This past January when Portland Community College first announced plans for a Whiteness History Month, the reaction was swift: Online commenters on news articles about the event called for organizers to be fired from their jobs at the college. Others ordered they be round up and killed, and specifically targeted people of color.
“The virulence and ugliness of that pushback took me by surprise,” says Abe Proctor, PCC community relations manager and a member of the event’s steering committee.
But that didn’t stop the college from going ahead with its plans.
“The Whiteness History Month project, unlike heritage months, is not a celebratory endeavor,” the narrator of a video explaining it says. “It is an effort to change our campus climate.”
While calls to devote time to consider racism’s origins have been made before and at least fifteen other colleges and universities have hosted similar events, PCC’s Whiteness History Month is unique in its scale. Throughout the month of April, PCC campuses will host lectures, panel discussions, film screenings, art installations, and performances considering what whiteness means and how it works.
Session topics include Peggy McIntosh’s well-known essay about unpacking the invisible knapsack of white privilege, racial constructs in mainstream children’s literature, and research that considers whether whiteness is embedded into the interface of personal computer systems (short answer: the evidence suggests it is).
“This whole month is an examination of the systemic nature of whiteness and how it contributes to privileges and advantages,” explains Dr. Clifford Meeks, assistant coordinator of the multicultural center on PCC’s Sylvania campus and a member of the Whiteness History Month planning committee.
The project stemmed from discussions on campus following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City almost two years ago. Both were black men killed by police officers. Members of the PCC planning committee sought to expand the conversation to include the injustices people were seeing in their own lives, and to get institutional buy-in from the college.
While the project’s purpose is to examine systemic oppression and not blame a particular group of people or any individuals, Meeks anticipated some people would have concerns.
“When you’re doing this type of work and examining complex concepts and topics around equity and inclusion it can definitely stimulate different reactions from different people,” Meeks says.
One student in particular who wasn’t sure what to make of it was directed to Meeks’ office. The student asked questions, and Meeks clarified the project’s intentions. Over the course of several visits, the student started to see how the project was meant to help students “use their academic prowess to look at systemic oppression,” Meeks says. Though the student still had some trepidations, he told Meeks he appreciated their open discussions.
It hasn’t always worked.
At a session in early April, a female audience member interrupted the discussion to animatedly defend Donald Trump after a presenter suggested he had made racist remarks. “She pivoted from her defense of Trump to a critique of the event,” says Proctor. “Her critique being that this was an attempt to shame white people and blame white people for the ills of society.” After she continued to disrupt the discussion, the organizers asked the woman to leave.
Writers presenting from the forthcoming 2Leaf Press White in America anthology. It was a staged reading where the authors read jointly, interspersing excerpts from their writings theatrically. James Hill / Portland Community College.
But organizers knew disparate reactions would be part of the process. “It is difficult to have a conversation about race in the United States without experiencing some discomfort,” Proctor says. “The idea was that we were going to steer right into that discomfort and hopefully help people push past it.”
As the narrator says in one of the project’s videos: Talking about racism will never be more harmful than actual racism.
Cara Lombardo is an editorial intern at The Progressive.