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Students tackle issue of whiteness in America

February 17, 2004

Photo of Amy Sueyoshi, assistant professor of ethnic studiesFor years, College of Ethnic Studies students could choose from classes in American Indian Studies, Asian American Studies, Black Studies and Raza Studies. This spring, for the first time ever, dozens of students are embarking on a new course on what it means to be white in America.

The class -- "Making Whites: Race-Making in America" -- examines the meaning of whiteness from the country's earliest days as a colonial outpost until today. Also offered with the History Department, the course has enrolled about 40 students.

"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.

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, Sueyoshi 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, looking at how whiteness has been defined over time. "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.

More than 30 universities nationwide reportedly offer whiteness studies classes with the majority created within the last 15 years. Tomas Almaguer, dean of the College of Ethnic Studies, thought it was time for SFSU to offer such a class.

"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 Asians 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."

Sueyoshi took on the challenge of creating the course from scratch. She researched current scholarship on whiteness studies and consulted faculty on campus and elsewhere.

The class covers such areas as the meaning of whiteness studies, the founding fathers, preserving whiteness in the West, the rise of conservatism and whiteness in the 21st century.

"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," Sueyoshi said.

-- Ted DeAdwyler


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Last modified July 27, 2004 by University Communications