Arkansas offers course on ‘whiteness’

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – In this case, it’s a white thing. It’s not African-American ideology or Hispanic actions or even Asian immigration.
“The subject matter is not always easy to talk about,” said Ebony Oliver, a senior from the Sam M. Walton College of Business, who is enrolled in the Special Topics in Whiteness course at the University of Arkansas.
Nobody wants to come across as biased or racist and nobody wants to offend anyone, but the class is very vocal in voicing its opinions, Oliver said.
So agrees Gordon Morgan, a professor of sociology, and the instructor of the course.
The class encourages students to be more open-minded, he said. The class can help make students aware that views are made by experience, he said.
The class, with its first run this fall, is one in which students from all ethnic backgrounds, including white, can learn about the white experience, Morgan said.
It is composed largely of students from white backgrounds, with 80.6 percent white, 6.3 percent black, 1.4 percent Hispanic and 11.7 percent other, according to the Registrar’s Web site. Enrollment in the class actually exceeded the allowed number, Schwab said. The class is a one-semester seminar, typically for 10 to 15 students, but Morgan allowed 26 to register.
There are classes on minorities, but there was no course on the majority until now, Morgan said. Morgan was the first African-American professor to be hired at the UA 33 years ago, Schwab said.
“Some emphasis needed to be placed on the majority,” Morgan added. Getting this class in the catalog of studies, however, wasn’t easy, he said.
“I proposed it about five or six years ago, but it was beaten down in the department,” Morgan said.
Morgan re-proposed the idea to William Schwab, departmental chair of the sociology and criminology department, and together they made the class a reality.
“Many other universities offer this class, and it speaks well for the UA to have it also,” Morgan said.
Schwab agreed.
“We have explored the black experience through the eyes of white professors, and I thought it would be interesting to explore the white experience through an African-American professor’s eyes,” Schwab said. Whiteness as a sociological phenomenon did not exist in antiquity, Morgan said. Rather, people viewed others in terms of culture, he said. The only reason a person sees skin colors is because it is processed through the brain by a social prism, Morgan said.
“Rapid mental processing and bits of information, including experience, enables us to assign a color to a person,” he said.
The whiteness class is being used as a social sciences credit.
Morgan envisions the enrollment of students from all backgrounds to increase by next semester if he decides to offer the course again, he said.
Morgan has done extensive research on this subject, has also written a book titled, “Sociology of Whiteness,” which can be purchased at the UA bookstore.
At least one student agrees with the course’s objective. This class teaches people a lot about themselves, about their own perceptions of others and how these perceptions color the way you see other people, Oliver said.
“I’d recommend it to other students,” she said.