A Du Boisian Proposal for Persistently White Colleges

Abstract: What would it look like for a college, white in its history and predominantly white in its present reality, to create a program that responds to, and works in support of, the agenda Du Bois proposes for the "Negro university" of the 1930’s? How can a white college cease to be an obstacle to the liberation of African Americans? That is, how can a persistently white college become actively antiracist and pursue a goal of educating antiracist white students—students who could work in solidarity with Black students educated in the ways Du Bois envisions? This essay sketches a project for white institutions that genuinely seek to address white racism, a system that still manifests "the determination…to keep the black world poor and make [whites] rich" (99, EBP), even now, seventy years after Du Bois published his essay.


In a 1933 speech entitled "The Field and Function of the Negro College," W.E.B. Du Bois calls for his audience at Fisk University to develop "the sort of Negro university which will emancipate not simply the black folk of the United States, but those white folk who in their effort to suppress Negroes have killed their own culture—men who in their desperate effort to replace equality with caste and to build inordinate wealth on a foundation of abject poverty have succeeded in killing democracy, art, and religion" (99, EBP).

Du Bois’s call rests upon the view that education can actively contribute to the creation of a more just society. Specifically, African American education, if undertaken in the right way, can challenge racism both through its direct impact on Black students and through its indirect effects on racist whites. Such positive effects could result even though public and private schools were legally segregated at the time—even though, in many parts of the country, all-Black schools were absolutely the only educational institutions open to Blacks.[1] Despite the monstrous reasons that led to the existence of all-Black colleges, despite their involuntary nature, Du Bois argued that these colleges could put their racial homogeneity to work for the liberation of Black people. Du Bois utilized a version of identity politics to redefine the segregated space of the Black college as a staging ground for Black liberation.

Writing in 1960, near the end of his life, Du Bois expressed amazement at the progress Blacks had made in desegregating schools, and predicted that the number of "schools which do not discriminate against colored people…is going to increase slowly in the present, but rapidly in the future until long before the year 2000, there will be no school segregation on the basis of race" (152, EBP). Wary of the price desegregation might exact on Black culture and life, Du Bois nonetheless felt cautiously optimistic that it would at least be achieved.[2]

During his entire life, both at times of segregation, and at times and in places in which integration was supposedly taking place, Du Bois argued that all-Black educational contexts were vitally important for empowering African Americans and for challenging racist oppression. Where such contexts were the only educational opportunities available to Blacks, they should be celebrated and exploited to their fullest. Where they did not exist, they should be created, so that Black students would still have the opportunity to learn in a context in which their Blackness was explicitly attended to, valued, and educated.

The historically white institutions of which he wrote stood, almost without exception, as obstacles to that education. If Du Bois saw Black colleges as nurturing the seeds of social transformation, he saw white colleges as tending the crop of white racism.

Forty years after the death of Du Bois, anti-Black racism has changed its shape, but it persists nevertheless. Indeed, evidence suggests that many of the advances Du Bois identified at the end of his life have actually eroded in the last twenty years. And while the legal segregation of Jim Crow has ended, segregation still exists in de facto forms, in arenas ranging from housing and employment to religion and private clubs. His optimism even about the elimination of school segregation by the year 2000 was sadly unwarranted. Schools and colleges, public and private, are still often racially unmixed. Indeed, were he speaking to a historically Black college today, Du Bois would likely repeat his 1933 statement to Fisk: "you are teaching Negroes. … You are teaching American Negroes in 1933, and they are the subjects of a caste system in the Republic of the United States of America and their life problem is primarily the problem of this caste. Upon these foundations, therefore, your university must start and build" (92, EBP). Given the depth and persistence of anti-Black racism in the United States, it could surely be argued that Black colleges should work to preserve their Blackness, and to follow the very advice he gave those institutions during the height of Jim Crow.

