two proposals. I hope you will consider them:

Firstly, your argument is a sound one. You wish to make doubly sure that “there’s legitimate education going on” in the state of Wisconsin. Sir, I am as committed as you to this cause. I will therefore donate my time to you, in helping to assign the appropriate people to the task. People with advanced degrees in the very subject matter that you are holding up to the microscope. I can—and will—furnish curriculum vitae from across this nation so that you might rest assured that the credentials of those assigned to this important mission are indeed “legit.” And by the way, if we have trouble securing our nation’s experts for this project, I personally know (at least) 34 Wisconsin tax-payers who can help us.

Finally, rather than extorting Wisconsin’s educators, students, and residents, I invite you to use your privilege for good. I am teaching this course again during the fall of 2017. Please enroll. We will welcome you with open arms, as we all attempt to come to terms not only with this nation’s past, but with its defective present.

Just ask my students; your tax-payers.

Christina Berchini is an assistant professor in the Department of English at UW-Eau Claire. Do you agree with her critique of Murphy's response to whiteness as a field of study? Please send all comments, questions and concerns to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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