If you’re white, you’re a blight. This past winter Yale University became the latest of dozens of colleges across the country to roll out a course aiming to teach undergraduates how to understand and counteract “whiteness”—a sinister force that, according to its official description, is “a culturally constructed and economically incorporated entity, which touches upon and assigns value to nearly every aspect of American life and culture.”
The professor in charge, Claudia Rankine, is a poet and MacArthur “genius” grant winner who was recently hired away from the University of Southern California to hold an endowed chair in poetry in the Yale English department.
The website The College Fix obtained a copy of Rankine’s syllabus for the course titled, “Constructions of Whiteness,” which makes the possession of pale skin sound menacing indeed, examining such topics as “white prosperity,” “white masculinity,” “white spaces,” and “white imagination.” The course’s goal, according to the syllabus, is to “create a lab for the construction of counternarratives around whiteness.”
Rankine’s obsession with skin color extends to her other professional endeavors. Her play The White Card, which opened in Boston in March, struck dutifully liberal Boston Globe theater critic Don Aucoin as marred by “stilted dialogue” but otherwise praiseworthy as an “inquiry into structural racism and an interrogation of whiteness.”
Rankin’s Yale course, currently winding up for the semester, slaps a patina of Ivy League polish onto the “toxic whiteness” fad currently raging in academia and other intellectual circles that if focused on any other ethnicity would be denounced as out-and-out racism. Whites, especially if they are male, are now the official untouchables in a complex race-, gender- and sexual preference-based classroom caste system that has its own moniker: “progressive stacking.” That means black women on top, then black men plus assorted other ethnic and sexual minorities, then white women, and then, at the bottom, white men.
Progressive stacking is still quite controversial where it is found out: Stephanie McKellop, a graduate-student teaching assistant in history at the University of Pennsylvania, came in for intense criticism in the fall of 2017 for announcing on Twitter that she called on white men in her classroom only “if I have to” (she was apparently not disciplined over this pedagogical policy), which is said to be widespread among progressive faculty elsewhere.
If to you this sounds distasteful, creepy and contra the principles of legal equality enshrined in the Constitution—well, the majority of Americans agree with you. A Public Religion Research Institute survey released in 2015 revealed that 52 percent of Americans believed that discrimination against white people was as big a problem as discrimination against members of minority groups. That may be, but in elite institutions “toxic whiteness” proceeds apace as an ideology. Its proponents make two arguments. The first is that people of color can’t be racist because they’re the ones who were oppressed historically.
“Dear White People, Stop Pretending that Reverse Racism Is Real,” reads the headline of a Vice column by staff writer Manisha Krishnan that goes on to scold: “It’s literally impossible to be racist to a white person.” He continues: “And as far as history goes, white people have never been persecuted for the color of their skin—so there’s no point comparing their experiences to those of black, brown, and Indigenous folks.”
The low-income parents of a young man on scholarship at Penn who can’t get called on in class because he’s at the bottom of the “progressive stack” might beg to differ. Which leads to the second and more sophisticated argument: White people can’t suffer from reverse discrimination because there’s no such thing as “whiteness.” It’s instead, to paraphrase Claudia Rankine, a social “construction” created by a ruling class that either hails from or aligns itself with blue-eyed people of European descent to rule over and wall itself off socially from people of color marked by their darker skin and non-European identities.
Hence, black public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates’s frequent references, not to “whites,” but to “people who believe they are white.” Because the relationship between “white” people and the Other has presumably been exploitative, in this thinking turnabout is fair play.
And so it is, at universities and in the elite media. Now, we have brand-new courses at a major private university, Stanford, and at publicly funded Hunter College in Manhattan openly devoted to “abolishing whiteness”—the idea, as a Stanford spokesman told the College Fix, that with enough focus on the evils of white identity, “white people would…stop identifying politically as white,” which “would help end inequalities.” At the Jesuit-run Fairfield University in Connecticut philosopher professor Kris Sealey explained to College Fix reporter Nathan Rubbelke in June 2017 that she teaches “courses in which I expect my students to engage in the hegemonic power of whiteness.”
This past March the student association at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, sponsored a workshop titled, “It’s OK to be (Against) White(ness).” Students at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, spent a year and a half disrupting classes and demanding that ancient Greek and Roman texts be dropped from the syllabus of a required freshman humanities course that the protesters deemed “too white” and replaced with non-European texts (Reed administrators recently acceded to most of their demands).
This spring Scripps College in Claremont, California, was about to host a no-whites-allowed student pool party until administrators intervened.to desegregate and postpone the event. At nearby Pitzer College, also part of the Claremont complex, “women of color” posted graffiti in 2017 warning “white” female students to quit wearing hoop earrings, an act deemed to be “appropriating styles … that belong to the black and brown folks who created the culture.”
The academic and intellectual war on “whiteness,” on “European” identity and attitudes is, of course—as the leftist Reed students acknowledged with their goal of purging the ancient Greeks and Romans from the humanities syllabus–a war against Western civilization, supposedly the source of all the racist persecution. (The irony is that the people who created the West, the ancient Greeks with their hero, Odysseus, who exemplified the inventiveness and adventurousness that are the West’s hallmarks, were dark-haired “people of color,” so to speak, who regarded blue-eyed northern “barbarians” with contempt.)
The immediate targets of the anti-whiteness war are individual students who are going to suffer in the short run, but the ultimate aim is the wholesale destruction of the values and institutions underlying the very culture that has given the war’s aggressors the freedom to prosper.