While African American colleges continue to exist and to play a role in challenging racism and empowering African American students, many colleges and universities of Euroamerican heritage continue to be populated almost entirely by white students, faculty and staff. However, most of these institutions no longer actively seek to remain white in the way they likely would have in 1933. Neither do they place the "problems of whiteness" at the center of their missions, in a manner parallel to that which Du Bois prescribed for Black colleges. Instead, these persistently white institutions seek (some half-heartedly, some vigorously) to change their white identity through "diversity" or "multiculturalism" initiatives. Such initiatives aim at changing racial demographics, but they tend to leave unspecified the relationship between diversification and the elimination of racism; conversations about diversity are often strikingly devoid of discussion about the persistence of white racism. "Historically white" colleges, in short, have tended to diagnose a rather different problem than Du Bois identified. "Lack of diversity," not whites’ role in the maintenance of racism, becomes the problem to be solved. That diagnosis, in turn, has prompted a different kind of solution as well: bring in more of Them. Diversity becomes a kind of cure-all that will solve whatever ails our society. Notably, this solution does not require that whites be or do anything in particular.

But where racial diversity has been established in traditionally white schools it has not necessarily done much to challenge other aspects of racism, to develop whites’ understandings of their role in it, or identify an agenda for whites to challenge it. Thus, it is still possible for Black students entering newly-diversified white institutions to encounter something akin to what Du Bois described in 1935: "Negroes are admitted and tolerated, but they are not educated; they are crucified" (135, DOE).[3] Today’s experience may be more akin to suffocation than crucifixion, but the fact remains: white racism persists, in the face of desegregation. It will not be addressed by an analysis and a strategy for action that identify the problem as a "lack of diversity" alone.

Both this diagnosis and its solution are inadequate, incomplete responses to present racial conditions in the United States, and to the more general aim of advancing the cause of racial justice in this country. Like Du Bois, I believe that education can and should be used to serve social justice aims. Persistently white colleges must recognize the powerful role they can play in challenging white racism—a role that requires more than diversity initiatives. Colleges that wish to advance social justice should embrace an agenda that explicitly identifies white racism as one of the central challenges facing its students of all races, and that also develops a specifically antiracist agenda identifying work that whites must do.

One possibility is for such colleges to shape their agenda in response to and in solidarity with the project of African American education advocated by Du Bois. Such a project would place the problems of white identity at the center of the educational mission. While it might seem paradoxical—wouldn’t placing whites at the center simply reinforce white supremacy?—the move I envision would foreground white racism. Paraphrasing Du Bois, the charge to such colleges would read thus: "You are teaching white people, and they are the privileged members of a racial caste system in this country. Their life is fundamentally shaped by this caste. Upon an analysis and critique of these foundations, therefore, your university must start and build."

What would it look like for a college, white in its history and predominantly white in its present reality, to create a program that responds to, and works in support of, the agenda Du Bois proposes for the "Negro university" of the 1930’s? How can a white college cease to be obstacles to the liberation of African Americans? How can a persistently white college become actively antiracist and pursue a goal of educating antiracist white students—students who could work in solidarity with Black students educated in the ways Du Bois envisions? This essay sketches a project for white institutions that genuinely seek to address white racism, a system that still manifests "the determination…to keep the black world poor and make [whites] rich" (99, EBP), even now, seventy years after Du Bois published his essay.[4]

Gustavus Adolphus College: A Sketch

In formulating my analysis of and proposal for persistently white colleges, I draw upon my experience as a faculty member at Gustavus Adolphus College. When I use the example of Gustavus , I draw upon its institutional culture as represented, for instance, by the "buzz" on the faculty discussion list, the talk at the lunch table, and the conversations among students in my various classes. I do not refer to official college policy, other than indirectly; my sources are the claims and practices of individuals and groups working within the institution. Thus, my analysis reflects "the way we do things" in fact and the way we describe to each other what we do, if not always the way we prescribe what to do in our policies.

Gustavus is a small liberal arts college in St. Peter, Minnesota. The college, affiliated with one division of the [Z church], also possesses a strong Swedish heritage—a heritage it actively seeks to maintain in both curricular and extracurricular ways. The vast majority of the student body, its faculty, and its staff has always been of Euroamerican heritage; at present [x percent] of our students are white. Economically, many students at Gustavus come from the middle class, although an appreciable number of them are either working class or wealthy; the college is considerably more diverse economically than racially, a fact to which little attention is given.

