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A Call to Take a Closer Look at the Culture of 'Whiteness'

March 13, 2001|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ and RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A provocative essay about the school shooting in Santee posted on an alternative Web site zipped across the country with the speed of a computer virus--a commentary that really shakes things up. The essay is so edgy it has spun off its own rumor mill: One man, the story goes, has been fired for posting the article on his office bulletin board.

In the article, posted last week on AlterNet.org, white social justice activist Tim Wise blames the rash of school shootings on white America's "utter state of self-delusion" about the dysfunctions in its own community. He also takes issue with the FBI's insistence that there is no profile of a school shooter. "Come again?" writes Wise, 32, in the essay titled "School Shootings and White Denial." "White boy after white boy after white boy, with very few exceptions to that rule (and none in the mass shooting category), decides to use [his] classmates for target practice, and yet there is no profile?

"Imagine if all these killers had been black: Would we still hesitate to put a racial face on the perpetrators?"

In the latest example of the Internet's ability to generate instant and open forums on news events, chat rooms and list serves have jumped into the fray. Wise also has received more than 2,500 e-mails from blacks, Latinos and suburban whites--some of whom live in or nearby Santee. The majority have been from "overjoyed blacks and Latinos" who said they were struck by the fact that a white person looked at white people the way whites typically look at them.

"It's good to hear but . . . the fact that it's so rare that this kind of analysis hits people like a breath of fresh air--it's kind of sad," says Wise, who lives in Nashville.

In the last five years, the academic community has picked up on the notion of a distinct white culture in a field known as "whiteness studies." The field examines the notion that "whiteness" should be addressed the same way that we look at the concept of "blackness" or the Asian community.

The term is sometimes misinterpreted as a pseudonym for white supremacist theories, says Jeff Hitchcock, executive director of the Center for the Study of White American Culture, a nonprofit group based in Roselle, N.J. But the nonprofit center is actually pushing for a way to include all racial and cultural groups in the study of white American culture in the larger American society, and operates on the premise that knowledge of one's own racial background and culture is essential when learning how to relate to others.

Through conferences and articles, the center encourages the idea of a "whiteness studies" program at colleges and universities. While there are a few classes across the nation, so far, no department yet exists, says Hitchcock, who is white.

Scrutinizing 'White Culture'

Academicians are only beginning to seriously look at the issue of a "white culture" through papers, books and conferences. In September 1997, for instance, UC Berkeley hosted a three-day conference called "The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness." In a follow-up conference report, event organizers said they were flooded with calls from journalists who had to be assured that the gathering was an "anti-racist, multiracial" event attended by more than 1,000 scholars, community organizers and others to investigate "whiteness" as a racial identity and how it "relates to the divisions that plague American social life."

But the concept of "whiteness" has largely stayed within academic circles--what Wise did was link the theory to school shootings using street language that would not normally be acceptable in the mainstream media, which he says is partly to blame. It's no surprise that Wise touched a nerve, says Raymond A. Winbush, director of the Race Relations Institute at historically black Fisk University in Nashville. Winbush had 15 or 16 copies of the article forwarded to him. (Wise is a board member at the institute).

"As an African American, I'm tired of hearing every time one of these shootings occurs someone says, 'Oh, my goodness, these are aberrations. There is something with this kid, but there isn't anything wrong with the system.' What Tim's article does as a white person is he deconstructs those arguments."

Yet others caution against buying into Wise's position full bore. "I think that where Wise talks about this as being a white phenomenon he is being perhaps intentionally provocative," says Keith Woods, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a media studies center in St. Petersburg, Fla. "But I think it would be important for people to pull back from that.

"The minute you allow yourself to think there is something white about mass murder then you've opened the door to accept there is something black or Latino or Asian about any number of other social pathologies.

"We shouldn't look at white boys or at black boys, but at our boys," Woods said.

'The Luxury of Invisibility'

So who is this guy behind the stir?

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