Studying “whiteness” threatens whites?

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Lee Bebout, an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University, is teaching a Topics in Critical Theory course this semester. From what I can tell, it’s one of those courses passed around from professor to professor based on a proposed theme for the semester, one generally approved by a departmental committee. Bebout’s theme is “U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness.” It’s an intriguing topic, and Bebout is an appropriate teacher for leading a course in it. His Purdue dissertation became the book Mythohistorical Interventions: The Chicano Movement and Its Legacies. The reading list consists of George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Temple University Press), Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (NYU Press), Jane Hill’s The Everyday Language of White Racism (Wiley), Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Penguin/Random) and Patricia Williams’ The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (Harvard University Press). As an English professor with interest in the study of “whiteness” (one of my books concerns American Scots-Irish based culture), I’m quite impressed with the outline of this course: I would love to take it.

Studying white cultures through the eyes of other cultures is probably the best model for moving toward understanding white cultures–or any cultures, for that matter. That’s probably an understatement, but it will do. For, the fact of the matter is that Bebout’s course needs no defending. On its face, it presents a legitimate scholarly exploration that would be useful to both undergraduate and even graduate students. The reading list is undeniably strong and the instructor has an appropriate background. Though we tend to couch questions of race in liberal/conservative terms, there is nothing particularly “liberal” about asking students to learn more about themselves (if they are white) or about the dominant American culture in relation to race (if they are not). This course, in all of its aspects, is representative of the best of American education.

Yet Bebout now finds himself at the center of one of Fox News’s faux controveries:

Photos of Bebout and his mixed-race family have been shared on neo-Nazi and white supremacist message boards, such as Stormfront and The Daily Stormer, along with contact information for his wife – also an ASU professor.

Right-wing extremists in the Phoenix area have posted lengthy rants about Bebout online, promising to force ASU to remove the course from its catalog or otherwise make “a bold statement to the militant Left that their anti-White agenda will not go unchallenged.”

Robert Poe, a PhD candidate who teaches courses at ASU’s School of Social Transformation, offered an impromptu discussion about the course last week on campus, where he was confronted by a white supremacist citing the controversial “Bell Curve” book on race and intelligence.

The man recorded video of the debate, which has been widely shared on white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites.

This is rabble-rousing of the worst kind (Poe has received death threats, and Bebout has been threatened, too). Not only will this sort of thing, if it continues, cast a pall over course offerings everywhere, but it increases the racial divides in America, divides that can only be overcome by careful considerations of race in the country–of just the sort Bebout is offering.

What a sad and upsetting irony this “controversy” is!

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