The college, furthermore, is located in a small, rural town that is almost entirely white, and in a state with one of the lowest populations of color in the country.[5] These characteristics of its location mean that Gustavus is not necessarily a very appealing choice for students of color who might be willing to attend a predominantly-white college, but who would still like to be able to depend upon the support and solidarity of a relevant community of color in the vicinity. Even if the white community of St. Peter is not outwardly hostile to students of color, it certainly is not welcoming to them in the way that a community of the same racial heritage could be.

White people who work or study at Gustavus would be very reluctant to identify the college with the kind of Northern white institutions of which Du Bois wrote in the 1930’s—institutions at which "Negro students, no matter what their ability, desert, or accomplishment, cannot get fair recognition, either in the classroom or on the campus, in dining halls and student activities, or in common human courtesy" (135-6, DOE). That racist white legacy remains, much as we whites might like to be able to "start all over" and ignore it. Black students at Gustavus now may report that they receive the "common courtesy" that was absent in 1933—but courtesy may be all the further they ever get in their interactions with white people. Too often, "[State Q] Nice" serves as a veneer that glosses over white ignorance, apathy, disengagement, unaware privilege—and, sometimes, hostility and loathing.

In short, Gustavus is a prime example of the kind of college I’ve described as being "persistently white." Gustavus remains so, despite the fact that it has focussed some efforts on diversity initiatives. Gustavus employs policies and practices, both implicit and explicit, that aim at racially diversifying both student and employee populations. An institutional climate supports the claim that what Gustavus needs to do is diversify itself. Support for this claim varies sharply from person to person, and office to office; some see diversity as a program forced upon them, while others wholeheartedly believe in the various projects associated with it, and push for much greater efforts on its behalf. Talk about diversity plays a fairly prominent role in all levels of campus debate and discussion.[6]

Why does Gustavus seek to become a more racially diverse or multicultural college? It is not always clear whether we understand diversity to serve a still larger social aim, or instead regard it as an end in itself. Stating this another way, it’s not clear what problem or problems Gustavus seeks to address through such initiatives; is the problem simply "insufficient diversity?" Much of the discussion about diversity tends to operate as if diversity is self-evidently good, or as if the reasons for it are transparently obvious. When discussants do appeal to a larger goal, the most often-stated goal is preparing students (and it seems we mean primarily white students here) to work in a multicultural world.[7]

Much less explicitly, those who advocate for diversity might appeal to some sense that a multicultural campus exhibits greater social justice than an all-white one. Given the role that desegregation efforts have played historically in the struggle for Black civil rights, this implicit link may simply be taken as given. Perhaps the presence of nonwhite bodies is taken to serve as a sign that we have successfully vanquished racism—though, amazingly, one will likely never encounter that word directly in these discussions.

Indeed, it is notable that at the institutional level, no discussion of white racism runs parallel to the discussion of the need for diversity and multiculturalism. At most, one encounters isolated conversations (in classes or among groups of individuals) about racism, about white privilege, and about whites’ responsibilities for transforming a racist society.[8] In short, the institutional culture of Gustavus seems to suggest that "the problem" for this historically Euroamerican college is simply and clearly a lack of diversity; the solution is for people of color to come there.

Actually, racism does enter the diversity conversation, but sideways, indirectly. Sometimes at College X, efforts to diversify seem motivated by a fear that focussing on anything else—say, on white students’ attitudes—will be, or be perceived as, racist. Of course actively resisting efforts to diversify would constitute racism. But simply seeking to diversify the campus population doesn’t "prove you’re not a racist"—and it definitely does not take the next step I’m advocating, namely actively cultivating an antiracist climate. Nor, it seems obvious, does every form of focus on white experience constitute a form of racism—attention to white racism being one notable example.[9]

Notably, the institutional climate also does not support a very robust discussion of the larger goals that diversity and multiculturalism can meet for African American students, or students of color more generally. Do we have a stated or unstated belief about the benefits to students of color who choose to attend predominantly-white Gustavus ? If we do, does it consist of anything more than "They’ll get a good education?"—a minimal goal that far too easily slips into the racist assertion that "they’ll get a better education than if they had attended one of Their own schools."

