Onward into Discomfort: Teaching Racial Injustice
Dr. Lee Bebout, a professor at Arizona State University, came to ODU to speak about his knowledge and experiences related to his controversially named course “U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness” and the media backlash it has received in the past year.
The speech was held on Oct. 18 in the Burgess Room in the Batten Arts and Letters Building, which was overflowing with more than 60 interested attendees.
Dr. Bebout, a white male, has been interested in the research of Chicano studies, American studies and critical race theory, and constructed his class without believing the content was anything out of the ordinary.
He began teaching this course about systematic racism, “whiteness” and the literary concept of an idea of race described by color in June 2015, using literature and rhetoric to see how the idea of race is formed through people’s understandings and experiences.
The idea of “whiteness” does not refer to skin color/race, but is defined as the “privileges and power that people who appear “white” receive, because they are not subject to the racism faced by people of color,” according to the Calgary Anti-Racism Education Organization.
“It’s a system we can’t step out of. No person is neutral to the situation, we are born into being participants of this system and we must know and recognize our advantages and inequalities,” Bebout said.
In January 2016, an ASU student, who was not enrolled in the class, wrote a blog for campus reform against Dr. Bebout’s class, saying it is “anti-white,” which spurred the huge media attention and outbursts he referred to as “white moral panics.”
Conservative media companies like Fox News and white-supremacy groups like the Neo-Nazis targeted Dr. Bebout and ASU for allowing such a course, calling him a “race traitor.”
“This revealed the dangers and necessity of teaching critical whiteness studies,” said Dr. Bebout in response to the outbursts.
ASU struggled to respond to the media attention, which made the tension escalate to the point that Dr. Bebout and his family were receiving hate-mail and even death threats, which he said had huge psychological and emotional effects on him.
There was considerable unrest on ASU’s campus for many months as well, with protests going on for both sides of the controversy and growing involvement with students and other faculty members.
Dr. Bebout did however bring up the positive of the situation. The Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center, and other organizations against racial discrimination who supported Dr. Bebout during this conflict gave internships for his students, who are his motivating factor for fighting to keep the course.
“This helped achieve real-world experience and showed the impact on the fight with white supremacy,” said Dr. Bebout.
He believes he is not what will bring change to racial inequality, but rather his students, and therefore is passionate about his efforts. He discussed how important it is to have these conversations about race, no matter what conflicts are sparked, in order to have effective communication, mutual respect and the change needed for a better world.
He plans to teach this course again in the Spring semester, but under a different name.