Breaking Down Whiteness


No, White boy, that is not true.

What’s Whiteness? What’s wrong with it?

Whiteness is a rigid ideal. It’s meant to racially categorize different Americans of European descent. But when we really think of White people, does it help or hurt to apply the same rigid understanding?

The article “What Is Whiteness?” written last June by Nell Irvin Painter in the New York Times points out these flaws in our understanding of race. “If you investigate that [European immigrant] history, you’ll see that white identity has been no more stable than black identity. While we recognize the evolution of “negro” to “colored” to “Negro” to “Afro-American” to “African-American,” we draw a blank when it comes to whiteness. To the contrary, whiteness has a history of multiplicity.”

Take a closer look at any dominant social group and you realize that it, just like any other social group, has its fair share of inconsistencies. There are poor White people, gay White people, White people with strong relationships to other racial groups, White people that support Black Lives Matter, and so on.

Breaking down the idea of Whiteness would be to breakdown the foundation of race. Belief in Whiteness, intentionally or not, is belief in a large, clean canvas which reduces non-White people to splashes of paint on it. This is how the idea of race works, but it’s not the reality of it. The canvas, the backdrop, is just as fragmented and awkwardly put together as the colors thrown on it to make it look pure in comparison.

Communities of color still need individualized attention, as American society moves toward greater integration and equity. Issues of identity among people of color, like how it is suppressed, made, or changed in relation to dominant culture, are all necessary to highlight. But what is implied when we call those of underrepresented racial groups the “diverse” ones?

Singling out people of color as the different ones says non-White is not normal. This viewpoint, ingrained in the United States’ public subconscious, doesn’t work with the popular notion of this country as a melting pot. More simply, it’s wrong.

Why should we break it down?

Estimates from the Census Bureau in 2014 are consistent with 2008 estimates made by the Pew Research Center which say the mixed-race population is growing faster than all racial groups and that White people will be outnumbered by other racial groups by 2050.


So…who are the “diverse” people going to be?

Continuing to view the White population as one large, uniform blob will only become a larger issue given time. 

Whiteness is too often viewed as bland or meaningless. These views don’t help to deconstruct it. Allowing people to think of White as the boring default gives White people a pass to not think about race. Painter points this out in the article saying, “The useful part of white identity’s vagueness is that whites don’t have to shoulder the burden of race in America, which, at the least, is utterly exhausting.” The full picture of racial dynamics can’t be considered without giving an honest look at Whiteness.

The protection of White identity is also mentioned in the book Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity. Thomas Nakayama and Judith Martin explain how the history of racial formation in the United States protects White identity, proclaiming, “Whites just “are”,” and, “Whites, who have historically held power, have no need to define themselves.”

Viewing White identity as critically as the identities of people of color requires a joint effort. White people who have yet to take a glimpse at their racial identity have to willingly reflect with others further along in their formation of racial identity and work to shatter the plain backdrop. Understandably, many White people are not prepared to engage in that level of reflection. It evokes feelings of guilt, anger, and defensiveness toward perceived unfair treatment. It also threatens a White individual’s self-understanding, but is necessary in order for Americans to see themselves outside of strict racial categories in the future.

Why won’t it be enough?

Destroying race and removing its influence in society sounds cool and all, but the process would not be over should Americans succeed in getting rid of it. Even if we got past interpersonal issues of identity and social formation, it would not solve issues of race in institutional settings. A great example of this problem is Brazilian society, where the country embraces its multicultural and mixed-race heritage but fails to address socioeconomic gaps caused by cor (‘color’ in Portuguese, equivalent of ‘race’).

For instance, when asked to racially self-identify in a federal household survey in 2003, more than 130 answers were given across the Brazilian population, ranging from acastanhada (somewhat chestnut-colored) to rosa-queimada (sunburnt-rosy). Complexion weighed into racial self-identify more than heritage, demonstrating a common belief in the multicultural heritage of the nation. The wide variety of answers also indicates a much more fluid understanding of race relative to American public, a huge reason for the comparatively healthier race relations.


The first quarter of responses to the survey

Despite Brazil’s acceptance of its multiculturalism, it clearly hasn’t solved the more deeply-rooted problems.

According to British news source Latin America Bureau, Black or mixed race Brazilians make up more than 70 percent of the national population below the poverty line. Non-white Brazilians earn an average wage less than half that of White Brazilians. Black Brazilians make up less than 10 percent of elected representatives, and only one of the 38 members of President Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet is Black. Likewise, in the private sector it is brancos (White Brazilians) who dominate senior positions. Around 97 percent of executives and 83 percent of managers are White.