How representative is [College X’s] institutional climate? While I have no numerical data to support my answer, anecdotal evidence suggests that the college is far from unique among all predominantly white colleges in the ways that it addresses (or doesn’t address) diversity, multiculturalism, and racism. The similarities between Gustavus and other institutions are even stronger in the case of colleges with some kind of church heritage, and/or colleges located in the Midwest. In short, while I cannot claim that Gustavus is "everycollege," it is also most decidedly not sui generis. Emphasizing diversity and multiculturalism, to the near exclusion of racism, is not an unusual move.

Limitations of the Approach

To focus on diversity creates several problems. Making diversity the only priority means that if people of color aren’t present on campus, we white folks don’t have to do much but hope for their arrival. At a place like Gustavus , most white students interact very little with the students of color on campus, and get involved very little in the activities that focus on "diversity"—on non-white interests and issues. (The same can probably be said for most white faculty and staff as well.) They do, however, often complain bitterly about how few students of color there are on campus, and assert that if only there were more of them, then "change" would really be able to come about. By focussing on the importance of attracting bodies, the emphasis on diversity gives everyone not in an official recruitment position a license to sit back and wait for Their arrival. If they don’t come, well, we’ve discharged our obligations. If they do come, well, then we’ve discharged our obligations. Diversification lays responsibility at the feet of people of color, and the administrators (white and of color) who recruit them. (It doesn’t require much antiracist work on my part, to wish that the admission staff would recruit more Black students for next year.) If and when They arrive, it places the onus on them to do whatever miraculous changing is going to happen—either by simply being present, or by challenging me to be a different person (something I apparently need not attempt to do on my own in the absence of people of color).

Furthermore, this focus on racial diversity tends to make us uninterested in, or oblivious to the importance of, other forms of diversity that do exist, full blown, on campus—most particularly economic diversity and urban/suburban/rural diversity. Both forms create real, identifiable hierarchies, divisions and hostilities among us. If we are unable to wrestle constructively with this diversity (read: systematic oppression and marginalization) that is in our midst, what reason do we have to imagine that increasing racial diversity will have any important effects, other than changing the appearance of our recruitment videos and viewbooks?

Finally, to reiterate two points I’ve already made, this focus on diversity leaves under-theorized (and, often, entirely unexamined) the relationship between diversity/multiculturalism and racism; and it identifies no particular goal vis a vis students of color. (What do They get out of diversity?)[10]

Diversifying the population of such a college may well be a necessary component of an antiracist program. It most definitely is not a sufficient component of an antiracist agenda for such an institution. "Living together" does not guarantee that racism will end. There is no question that a historically white educational institution should have as one of its aims the welcoming of, the complete inclusion of, students of color in these previously segregated spaces (and inclusion on terms not dictated by whites). But mere inclusion should not be mistaken for the robust sort of inclusion Du Bois sought—and neither one should be taken as the entire project of antiracism.[11]

Why an Antiracist White College?

From the perspective of an advocate of diversity, it sometimes might seem that there are only two or three reasons that someone would choose to come to predominantly-white Gustavus , as a student or as a member of the staff. Reasons include: 1) a white person doesn’t want to be in the presence of people of color (they really are racist); 2) a white person or a person of color is trapped here (by a job, by family, by history), but would really rather be elsewhere (or would really rather that "here" be dramatically different, ethnically and racially); 3) a person of color wants to get practice living in a white world (an observation I hear from some students of color, though it is not an opportunity that the admission office is likely to tout). It’s not a very optimistic list; it certainly paints the situation at Gustavus almost entirely as a liability (except for persons of color, for whom it might be a terrific place to develop reslience and creativity in responding to racism).

What’s missing from this list is the possibility of a white person who wants to be here, but who also believes that "here" is a good place from which to think about, work on, and challenge racism even though it is not a racially diverse place. If this seems an utterly counterintuitive possibility, consider: predominantly-white places are just the sorts of places to which white supremacists are attracted. Would they not also, then, be important places from which to launch white antiracist work?

Also missing from the diversity advocate’s list is a recognition that white feminists made some twenty years ago; whites cannot wait for Them to show up, before we begin to "work on our racism;" this is work we can and must undertake always already. Dismantling white racism is a project for which white people—and white institutions—must take responsibility. And dismantling racism consists of far more than diversifying our population.

