Examining White Identity
White college students are embracing the doctrine of separate but equal — again. According to a report by Campus Reform, the University of Michigan Dearborn Center for Social Justice on September 8, 2020, hosted “Non-POC Café,” a segregated virtual event wherein white students reflected on their lives “as non-POC in the world.” Reviving the spirit of Plessy v. Ferguson, minority students held their own event, “BIPOC Café” at the same time.
Minorities self-segregating on college campuses is not new, but white-only events sanctioned by college administrators represent a new trend in higher education that traces back only a few years. In 2016, the University of Wisconsin-Madison held segregated forums discussing police killings of blacks. Oregon State University now takes its white students and faculty on a retreat titled “Examining White Identity.” And the University of Vermont has been hosting its own Examining White Identity Retreat since about 2015. Events like these raise the racial consciousness of its white attendees.
A University of Vermont student identified only as Nick, Class of 2017, agreed. Examining White Identity contributed to his opening up to “difficult questions about race in an environment where I felt comfortable asking questions and learning.” It was, he continued, also valuable for its offering an “affinity space,” where a white person is “surrounded with people who share something in common with you and are willing to talk about what [white] identity means and how it shows up in our lives.”
For Americans unapprised of university-speak, ‘affinity spaces’ are racially segregated residences, programs, or graduations hosted at colleges that sanction racial self-segregation segregation, or neo-segregation. In April 2019, Peter W. Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, and I published Separate but Equal, Again: Neo-Segregation in American Higher Education, a report that examined at length so-called affinity spaces and their pernicious effect on race relations on college campuses.
University sanctioned racial self-segregation was once a privilege accorded exclusively to minorities students and faculty who leveraged their status as aggrieved victim groups to advocate racial preferences in admissions, the dissolution of liberal arts curricula, and creating ethnic studies departments missioned to cultivate the ethnic pride of minorities and encourage their resenting Western Civilization. Minority students and faculty often describe neo-segregated programs as ‘safe spaces’ while maintaining that integrated spaces are ‘unsafe.’ This idea materialized in The University of Michigan’s going as far as to designate a faculty member corresponding to the racial makeup of each “Café” discussion cohort to ensure the events were “kept safe and respectful.” It came up again in the student testimonials describing the University of Vermont’s Examining White Identity Retreat.
As Cora, Class of 2015, tells it, the University of Vermont’s Examining White Identity Retreat placed her in a “safe space to learn about yourself and others and how we experience and understand privilege and systems of oppression.” Abby, Class of 2017, reported assessing her white identity in a manner she was before ill-equipped to “comfortably discuss.” The chance to “go off campus and talk about systems of power with people I wouldn’t have met otherwise made the retreat a valuable experience,” she said.
No administrator at the University of Vermont it seems saw anything amiss in their white students feeling freer and safer to discover themselves and discuss issues of race miles away from their minority peers. Nor did anyone perceive the irony of organizing events comprising students who admit they would have had no previous association were it not for their being white at an all-white retreat.
Water to a Fish
College faculty and employees have also taken to heightening their racial consciousness by examining their white identity. At Oregon State University (OSU), the office of Diversity and Cultural Engagement directed its white staff to gather to discuss “how to counter negative effects on our colleagues of color that result from each of us being socialized via white ways of knowing.”
In a video promoting the student and faculty components of Examining White Identity (also known as EWI), OSU’s Assistant Director in the Office of International Services, Rachel Weber, said her group mostly focused on “How to help people progress from first understanding ‘What is whiteness?’ ‘What is white identity?’ into –you know –‘What then Happens?’ What is the privilege that is given to us because of that whiteness, and then, ‘Where is the oppression happening because of that?’”
Surprisingly, the students featured in the promotional video did not report their coming to terms with their inner racist. Taylor Sarman simply described his EWI experience as time spent “getting to know everybody and getting to understand each other’s experiences a little bit more.” His “biggest takeaway” was “getting to know all of the people that were attending it.” Baine Etherton’s commentary was also void of any material reflections and did not descend into showcasing the maudlin expressions of guilt that typify social justice activism. He highlighted mainly that he “learned a lot about white people” and “white institutions,” which, he said, made him feel like a fish that realizes it swims in water.
That the attendees of white identity retreats are not emerging from their time alone preaching banalities about the ‘toxicity of whiteness’ is a sign that self-segregating could have the unintended effect of causing white students to reflect not only on the alleged group sins of whites, but perhaps the positive benefits of whites’ “ways of knowing,” which emerge from what progressives categorize as “white privilege” or “white supremacy.” After all, Baine Etherton said he arrived at EWI expecting to learn more about minorities, but left realizing that ‘whiteness’ and “white institutions” are to white people as water is to a fish.
Attempting to mollify racial tensions through segregating white and minority students into separate but equal safe spaces hazards widening the breach between racial groups. Reducing the complex identities of students to the color of their skin more often attracts them to ethnonationalism, resentment narratives, and groupthink. The self-segregating of minority students on college campuses is an ongoing case study in racial self-segregation that has for decades affirmed this view.
In “Ethnic Enclaves and the Dynamic of Social Identity on the College Campus: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” published in 2004, Professors Jim Sidanius, Colette Van Laar, Shana Levin, and Stacey Sinclair found that minority students participating in ethnically oriented student organizations deepened their “sense of ethnic identity” and “increased [their] perception that groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and [their] feeling of victimization by virtue of one’s ethnicity.”
