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Why White Students Need to Learn About Their Own Race

One day as I was checking out books from my college library, a female student of color working at the library, scanning my books, asked me about one in particular. The book was White Guys by Fred Pfeil, and her question was “Isn’t everything already about White guys?” Her question was simple yet profound, and the answer was obvious, yet complicated. The palpable answer is “yes, everything already is about White guys.” Because everything already is about White guys we don’t feel that we have to question, study, challenge or examine anything related to White guys or White people in general. This began my exploration of what White students at a predominantly White institution think about being White. I am not suggesting a way to recenter the ever-present White person. Rather, these conversations are a way to make visible issues that have opportunely remained invisible for too long.

When I ask White students the simple question, “what does your race mean to you,” two responses stick out to me. Those responses involve the words “normal” and “American.” Racial identity for White students, especially at a predominantly White institution, is generally not explored or even discussed. The absence of a racial identity is representative of an effect of racism. “Only recently have theorists begun to speculate about the harmful consequences of racism on the perpetuators of racism, which include the absence of positive White racial identity,” according to Black and White Racial Identity: Theory, Research, and Practice by Janet E. Helms.

At a predominantly White institution, White college students may be able to largely exist without ever critically examining their race and the implications associated with their race. Without an understanding of their race, White students are less likely to be aware of the privileges associated with Whiteness as well. The ability to be oblivious to one’s race is a luxury that White people have.

A positive White racial identity and awareness of White privilege are necessary to dismantle racism on predominantly White college campuses. Likewise, a positive White identity can be based on the extent of racism. Privilege has enabled White students to be oblivious to their race and universities have allowed them to continue to exist as such. With a lack of understanding of racial identity development for White students, is the lack of education for White students on White racial identity and education generally related to race. This is, in part, because most college campuses do not require diversity programming for their students and many don’t even offer it. In addition, most diversity programs, or anti-racism programs, include education only about people of color. If Whiteness is not incorporated into diversity education, White students cannot begin to understand the impact of their race and the privilege associated with their race.

White privilege is defined as unearned benefits, which in our society are determined by light skin color and the White race. Without exploration of White identity development, societal messages of the dominant culture, or agents, are reinforced; this indicates that Whiteness need not be studied because it is the norm. If Whiteness is viewed as the norm, the implication is that any race other than White is perceived as abnormal. This perspective of abnormal contributes to notions of racism.

Recent changes in affirmative action policies may have created an increased awareness for White students regarding their racial identity; however, this awareness is based on their sense of entitlement being placed in jeopardy. The fallacy of reverse discrimination has risen on college campuses, contributing to the lack of awareness regarding White privilege. When White students view students of color as receiving benefits based on their races, White students cannot acknowledge all of the privileges they have and maintain based on their White race. The discussion surrounding affirmative action has begun to place at risk the entitlement White students have been conditioned to expect. Predominantly White institutions of higher education should be responsible for providing a campus climate that is equitable and welcoming for all students, particularly students of color, who are underrepresented on these campuses. Additionally, institutions of higher education should be responsible for educating students not only about differences among people, but educating all students deeply about understanding themselves as well.

Dr. Betty Jeanne Taylor is an independent higher education consultant, with a research interest in social justice issues and privilege. She recently conducted a qualitative study on White students and their racial identity and privilege while a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was also director of Greek Life and Education.

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