Notre Dame made a controversial move this semester by scheduling a for-credit class on white privilege. Shrouded in secrecy, this seminar requires students to apply for and receive departmental approval before actually enrolling—an unusual departure from normal university procedures. Moreover, three professors teach ten students in this one-credit class, while only a handful of Notre Dame courses are taught by more than one professor. The three professors are. Emmanuel Cannady, Iris Outlaw and Ke’Ana Bradley. All are African-American, and the course is listed as sociology and Africana Studies.
The class is unusual too in describing the mindset it wants students to have when exiting the eight-session program. The course description says “the goal for each participant is personal transformation: to leave the class and conference more aware of injustices and be better equipped with tools to disrupt personal, institutional, and worldwide systems of oppression.” The application requires essay responses to questions such as “what is your understanding of privilege?” “what privileges do you have and what benefits have you received?” and “how would you define white privilege?”
Whites Are Fundamentally Unjust
Notre Dame’s student magazine, Scholastic, confirmed concerns about the seminar’s unquestioning acceptance of white privilege’s existence. One student in the seminar said, “The discussions in class are not about whether white privilege is real or not, but what it means and how it affects minorities and society as a whole.”
The White Privilege website quotes Gary Howard, President of the REACH Center for Multicultural Education in Seattle: “Whites need to acknowledge and work through the negative historical implications of ‘Whiteness’ and create for ourselves a transformed identity as White people committed to equity and social change…To teach my White students and my own children…that there are different ways of being White, and that they have a choice as White people to become champions of justice and social healing.”
The website features numerous quotes similar to Howard’s which emphasize the “negative historical implications” particular to white individuals, and suggest that whites must undertake an ongoing reform effort to ameliorate their character. The white privilege movement exists to inform whites that a prerequisite to embracing justice is the recognition that that they are fundamentally unjust people by the accident of their birth.
Tarring Christianity Too
In addition, some conference seminars explicitly teach that Christianity and its institutions engender privilege. Notre Dame’s willingness to pay expenses for seminar students to attend the national the White Privilege conference this week in Louisville is troubling. It must be the first time Notre Dame has helped subsidize an anti-Christian conference.
Last year’s conference featured a seminar entitled “The Roots of Racism in Christian Hegemony,” and its description read: “As our crises of financial meltdown, war, racism, and environmental destruction intensify, it is imperative that we dig beneath the surface of Christianity’s benign reputation to examine how it undermines our interpersonal relationships, weakens our communities and promotes injustice.”
It is difficult to understand how the nation’s premier Catholic University could support viewpoints so contrary to its identity and mission. The conference’s methodology is in itself suspect in that it presumptively singles an entire race of people without examining whether all members of that race are truly privileged. The true danger rests within its ideology, however, as it blatantly opposes and abhorrently attacks the founding and guiding principles of Notre Dame.
A return to Catholic vision, rather than an encouragement of prejudicial group-think so rampant across college campuses, would prove a more viable method for addressing concerns about race relations. The answer lies not in informing, dare I say criticizing, white students for their perceived institutionalized superiority, but rather in one of the core beliefs of Our Lady’s University: that men and women made in the image and likeness of God owe each other the utmost mutual respect regardless of their external differences.
An examination of the White Privilege seminar is particularly pertinent after this week’s passing of Father Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C., Notre Dame’s President for thirty-five years and guiding light. Standing arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Father Hesburgh influenced the civil rights movement by advocating recognition of our shared dignity as children of God, regardless of skin color. The seminar’s belief that whites are a more privileged race hardly seems to heed the call of Dr. King to judge every person “by the content of their character” rather than the color of their skin; a sentiment which Father Hesburgh certainly shared, and would lament to see abandoned.