At Brown University in October 1995, ethnic identification intensified as to cause black women to bully students who dated across the color line. Brown’s uprising against racial dating occurred three years after Brown University opened the Harambee House, a segregated residence for black students. In 1996, Laura Handelsman told The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Ben Gose that when she began dating Thabiti Brown, a black sophomore, in the fall of 1994, black female students would “glare when she and Mr. Brown [walked] around the campus.” Others criticized Ms. Handelsman “behind her back.”
Then, in fall of 1995, seven black women, Gose wrote, “got personal in their crusade against black-white romance.” They, along with sophomore Felicia Carmen Lyde, decided to post on the door of Lyde’s dormitory, located at the Harambee House, a “Wall of Shame” listing the names of black men who dated white women. Thabiti Brown was added to the list. And on another line the women wrote, “the basketball team.” When news of the Wall of Shame reached Laura Handelsman, she “stayed up all night crying.”
But Ms. Lyde was unrepentant. She said to Gose that “people come up to me and say, ‘Why did you do it? Didn’t you know it would hurt people’s feelings,” to which she replied, “Didn’t they know that my feelings have been hurt along?” Despite her likely violating Brown’s code of student conduct, Ms. Lyde was not punished for racially harassing Ms. Handelsman and Mr. Brown. Instead, upon learning of the incident, associate dean Leonard Perry organized a “workshop on interracial dating” that no whites attended. At the workshop, Gose said, black men were outnumbered two to one, and endured four hours of talking, crying, and shouting in what was a “tempestuous” meeting.
At other times, outright violence has resulted from black students’ asserting their ethno-nationalist attitudes.
On November 6, 1967, members of San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) Black Student Union (BSU) learned that James Vaszko, editor of SFSU’s The Daily Gater wrote an editorial opposing a proposal by the Carnegie Foundation to award scholarships to BSU associates registered in the university’s “Tutorial Program,” an initiative that aimed to remediate the academic deficiencies of black students through racial preferences. In response, several BSU members raided The Daily Gater’s office to ambush editor James Vaszko and his staff. During the “battle,” wrote John H. Bunzel, a reporter for The New York Times, Vaszko’s staff was “roughed up and an instructor in the journalism department sustained a number of bruises and a broken finger.” Vaszko’s attackers fled the scene, “but not before they vandalized the office.”
In some cases, campus separatists created racial tensions to force their college to admit more minority students, provide funds to ethnic studies departments, write into the campus code of conduct new rules regulating the speech and behavior of white students and faculty, and above all, ‘get woke.’ At Duke University in 1997, the Black Student Alliance mock-lynched the effigy of a black infant by hanging a baby doll from a tree and tarring a bench under which it hung. Two black students confessed to committing this act of propagandistic theatre, but Worokya Diomende, a black Duke University student, complained that “the idea…behind the act is being overlooked.” She wanted Duke to understand that her being admitted there was only the equivalent of being promoted from a “field slave to a house slave.” Increasing Duke’s racial diversity was apparently not a sufficient form of repenting for its whiteness.
And as has occurred at institutions like Stanford University, asserting black identity often calls for erasing from college curricula the intellectual contributions of people whose only crime was having been white. In 1988, Jesse Jackson led student protestors there in chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!” in an effort that resulted in replacing courses teaching the works of Plato, Voltaire, St. Augustine, and Marx and Engels with a “more diverse canon.”
Where is the Oppression Happening?
The toxicity of black separatism is likely driving white progressives’ newfound interest in self-segregation. As trends like cancel-culture target for public flogging even white ‘allies’ engaged in the struggle for social justice, white students may join Rachel Weber in wondering, “Where is the oppression happening?”
In July 2020, progressives received a possible answer to that question when the National Museum of African American History published graphics explaining why whites have an edge in the American system over “people of color.” Whites, the museum said, are prisoners of the Protestant Work Ethic, which emphasizes that “hard work is the key to success,” one should work before he plays, and failure results from not working hard enough. Whites also have broader time horizons, causing them to delay gratification, “follow rigid time schedules,” and “plan for [the] future.”
The Scientific Method, which fosters “objective, rational linear thinking, attention to “cause and effect relationships, and “quantitative emphasis” is another source of ‘white supremacy.’ So too is the nuclear family, respecting authority, and valuing “ownership of goods, space, [and] property.” If sorting students into ethnic enclaves on college campuses is likely to intensify racial identification and pride, it will not be long before white college students, after discussing in segregated settings ideas similar to those of the National Museum of African American History, begin to discern the pettiness and resentment fueling ideas like “abolishing the white race” and feel an all too human instinct for group-preservation.
White students, as do many conservatives of color, may come to see that the oppression of minorities in America is happening from within, not without their communities; and that minorities’ failing to confront this reality causes them to rationalize black on black murder, rioting, anarchy, gutting academic standards, destroying private property, and ruining the lives and careers of whites who violate the orthodoxies of political correctness.
At its worse, the behavior of woke activists on college campuses threatens even the most progressive students who can, at a moment’s notice, be labeled a racist. At its least harmful, it is annoying. And for white students concerned about the plight of blacks, it is becoming more rational to help them from a distance than feel the pang of friendly fire. Their embracing of self-segregation is a sign of the times, an indication of their seeking safe spaces to preserve peace of mind in a world where every day it seems truer than not that conversing with members of one’s own race, rather than across racial lines, is more conducive to the amiable discussion; that being white can get you in trouble. We may see more of this if ‘social justice’ continues to indoctrinate Americans into believing they are a people composed of warring ethnic groups that cannot survive if the other lives.
We are running out of time to turn things around.