Ask the Expert: The Problem with Whiteness
By Brian Hiro
Dreama Moon is quick to point out that she’s not the Cal State San Marcos authority on racism and white supremacy.
The longtime communication professor is sensitive to the reality that she’s a white person being interviewed about racial inequality amid widespread national protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.
What Moon has on her side is more than two decades of experience teaching about white supremacy to students at CSUSM. Her most popular course, COMM 454: Communication of Whiteness, has been offered at the university since 2003. Several years later, she added as a capstone to the class the annual Whiteness Forum, an end-of-semester project in which students create posters and present their findings to a campus-wide audience.
Moon’s course and the accompanying forum are not without controversial elements that have resulted in backlash toward Moon personally. But on the other side of the ledger, many former students have reached out to Moon since the protests began to thank her for the imprint her teachings left on them and the way they now view the world.
Question: How long have you been studying whiteness as an academic pursuit? And what led you in that direction to begin with?
Dreama Moon: I've studied race and been involved in racial justice activities since I was a teenager. Whiteness as an academic discipline came about in the late ’80s, and in my graduate program, I turned from race to white supremacy as a focus of study, so that's been 25-30 years now.
I grew up in a state that was once part of the South, West Virginia, though it went with the North during the Civil War. Segregation had been ended, but we were still segregated de facto, though I didn't understand that term. Growing up, I saw that in my town at that point, there were only black people and white people and learned the white norms of “do not interact with black people.” I never quite understood it. Then when I went to high school, the schools were finally forced to integrate. People were not prepared to be together, so there was a lot of violence, a lot of fighting. And I was trying to figure all that out while watching Martin Luther King on television and the civil rights movement.
We started a group in high school to try to deal with these racial issues. We had no idea what we were doing. We had no knowledge, we learned nothing. But the intention was to make things better. Much later, I learned something about that situation and why there was a lot of animosity. Back then, though, nobody told us; we didn't have those conversations as kids, and you did your best to figure it out. But it did spark a lifelong commitment to racial justice and understanding the role that white people play in that.
Q: At a base level, I think we all understand what whiteness means and what white privilege means, but how do you define them as a scholar in this area?
DM: Well, I generally don't talk about white privilege, at least not immediately. There's a lot of pushback to white privilege, and in working with students over the last 22 years, I've come to realize that it's really because we're starting at the end of an equation. White privilege is an effect of a very old and very intricate system of white supremacy. So when you start talking about the effect with people without them understanding how this effect is created, there's some resistance and some confusion. When I get to white privilege, it's after I've talked about, and we've studied, how this system of race and white supremacy has come into being, what were the driving forces of that in the U.S. context, what laws and policies and practices were put into place to solidify it, and what narrative was created about race, and the anti-Blackness that formed the foundation of it. Then the perfect carrot to get white people to participate in this system and support it is privilege. When you start talking about the carrot without understanding the horse, people just don't get it. So I don't spend a great deal of time there. I'm much more interested in people understanding how we got to where we are today and how systemic racism continues to be fueled with and without our conscious participation.
Q: Has the reaction to the term white privilege and what it entails has dissipated over time or is it still pretty strong?
DM: Around 2016, I think there was a turn. I've spent all these years working against color-blind ideology because my students were raised in a time when they were told, “Let's have tacos” and “Let's build a teepee” and “We're all the same.” That very superficial idea is what we were always trying to counter, like “Color blindness is not necessarily the way we want to go here, and how many times can you invoke Martin Luther King to bolster that?” I think when Donald Trump was elected and white supremacy and whiteness became more transparent to more people, and particularly white people, initially students were flabbergasted. They were like, “What is happening here? We live in a color-blind society, and this man is saying negative things about groups of people.” After that initial shock, I think people started to get it and they were much hungrier for conversation. Before, they kind of wanted the nice version; they weren't willing to go deeply. And this was true for many students of color as well as white students.
Q: Do you think the Barack Obama presidency led to some of that because there was all of this talk about a postracial society?
DM: Well, I don't think that white folks were prepared for a sophisticated, intelligent, family-loving Black man to be in charge of their country. I know when Obama went on Twitter, the first day he had literally hundreds of tweets calling him the N-word. While there were people who saw his election as a positive move, I think there were just as many people who said, “Oh, heck no.” White supremacists have always been online, but I think the online presence became stronger. They were just waiting for their moment and they got that moment in 2016. They've made good use of it.
Q: Can you talk about the origins of the whiteness course at CSUSM?
