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Whiteness Studies: Exploring Privilege

By Daniel M. Suleiman

African-American studies, women's studies and Asian studies have broken into academic prominence in the last few decades, but to the consternation of many, a new field of scholarship that sees these as its logical predecessors is emerging: whiteness studies.

Whiteness studies is the study of what it means to be white in America. But how does whiteness studies differ from studying the canon, which is essentially comprised of white history and white literature written white men? History and English departments, for example, that teach the (American) canon, do not necessarily answer the question, what does it mean to be white in America? Blacks, Asians and native Americans--unlike women--have all been historically marginalized in American society in part because they are minorities. But the study of a majority is as legitimate and interesting, for social scientists at least, as the study of a minority. Whiteness studies should not celebrate white literature or a supposed white culture; rather, useful scholarship in the area engages the concept of being white in a society that first, differentiates between whites and non-whites and second, bestows privilege upon those that fit the description.

Still, the idea of whiteness studies strikes a dissonant chord with many people, in part because of their uncertainty of the field's area or scope. But Professor of Afro-American Studies Cornel West '74, a pillar of the Afro-American studies department at Harvard, told me that "like any other area, [in whiteness studies] there's some high quality and some low quality and the high quality stuff is very important forces people to think not just about whiteness in the abstract, but to really wrestle with white skin privilege in America. It's part of what it means to be modern, what it means to be American...When it's well done, definitely, it's a serious area." In a recent New York Times Magazine article "Getting Credit for Being White" (Nov. 30), Margaret Talbot examines the scope of whiteness studies--what she calls "the latest academic trend"--but she gives particular attention to the study of white trash culture.

Talbot opens her story with a profile of Jennifer Reeder, a part time teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago who goes by the name White Trash Girl. White Trash Girl celebrates the absence of culture that she believes is white culture and says of herself,'"I am busty, and I am loud and I love bad taste. I am bad taste.'" Though she represents an extreme, Talbot writes, "she is also perfectly representative, the mascot of a new, very hot academic field called whiteness studies."

Insofar as this is true, whiteness studies has very little to offer academic, not because "white trash" cannot be an interesting area of study, but because, as West told me, "[t]he whole construct of white trash, which is just as arbitrary and can be just as vicious an any other construct, is what it means to be a particular kind of American, but white American." In other words, people who may be called "white trash" are different from other impoverished members of society only because they are white, but they are not more indicative of white culture, or American culture for that matter, than any other marginalized group in American society. In fact, what is interesting about "white trash" is not their relationship to the imagined concept of a white culture, but that even in their impoverished and often uneducated marginality, they retain a privilege in American society: their whiteness.

For reasons like this one, West says he believes that whiteness studies "must be in a historical context...that takes seriously race." In other words, whiteness studies is an important part of American studies and as such should be incorporated into other departments instead of becoming a department of its own--the same way that African-American studies could have been incorporated into other departments and did not by definition necessitate a department of its own. "But it depends on what the institution's responses are," West says. "If people think that we can teach American history and not engage in constructs of whiteness, then you may end up with a whiteness department. The only reason [Harvard] ended up with an Afro-American studies department was, the mainstream departments did not take it very seriously. Ideally, it would have been nice to have it all in the History department and the English department and so forth."

No one questions the legitimacy of studying white literature or white history as they do African-American studies, for example, because "white" in this context has become "the." This is a particular kind of privilege that whites and only whites in this country enjoy. Understanding the racial and historical location of canonical authors, however, is important as long as Ralph Ellison, for example, is primarily studied as "a black author." Similar logic applies to race: racial constructs--such as whiteness and blackness--only exist in contrast to one another, so to study black disadvantage in America, for example, is also to study white privilege in this country--and vice versa.

African-American studies have had the difficult task of grappling not only with being black in America, but also how to understand and study black history and black literature in this country. Clearly, addressing whiteness studies is a less formidable task and a distinct department is neither warranted nor necessary. Just imagine all of the courses in the history and English departments that would be cross-listed. Nonetheless, in order to better understand disadvantage, we may also need to study the nature of privilege.

Daniel M. Suleiman's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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