Whiteness is very much a thing. That much we know.
But whiteness is not simply “being white.” Whiteness refers to the often invisible yet elaborate and pervasive system of privilege afforded to white people in our country and much of the world. Those with privilege, whether they want to or not, receive advantages and decision-making power in the media, private sector, judicial system, and policymaking. The idea of whiteness is ingrained in our systems and ways of thinking, and it has numerous cultural, economic, and legal consequences.
As far as cities go, it doesn’t get much whiter than Portland, Oregon.
As a new resident of Portland, I’ve quickly learned it’s much more than brunch, beer, and bikes. Portland is home to great soccer, delicious food, and so, so, so many white people.
In fact, 76% of Portland is white, making Portland the whitest big city in the United States.
That’s why for the first time ever, Portland Community College is offering a Whiteness History Month.
Developed by a subcommittee of the PCC Cascade Campus Diversity Council, the project, officially titled Whiteness History Month: Context, Consequences, and Change, is a month of programs and events to explore the origins of whiteness and its impact on the campus community and culture.
To be clear, Whiteness History Month is not a celebration of white power and privilege, nor is it Black History Month for white people.
The goal of Whiteness History Month is not to open old wounds or point fingers for the heck of it. Instead, the goal of the project is to develop new solutions to societal and community problems that are born of racism and privilege.
Big problems like over-policing, and small problems like the fact that when I went looking for a stock photo of a “college classroom” the first photo that came up was literally all white students:
PCC’s planning committee is currently soliciting programming ideas from students, faculty, and the community for the month-long event.
PCC is Oregon’s largest post-secondary educational institution, serving over 90,000 students across four campuses and eight specialized centers. Programming for Whiteness History Month, to be held this April, will take place at all four campuses and may include discussions, lectures, films, presentations, artwork, and even plays.
It’s all in an effort to spark dialogue, improve campus climate, promote student retention, and build partnerships in the community.
Though the goals are admirable, some are calling the month-long diversity initiative “white-shaming.”
And sadly, those voices are missing the point.
Whiteness History Month is not an attempt to shame white people for colonialism, racism, or even having privilege.
It is, however, an effort to get a very important conversation happening — one that is often derailed because we have difficulty talking about race or prefer to advocate for “colorblindness.”
But when unarmed black people, even children, are gunned down by the police; when black people continue to die in jail cells under suspicious circumstances; when applicants with “ethnic-sounding” names are less likely to get job interviews; when being black is akin to having a credit score 71 points lower in the eyes of mortgage lenders; when transgender women of color are murdered at an alarming rate; when not one person of color is nominated for an acting Academy Award; when people in the 21st century are still dressing in black face; when protestors have to block shoppers and travelers to get people to pay attention to their messages; when I wake up every day as a woman of color hoping my name’s not a hashtag by sundown, maybe, just maybe there’s a problem here.
We can’t fix racism until we can talk about how going through life with white skin is different from going through life with dark skin, and Whiteness History Month seeks to open the doors to exploring those differences so that we can at least have those conversations.
Racism is in our neighborhoods, our courtrooms, our boardrooms. Much of it stems from whiteness and the inequality it creates and perpetuates, knowingly or not. We’re not going to be able to tackle those problems until we acknowledge that the system isn’t set up for everyone to get a fair shot.
As #BlackLivesMatter activist DeRay Mckesson suggests, those with privilege need to acknowledge it exists and use it to signal boost voices that too often go unheard.
While the name could use some work, Whiteness History Month has the potential to raise awareness of this important issue.
Portland Community College, a major employer and place of higher learning for the Pacific Northwest, deserves applause for taking bold steps to address the problem of racism and oppression in the campus community.
Real change isn’t going to happen until we have some tough conversations and begin working together.
This inaugural event may not bring an end to all racism everywhere (that’s a very tall order) but it’s a much needed start.