Finally, if no other arguments compel, it’s worth noting that diversity, however critical and necessary it may be for challenging racism, is a very long time coming to a place like Gustavus (in part because of circumstances that may have relatively little to do with racism). In the meantime, instead of waiting, we ought to get busy creating an antiracist place.

My arguments here run parallel to Du Bois’s arguments in the thirties. Du Bois urged Blacks, rather than simply bemoaning the fact of segregation, to make use of the opportunities that segregation provided—specifically the opportunities for Blacks to work on educating themselves in the ways they saw fit, in a setting at least partially removed from the neglect, hostility, and violence of a white racist society.

Not dissimilarly, a persistently white institution can create a setting in which whites might work on their understanding of white racism and white privilege more vigorously, less self consciously, and in at least some ways more effectively, than they would in the presence of African Americans and other people of color.[12]

To those who still maintain that diversity ought to be our primary goal, I note that if we actively work to make this predominantly white place an actively antiracist place—to educate whites who are antiracist whites—we will greatly enhance our attractiveness to students and faculty of color. And even if, for some reason, this did not turn out to be true, we will have achieved what I believe is an important overarching social justice goal; a white college that is a home of antiracist work, rather than a nursery for white supremacy.

My Proposal

In alliance with W.E. B. Du Bois, I propose that a predominantly white institution such as Gustavus ought to seek to become an actively antiracist institution, that its white students ought to be educated to be antiracist whites, and that diversity and multiculturalism should be understood as just parts of a much larger antiracist agenda.[13] "The problem" of white society to which a historically white college ought to attend is the role of white people in the preservation of white racism, not "the absence of people of color."[14]

The white college that addresses this problem is choosing to work in solidarity with Du Bois’s agenda for Black colleges, rather than continuing to act as an obstacle to African American liberation efforts (Du Bois’s description of white colleges’ actions in the 1930s). It means taking up the challenge implicit in Du Bois’s critique of those colleges—the challenge to acknowledge white responsibility for racism, and to do something about it.

Du Bois’s Contribution: Du Bois’s educational approach to racism changes texture and tone over the course of his life; in particular, it shifts between 1933 and 1960, the dates of the essays and speeches from which I draw most heavily. But throughout his life, one can see evidence of his 1933 claim that, while the college or university "may rightly aspire to a universal culture unhampered by limitations of race and culture, yet it must start on the earth where we sit and not in the skies whither we aspire" (91, EBP). For African American students, that means beginning with the reality of racism.

Du Bois’s approaches to racism and education can be sorted into two predominant strands: 1) (The 1933 version) Segregation in the schools is the law of the land, and/or it is a pervasive fact of the matter. While it is absolutely appropriate to work to end these conditions, it is dangerous not to acknowledge that this is the shape of current reality, and foolish not to take advantage of current segregated conditions. These conditions create an opportunity for African Americans to conduct education with an African and African American focus, and to inculcate in African American students what they will need in order to survive and thrive in a white racist world, and to challenge the very preconditions of that world. "The problem" of African American existence can and must be at the center of African American colleges.[15] 2) (The 1960 version) Where segregation doesn’t obtain, the conditions of so-called integration are such that Black people ought to make sure they have some Afrocentric spaces in which to achieve these same goals. Given that whites have done virtually nothing to create an antiracist environment, indeed, given that in many cases they have created environments that are actively and brutally hostile to Blacks, Blacks must educate themselves for survival, self esteem and advancement. They won’t get this in a white school, but they will undoubtedly need it.

The Antiracist White Response: Both of Du Bois’s strategies for African American education invite, and even demand, a strategic response from white institutions that see themselves as working on the side of racial justice. Indeed, his second prong stands as a kind of tacit indictment of diversification efforts, used exclusively, and an implicit call for whites to do the work to create the contexts in which African Americans can survive and thrive—antiracist contexts. The strategy I propose seeks to do just that. It places the problem of white racism and white privilege at the center of the white college. De facto segregation is our current reality; a college that teaches primarily white students but that seeks to be a part of movement for greater social justice must directly address the ways that whites both benefit from and perpetuate (intentionally or otherwise) racial subordination. This strategy might be said to arise from a kind of identity politics of racial responsibility—from a realization of whites’ responsibilities for the failure of diversification efforts to achieve social justice, and from a recognition that one thing we are best positioned to do is work on our own racism.

