Many who decided against taking any ethnic studies courses did so because they worried about uncomfortable moments. “I didn't want to be a target in the class,” one emailer wrote. “The ethnic studies students were infamous for verbally and emotionally abusing anyone of a different ethnicity, let alone a White kid. The only exception was the Native American, then known as American Indian studies students.”
Among white students who actually took ethnic studies classes, a few reported being treated as if they didn’t belong by other students while many reported being welcomed. Here’s a correspondent who says he was treated like an outsider by a few students:
I took a black culture studies in my freshman year at GWU that focused on the history of African-Americans in Washington DC. My primary academic interest is in history and black history is one of the areas in which I felt I needed more study... the professor teaching the class is renowned for his knowledge of American history and his teaching style is very conducive to learning. I was the only white male in the course, a fact that was commented on by several other students throughout. The tone of these comments ranged from amusement to barely disguised contempt.
Some of the comments implied that I had no right to be there in the class: "Why are you even taking this class?"Others seemed to imply that I had some kind of secret agenda by taking the class: "It's suspicious that a white male would take this course."
Perhaps the most egregious: "This class isn't for you and you're taking he place of someone who would appreciate it more." I must say that the folks that made these types of comments were a very small minority and most of the class was either supportive or indifferent towards my presence. The course itself was very interesting and I felt as though it broadened my horizons in terms of understanding the history of Washington DC through a lens that is different from my own. I ended the semester with a better understanding of the black history of the city.
Here’s one who was welcomed:
I did not have the honor of attending Yale, but I did take a black studies class at the University of Texas at Austin...Now, as you could easily find out from my digital footprint, I am a privileged, cisgendered, white, professional male, which as your article suggests, may have prejudiced me against taking these classes. So why did I take them? In short, I loved them. The professors were brilliant. The assignments were engaging and intellectually stimulating. And the class conversations were lively and interesting (contrary to what some might expect, I could speak my mind in these classes without fear of privilege-shaming or anything of the sort).
It’s fascinating, this perspective that there are just too many other interesting classes. I can’t begrudge a person for freely choosing courses they want to take. Certainly I enjoyed Black Feminist Theory & Praxis infinitely more than some of the required science credit courses I took.
But that’s me…
You could have an intro course—such as the Cultural Studies & Gender Studies course I took—that would introduce students to many frameworks for critical analysis that might then inspire them to delve deeper, or might not.
For me, that class was Cultural Anthropology, which I took the first semester in college. That class blew my mind. I still remember the first day of our TA break-out class, when our TA walked to the blackboard, flipped the world map upside-down, and asked us why we didn’t represent the world this way all the time? After all, the universe has no sense of up or down. The implication, of course, is that we put the Northern hemisphere on top to perpetuate the North’s hegemony over the South. Check out The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore—he uses a South-side up map.
Recently, there has been a kind of cultural backlash to campus liberalism. Some of what I read rubs me the wrong way. Would I have been as welcome in those classes I took 10-15 years ago if I were taking them today?
I don’t know.
And from those classes I do know that part of my reaction is inevitably informed by my position of privilege. I do not invest a lot of emotional energy into feeling guilty about my privilege, but I do think that there is a valuable, fundamental lesson that cuts across many of these leftist schools of thought—context distorts your perspective, whether race, gender, class, age, and so on, and so on. To understand this, I think, makes you a better critical thinker and communicator, and potentially benefits everyone. I would not favor making a black studies course mandatory, and I do worry that some progressive campus movements may have taken their agendas too far. But then again, I’m not on campus anymore, and as I learned from these classes, there is wisdom in lived experience that often cannot be captured in an article or a book.
Here's another correspondent who had a good experience:
I just read "Why Didn't You Take a Black Studies Course in College?" I'd like to share my experience as an undergrad at Miami of Ohio. I graduated in 2004 and haven't been back since, so everything that I have to say is really only a reflection of what the school was like about 15 years ago for a white guy trying to get a B.A. in mass communications.
At the time MU required at least all of its liberal arts students to take at least one class that was, I believe (the exact details are a little hazy), referred to as a "non-dominant perspective" class. That class didn't have to be a black studies class. It could have been a feminist theory course or a Native American-centric history class. The point at the time was to get the (almost overwhelming white) student body to think outside their own experience. So I ended up taking the intro black studies class.
While I don't remember many specifics, I do recall that it was the only class where white students weren't the majority. Most likely (and excluding large, lecture-style courses), it was the only class I took in four years that had more than one or two students of color. I remember the professor beginning each class by making us repeat after him, "White people are not guilty. Black people are not victims." I also remember being consciously aware at the end of the semester that I now had a new lens with which to view the world. I may not have perfectly understood the concepts and what I did understand no doubt lacked a lot of nuance, but it was one of the few times I actually recognized feeling, mentally at least, a bit broader. So, Miami's plan worked on me...
Miami at the time was a very white, politically and temperamentally conservative, medium-sized university pretty much in the middle of nowhere. If you weren't forced to consider life outside of your own experiences, you probably weren't going to, either because of a lack of interest or opportunity. I didn't have any real sense that the majority of the students I knew had much more than an abstract level of understanding that perspectives outside white/middle-upper class existed or were valid. That's where I was at when I entered the dorms. So, while I personally think it would be great if every student at Miami, at the end of their college career, possessed, "the educational and theoretical foundation to address race" that probably would have been pushing it. Just making some of us aware that there is an educational and theoretical foundation to address race was something of an accomplishment.
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