Unraveling Racism: CSUSM Course on Whiteness Exposes the Many Shades of Privilege
By Margaret Chantung
In 2002 a study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that employers are 50 percent more likely to interview applicants with white names—such as Emily or Matthew—than those with African-American-sounding names—such as Lakisha or Jamal—despite comparable qualifications.
And in 2009 The Journal of Labor Economics reported that the race of a hiring manager may affect the racial composition of new hires. In other words, Asian, white and Hispanic managers hire more whites and fewer blacks than black managers do. This racial inequity in the U.S. labor market is just one example of the concept of “white privilege,” the unseen and unearned advantages society bestows on those who appear to be of European descent.
At California State University San Marcos, a unique communication course is empowering students to not only engage in reflections and conversations about enduring racial inequalities such as those found in the job market, but consider how they can be part of a positive culture shift that unravels racism.
The course known as Communicating Whiteness—now in its 11th year—is taught by Professor Dreama Moon.
“Whiteness studies is an auxiliary to studies of race,” she explained. “But it comes from a different direction, exploring how systems of racial preferences get created and maintained.”
Over the course of the 16-week semester, Moon peels back the layers of white privilege and encourages students to share personal experiences.
“Most students begin this class with no idea of the racial system of inequality that has been crafted in our country from the very beginning,” she said. “It’s earthshaking for a lot of them.”
One student, Nicole Castro, said she went into the first day of class expecting to see whites demonized, but discovered that the course was not about placing blame.
“We are learning about how social power operates in our culture and how each person plays a role whether they realize it or not,” she reflected.
In the class Moon’s objective is to take students on a journey to understand whiteness as a historical, social, political and ideological invention with a long trajectory within the United States.
Learning about Race and Racism through Personal Experience and Storytelling
“What’s great about this class is that it’s very involved,” said student Dammond Moore. “We hear different stories, views and outlooks from everybody.”
Moon calls week eight “Reflection Week,” and each student is required to think back about a time when they experienced or witnessed racism, analyze what happened and talk about it in front of the class.
“It’s emotionally draining,” said student Fausto Velasquez, “but in a good way.”
Moon acknowledges that class conversations bring a certain level of discomfort to participants depending on how comfortable they are speaking about their own feelings of privilege or power, or how new the ideas are to them.
In the class syllabus, Moon writes, “There is absolutely no way to have a critical discussion of race and whiteness without discomfort. There is absolutely no way to discuss racial realities objectively or without feeling and emotion.” She encourages her students to help each other out and embrace the uneasiness and tension that may bubble to the surface.
Tommy Devers and Lucia Gordon, CSUSM alumni who both have bachelor degrees in communication and master’s degrees in sociological practice, took the course in 2008. They say it was a bonding experience that left an indelible mark on their consciousness.
“I was one of the students that came in a bit more closed-minded,” said Devers. “I didn’t know much about the course going into it, but about halfway through I started opening up. Dr. Moon holds everyone to very high standards. She gets to know every student and she pushes us to examine and then reexamine our beliefs.”
“What is unique about this class is that you are prompted to examine racism not just from a historical perspective but in the current time as well,” reflected Gordon. “We study how race is ideologically embedded in our daily values and what role we personally play in perpetuating the current system of racism whether we realize it or not. And maybe the hardest part is that the question, ‘What do we do now?’ is asked but never really answered. It’s on each of us to answer that question every day.”
A New Perspective, a New Self-Awareness
Gordon, now a mother to two young children, says that five years after she’s taken the class, she still carries Moon’s lessons with her and tries to impart her new perspectives to family and friends.
“I think about that class every day,” she said. “The energy of that class affects you—it changes you. And when you have a life-changing experience people take notice. It’s impossible to leave what you learn in the classroom—it turns your world upside down and makes you responsible for having this new knowledge. You are forced you to do something with it. I want to raise my children with this new awareness and help make a drastic change in our society.”
“This class really did change me on a personal level,” said Devers, who now works as the tribal youth coordinator for the Pauma Band of Mission Indians. He says he carries the lessons with him in his interactions with students on the reservation.
“Every fall semester for the last decade, 40 students have taken this class and come out of it with new perspectives and new self-awareness that they are empowered to pass on,” he reflected. “I think that’s pretty cool.”Tenth Annual Whiteness Open Forum and Conversation with Scholars, Dec. 5
Moon’s course culminates in the Whiteness Forum, held this year on Thursday, Dec. 5 from noon to 2:30 p.m. in Commons 206. During the event, students present tabletop posters in groups related to some aspect of whiteness and its effects on American society. The forum is free and open to the public.
This year student forum topics will poke holes in the myth that race has an impact on athletic achievement, question a possible bias against non-whites in the U.S. criminal justice system, and ask if private schools drain resources from public schools in low-income communities.
In celebration of the Whiteness Forum’s 10th anniversary, the Communication Department will also welcome two visiting scholars, Thomas K. Nakayama from Northeastern University and Lisa A. Flores from the University of Colorado, to campus after the forum for a conversatio titled, “Color-Blindness and the Post-Racism Era: the Continuing (In)significance of Race” at 5:30 p.m. in the Arts Building, room 240. CSUSM professors Sharon Elise (sociology) and Vincent Pham (communication) will also participate.
For more information on the 10th Annual Whiteness Forum, contact Debbie Andrews, 760-750-8048.