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White Studies, Legitamate Course or Identity Politics Device? A Debate

Aired July 3, 2003 - 19:37   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, are you white? Do you think of yourself as a person or a white person? What affect has being white had on your life? Well, these are some of the questions being asked in new college courses cropping up as part of what's called a whiteness studies. Now it may sound like an intro course at KKKU but it's actually intended to raise awareness of just how much white people benefit from their race. Unlike other ethnic studies that focus achievements, and creative works, whiteness studies focus on white privilege. These are being taught at some 30 institutions of higher learning right now.
Now some supporters of whiteness studies argue the whole notion of race is invented, a made up concept. Some critics point of whiteness studies point out that whiteness studies could legitimize extremist notions of white identity. And in fact could contribute to racial division.

Daniel Clasen-Hook took a whiteness course at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. And he joins us tonight from Springfield. Daniel thanks for being with us. I guess the main question is what did you learn in this whiteness studies course? What's the main thing you took out of it?

DANIEL CLASON-HOOK, STUDENT: Well, I mean, just to take a look at how incredibly privileged we are as white people in the society that is run by, you know, white people. It was about hearing others out, hearing myself out and starting a dialogue about...

COOPER: I guess with like African-American studies or Chicano studies which are popular on campuses across country right now, a lot of those do focus on, you know, celebrating the ethnic differences. White studies doesn't seem to really be doing that or am I incorrect?

CLASON-HOOK: Well, it's not a celebration, but it might be a celebration with -- a celebration of the complexity of what whiteness really is. I mean, it's not just as simple as saying we're European or I'm Swedish or I'm from Scottish descent. There's a very complex history of why we are here and why we have the privileges that we do in this country and many other countries. And in that way it is a celebration of our differences, but it's also a way to start a dialogue about what usually doesn't come across because of this feeling of guilt that you spoke of earlier.

COOPER: Do you think it made you feel guilty at all or do you think it helps divide people more or bring people together more? CLASON-HOOK: It's tricky. I think it could possibly divide people more. But it also has the ability to bring people together. And in the class that I took, unfortunately there wasn't a huge mix of people in that class. It was mostly white students. But there was dialogue that was hard and there was -- it was important because it doesn't happen to me on a regular day-to-day basis and I don't usually think of race on a day-to-day basis but I think of it more now and know that others think about it much more.

COOPER: Alright Daniel, we're going leave it there. We're going to continue this discussion but appreciate you joining us for this part of it, thanks a lot.

Joining me now from the faculty side, on both sides of the curriculum, we have UC Santa Barbara sociology professor Howard Winant, he teaches one of these. And nderbilt professor, political science and law Carol Swain.

Carol let me just start off with you. You heard the student talking about it. You know about these courses. You say they may actually lead to division in what way?

CAROL SWAIN, PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, LAW, VANDERBILT: First of all, I would say bless that student's heart because he is the ideal poster child for what these courses are supposed to accomplish. I would say that the white students that take those courses are white students that are so liberal and so enshrouded in guilt already that it's not much value added to those students and I believe also that it very much depends on the professor, who is teaching the course and there are some professors that are not using that approach, not deconstructing whiteness but really they're saying white is a race like any other group.

So they're really saying -- they're teaching it in a way that would push white identity politics and I think that we would be better off if which didn't have white studies, black studies, Chicano studies, we just had -- we integrated information about those groups into the regular curriculum.

COOPER: Ok, let me bring in professor Howard Winant. What about that professor? Is this a device, you teach one of these courses. Do you find it devicive?

HOWARD WINANT, PROFESSOR UC SANTA BARBARA: No, I don't think it's devicive. I think it's basically a process of educating -- going deeper into the educational duties that we have as faculty. It's not a question of celebrating and it's not a question of condemning anybody. Most of our students are kids who were born in the 1980s and 1980s the Reagan era.

COOPER: Well, well, well, professor maybe if you can explain to the audience who probably have not -- I hadn't heard about much of this until today. Why is it important for a student to identify themselves as a white person?

WINANT: Well, let's face it, in the United States people are identified racially. Much of the world they are. The question is, what do you do with that? How conscious of that identification are you and what does it mean not only to you, but to others? How do you relate to other people around that? And this is society, race is -- whiteness is kind of a default identity. The particular writers described on in the newspapers is a create great writer, but Tony Morrison is a great black writer. A family moves in next door, oh, it's a black family that moved in next door. Not just a family that moved in next door et cetera.

So looking back at whiteness as an identity as a group identity is already a step towards greater understanding of the complexity and depth of race in the United States.

COOPER: OK, Professor Swain let me bring you in here. What do these professors, I mean not all these professors, but the ones -- what do they not get in your opinion?

SWAIN: Well, for one thing I think that no matter how you look at it, that they teach it in such a way that it does make some white students feel uncomfortable. Most of the ones that would take those courses are liberal anyway but it does create discomfort because some of it is about deconstructing whiteness

COOPER: And you say it leads to problems down the road, like 10 years, 15 years down the road that African-Americans have to deal with.

SWAIN: Well not necessarily that. I believe that identity politics that racial identity politics in a country, a nation as diverse as we are today, that it's counterproductive and it's diluting resources and we would be better off if we didn't have Chicano studies, black studies or white studies, we need to integrate information about those groups into existing courses and existing curriculum.

COOPER: Alright, it's a really complex issue and, I frankly, wish we had more time to discuss it. We simply don't, but I appreciate both of you coming in and trying to help us get our brains around this.

Professor Carol Swain and Professor Howard Winant thank you very much.

WINANT: Nice being here.


Device? A Debate>

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