That being said, removing race as a guiding principle of identity in this country is still a necessary step. Addressing systemic issues of race requires a collaborative effort, but active resistance from White people to delve into Whiteness and their identities significantly slows the deconstruction process down.

Why is it still worth it? 

Despite pain that comes with taking the first real hard look at how Whiteness works, White people stand to benefit greatly from shining light on the foundation of their White identity. Not only would it help White individuals see diversity within their group, those revelations would aid in having more accurate views of those outside of their racial groups. Breaking down something as homogeneous as Whiteness would make it easier to see how “Black,” “Asian,” and other racial groups are awkwardly lumped together.

Following from that, Americans being able to collectively dismiss current racial categorization would make the treatment of systemic racism easier. The guilt, shame, and defensiveness that usually accompanies reactions of some White people to the idea of White privilege would subside as White people collectively improved their understanding of racial identity.

Whiteness is the foundation of race. Though it seems unchangeable, it can be broken down and disposed of properly if Americans do it together. White Americans have a large role to play in taking a second look at Whiteness, and it won’t be long until it’s necessary for the social health of this nation.

J-Term Book Club

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: Week 4


This past Thursday was the fourth and final meeting of SDIS’ 10th annual book club. With the reading wrapped up, participants discussed their opinions of the book and the implications of the story to today’s world and their individual lives.

The discussion questions for the day were the following:

1. What are the implications of this story being told by Jeff?

2. The title of this book claims that Rob’s life is “tragic”. Is it?

3. —“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
―― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

How does this idea presented by Adichie apply to this particular story?

4. How does St. Thomas reflect characteristics of Yale, as it was presented in the book?

With the book club complete, members and the larger community can look forward to author Jeff Hobbs’ lecture on March 7 at 7 pm in Woulfe Alumni Hall. The event is open to the general public and includes a Q-and-A session toward the end, as well as the chance to meet Hobbs and get your copy of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace signed by him.

We thank everyone who participated in this year’s book club. Many who came found it enriching and helpful in building community on campus beyond J-Term. We hope you attend the Jeff Hobbs lecture and bring people along with you!

J-Term Book Club

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: Week 3


Rob Peace in Pula, Croatia

Today marked the third meeting of SDIS’ annual J-Term book club. Returning the meeting location to Woulfe Alumni Hall, chapters 12-17, the last chapters of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, were read and discussed. Rob’s life after Yale and leading up to his death were the focus of the section.

The discussion questions for this week’s meeting were the following:

  1. Revisit Rob’s “statement of purpose” draft for his graduate school application (p. 337). How did this statement affect you? ​
  2. What does this “statement of purpose” say about Rob’s authenticity?
  3. At Rob’s funeral, Raquel addresses a crowd of hundreds using the metaphor of a redwood tree to recognize the glory Rob achieved during his lifetime. She stated, “I take solace in the fact that so many others thrived and found refuge in his shade while he was with us” (p. 390). Why do you think Rob had a high capacity to influence people in his life?
  4. How might Rob influence readers of this book who become exposed to (pieces of) his story?

This week’s meeting was streamed via Periscope. If you missed the meeting and wanted to catch up on the discussion, the stream is available on SDIS’ Twitter account (@USTDiversity) and Facebook page.

Next week is the last meeting of this year’s J-Term book club. Review the book, and expect an hour of reflection and final thoughts about it as well as related topics such as the author’s perspective and the implications of Robert Peace’s story.

Until next time!

J-Term Book Club

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: Week 2


Another exciting section of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace was read and discussed this week!

The second of four weekly meetings was hosted at Scooter’s today, with discussion regarding the events of chapters 6-11. Questions for this week’s discussion were the following:

  1. Mapping a 5-Year Career Plan vs. Surviving Day to Day

Discuss the reality that the majority of Yale’s student body had the privilege to map out their future career and academic goals while the small number of institutionally marginalized students were—in addition to balancing academic work—concerned about holistically making it to the next day alive (financially, emotionally, mentally, and physically). What are distinct examples of this?

  1. The Privilege of Having Both Assets and Needs

What were assets that low-income/financially underserved, first-generation college students and/or students of color at Yale (Rob, Raquel, Zina, Sherman, Oswaldo, Ty, Daniella) were deprived of, in comparison to the majority of their Yale peers? How did this lack of institutional support reflect their life experiences before and after graduation?

