The two-unit, student-led class CSRE 32SI: “Whiteness” investigates the concept of whiteness and what it means to be white. Class themes range from white entitlement and privilege to whether white people can effectively work for racial justice.
Each class focuses on a different aspect of whiteness, starting with the historical context of how whiteness as an identity first arose, and then seeking to understand whiteness in society today. Various readings are assigned each week to familiarize students with the issues they discuss. Despite the course’s general arc, each class is unique.
In a recent class, student teacher Violet Trachtenberg ’16 began class with a simple question: “What are you doing this weekend?”
The 15 students gathered around tables each answered casually, but the class quickly transitioned to an intense discussion of white allyship. All students got involved in the dialogue, and were not afraid to ask questions.
Brandon Walker ’18 values the class’s open nature.
“Whiteness is a tense topic, but in this class, there’s no tension,” Walker said.
After a lengthy conversation about white allyship and wokeness, Trachtenberg began a brief PowerPoint lecture on racial consciousness. The lecture touched on three aspects of racial consciousness: knowledge, practice and commitment, as well as how white teachers throughout the United States can help facilitate the growth of these aspects in the classroom.
There was ample time for class input throughout the presentation.
“I’m not a teacher, I’m more of a facilitator,” Trachtenberg said.
For the second hour of class, Trachtenberg asked the class to divide into two groups: those who identify as white and those who do not. This process is known as caucusing. At this point, the class had no facilitator and there was no formal structure.
The group of nine white students left the classroom and walked to a warm spot on the grass. The students sat in a circle and reflected on what steps they could take to make racial consciousness more available and accessible for people outside of their class.
A common question students asked each other was how they could bring racial consciousness into their respective Greek communities without being imposing.
“A ground rule that is very important is expecting and accepting discomfort,” Trachtenberg offered as advice.
The class acts as a hub for open discourse about racism, privilege, oppression and obligation – topics that may feel intimidating in other contexts. Students are not afraid to feel confused about their own beliefs.
Saya Jenks ’16 believes that one of the overarching lessons is understanding white culture and how it came about.
“Sometimes we think of whiteness as lack of culture, and this class helps me think about what white culture is,” Jenks said.
In the class’s final minutes, students talked about what role white people can have in disagreeing with the actions of people of color. “When is it okay to be mad?” a student asked. The class did not pretend to have an objectively right answer to the question, but they each spoke their minds openly, working off of each other to understand the issue.
“Here we can talk about things that most people don’t talk about. It’s been one of my favorite classes at Stanford,” Walker said.
Contact Max Pienkny at [email protected].