A note, before turning to the specifics of my proposal: While parallels exist between the project of Black colleges (as conceived by Du Bois) and the project of white colleges (as proposed by me), at present, there is at least one crucial distinction. White colleges must continue diversification efforts, whereas at present, there is no compelling argument for Black colleges to do so. The white college can engage in antiracist work that utilizes its "white spaces" only so long as those spaces exist despite the institution’s best efforts to recruit and retain persons of color. In the absence of such efforts, it would be hard (at present) to take seriously the institution’s claims to be actively working on antiracism. The difference between the two kinds of institutions arises from the asymmetries of racism.[16]

In the spirit of Du Bois, I identify several "problems of whiteness," and strategies for addressing whiteness, on which the predominantly white college should focus. This list is not unusual or original; the substance of these problems is developed in many other places, which is why I’m not going to develop them in any full fledged way here. My contribution is to name them as important facets of "the problem" to which persistently white colleges must attend.The overarching goal is to make whites’ location in the system of privilege and oppression visible to whites.

1) The problem of presuming that "white" culture equals culture-in-general. This is the familiar presumption that white American history is "history," whereas African American history is "special interest history." Stated another way, it is different to move from the particular ("Afrocentric knowledge") to the general ("knowledge") in the case of subordinate knowledges than it is to do so for dominant knowledges. In the former case, it may be a matter of acknowledging that one’s understanding of the world does have legitimacy, and has at least the potential for general applicability. In the latter case, it might be more a matter of noticing that one’s knowledge is particular and not general—that "Euroamerican knowledge" is not "knowledge."

In short, challenging the centrality, the presumed primacy, of white culture is an activity that can be engaged in by whites inhabiting a predominantly white institution. But wouldn’t such efforts be enhanced by drawing from the insights and theoretical perspectives of racialized Others? Without doubt; I do not mean to suggest that it is better to challenge white centrality from an all-white or predominantly-white location. But I do mean to argue that it is not at all impossible to effect such a challenge from such a location (and that some aspects of the challenge might even be more effective from this location). Ignoring or refusing this opportunity amounts to assigning to people of color the entire responsibility for decentering white culture—which, in turn, amounts to letting whites off the hook, until "they" show up.

2) The related problem of white appropriation of African American culture. Just as Euroamerican culture has historically understood itself as being "culture-in-general," so too has it tended to appropriate without attribution those aspects of Other cultures that it sees as desirable and attractive additions to itself.

Du Bois, in 1960, worried that Black liberation would be achieved by the absorption of Blacks into mainstream white culture, the elimination of all distinctive (and painful) aspects of Black identity and history, in short, the "getting rid of the Negro race" (150, EBP). My point is a related one; namely, that whites tend to erase the Blackness of aspects of Black culture that we find appealing and that we incorporate into our own culture. This move too contributes to the dilution of African American culture and life.

For whites to focus on appropriation means, among other things, to investigate questions such as, "how, given the system of white privilege, can/ought whites work in support of African American culture in ways that do not amount to a co-optation of that culture?" and "how can we rethink Euroamerican culture in ways that place that culture more completely into its context, and into its relations with other cultures?"

3) The impoverishment of white culture, as a result of white racism. Whites do not suffer from the effects of white racism in the ways that African Americans and other people of color do.[17] Nevertheless, we can identify specific kinds of ways that Euroamerican culture is harmed by its participation in systemic racism. Du Bois asserts that white people have "killed their own culture," have killed "democracy, art, and religion," and must be liberated. (99, EBP). Paolo Freire might say we whites need "humanizing." In Freire’s parlance, both oppressors and oppressed are dehumanized by the process of oppression, though in significantly different ways. For Freire, social change efforts aimed at liberating the oppressed must also transform the oppressor.

It is difficult, indeed treacherous, to focus on the ways that racism harms white cultures. Such attention runs the risk of devolving into white self-pity, or sloppy assertions that "we’re all equally oppressed." It presents the college with a predominantly white population an important educational and creative role as a developer of contexts in which whites can reflect, critically, unsentimentally, and honestly, about the real consequences of white racism and white privilege for whites. Among other things, discussions in such settings can be the starting points for whites to become invested in antiracism. Recognizing the ways we are personally and culturally harmed by racism, why and how and what we can do about it can begin a process that will lead to the discovery of other, less self-interested reasons to invest in this struggle.

