A new round of political uproar has emerged with education in the state of Wisconsin. But this time, people aren’t taking umbrage over draconian cuts to public education and teacher benefits. Rather, some seem to be up in arms over a course to be taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this spring.
African Studies 405, or “The Problem of Whiteness,” is a course that explores “how race is experienced by white people,” but also looks at how white people “consciously and unconsciously perpetuate institutional racism.” These are very important issues that do not get nearly enough attention. But not everyone sees the class in this manner. State Representative David Murphy has said of the class, “I am extremely concerned that UW-Madison finds it appropriate to teach a course called, ‘The Problem of Whiteness,’ with the premise that white people are racist.”
Okay. Let’s start with, “the premise that white people are racist.” That would be pretty problematic. Luckily for Rep. Murphy, the course does not do that. At all. Nowhere in the course description does it say that white people are racist.
The stance of Rep. Murphy and others regarding this course is not only patronizing and deeply hypocritical. It is also dangerous, because people as delusional as Murphy is on race relations will forever hold power, and will forever try to prevent reality and logic from latching onto the forefront of how we communicate with one another. If what this class is teaching is “garbage,” as Murphy has stated, then it should not be an issue for him to refute the notions this class was built upon, instead of bullying the university into scrapping it entirely.
Rep. Murphy also mentioned the existence of the class as making race relations worse in this country. This is one of the dumbest arguments I’ve heard spewed out in opposition to racial progress. What alternate universe does he live in where talking about and bringing awareness to a problem makes the problem worse? His attitude is akin to someone yelling at their mechanic because the mechanic talked about their loose brake pads, and according to them made the brake pads worse by doing so.
Ultimately, it just sounds like Rep. Murphy simply does not want to have an honest, respectful dialogue about race in this country. I guess it’s fine if he wants to live life with his hands over his eyes and ears. But these are legitimate issues that a lot of folks are feeling the effects of. The course in question is one that tells the story of American society through a different lens than what we are used to. It is a course that many white students should jump at the chance to take because it is one meant to challenge their perspectives and preconceived notions of racial issues.
I understand that to some this class seems to be an act of piling on. Like the chocolate syrup on a white guilt sundae, if you will. But if you think it’s frustrating to hear it, try having to constantly say it, live it, and repeatedly have your existence and humanity questioned by people who clearly don’t have your best interests at heart. It’s exhausting, and a class like African Studies 405 goes a long way toward bridging the communication gap that exists with race relations in this country.
It’s not about white people being racist. It’s about a societal system in which people think it’s okay to question the intelligence and qualifications of someone just because a white person wanted their job. It’s about a societal system that writes off black boys and girls before they’re even out of their diapers. It is about getting people to see the legacy that things like slavery and Jim Crow laws have left behind, and how they both helped to build up societal systems that look out for certain people in ways they don’t for people of other races.
The most crucial part of this class is its aim to break down the notions embedded within our society that list whiteness and white people as a default standard bearer, and examining who the true beneficiaries of these systems are. There’s nothing racist in that, only a lot of uncomfortable truth. The sooner Rep. Murphy and others open their eyes and ears and start embracing said truths, the better off we’ll be as a state and as a society.