New field of study focuses on what it means to be white

Proponents say aim is to help dismantle racism and prejudice

May 05, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Just when it seemed America had exhausted its analysis of racial and ethnic dynamics, a new movement is afoot: White Studies.

For many, the term evokes white supremacy, even neo-Nazism. But White Studies stems from a growing cadre of white liberals, mostly academics and social activists, who have spent countless hours writing, talking and educating others on what it means to be white.

This burgeoning field of multicultural studies aims to dismantle racism by making whites aware of their privileges -- from assuming police won't target them because of their skin color to not having to teach their children about racism.

Advocates insist it marks a crucial step toward ending prejudice.

"Most white people want to believe racism is a thing of the past," says Judith Katz, a diversity consultant who focuses on White Studies. "But it's time to re-examine the role of white people in the 1990s. We are a different breed of people in terms of understanding these issues."

Beginning today, Katz will hold a three-day workshop at the Sheraton Baltimore North Hotel in Towson titled "What White People Can Do About Racism." The aim, she says, will be to get participants to understand that privilege is a racial issue whites must address.

Katz, who describes herself as a liberal child of the civil rights movement, says she first addressed White Studies about 30 years ago. Now working with the Washington-based

Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, she has long consulted on diversity issues, but her focus on White Studies waned with the changing times.

Until about a year ago.

Sensing a cultural shift, she held a workshop in Prince George's County that addressed race issues for whites -- the first time she had held such a session in more than 20 years. Attending were 26 people -- academics, business people, educators and clergy. Many valued talking about their role in race relations in a setting where they would not be made to feel guilty.

"It's important for us as whites to come together in a safe space," Katz says, adding that the country's racial dynamic has stymied progress.

While no college has designated a course or curriculum, there are indications that interest in White Studies is growing.

Soon after Jeff Hitchcock of Roselle, N.J., co-founded the Center for the Study of White American Culture with his wife in 1995, he launched his Web site, In mid-1996, it received about 10 daily visits. In the past few months, that number has risen to about 50, he says.

He also tracks statistics on doctoral dissertations on the subject: In 1995, there were about 10. Now there are about 80.

His center has held three annual conferences -- about 200 attend -- and plans its fourth this year at a place and time to be determined.

Critics scoff at the notion that whites need conferences and a field of study, arguing that whites dominate nearly every arena of American life, including the nation's leadership.

White Studies also confounds those who strive to eliminate racial categories.

Conservatives decry it as a fringe movement that will further mire the country in racial patterns.

"My big problem with this is the entire focus on white privilege," says Shelby Steele, who studies race issues as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "We're still in the white privilege, black victimization mode, and it's furthering a construct that has been so divisive in American life."

He adds, "You can't really deal with the white situation in America outside of a class framework. There is no monolithic white privilege. If it were so universal, where did the black middle class come from? And why aren't whites all well-to-do?"

Paul Gorski, a recent doctoral graduate at the University of Maryland, College Park, disagrees.

"It's not good enough to sit around and let people of color do all the work on a problem that is just as much ours as it is theirs," says Gorski, who wrote his dissertation on white male identity and who leads the White Awareness Group at College Park.

Throughout American history, he says, "white" has been assumed to be the American norm -- making minorities "the other." White Studies proposes to give whites a defined space of their own alongside people of color.

White Studies experts say society must first define whiteness.

Peggy McIntosh, who has been writing about white privilege since 1988 at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, defines it through a list of "unearned advantages" she has because she is white.

She can find foods in the supermarket that fit her cultural traditions. She can easily buy posters, books and toys featuring people of her race. She can trust that a real estate agent will never discriminate against her to protect a neighborhood's property values.

"The way privilege systems work is this: Those that benefit most from them are kept most blind to them," McIntosh says. "So right-handed people can't tell you about right-handed privilege but left-handed people can."

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