4) Attending to the diversity that is present. I began this essay by describing some of the ways that Gustavus is already a "diverse" college. Most significant is its economic diversity. Students come from several economic classes, ranging from working class to upper middle class; the backgrounds of faculty members span a similar range. Furthermore, the economic disparity between faculty members and support staff workers (given their current salaries) represents another form of economic diversity. Students and employees also represent a diversity of hometown backgrounds: rural (including farmers), small town, suburban and urban. Such diversity creates identifiable (often class-related) differences in community members’ life experiences and perspectives on the world, to say nothing of concrete differences in terms of power, opportunity, and privilege. But all these differences tend to be masked or muted in the community life of the institution. Students and faculty, in particular, often work to create an image of middle-classness (whatever their actual economic background), while the often-very-visible economic and educational divisions between faculty and staff lurk as the proverbial elephant in the living room; unspoken of, but affecting all interactions among us. In all cases, the rhetoric of "community" is used as a way to buffer or muffle the meaning and impact of these divisions.

In the spirit of Du Bois, I propose that the persistently white college work to unmask the deep economic diversity that exists on campus, and to make it a topics of campus-wide study and discussion. Such a strategy has merits in its own right, but also affords indirect benefits to a campus seeking to become an antiracist institution. In both cases, the benefits accrue because we would be learning from/with the divisions that already exist in our midst. Recall that one of my complaints about challenging racism through diversity/desegregation efforts alone is that mere proximity does not necessarily do much of anything to transform, e.g., racist attitudes. (This is true over the long haul, as well as in the short term; it is not just in the year after desegregation that Black children experience racial harassment at a white school.) Antiracist work requires, in addition to proximity, explicit attention by all parties to the ways in which racism shapes experience, belief, human relationships, etc.

Presently, an institution such as Gustavus gives its community members relatively little opportunity to engage in cross-racial discussions. (Relatively little, but not NO opportunity—and truth be told, many opportunities go begging.) However, opportunities for cross-class discussion abound—if we choose to take advantage of them, rather than ignoring them, leaving them unspoken. An institution that actively seeks to foster such discussions will not be a more welcoming place to persons of various economic classes who wish to challenge the hierarchies of class.[18] It will also serve as "practice" for doing this work across racial lines.


Historically white colleges have, in one sense, always rooted themselves in the culture of their students, have spoken to that culture and have nurtured it, just as Du Bois says all colleges must do with their student populations. My proposal calls for such institutions to deepen their understanding of what it is to be a predominantly white college, to acknowledge that one of the problems that must be at the center of such a college is the problem of white racism. The college that chooses to do so, and that chooses to work to invigorate and enlarge the notion of a white antiracist identity moves itself another step toward Du Bois’s goal of an education that "may rightly aspire to a universal culture unhampered by limitations of race and culture," by starting "on the earth where we sit and not in the skies whither we aspire" (91, EBP)


[1] And all-white schools were the only educational opportunities open to whites. While school segregation obviously affected whites and Blacks in vastly different ways, it is at least worth noting that, in some states, whites were also forbidden by law to attend Black schools, just as Blacks were forbidden to attend white ones.

[2] Du Bois particularly feared that the price of ending segregation would be the assimilation of the Black race—a price he was unwilling to pay. Thus he called, in effect, for the continuation of Afrocentric education, in order that "black folk and their cultural patterns" could continue to exist "in America without discrimination; and on terms of equality" (150, EBP).

[3] This is true of black students and students of other races as well. I don’t mean to suggest that my arguments about African Americans apply necessarily and only to them; but neither do I mean that arguments that hold true for African Americans will automatically hold true for all other races

[4] At present, this paper focuses relatively little attention on the question of how a predominantly-white college should address the specific problems of students of color in its midst. At times, I find this a terribly vexed question, one that Du Bois’s model simply cannot address, and one that proves that this is a bad model to use for a college that is not racially homogeneous. At other times, I think the problem is not nearly so vexed, and that the benefits that would accrue to people of color on a predominantly white campus where whites were actively working on their racism, and the ways that such people of color could get involved in these efforts, are so obvious as not to require mention. At still other times, I think the answer is more complicated than that, but it’s not impossible. But I don’t explore any of these possibilities in this paper; for the time being I have largely bracketed consideration of this question. I am trusting that this move will not ultimately turn out to be disastrous.