  1. Code-Switching vs. Fronting

Discuss Rob’s methods of “Newark-proofing”: code-switching as a method of both survival and reserved integration of his authentic self into varied environments in East Orange. According to Rob, how does Newark-proofing reflect his authenticity? Is Newark-proofing the same as “fronting,” a type of behavior Rob strongly disliked?

  1. A Contradiction in the “American Dream”

In the book, Hobbs articulates the majority of white wealthy students broadacasting their newly earned Ivy League degrees. It appears Rob felt a need to remain remarkably humble—and even silent about his degree especially within his hometown East Orange network. Even his father, Skeet, knew to remain quiet about his pride for Rob’s Yale degree in Trenton State Prison. How might the dominant narrative of the “American Dream” ideal feel comical, idealistic and ungraspable to Rob? What are these white wealthy Yale graduate characters entering the “real-world” not understanding?

The meeting was streamed on Periscope and has been posted on SDIS’ Twitter page (@USTDiversity). It is available for viewing until tomorrow afternoon.

Our next meeting on January 21 will be hosted at Woulfe Alumni North from 12-1 p.m. Members are expected to read chapters 12 through 17 which focus on Robert Peace’s experiences immediately after graduating from Yale.

See you next week!

J-Term Book Club

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: Week 1

SDIS’ annual J-Term book club has begun!

Thursday marked the first of four weekly meetings for this year’s book club. The 105 registered members were expected to read chapters 1-5 of this year’s book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.

Discussion questions for the first meeting were the following:

  1. They carried their book bags everywhere, slung over their shoulders, so that they seemed to be going to or from school and thus not threatening anyone’s turf. Too, for Rob, this meant talking like the people talked, quoting the lyrics they quoted, playing football the way they played, and never letting them forget that he was Skeet Douglas’s son. Not relevant in this arena were the Catholic principles of patience, pacifism , and conflict resolution taught at Mt. Carmel; nor was Rob’s widening knowledge of American literature, human biology, European history, and algebra.
    • What dynamics are at play in this quote (p. 63), and how is this scene reflective of the reality that Rob experiences? Was his formal education culturally relevant or validating to his own life?
  2. In addition to this quote, what are other definitive examples in Rob’s childhood that influence and foreshadow his future?
  3. What several factors contributed to Rob’s ability to overachieve academically with persistence and passionate? What were limitations positioned to destroy Rob’s aspirations?
  4. Rob is incredibly generous, loyal and giving, concerned about the well-being of his family and community. What are examples of Rob exercising his intelligence to support his family and community (financially, emotionally, and physically) at a such a young age?

The meeting was live-streamed using SDIS’ Periscope account. Follow us @USTDiversity on Twitter and/or Periscope to catch streams of the coming book club meetings and other events. Broadcasts from the meetings will be archived and available on the SDIS Twitter account for 24 hours after the broadcast is posted.

Our next meeting on January 14 will be hosted at Scooter’s at the same time, 12-1 p.m. Members are expected to read chapters 6 through 11 which focus on Robert Peace’s experiences as a student at Yale University.

See you next week!


Why Do We Not Care?

For eighteen days, Black Lives Matter activists protested the Jamar Clark shooting by occupying the 4th Precinct police station in North Minneapolis (November 16-December 3). The protester’s demands include the following:

  • Release of the video footage taken during the shooting of Jamar Clark
  • Prosecution of the police officers involved in Jamar Clark’s death by a special prosecutor without grand jury
  • Bring federal terrorism charges against the men that shot five protesters outside the Fourth Precinct

The five men responsible for the attack were a band of White supremacists that had spent the last several days surveying the 4th Precinct occupation. They were looking for an opportunity to “stir shit up” according to transcripts of the group’s text conversations.

One of the shooters, Allen “Lance” Scarsella, is an alumnus of the University of St. Thomas. He graduated in May 2015. Scarsella is facing the most severe charges of the five men, including five counts of second-degree assault with a deadly weapon.


Meanwhile, the Mall of America is attempting to get a restraining order against Black Lives Matter to protect against another protest. Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis plans to protest at the MOA tomorrow if their demands are not met, regardless of a restraining order being imposed.

Between the national impact of BLM, proximity of these recent events to our campus, and alum involvement, it’s surprising to see these issues not being discussed or widely acknowledged on the University of St. Thomas’ St. Paul campus.

