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Event touts “whiteness” as an oppressive political condition



Panel speaks out against perceived injustice

Last week a panel condemned “whiteness” as a social and political construct that harms the university community, and voiced their concerns about the systems of power and oppression that they believe whiteness brings to Notre Dame. Hosted by the Mediation Program of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies as part of Notre Dame’s “Walk the Walk Week”, the January 25 event was entitled “Confronting Whiteness at Notre Dame: Power, Identity, and Exclusion.”

Professor of the Practice of Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding David Anderson Hooker, who moderated the discussion, began by explaining that he does not consider whiteness to be a racial category, but rather, a political condition: “The illusion of whiteness as related to racial categorization disguises what is actually most important… namely, white is a description of both a political condition and a mechanism for the distribution of power. While it has real relation to the concept of racism, the two don’t squarely overlap.”

“It’s really important to remind ourselves that the kind of whiteness that we’re investigating isn’t that kind of repulsive, violent manifestation of whiteness, the kind of Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannoppolous, Ann Coulter, Steve King, Charlottesville, Covington Catholic School forms, which generally, except in the aftermath of an election, are brought to a very small corner on this university campus…But it’s because those forms are so easily denounced that we have a tendency to overlook the forms that actually are in operation and have a way of equally damaging the environment in which we exist,” Hooker said.

Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the City of South Bend Christina Brooks condemned whiteness as a system of power that is invisible to those who are white: “Defining whiteness as a group identity is characterized by superficial markers, like appearance, but insidiously is held together as a system of power. Whiteness is simply the ability to be oblivious, of being demonstrably and visibly oblivious about responsibility of environment.”

Brooks stated that minorities have been placed into a submissive role by society’s structure of whiteness, saying, “Non-whiteness has been given a support role to whiteness—a role that must be played in spaces where you encounter those in perpetual oblivion of power.”

Brooks argued that institutions, including Notre Dame, are corrupted by racial biases, saying, “Give up the lie that most existing systems and institutions are meritoriously fair. And those who fail to succeed in them always do so because of some inferior identity trait, giving us permission to remain oblivious to the truth and impact of bias, conscious and unconscious: racism, discrimination, and stereotypes.”

Ph.D. Student of Sociology Emmanuel Cannady said, “Black folks, you know what whiteness is because it is thrown in your face. All day, every day, you endure it…. We’re confronting a system of domination.”

“What do those structures look like today?” Cannady asked. “We don’t have Jim Crow anymore, but we do have structures of domination…. Mainly how it manifests and is deeply entrenched in ourselves, it exists in implicit biases.”

“We know this is systemic,” Cannady said, “because it isn’t just white people that uphold these systems. People of color also uphold systems of oppression. It’s not just white officers that are shooting unarmed black men. It is black police officers that are doing the same thing.”

Indigenous Culture Awareness and Inclusion Advocate Jefferson Ballew IV, a member of the Potowatami Bear Clan, who held an eagle feather throughout the talk, said, “Every day I am reminded of that golden dome of the blood that was spilled here from my family…. When this institution was created, it was created on the backs and the blood of my family directly…. Americans are a virus. Human beings are sacred. We were placed here for a very special reason. It wasn’t until the onset of Christianity and Catholicism that we were told we were evil, that we were born in sin. I can sit next to the river and I can know I am as sacred as it and it is as sacred as I.”

The panelists were asked to describe one situation where they have experienced whiteness at Notre Dame “that may not be visible to those who aren’t necessarily looking for it.”

Cannady answered the question, saying, “Walking around campus is one experience that I’ve had. I think that people of color…probably know what I’m talking about. When you walk past somebody and you can see that their gait changes, their pupils dilate, their breathing starts to get a little more erratic. You can tell that somebody has a triggered response when you’re walking past them.”

Brooks spoke out against what she sees as the erasure of people of color from the understanding of what it means to be American. She said, “I see the melting of the word American into whiteness as though they are synonymous…. When people say American, what they really mean is a certain segment of the American population defined by race, defined by experience, and that becomes problematic when you try to juxtapose that against the narrative that America is a melting pot, but it’s only white chocolate.”

About eight people were given the opportunity to ask questions of the panelists. A white man visiting from a foreign country was given the microphone to ask a question near the end of the event, and began to introduce himself. Suddenly Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science Dianne Pinderhughes shouted him down, yelling, “White privilege!” The audience broke out in cheers and applause for Pinderhughes. The microphone was taken away from the man and given to Pinderhughes.

She said, “Sorry, I need the mic. I can’t do it. I cannot do it! Sorry, but I had to. My hand had been up.” Pinderhughes asked the panelists if the Kroc Institute would be holding a similar event in the future.

Professor of the Practice of Mediation Laurie Nathan responded, saying, “I am very happy as Director of the Mediation Program to use that program to facilitate these kinds of conversations. We could do this at least once a semester.”

The panel drew enthusiastic audience engagement, including many cheers and applause, and even attracted one ticket on the ballot for student body president, Elizabeth Boyle and Patrick McGuire, to offer on their platform  a “bi-semester forum aimed at an ongoing community discussion about diversity, similar to the Kroc Institute’s recent ‘Confronting Whiteness’ Talk.”

Ellie Gardey is a sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy. She enjoys reading Dracula while sipping on Sprite and eating pineapple. You can reach her at egardey@nd.edu.

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