[5] Currently, eighty eight percent of the state is white, non-Hispanic.

[6] To say that diversity talk plays a prominent role is, obviously, not to say that diversity initiatives have been successful; indeed, many would argue that Gustavus ’ efforts are far too half-hearted ever to succeed in diversifying the college, especially given its rural, white location. Advocates point out that these initiatives would have to be pursued far more vigorously than they are at present. My argument is a different one, namely this: no matter how successful diversity efforts are, they will not, in and of themselves, address the larger problem of white racism of which de facto segregation is only one aspect.

[7] On this point, consider: many of the amicus briefs filed by Fortune 500 companies and the military in the recent Supreme Court case involving the University of Michigan law school make just this claim.

[8] To take just one example, a lengthy and heated discussion on the faculty discussion list about diversity and multiculturalism and their aims included just a single post about racism; it came from me. No one else ever mentioned the word.

[9] Of course the assertion that all focus on whites constitutes racism was a very real worry, and a topic of much discussion, in the initial stages of "whiteness studies."

[10] Indeed, our failure to confront the class structure on campus stands as one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for my claim that simply diversifying ourselves will not eliminate racism. Gustavus students come from economically diverse backgrounds, but the prevailing climate on campus ensures that all of them will attempt to "pass" as upper middle class. Economically privileged students have no incentive for examining and challenging the system that gives them this privilege. Poor and working class students have every incentive to pretend to be something other than poor or working class. If the evidence of class and location at Gustavus can teach us anything, it teaches us that mere proximity does not create the opportunity for meaningful, useful dialogue that will challenge hierarchies and create alliances.

This evidence of the ways we don’t explore the diversities that are present among us leads me to observe that diversity bears an odd similarity to busing. Too often, both strategies begin and end with the task of placing people of different races and ethnicities in close proximity to each other—as if such a move will automatically create cross-racial conversations and alliances.


[11] Granted, if that inclusion weren’t simply on white terms—if it really were inclusion in which the presumed omniscient standpoint of the white person were supplanted, that would probably count as evidence that the relevant white people had done some of the other kinds of antiracist work that I believe is called for. But we must be explicit about that work, about what is entailed and what it obliges white people to do.

[12] Please realize that this argument does not insist that all-white spaces should continue to exist, as Du Bois claimed African American institutions shold. It simply observes that, given that persistently white colleges do exist, they ought to use their status to advance the cause of antiracism.

[13] Diversity and multiculturalism may be parts of other agendas as well; they may have goals unrelated to racism. Such goals are not my concern in this paper.

[14] The absence of people of color is in all likelihood an aspect of this problem—but it is one aspect, not the problem itself

[15] bell hooks makes a similar claim, several decades later, when she reflects on the education she received in her segregated elementary school. See the essay "Toward a Revolutionary Feminist Pedagogy."

[16] The Du Bois of the 1933 essay might state the matter thus: the African American college and the white college both ought to aim, ultimately, at teaching and advancing a universal culture—indeed, this is true for all institutions everywhere. But they must both begin where they are at present, and proceed along pathways that are specific to them. The path Black colleges must travel differs from the path for white colleges for all sorts of specific reasons, many of which have to do with the legacy of racism. For the Black college, addressing the problem of racism may mean "Claiming an identity they taught me to despise," whereas for whites, it may mean something more like "Moving beyond just despising an identity they taught me to claim." (See also the work of Alison Bailey, "Despising an Identity They Taught Me to Claim."

[17] Nor do all people of color suffer identical effects of white racism, of course.

[18] Of course this isn’t everyone!


Works Cited

Du Bois, W.E.B. Du Bois on Education. Ed. Eugene Provenzo. University Press of America, 2002. Abbreviated DOE.


-----. The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques 1906-1960. Ed. Herbert Aptheker. New York: Monthly Review, 1975. Abbreviated EBP.


Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1970.


hooks, bell. "Toward a Revolutionary Feminist Pedagogy." In Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End, 1989.