Monday, March 18, 2013

Towson's White Student Union

Maybe you've heard about how a group of students from Towson University derailed a conversation about race at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).  It seems a student from Towson's "White Student Union," a recognized student group that exists to promote "white interests" (that's what the founder said in an interview) spoke up in favor of racial segregation and argued that, all in all, maybe slavery wasn't such a bad thing. After all, the slaves did get free food and housing.

I promise I'm not making this up.  Check out their website for yourself: Towson's White Student Union.   The founder (also called the "commander") believes that whites have been getting a raw deal and are now victims of discrimination. The campus group is not exclusive, however. Anyone is invited to join, as long as he or she is interested in promoting white interests. That's what the commander said.

The arguments used by this group are not new, and probably resonate with many whites who wouldn't necessarily join a group like this.  After all, is it fair that white students are excluded from college scholarships that are available to students of color? Isn't that discrimination against whites? And what about Black History Month? When is White History Month? I've heard questions like this from white friends and students lots of times. So, if colleges allow African American, or Hispanic, or Asian student groups, what's wrong with a white student group? When is somebody finally gonna stand up for the white people?

There's something that these Towson students are missing in their argument. It's called history. Their view of race is ahistoric -- in other words, it lacks historical perspective.  We don't live in a vacuum. Affirmative action policies that impact decisions about things like college scholarships were created because of the centuries of racism that debilitated the communities of people of color. The idea was to equal the playing field. Has it been equaled?  Statistics regarding income levels, wealth accumulation, education, housing values, and a myriad of other things tell us that it has not. We are still living with the legacy of racism in more ways than I can recount in this brief space. Are things better than they used to be? Of course. But let's face it, considering our history, the only way to go was up. Yes, we have an African American President. Yes, there's Oprah Winfrey. But come on. A few super-success stories do not make up for the structural inequities that still exist. White history month? As a wise former student (and you know who you are) once said, "Every month is white history month."

However, one of my favorite race scholars, Beverly Tatum, is not opposed to groups of whites meeting exclusively; in fact, she recommends it.  These groups, though, would have quite a different purpose from that of Towson's White Student Union.  Their goal would be to examine members' attitudes about race and work towards ways of developing an antiracist white identity. The value of the groups' exclusively white membership is twofold: first, it allows members a level of comfort to talk about hard issues without fear of offending anyone or of being accused of racism, and second, she says, it may be painful for people of color to hear about white people's struggles with racism. Tatum explains, "Listening to those stories and problem-solving about them is a job that White people can do for each other."*

What about promoting white interests? Tatum also reminds us that racism hurts everyone. Many white people have experienced fear, guilt, and anger over race that creates a tremendous amount of stress for them. Adopting an antiracist white identity, or, as Tatum calls it, becoming an "ally" to people of color is in the best interests  of white folks, too, because it alleviates all the emotional baggage that comes with racial intolerance.

Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, p. 111.

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