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Reproducing Whiteness: How White Students Justify the Campus Racial Status Quo

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Campus Safety and Violence Prevention Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division
August 14, 2019 Zak Foste Miami University-Ohio


The purpose of this article was to examine how Whiteness functions to underwrite and maintain racially hostile campus climates. Utilizing narrative inquiry, results illuminate two rhetorical devices that White students utilized to rationalize and justify the racial status quo: Narratives of Campus Racial Harmony and Narratives of Imposition. Results highlight how well-intentioned, educated White students contribute to the maintenance and reproduction of Whiteness.

A large body of research documents how students of Color experience racist, unwelcoming campus climates (Harper, 2009; Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Museus & Park, 2015; Rankin & Reason, 2005). These climates function to undermine the educational aspirations of students of Color, casting them as “others” amidst a sea of Whiteness (Gusa, 2010). Although a number of scholars have documented the ways in which students of Color navigate racist climates, far fewer have examined how these climates are sustained and normalized. Such an examination of how racist climates are sustained is especially important in a supposed colorblind, post-racial society (Bonilla-Silva, 2013). Contemporary post-racial discourses locate racism as a character flaw reserved for only the most hateful, bigoted White Americans. The result is that it is virtually impossible to name racism beyond the confines of the KKK and White nationalists. However, even in the absence of such overtly racist individuals, Whiteness still functions to racialize people of Color, maintain the racelessness of White people, and minimize, if not outright deny, the significance of racism in U.S. society. As such, faculty and administrators alike must contend with the ways in which racially hostile climates exist, even in the absence of sustained, overt racial bigotry. That is, they must confront how racial ideologies of Whiteness serve to underwrite the racial status quo on campus.

Critical Whiteness Studies (CWS) scholars emphasize that one cannot understand, let alone disrupt, racism without recognizing how Whiteness serves as its foundation (Leonardo, 2009). Cabrera, Franklin, and Watson (2016) explained that CWS has the potential to serve as the missing link in the study of race in higher education, noting that “one cannot understand the marginalization of students of Color if there is no one doing the marginalizing” (p. 7). CWS calls on scholars to attend not only to those who experience the dehumanizing consequences of racism but also those who perpetuate and normalize them. Therefore, this study was guided by the following research question: How do White college students maintain and reproduce ideologies of Whiteness that support the racial status quo on campus? That is, the purpose of this study was to examine how racial ideologies of Whiteness (Bonilla-Silva, 2013) functioned to maintain relationships of racial dominance between White students and students of Color.

Literature Review

Despite increased access to higher education, a large body of scholarship has documented how students of Color continue to inhabit racially hostile and unwelcoming institutions (Harper, 2009; Harwood, Huntt, Mendenhall, & Lewis, 2012; Museus & Park, 2015; Tachine, Cabrera, & Yellow Bird, 2017). Taken together, this body of research reflects what Gusa (2010) described as White Institutional Presence, or the ways in which White ideologies, practices, and habits are firmly ingrained in the campus culture. Put otherwise, despite increased access to postsecondary education, Whiteness still functions to locate students of Color as deviant, inferior, and most importantly as not White. For instance, Harper (2009) noted the low expectations faculty members held for Black men’s academic capabilities, while Smith, Allen, and Danley (2007) described the ways in which the university community framed young Black men as dangerous, threatening, and incompetent. Scholarship on Native students documented similar trends. Tachine et al. (2017) illuminated how Native students experience alienation and isolation in the first year of college. Participants reported a sense of disconnect with the cultural traditions that were so central to their sense of self prior to college. Additionally, their participants repeatedly encountered simplistic and myopic understandings of Native identities on campus.

Although frequently framed through the false “minority myth” lens, research has also underscored how Asian American students encounter such hostility (Museus & Park, 2015). Museus and Park (2015) found that Asian American students frequently experienced racial slurs, bullying, and profiling on the part of both their peers and campus law enforcement. Harwood and her colleagues (2012) similarly described the racialization of residence halls for Latino, Black, and Asian American students. For instance, racial slurs written on elevators and walls served as “physical markers for the message to students of color that they do not belong in that space” (Harwood et al., 2012, p. 168). Taken together, the stressors that result from continually engaging with racist climates has a number of harmful consequences for students of Color, most notably as it relates to one’s sense of belonging and persistence at higher education institutions (Johnson et al., 2007).

Despite the numerous and repeated claims of racial hostility, White students and students of Color exhibit significant differences in how they perceive campus racial climates (Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Rankin & Reason, 2005). Harper and Hurtado’s (2007) multi-institution study on campus racial climates stressed this divide. Their findings highlighted how White students overestimated the level of satisfaction students of Color experienced at the institution, all the while remaining oblivious to the less favorable perceptions their peers of Color held. Relatedly, Rankin and Reason (2005) reported that White students held a much more favorable view of the institution and the racial climate on campus than did their peers of Color.

Despite such troubling trends, relatively little scholarship has critically examined the role of White collegians in contributing to this racial hostility (Cabrera, 2014, 2018). Much of the research on White college students examines matters of identity (McKinney, 2013) and ally development (Reason, Roosa Millar, & Scales, 2005). Although important, this body of work rarely considers White students as complicit in reproducing Whiteness on campus (Applebaum, 2010; Cabrera, 2014). Research on how all White students contribute to the perpetuation of racism is important because it challenges conventional thinking that locates racism only in the most racist White students (Applebaum, 2010). Cabrera’s (2014) research on White college men represents an important contribution in this area. His work highlighted a perceived sense of victimization among White undergraduate men, largely the result of so called reverse racism and political correctness. Similarly, Bonilla-Silva, Lewis, and Embrick (2004) documented how White college students utilized a number of rhetorical moves to minimize the significance of racism, including as “the past is the past” and “I didn’t own any slaves.”

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