DM: I tried to propose the course when I first came here in 1998, but my department discouraged me, said I should do something else. As a new faculty member, I didn't understand I had the right to do what I wanted to do. Then a year or so later, now knowing I had some academic freedom and rights, I started working with a group of students to develop the course, which came out in 2003. But it wasn't welcomed. At that time, there were very few people of color on campus. It was extremely different than it is today. There wasn't talk of race, there wasn't talk of racism except in these small little pockets.
I wanted to do this class because I thought we needed to talk not only about racism, but about the system that makes it happen. In my department, students weren't getting any kind of education about racial inequality. The context is really important because I wanted to teach the course to fill an intellectual gap around race in our department and also participate in the larger campus culture. One of the things I learned as a racial justice advocate is that, as a white person, you do your part. If the gap is there, I cannot say, “Well, I'm not a person of color, so I shouldn't really teach that course.” Or just teach the course and learn something as you go and learn to do it better. So that was the impetus.
Q: And how did the whiteness forum come about?
DM: I was finding that, while students were writing the traditional semester paper and presenting it to each other, that didn't seem sufficient because part of the intent of the course is to help students become comfortable in having these conversations without them turning into knock-down, drag-out fights. But also just to encourage them to have the conversations and to have a knowledge base to facilitate the conversation. So I came up with the forum as a way of sharing what students were learning with the larger campus community because we do not talk about white supremacy on this campus. Even today, we talk about race, about racism, about systemic racism, but folks don't want to go there with whiteness. And I think that's a problem.
Q: What kind of blowback have you gotten from the whiteness forum?
DM: I'm not the first faculty member who studies race who's been attacked. This campus has a very long history of racism toward faculty of color in particular. And unfortunately, many times in the past those faculty of color were not supported and protected in the way that they needed to be. Many of them are now gone, and some are still here. It was not cool that the faculty couldn't look to its employer to keep them from being assaulted or harassed or whatever the case may be. In my situation, the harassment could be because I'm white, it could be because it's a different context with different players, could be a piece of all of that. But part of what's happened is that we have developed some protocols about these matters, and any faculty who experiences this kind of targeting because of what they teach has some recourse.
Actually, though, the class did not have too much trouble until 2016. There were negative comments here and there. And I'm not trying to make this a Trump thing, but I'm just trying to say that in this era where it is now more acceptable to espouse white supremacist ideology, there is a very concerted effort to target and threaten people. So of course I get nasty comments. But it has been elevated to threats of harm, people attempting to break into my house, and my car has been vandalized a couple of times. Those things didn't happen prior to 2016. We take very careful precautions with students because I never want anything to happen to a student, and they've not been targeted. But when you see your name on the Stormfront website, that's not cool.
Q: Have those types of threats given you pause in terms of continuing with either the class or the forum?
DM: No, it just tells me that what we're doing is valuable. And this is a time when we need to talk about white supremacy even more. To let these folks shut you down is not acceptable. I do take precautions, and I think about all the people of color who are targeted in way more drastic ways. So it's part of the work, it's your job, it's your responsibility.
Q: Do you think being a white person helps you or hurts you in terms of teaching and trying to communicate messages about whiteness?
DM: I think it's a mixed bag. I think my body in the class is definitely going to be read differently than a black or brown body. So there are things that have to happen. For white students, many times they've never heard another white person talk about these matters in this kind of depth or with this kind of knowledge base. And that's probably true for students of color. With students of color, you have to earn your respect. I'm not a good white liberal. That's not who I am or what I do. I don't live that particular experience, but I do live a racial experience. I think more people are open to hearing about these issues right now, but not all of them.
Q: As a communication professor, what has been your main reaction to the media coverage of the protests following the George Floyd killing?
DM: I haven't cared for the coverage of the protests in these situations because I think there's that strain of media that's like, “Riot versus protest; this isn't the way to make your voices heard.” But then, what's the way? Taking a knee wasn't the way, either, so it's like, “What's the way? Could you outline the way please?”
I haven't seen multicultural protests in a long time around racial issues. Even the civil rights movement wasn't this diverse. It tells me that a lot of people are really tired of this. If Black people are protesting, it's very easy for white America to ignore that. So the fact that it's diverse suggests that something different is happening. It’s also very youth-driven. I'm very encouraged to see young people getting involved, working together. I've been to some of the protests, and it's young people that are very well-organized. They know what they're doing. So I think there's a lot of hopeful signs.
Q: I've heard a lot of talk about allyship in the last few weeks. How do you define that term, and what you think it means to be an ally?
