The Problem With,
The Problem Of Whiteness
Amid The Furor Over The ASU Class That Seeks To Discuss How Whiteness Impacts The Ways Students Learn And Teachers Teach, A Professor Continues His Intellectual Journey As White Supremacists Jump On The Bandwagon
In this picture taken from his ASU profile page, Lee Bebout poses for a picture at his desk.
By Jeff Moses
Modern Times Magazine
Feb. 17, 2015 — Arizona State University cannot seem to help but find itself embroiled in some sort of controversy these days.
With more than 75,000 students enrolled at varied locations throughout the state — and a full staff to go with them — it becomes easy to see why so many proverbial ‘fires’ get started in the homes of the Sun Devils.
While the controversies associated with the maroon and gold are generally having to do with fraternities, amorous relationships between teachers and students, campus police officers arresting professors for jaywalking, and cheating baseball coaches, the fact that the current uproar at ASU is in regard to the curriculum must be somewhat of a breath of fresh air for president Michael Crow and his Crow-nies.
The current national hooplah happening at ASU involves the introduction of a new undergraduate English class, Eng 401, “Studies in American Literature/Culture: U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness,” which is currently being taught to 18 students by ‘white’ assistant professor Lee Bebout.
“I teach at the intersection of critical whiteness studies, critical race theory and Chicano studies,” said Bebout. “It’s not my job to change people’s minds, my job is to open them into a broader conversation and whatever they do with that they do with that.”
The whole national hubbub got started when ASU journalism student and correspondent for collegiate watchdog group CampusReform.org, Lauren Clark, brought the new class to the attention of Fox News. Clark was later featured on their popular talk show Fox & Friends and interviewed by Elizabeth Hasselbeck. During that Fox News appearance, Hasselbeck and Clark discussed the literature assigned for the new course, which include, The Possessive Investment In Whiteness, Everyday Language of White Racism and The Alchemy of Race and Rights.
Clark’s position was that such texts highlighted a, ”disturbing trend and that’s pointing to all white people as the root cause of social injustices for this country.”
ASU released a statement after Clark’s Fox News appearance, depicting the course’s intent as, a, “look at how stories shape people's understandings and experiences of race. It encourages students to examine how people talk about – or avoid talking about – race in the contemporary United States.”
Bebout has largely declined to comment publicly, and referred me to an essay he wrote in 2014, “Skin in the Game: Toward a Theorization of Whiteness in the Classroom,” and published by Duke University.
In it, he cited Nancy Peterson’s Redefining America which called for, “white professors who are willing to examine and question their own standpoint of privileged whiteness . . . can help engage white students in similar kinds of critical analyses as well as demonstrate to black students that allies can be found to fight the war against racism.”
ASU Associate Professor in Justice Studies, Robert Poe, who teaches similar critical theories in his classes and brought, “The Problem of Whiteness” to the greater ASU public by leading a teach-in outside of the Memorial Union on Feb. 11, backs Bebout and his course of intellectual investigation.
“It’s nothing new. This class, the issue of ‘whiteness’ as something to interrogate critically at a university has been a thought since the 1990s. My response is where have you been, Fox News, this whole time? While all of these critical race scholars have been talking about this for the past couple decades,” Poe said.
Unfortunately for Bebout and ASU, though, is that Clark and Fox News have brought groups affiliated with white supremacists into the discussion and onto campus. A group called the National Youth Front began distributing literature and hanging posters on ASU’s Tempe campus that plastered the word “Anti White” over Bebout’s face as well as vaguely threatening the teacher.
“ASU has been really quiet about the backlash against professor Bebout,” said Poe. “They didn't say anything about it at all. They were probably worried behind the scenes as far as the people in the department. But they didn't make any response to those kinds of threats.”
The NYF describes itself on its website as “an elite youth preservationist organization dedicated to preserving White European peoples, cultures, and societies.”
But Poe and others have expressed concerns the NYF is nothing but a neo-Nazi gang masquerading as a civil rights group.
ASU student Danielle Davis said that she was “shocked” to find out about the literature distributed by the NYF.
“I don't see the problem of having a class about it because, sadly, a lot of the negative things that happened in our history and what's going on now could be considered because of whiteness. it’s just something that’s in our history and a problem currently. It’s just something people like to ignore,” Davis said.
Chris Liguria was present at Poe’s teach-in at the Cady Mall. Liguria did not identify himself as a member of the NYF, instead claiming that he had come to, “play devil’s advocate.”
Liguria took video of everything that transpired while he was present and spitballed questions at Poe seemingly trying to make the associate professor slip or contradict himself.
Following the teach-in Poe said, “I’m pretty sure the guy asking all the questions was a National Youth Front guy. He was playing devil’s advocate with stuff that white nationalists say.”
Some of the things Liguria said included his claim that black people commit more crimes than white people. He referred to the recent racially motivated riots in Ferguson, Mo., as a “problem of blackness,” and repeatedly asked about modern slavery in Africa and the Middle East and genital mutilation in “Muslim” countries.
In “Skin in the Game,” Bebout defines whiteness as, “a system of financial and psychological investments, such as the racially disparate impact of social policy and laws that forge white belonging, and knowing that, despite diminished economic and social wages, one will never tumble down the racial hierarchy,”
To the mixed race and gender body of students that seemed to be in favor of Bebout’s class at Poe’s teach-in, the ‘problem of whiteness’ seems fairly evident. While it seemed like only white males stepped up to voice concerns about the content of the class being racist or troubling even though they have no idea what the content of the class is.
“We don’t know the content or the discussion of this English 401 class that originally caused a stir that made this become an issue. Because the university, well the university through veiled threat, is not allowing the professor to speak in the media,” said Poe. “I think the outrage is because of the investment people have in what it means to be white and then you actually confront them on what it means to be white and they get uncomfortable because its not really an identity that has any sort of content to it.”
But while Poe, the NYF, and everyone else interested wonders about the new fangled English class, only Bebout and his students are on that journey right now which just might happen to be the perfect time and place for change to begin.
“Over the years, I have begun to spell this out on the syllabus, in the first class session, and often throughout the semester. On the syllabus, it reads as such: a disclaimer, a warning, an invitation. . . . For many, the challenge that this course offers will be internal, delving into the often emotional and psychological sites of discomfort. The texts that we read ask us to consider thorny questions circulating around how power—in the forms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and nationality—functions to open and foreclose meaning in the world in which we live. Are we complicit in the oppression of others? Do I turn a blind eye from my brothers’ and sisters’ pain? Where do we go from here? Where do we go from here? Where do we go from here? The answer is never an easy one, but for this class, we must move toward the discomfort, excavate its roots, trace its lineages, embrace its fragility. Our journey together may cause a few sleepless nights and reevaluations of long-held, seemingly self-evident truths. Perhaps that is how we will evaluate our success,” said Bebout in “Skin in the Game.”
When asked if the course would be offered next semester, Bebout said, “probably not,” but that a section of the course is quite possible for spring semester 2016.
When asked if he planned to continue teaching critical race theory in his classes Bebout said “Oh god yes. This is what I do, this is what I was hired to do. This is what I'm paid to do.”
Jeff Moses a senior contributor at Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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