College plans 'Whiteness History Month' project

Posted at 6:53 PM, Jan 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-21 21:53:56-05

PORTLAND, Ore. - An Oregon college intends to undertake a project on racism that it says examines how white privilege affects people's daily lives.

Called Whiteness History Month, the project at Portland Community College will look at employment, education and criminal justice systems that carry privileges or advantages based on race.

"Racism is about how institutions are structured ... to benefit some people at the expense of others," said Luke Givens, multicultural center coordinator at the college and a member of the project planning committee.

The project set for April also aims to spark conversations about racism and diversity while inspiring creative solutions to social issues that stem from racism.

Among other things, it will ask how whiteness is socially constructed and in what ways does it emerge from a legacy of conquest, colonialism and American enterprise, according to the project website.

Peter Fricke, a reporter for the conservative online news organization Campus Reform, wrote that the school was planning "to devote an entire month to 'whiteness'-shaming."

Fricke said a PCC student reached out to him with concerns the project could be biased, and he concluded the concept of whiteness was ambiguous and negative.

"I searched in vain for anything, for a positive attitude about the concept," he told The Associated Press. "But it was exclusively focused on the relationship between whiteness and racism, which is not something most people would embrace."

Givens said making white people feel bad is not the intention of the project.

Whiteness History Month "is not about shaming, it's not about blaming" and instead examines history and goes to the core of what creates racism in the first place, he said.

Givens noted that conversations about racism too often focus on minorities and the problems they face instead of the structure that creates it.

The concept of the project is similar to that explored in whiteness studies, a relatively new academic field.

Officials at PCC, which does not offer the course, said the field is effective in bringing out voices that aren't usually included in debates on racism.

PCC said on the website about the project that it has struggled to improve diversity and racial equity on campus.

PCC is Oregon's largest post-secondary school, serving nearly 90,000 full-time and part-time students. Sixty-eight percent are white, 11 percent are Hispanic, 8 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, and 6 percent are African American.

The school's demographics mirror those of Portland, known as one of the whitest cities among the nation's largest metro areas.

Whiteness History Month is much needed, given Oregon's troubled history with race, said Kayse Jama, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Intercultural Organizing.

Oregon was the only state admitted to the Union with a law that totally excluded blacks from the state. Later, blacks were barred from buying homes or restricted to living in undesirable parts to town.

"We need to go beyond the Oregon blindness, because there's a tendency in Oregon to shy away from talking about racism," Jama said.