There isn’t an expectation for everyone at this university to publicly denounce this alumnus. There isn’t an expectation for anyone to join the protests or align themselves with the BLM movement. But why does it seem like our institution is so far removed from all of this? Between a faculty member being a prominent leader in the BLM movement (Nekima Levy-Pounds, Esq.) and the national discussion surrounding a recent alum’s harmful involvement, it’s hard to understand why these events, let alone racial injustices on a larger scale, are not being discussed on this campus.

Universities have not been proactive in addressing these recent issues. It should not take so much, especially considering the aforementioned recent local events, for the University of St. Thomas to begin listening to the concerns of its students of color. It’s strange. Understandably, not everyone is ready to directly confront their understanding of race or even their own racial identity. But our campus atmosphere and discourse remains unaffected when things of this magnitude happen.

An illustration of what UST looks like to the rest of the Twin Cities community

An illustration of what UST looks like to the rest of the Twin Cities community

College and high school students from the University of Minnesota and Southwest High walked out of classes and joined protesters the day after the shooting. These incidents are reverberating across the nation and hit close to home. St. Thomas cannot be the one pocket of the Twin Cities community that continues to neglect these issues.


J-Term Book Club

J-Term Bookclub: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

J-Term is approaching, and this one will mark the 10th annual SDIS book club!

This year we are reading and discussing The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs. Hobbs, former roommate of Robert Peace, chronicle’s Peace’s journey from the streets of a poor Newark, New Jersey neighborhood to Yale University and then back to the streets of Newark where he was murdered. Themes such as race and gender intersection and influence of social class on self-perception will be explored in the hour-long meetings held once a week during J-Term.

80 students, staff, and faculty attended last year’s book club when we read Orange Is The New Black, and over 300 people attended the following lecture from author Piper Kerman last March.

Hobbs is scheduled to give his lecture on March 7, 2016 at 7:00 p.m. in the Woulfe Auditorium.


Sign up in the SDIS office (ASC 224) and pick up your book before the semester is over. This is sure to be a fun and productive way to stay busy this J-Term!

Heritage Month

The Root of the Slur ‘Redskin’

Not everyone thinks redskin is an offensive term. A small minority of Native Americans consider it neutral, and many Americans, especially fans of sports teams like the Washington Redskins, only acknowledge the neutral or positive connotations of the term.

Though many would cite good intentions and cultural contexts as defenses for use of the term redskin, the historic significance of the term plus the expressed anger of millions of Native American tribes makes it clear that the term redskin is problematic.

There are a couple of popular origin stories for the term redskin. Some think it began as a reference to the skin on the head of a Native American who had been scalped. This was cruelly done for commercial reasons by European colonists, while other Native Americans would scalp each other only as a war tradition. Another story is that Europeans used the term in reference to Native American face paint during war.

A portrait of a European settler scalping a Native American during battle.

A portrait of a European settler scalping a Native American during battle.

In an article published by Slate magazine, a reference was made to the work of Ives Goddard, an Indian language scholar of the Smithsonian Institution. Goddard published a comprehensive study of redskin‘s early history in 2005 which provided new information on the term’s origin:

Redskin, he learned, had not emerged first in English or any European language. The English term, in fact, derived from Native American phrases involving the color red in combination with terms for flesh, skin, and man. These phrases were part of a racial vocabulary that Indians often used to designate themselves in opposition to others whom they (like the Europeans) called black, white, and so on.

The rest of the article discusses how the term redskin, despite its harmless origin, became increasingly used in the context of violence by or against Native Americans. Many newspapers published stories using the term to describe near-death encounters that settlers had with Native American tribes, which can be found in Chronicling America, the National Digital Newspaper Database.

Redskin should be avoided simply due to its trend toward negative connotations in the 19th century, along with the definition’s ambiguity in Webster’s Second Unabridged and Webster’s Third Unabridged dictionaries (1934 and 1961 respectively). The outcry from a number of Native American tribes is another reason, but that is a more complex aspect of the discussion than most people think.

In the article ‘How Many Native Americans Think ‘Redskins’ is a Slur?‘, it is mentioned that a significant number of Native Americans do not find the term offensive.

In the case of the Red Mesa school district on the Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona, superintendent Tommy Yazzie believes larger issues such as environmental negligence on Native lands by corporations and government warrant more concern than the term. The reservation’s high school actually has sports teams named the Redskins.


