When word slipped out last Martin Luther King Jr. Day that Portland Community College was planning a Whiteness History month, people across the country balked.
College leaders saw the month as an exploration of racism’s roots. Some detractors accused them of shaming white people. Others confused the event for a white supremacist celebration. When the event rolled around in April, some of the 90 presenters received threats. Websites posted photos of college staff and the event’s planners.
But in the months that followed the controversy — after the college held its sessions on Bob Dylan, Census definitions and “the race card” — projects exploring “whiteness” and what that concept means for America’s racial divide have bloomed across the region.
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This spring, several Pacific Northwest authors contributed to a book of essays titled “What Does It Mean to Be White in America.” Last month, Washington County parents complained when an Aloha High School teacher sent students home with a “white privilege” survey. And next week, an artist will speak at Clackamas Community College about her “I Am My White Ancestors” project, a series of self-portraits on display there.
The projects encompass various ethnic groups. Activists say that if America means to reckon with its race crisis, then conversations must move beyond people of color. As racial tensions dominate headlines and presidential debates, they say, white people must look at themselves.
Activists say people must see whiteness as something more than an absence of ethnicity. But that exploration remains uncomfortable. And, as leaders at Portland Community College’s Cascade campus found this year, it won’t be easy.
“We know Whiteness History Month did ruffle feathers and made people uncomfortable, but part of moving forward is dealing with that discomfort,” said Karin Edwards, president of the campus. “You can’t just keep putting a cover over it. It’s not meant to destroy people. It’s about changing systems.”
A white identity has long meant one of two things. It’s either a Ku Klux Klan-styled claim to supremacy or it is “a bland nothingness,” according to Nell Irvin Painter, author of “The History of White People.”
The concept of a “white identity” has changed throughout history, according to Painter’s book. Before the mid-19th century, there were multiple “white” races. The Celts differed from the Saxons, as did the Italians, Jews and Greeks.
Overtime, those distinctions gave way to one broad and neutral classification: White.
In Portland, white people tend to “see themselves as this homogenous American group and everyone else as outsiders,” said Carlos Covarrubias, a board member for the monthly Race Talks events held at Northeast Portland’s McMenamins Kennedy School. He wants white people to look at how their lives were shaped by racial injustice, as well as the role their own ancestors played.
“They acknowledge everyone else’s past and histories but don’t want to acknowledge their own,” Covarrubias said. “Like Chicanos or black folks, white people need to acknowledge that they do have roots some place. They should explore them if they really want to understand how we got to this place in history.”
In July, Race Talks sponsored a panel called “What Does It Mean to Be White in America?” But even the progressive white people who usually attend Race Talks seemed more eager to plumb the histories of people of color during the event rather than examine their own.
While black attendees could name which of their great-grandparents were slaves, white attendees were less likely to know which of their ancestors owned slaves.
“We heard that they felt ashamed of their grandparents because they knew some questionable things had gone on in their daily lives,” Covarrubias said.
Some are more likely to respond as Ben Affleck did when the actor went on the PBS show “Find Your Roots” to learn about his ancestors. When producers discovered one of Affleck’s ancestors owned slaves, the actor asked them to cut that revelation from the episode.
“What happens frequently with white people is they hear the history of the hero, the heroic things the people in their family did,” said Donna Maxey, an African American woman who created Race Talks six years ago. “What they haven’t accepted is sometimes the people who were heroic also did some horrific things to other groups of people to get to where they got.”
If white people do want to end racism, the Race Talks leaders said, they have to understand how it came to be. Social norms and laws played a role, but so did individual decisions.
“If they want to invoke any kind of change now,” Covarrubias said. “They have to realize their decisions now have as much of an impact as their ancestors’ decisions did.”
Anne Mavor said her black friends have urged her for years to “go back to my people and understand them.” The white artist is a regular attendee at Race Talks.
But when she envisioned her latest art piece, she hoped to partner with a Native American artist on a project about sacred sites.
“I had that idea for a week and then I realized, ‘Oh no, I am doing what white people do. I’m trying to get legitimate by hanging on to a person of color,'” she said. “I thought, ‘What if I turn it around? What if I claimed my own heritage instead? We get to have our own identity and understand it and be proud of it and understand the good and bad parts of it.'”
Mavor spent three years researching 13 ancestors, 11 real and two imagined, including a South Carolina wife of a slaveowner and a cheese-maker who supported the execution of Jews.
She looked for relatives who had oppressed groups of people. Then she looked for ways those relatives may have been hurt themselves. She considered the social pressures they faced.
For one, a Scottish man who served as a juror on a witch trial in the 1600s, she found that he regretted the decision to sentence two women to death.
“But at the time, he didn’t feel like he had a choice,” she said. “That’s a theme: The characters didn’t feel like they had a choice not to oppress. They were stuck in the system they had been taught.”
Mavor used her research to re-create the characters. She recorded audio diaries to allow each character to share his story. She handmade costumes they might have worn to transform herself for self-portraits.
“My goal was to really embody them,” Mavor said. “To feel what it was like to be them.”
She realized she had more in common with them than she might have liked. Like her ancestors, she didn’t stand up against racism, she said. And the money she inherited from her relatives — the same money that allows her to live as a full-time artist — was earned at the expense of other people.
“Would I have made the same choices as these ancestors? Honestly, I assume I would have, because I make choices now that are based on my benefit and not the benefit of the whole world,” she said. “I can see my racist beliefs every day.”
Since her series “I Am My White Ancestors” opened at Clackamas County College in late September, Mavor said white people and people of color have both thanked her. Many have told her they see the world differently now, she said.
“Art has the ability to allow people to look at this issue in a different way,” she said. “I’m not telling anybody what to think. I’m talking about my own experience.”
But the reception of other whiteness projects hasn’t gone as well. Last month, a teacher at Aloha High School gave seniors in her literature composition class a “white privilege survey.” Aloha is Beaverton School District’s most ethnically diverse schools, with 35 percent Latino students, 46 percent white, 8 percent Asian and 4 percent black.
The survey, taken from Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” was meant to help students “gain empathy, understanding,” district spokeswoman Maureen Wheeler said.
“I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage,” McIntosh wrote.
Students at Westview High School and at schools across Portland say they have taken the survey in class.
But at Aloha, several parents complained.
“The way this survey is read, it almost wants to like, shame you for being white,” Jason Schmidt, the white father of an Aloha senior told KATU. Schmidt called the survey “the teacher’s political agenda.”
At Portland Community College, students and professors are still processing the school’s Whiteness History Month.
“It was pretty heavy and hostile at times,” Edwards said. “Folks thought, ‘I’m not sure it’s safe for me to attend.’ But we pressed on.”
This summer, this college hired a new president. Several applicants said they wanted to work at the school in part because of the “bold” and “progressive” exploration of whiteness.
The college doesn’t have plans for another whiteness month, Edwards said, but on the campus she oversees, more students are examining their place in the world.
“The disparities that exist among people is really crazy and so unnecessary and so unfair,” she said. “If this makes people pause to say, ‘Yeah, I might have an advantage, let me see how I can help somebody else,’ that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about changing the past. It’s about moving forward. Now that you know — in case you didn’t know before — what can you do? What can you do to make things right?”
— Casey Parks
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