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Race in Portland: College explores whiteness


PCC dismisses critics, urges citywide talks about privilege, systemic racism

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - PCC student Nicholas Carmack says hes fascinated by the topic of white privilege and is looking forward to the college's month-long discussion called Whiteness History Month in April.


The word conjures up images of absence and blankness.

But if you are white — and if you are surrounded by a city of white — what does that make you? What is your culture? Do you even have one?

“It really is the default,” says Gabe Hunter-Bernstein, director of educational programs at Portland Community College, noting that some of his white students have been confused when he asks them their cultural identity. “It’s really just this sense of: ‘I don’t have a culture: I’m white.’

“No,” he says. “(Being white) means something in society.”

One of the things being white can mean is the culture of whiteness. Whiteness studies is an academic term that proliferated in the 1990s to describe and analyze the forces that keep white people in the upper strata of society.

PCC is taking the term to the masses by hosting a Whiteness History Month throughout the city in April. Rather than a celebratory heritage month, this is a monthlong discussion through various events, classroom projects and art installations.

“Why does our society privilege certain classes of people and disadvantages other classes?” asks Abe Proctor, a spokesman at the PCC Cascade campus. “Part of that is the construct of whiteness.”

The idea of a Whiteness History Month — one that would explore the factors of racism, the systemic privilege American society still gives those with light skin or who “act white,” and what can be done to dismantle it — has raised some hackles already.

Negative feedback

News of the college’s plans exploded across the nation on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when conservative website Campus Reform suddenly picked up on Whiteness History Month, which had been decided on last October. PCC’s website on the idea has been up since last April.

Many commentators blasted the proposal for being white-shaming and focusing only on the negatives of white culture, rather than white people’s contributions to humanity. Several people also felt that the college was unfairly focusing on the racism of white people and ignoring the fact that people of minority races also can be racist.

Responding to derision of the effort, PCC President Sylvia Kelley issued a statement Jan. 20. “There is no intention, as some may have feared, to ‘shame or blame’ anyone,” Kelley said.

Proctor says the knee-jerk outrage actually has encouraged the Whiteness History Month Committee’s efforts.

“The virulence of some of the pushback we’ve had really reinforces that this is a conversation that is necessary and good,” he says.

“We couldn’t be surprised by (the objections),” says organizer Luke Givens, coordinator of the PCC Cascade Campus Multicultural Center. “I don’t think you can do this kind of work and be surprised by the negative reaction to it.”

Hunter-Bernstein, who also is on the committee, says they have received pushback on every one of the three words, but ultimately decided it was the most accurate way to describe their effort.

“If we said Racism Awareness Month, this wouldn’t have much impact,” he says. “They’d say, ‘Well I’m not racist, so this doesn’t apply to me.’ We chose this name in order to get people talking.”

“We understand that there is an initial kind of response,” Givens says. “When people lean into that discomfort and try to keep an open mind, it helps move us forward.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Gabe Hunter-Bernstein, director of educational programs at Portland Community College, talks about the topics that will be discussed during Whiteness History Month as Luke Givens, coordinator of the PCC Cascade Campus Multicultural Center, listens.

Oppressive legacies

The seed of the effort started after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, set off protests there and across the nation. According to Proctor, after a diversity group sent an internal campuswide email offering services, angry comments started swirling in cyberspace.

The group found that few knew the history of white supremacy in Oregon and the deliberate way Portland became overwhelmingly white.

“Even though individuals alive now had nothing to do with that, there are legacies that can be very oppressive,” Hunter-Bernstein says.

When asked why the college can’t also celebrate the good things white people have done, Givens says: “That response is really kind of a people personalizing (the issue). We’re really talking about a system. That is really what we’re trying to analyze.”

Whiteness different than white people

Whiteness has evolved over time, both in terms of what it is and to whom it refers.

“Many group identities today that consider themselves as part of ‘white,’ historically were not,” Hunter-Bernstein says. In fact, he himself is Jewish, an ethnicity that was not considered white until fairly recently. Likewise, Proctor is of Irish decent and his Irish great-grandparents probably did not consider themselves white.

Givens, on the other hand, is mixed race, but because of his darker skin color, he still identifies as African-American.

Who is entitled to which label and what the label means can be a dicey topic.

“It’s OK to be uncomfortable,” Givens says. “(But) if you’re using your discomfort to say that we shouldn’t have this conversation, that’s where we’re going to push back a little. ... Being a person of color in this country is uncomfortable.”

In fact, Givens says, “we’re asking people to see that whiteness and white people can be different.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Luke Givens, PCC Cascade Multicultural Center Coordinator, during a discussion on Whiteness History Month.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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