The Dakota Sioux reservation in North Dakota voted to keep the University of North Dakota’s ‘Fighting Sioux’ nickname in 2010. It was only removed after a statewide vote in 2012.

These tribes, along with survey data from the 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey suggest that only a minority of Native Americans—9 percent according to the survey—consider the use of the term redskin to be an issue. 

Despite these cases, the activists leading the lawsuit against the Washington Redskins have plenty of support from the Native American community. According to Suzan Shown Harjo, one of the campaign’s leaders, there is support for the lawsuit from the Cherokee, Comanche, and Seminole tribes among others, as well as the National Congress of American Indians which represents 250 groups and roughly 1.2 million Native American individuals.

In response the 2004 Annenberg survey, as well as tribes who support the use of Native American mascots, Harjo expressed doubt in the both the survey sample and the political involvement of the few tribes who support the use of the mascots.

Harjo criticized the lack of specific questions about the identity of those participating in the Annenberg survey. Tribal affiliation and level of sociopolitical involvement were not gauged by the survey to qualify the responses. Harjo also considered the cases of tribes supporting Native American mascots as suffering from “internalized oppression”, or unconsciously buying into the popular narratives about Native Americans without considering its implications.

Of course, not every Native American will have the same opinion on the term redskin. And not every dictionary or interest group will agree on its current definition. But given its tumultuous history and the significance of its more negative connotations, it is tough to defend the use of the term and mascot as something positive.

As NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said after an initially defensive stance on the term, “If one person is offended, we have to listen.”


Mizzou, Yale, Ithaca…UST Next?

Sunday night saw over 40 multicultural club representatives sit-in at the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) meeting to voice concerns about recent budget allocation and overall displeasure with the treatment of multicultural clubs and, more broadly, students of color at the University of St. Thomas.


As Gabrielle Ryan, USG’s Diversity Relations Representative, began to call for USG’s accountability in representing multicultural clubs, representatives stood and held up signs expressing their frustration:



When given the chance to vocalize their concerns, club leaders and members strongly reiterated several points: feelings of neglect and disrespect from both USG and White students on campus, calls for transparency on USG’s decision-making processes related to club financing, and calls for USG representatives to intentionally engage with multicultural club representatives during decision-making processes.

Club representatives at the protest explained that many of these issues of poor representation and neglect have persisted throughout their tenures at UST. To them, this protest is the result of years of discrimination and only the beginning of a push to bring larger institutional changes to the university that make UST more accommodating of students of color.

Frankly, there is nothing different between the treatment experienced by multicultural leaders here versus their peers at Missouri, Yale, or Ithaca. These students have reported being discouraged when beginning to express frustration with mistreatment from various departments at the University of St. Thomas.

Now, with momentum and a collective voice, these students will not be quiet.

Heritage Month

Upcoming Events: Native American Heritage Month!

November is here, meaning our Native American Heritage Month (NAHM) celebration is about to begin!

Native American tribal cultures have unique and long-lasting influences throughout the United States. Twenty-four states have names derived from Native American words, including Minnesota (Mnisota) which is the Dakota name for the Minnesota river and also means “clear water” (University of Minnesota Department of American Indian Studies).

The programs we have for NAHM this year shed light on many unique aspects of Native American culture in the Midwest and Minnesota in particular. From art museum trips to riveting documentaries, we hope this month’s programming creates awareness of the daily influence of Native American culture as well as an understanding that the Native American population is as diverse as any other ethnic group.


Minneapolis Institute of Arts trip: Arriving at Fresh Water

This Friday, join us on a trip to the MIA for an exhibit highlighting some of the best works of Native American art from the Great Lakes region. Sign up in our office before we close on Friday (4:30 pm) if you want to come on this quick visit to this enriching exhibit.


Diversity Film Series: Mann v. Ford

On November 17, the second installment of our Diversity Film Series airs in the ASC Dining Room (ASC 366). Mann v. Ford is a documentary on the fight beteween Ramapough Mountain Indians and the Ford Motor Company over toxic waste dumping on Ramapough lands. Mistreatment of Native lands by large corporations and federal government is common, and the documentary captures one of these battles in great detail.


We also have Purple Bench on the first three Fridays of November discussing Native American communities and experiences, and T’s will be serving a Native-influenced menu on the week of November 16th.

All of that and more will be coming at you for this Native American Heritage Month. Stay tuned, continue to check our social media pages for updates, and wait patiently to hear more from Voices of Diversity!