DM: I'm probably the worst person to ask because I hate that word so much. And I'll tell you why: What I would like for white people to do is to own the struggle. I think of myself as a person who is fighting for freedom in the struggle. That means I have to do the work in order to have an analysis of what's going on. Sometimes I think white people think that when you say “ally,” it's like you are helping them in their struggle. I want it to be our struggle, too. Everybody has to own it because all of us are impacted in different ways. White people suffer from white supremacy; they just don't know it. They certainly don't suffer like Black and brown people, but to believe the things that you have to believe in order to embrace whiteness, it's really crazy. There's a place for white people to embrace the struggle and to own it. That doesn't mean to usurp the place of people of color or to get in front of them and start speaking for them. I've been trying to think of a better word than “ally” for years – a comrade, a coequal, a co-conspirator. I've heard a lot of terms. I don't like any of them. But “ally” means coming to understand that this is your issue and you need to figure out ways to contribute and learn things so you can be a productive part of the struggle.
Q: For people interested in the idea of “owning the struggle,” what concrete steps could they take in this moment?
DM: I'm an academic, so I'm going to say read, and nobody wants to do that. But that is how you get to the kind of in-depth analysis that you need. People have written on this stuff for years, for decades. That's how I got started, by reading black radicals in my teenage years and going, “What are you talking about? This is crazy stuff, right?” And I still read and try to encourage others to. But if you're not going to read, watch a movie, watch a video, hang out with some folks and just listen. Don't ask stupid questions. But you have to know something. You have to understand because white supremacy is deeply rooted.
Trump talks about make America great again. People talk as if we need to go back to this kinder, gentler time, but in the U.S., there's never been a kinder, gentler time. In Nazi Germany, they could always reflect back on the Germany that existed before Nazism, like, “Oh yeah, we used to not kill Jewish people. Yeah, I remember that.” But we don't have that. We have nothing to look back on that shows a kinder, gentler United States. So we're in a really weird and dangerous position because we have to actually create it anew, and that's some major stuff. You really need to know what you're up against, you need to know how it was and it came to be if you're going to undo it. Maybe I'm too much an advocate of reading, but that's just how I have come to understand the world through a non-white lens, and I think you have to do that.
Q: Do you worry about the notion of white fatigue just when it seems like there's so much momentum behind the movement?
DM: I think Americans have the shortest attention spans ever, and I keep my fingers crossed that people will stay the course because if you know anything about the criminal justice system, it's going to be a long time before George Floyd’s murderers are dealt with. I'm rather amazed that protests are still happening, but even if it's not protesting, there has to be constant pressure applied somewhere. A lot of people are pledging to do this, that and the other, but we have to keep the commitments that we make and understand that most of what we say we're going to do probably isn't what we need to be doing. I don't know what happens if the protests end. Is it a moment where significant change can happen? Yeah. Will it? Don't know, but I'm hopeful.
Q: What would you like to see happen next?
DM: Well, I think there are some challenging issues on campus. Sometimes we talk as if we are all on the same page, and we're not; we're on different pages. Hopefully not egregiously different. I'd like to see some of the white faculty and staff take on their whiteness. I've thought of doing something like my whiteness class, but at the Faculty Center. But I don't know that we white folks are always good partners to people of color on campus when we don't do our homework and we're not working on our own stuff. I've sat in many meetings where I'm like, “Oh my God, some really egregious stuff has happened to faculty of color and staff of color in the meeting and we let it go.” I don't know how you change the structure of an organization if everybody can't participate, if not equally at least similarly. I really would like to see the white faculty and staff do some hard work.
Q: What does it mean to you that so many former students have reached out to you over the last few weeks?
DM: I really do value my relationships with students. That is the primary reason I stayed here and probably the primary reason I continue to stay here. I worked with students at other institutions before I came here, and it wasn't so fun. But here I have always appreciated them. They're willing to engage and they're willing to have a conversation and they're willing to not close their minds in most cases. When you're dealing with these issues of race and racism and the impact they have in your life, people tell their stories. I tell my stories, too, because it's only fair. So we generally form pretty solid bonds that extend over the years. When something happens around race, I'm going to hear from students. That's because they trust me, because I care and I pay attention. This time, it was a lot of people and people from 15-20 years ago, which is kind of different. But I think the circumstances are generating a lot of conversations for folks and they're having all kinds of feelings and they want to do something.
It makes me feel like what I do is worthwhile. That's what academics want to know, because you put all this hope and energy into all these people over the years and you think you're planting the seeds, but often you never see the tree. So you wonder, “Does what we do matter?” And on those occasions when you find out that it does, that keeps you going.
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
email@example.com | Office: 760-750-7306