By Simone Stadler
When I tell people that my FYI was called “Whiteness,” the reactions I encounter usually range from confusion to shock to embarrassment. Most people do not understand why something as mundane as whiteness would ever need to be studied. However, I can honestly say that my FYI with Catherine Orr was the most challenging and thought-provoking class that I have ever taken and I believe that some version of this course should be a requirement for every Beloit student.
The study of whiteness might seem strange to many people because it isn’t a thing that most people (most white people, that is) ever have to think about. Whiteness is a social construction perceived as the norm by white society to the degree that it does not usually even merit mention. This is where the problem comes in because the normalcy of whiteness implies an invisible privilege over all other racial groups. If left unexamined and unstudied, not only does whiteness remain neutral and invisible, but its consequences of privilege and racism subtly persist as well.
This is the point where most white people start getting defensive. Nobody wants to be automatically labeled as a racist simply because they are white. That’s stereotyping based on race, also known as, dare I say, racism! Or is it? I think one of the most valuable things I came away with from my FYI was an understanding of the difference between individual acts of racism and institutional racism. Institutional racism is a set of social advantages and privileges established throughout history that automatically benefits the dominant race. In 1964 the United States government ratified the Civil Rights Act, a piece of legislation whose prohibition of racial discrimination allegedly granted non-whites the opportunity to do and achieve anything that whites could. And then it was left up to those individuals who had been denied education, money, and resources for the past 200 years to figure out exactly how to achieve racial equality. 47 years later white Americans still earn more money, hold more high-ranking positions, earn higher educational degrees, and have a lower incarceration rate than non-white Americans. The laws about racism may have changed but the system of privilege did not. That is institutional racism.
Now I recognize that the majority of people reading this article were not alive 47 years ago and had no say in the systems of privilege that were established then, but that does not mean that they are not a part of that system now. Our generation may not have created the mess, but we are the ones living in it and if we don’t make an effort to clean it up, no one else will.
I don’t pretend to have all of the answers here. Inventing a cure for racial inequality is not an achievement I anticipate happening overnight. One thing I do know, though, is that as long as whiteness remains the invisible and unexamined norm, institutional racism will never truly end. It may be uncomfortable to acknowledge one’s privilege, but when has staying comfortable ever created social change?