It’s hard to imagine how anyone would get the wrong impression about a college course titled “The Problem of Whiteness.” But just in case, the University of Wisconsin-Madison released a statement Monday to reassure the public that African Cultural Studies was not intended to be offensive.
“The course title,” the statement explains, “refers to the challenge of understanding white identity and non-white identity across the globe.” Hmm, interesting. I guess “The Challenge of Understanding White Identity and Non-White Identity Across the Globe” wasn’t pithy enough. And I suppose calling the course “The Problem of Being Black” might be taken as an offense.
Wherein lies the problem. Painting an entire race with a broad brush — and calling that race “problematic,” moreover — is offensive. It calls to mind Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
The statement goes on to clarify that “the course is a challenge and response to racism of all kinds,” but the titles of the texts to be read suggest it is a response to only one kind.
Consider one of the works mentioned, W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Souls of White Folks.” Here is a portion of that philosophical tract:
High in the tower, where I sit above the loud complaining of the human sea, I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none there are that intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk.
Of them I am singularly clairvoyant. I see in and through them. I view them from unusual points of vantage. Not as a foreigner do I come, for I am native, not foreign, bone of their thought and flesh of their language. Mine is not the knowledge of the traveler or the colonial composite of dear memories, words and wonder. Nor yet is my knowledge that which servants have of masters, or mass of class, or capitalist of artisan. Rather I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious! They deny my right to live and be and call me misbirth! My word is to them mere bitterness and my soul, pessimism. And yet as they preach and strut and shout and threaten, crouching as they clutch at rags of facts and fancies to hide their nakedness, they go twisting, flying by my tired eyes and I see them ever stripped — ugly, human.
Problem of whiteness, indeed!
The statement also notes that the university features courses on all races, “with similar explorations of Asian, Hispanic, European and African-American cultures.” I doubt that any of the course titles begin with the words “The Problem of Being,” but if any do, I am confident that no offense is intended.