SAN FRANCISCO, February 5, 2004 -- In a different twist on the study of race relations, the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University this spring offers a course on what it means to be white in America and its influence on race relations.
The class, a first for the University, examines the meaning of whiteness from the country's earliest days as a colonial outpost until today.
"Historically, if we look at what it has meant to be white in terms of relationships with other races, we might be better able to understand race relations and racism," said Amy Sueyoshi, a scholar on the history of race relations in America who created and teaches the course.
With little publicity, the class -- "Making Whites: Race-Making in America" -- has enrolled about 40 students.
More than 30 universities nationwide reportedly offer whiteness studies classes with the majority created within the last 15 years. But the topic is new at SFSU, which has the country's only College of Ethnic Studies with departments of American Indian Studies, Asian American Studies, Black Studies and Raza Studies. The new class comes as the College of Ethnic Studies marks its 35th anniversary in March when it was established as a result of the San Francisco State student/faculty strike that ended in 1969.
Sueyoshi said she realizes that whiteness studies has both its friends and foes. "Some have applauded the field as addressing Anglo-Americans in a post-Civil Rights, multicultural era where whites feel strangely neglected," said Sueyoshi, who is Japanese American. "Others fear that courses on white Americans take resources away from hard won courses in ethnic studies."
The subject is worthy of study, she explained, because the racial construction of whiteness has played a critical role in the history of American race relations and racism.
"In the past we have looked at race relations from the perspective of people of color, with this course we look at race relations from a white perspective. Being white has meant being privileged in this country whether people realize it or not and that has a lot to do with race relations," Sueyoshi said.
The course explores whiteness from historical, political and social points of view.
"How has whiteness been defined? How has its definition changed? And what is at stake?" she said. "I want students to study not only the evolution of whiteness in America but its larger significance in an increasingly multiracial America," said Sueyoshi, who has a doctorate in history from UCLA and taught there before coming to SFSU two years ago.
The idea for the SFSU course originated last year from Tomas Almaguer, dean of the College of Ethnic Studies. "Who is and who is not 'white' has never been transparently self-evident in this country," said Almaguer, a leading scholar on race in America. "At one point historically the Irish, Italians, Armenians, and Jews were racialized as 'non-white' while Mexicans, South Asian, and Arabs were deemed 'honorary whites.' No one would disagree that these status designations have been inverted at the present time.
"This course is important because ethnic studies has the responsibility of critically interrogating the meaning of race in this country. That most certainly involves tracking this convoluted history and exposing the illogic of racial thinking," Almaguer said.
Sueyoshi took on the challenge of creating the course from scratch, researching current scholarship on whiteness studies and consulting numerous faculty. "Through these discussions we will be able to construct what it has meant to be white in America over time so we might see how we got to where we are today in terms of race relations," she said.
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