The Problem with Whiteness Explored

Unless you have been under a rock hiding from 2016, you have heard about a course being offered during Spring 2017 by the University of Wisconsin-Madison titled The Problem with Whiteness. This groundbreaking course is taught by Dr. Damon Sajnani, Assistant Professor.


There are multiple stories regarding this course and how it represents racism; so many that I wanted to get to the truth. Is this course racist?

Let’s start with the actual description of the course found on the University of Wisconsin-Madison website. It reads:

The Problem of Whiteness
African 405

Wednesdays, 5:30-7:30pm

Professor Damon Sajnani

“There is no Negro problem in the United States,
There’s only a white problem.”
-Richard Wright

“How does it feel to be a problem?”
-Du Bois

Have you ever wondered what it really means to be white? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably “no.” But here is your chance! In Frantz Fanon’s famous Black Skin, White Masks (1952), his chapter “Look, a Negro!” interrogated the meaning and experience of coming to know oneself as Black under the constant scrutiny of the white gaze. It is an experience concomitant with W.E.B. Du Bois’s observation that under systemic racism, even well-meaning whites are constantly asking, in one way or another, “what is it like to be a problem?” But, Like Richard Wright’s quote above, philosopher George Yancy’s book, Look, a White! (2010), turns the question around, and rightly returns “the problem of whiteness” to white people. After all, since white supremacy was created by white people, is it not white folks who have the greatest responsibility to eradicate it? Our class begins here. We will come together with our socially ascribed identities of Black, white, mixed and other and, with the problem properly in its place we will ask ourselves and our allies, what are we going to do with it?

Critical Whiteness Studies aims to understand how whiteness is socially constructed and experienced in order to help dismantle white supremacy. Our class will break away from the standard US-centric frame, and consider how whiteness is constructed globally, with particular attention to paradigmatic cases like South Africa. Whereas disciplines such as Latino/a, African, and Asian American studies focus on race as experienced by non-whites, whiteness studies considers how race is experienced by white people. It explores how they consciously and unconsciously perpetuate institutional racism and how this not only devastates communities of color but also perpetuates the oppression of most white folks along the lines of class and gender. In this class, we will ask what an ethical white identity entails, what it means to be #woke, and consider the journal Race Traitor’s motto, “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”

Readings will include:
W.E.B. Du Bois, 1920. “The Souls of White Folks” in Dark Water
George Yancy, 2010. Look, a White!
Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015. Between the World and Me
Damon Sajnani, 2015. “Rachel/Racial Theory: Reverse Passing in the Curious Case of Rachel Dolezal”
Tim Wise, 2016. White Lies Matter: Race, Crime, and the Politics of Fear in America

I found the following sentence from the course description as a great starting point for discussion:

” After all, since white supremacy was created by white people, is it not white folks who have the greatest responsibility to eradicate it?”

One Summer not too long ago, I was teaching Introduction to Social Work at a local community college and approached it like I always had before, with challenging and thought provoking discussion.

We were discussing race and racism when I wrote the formula for institutional racism as Racism= Prejudice + Power. Like I had done semesters before, I asked. “According to this formula what race has benefited from racism, institutional racism and how?”.

Before I could add my usual, “What does this mean to you”.. a white student stood up and he stated, “This is bullshit, why am I blamed for something that I didn’t do?” I assured him that this was a great question as I tried to guide him into a rational and calm discussion. It did not work, he stormed out of class and went straight to the Dean’s office declaring how racist I was. While in the Dean’s office it was reported to me that he mentioned my race numerous times and how he felt attacked because he was white.

Concerned with the thought of mistreating a student, I had a discussion with other faculty members about their experience with discussing the same subject matter and none of them had ever had my experience. One professor who teaches courses on race and racism broke my naivety when she stated, “Gerald, you know that you can’t teach about white privilege while black”. She was joking and yet she was on point. Every other professor in my department besides three of us are white.

In my classroom I guide students through extremely controversial subjects and never allow my personal views to hijack the learning environment, (some my find that hard to believe but yes it is true). I allow students who disagree with the course material and myself the opportunity to object but you better have empirical evidence and be able to debate in a rational and professional manner. My classroom is a safe space for ideas and conversation relating to Social Work, Social Justice, and Social Issues and problems.

So back to the upset student… He returned to class the next time our class met and behaved in a passive aggressive manner until he eventually stopped coming to class.

The second student a white female, believed that since CEOs, millionaires, the President of the United States and Senators were black that power in America is not in the hands of whites any longer. So as a class we went through the list and pictures of Fortune 500 CEOs, we went through the list and pictures of the richest people in America, and we went through the list and pictures of U.S. Senators. I asked, “What do most of these people have in coming besides their wealth?” The answers were that they are mainly White and male.

To hammer home the impact of imagery we googled “beauty” and “American Patriot” or “Patriotic American” and explored what was missing? We talked about how whiteness is the scale on which beauty is measured globally. This is proven by the epidemic of those in Asia who seek plastic surgery to widen their eyes or the epidemic of black Africans who seek to bleach their skin via painful treatments.

We also discussed that when people hear America or American they think white.

The female student with tears in her eyes stated, “I never knew this, I feel ashamed”. We talked about moving pass the shame and guilt and how to move forward.

I see courses like the Problem with Whiteness as tools to help us move forward. In the course description it goes on to say:

” It explores how they (white people) consciously and unconsciously perpetuate institutional racism and how this not only devastates communities of color but also perpetuates the oppression of most white folks along the lines of class and gender.”

The truth is that this is not only a white problem or a black problem, this is an us, an US, an U.S.A. problem. We will not solve this until white people take the lead in ending institutional racism. For example, ending sexism in the workplace and beyond has to be led by men, do you see the commonalities?

So, yes I will be deemed a race baiter and a racist for having the audacity to discuss this issue while black. I wouldn’t haven’t any other way. Our children (America’s children) are needing us to solve this problem or get out of the way for those who are willing to, so that they can have a tomorrow free of the bigotry and hate.

“It is never going to go away”, some may say. My response to them is, “Hell, at least try”.



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