A Brief Syllabus on Whiteness

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, I’ve seen my academic friends reposting crowd-sourced syllabi on various topics around racism and hate in America. If you want to learn more about a contemporary topic, you can read your way through a list of curated links and come to a better understanding. There are excellent syllabi on Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, Charlottesville, and the history of hate in America.

This past week, the Shoulder to the Wheel group collaboratively published a booklet that discusses the problem of racism in the LDS Church with practical suggestions on how to combat racism. It is worth reading and sharing with friends and family. The goal is to get people to commit to learning more in advance of the 40th anniversary of lifting of the priesthood-temple ban for Black members.

One thing that I haven’t seen yet is a good crowd-sourced syllabus on whiteness so I’m going to start one here.

‘Whiteness,’ like ‘colour’ and ‘Blackness,’ are essentially social constructs applied to human beings rather than veritable truths that have universal validity. The power of Whiteness, however, is manifested by the ways in which racialized Whiteness becomes transformed into social, political, economic, and cultural behaviour. White culture, norms, and values in all these areas become normative natural. They become the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and usually found to be inferior. (source)

I’m interested in whiteness because it seem to be at the heart of racial tension and colonization. Whiteness determines who the other is. Whiteness sets itself up as normal and claims power for itself. It has been such a successful construct that many white people don’t even have a clear understanding of what it is, because whiteness refuses to learn about itself. I’m interested in this idea because I feel that my ability to challenge and dismantle whiteness will grow with understanding.

There are a number of foundational works on whiteness:

What resources have been helpful to you in learning about whiteness? What do you want to know about whiteness? How do you see whiteness manifest in the LDS Church? How do you see whiteness manifest in our own Mormon feminist movement?

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross is an art history professor by day and a sociologist of religion by night. She lives in St. George, Utah with her husband and two daughters and co-hosts the Faith Transitions podcast.

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12 Responses

  1. Andrew R. says:

    I realise this isn’t a comment. However, I am having difficulty why you are using the word syllabus? Is there a meaning to the word that I don’t understand, or am I just being stupid?

    • Nancy Ross says:

      The term is used in American education to reference the document that outlines a course of study. For every class you take at university, there is a syllabus.

      • Andrew R. says:

        Nancy, thanks for the response. That is my understanding of the word. I just didn’t see what you wrote as a syllabus. I guess I misunderstood. You are looking for ideas to create a syllabus – correct?

      • Nancy Ross says:

        I’m looking for suggestions for a syllabus, this isn’t the syllabus itself, just a few links and articles that will eventually be a syllabus.

  2. MDearest says:

    Yep. Whiteness does not want to learn about itself. It’s painful, but I’ll take that over the pain that POC experience. I need a course of Whiteness 101, thanks!

  3. Olea says:

    Nancy, thank you for this. Like MDearest said, this is painful, but necessary work. Giving us this first step, including links, really helps put off the procrastination of uncomfortable tasks.

    Lord, is it I? (it’s so hard to ask when I know the answer is yes)

    • Nancy Ross says:

      The answer here is always “yes” and it is definitely time to set aside our discomfort as white women and learn about parts of our identity through a critical lens.

  4. Please add these amazingly well written and award-winning titles that are essential reading, in my opinion

    White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson,
    Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson,
    Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (National Book Award Winner) by Ibram X Kendi
    A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
    Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson
    The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
    The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

  5. MDearest says:

    This is a Facebook live video from Brene Brown called “We need to keep talking about Charlottesville” that gives white folks a good starting place. I love the distinction she makes between shame and accountability. And there’s a lot more. You need to be part of Facebook to see it, unfortunately.


  6. Kristin says:

    I often teach about these things and two books I’ve found useful are A History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter and Whiteness of a Different Color by Matthew Frye Jacobson. Both do a great job of mapping out how contemporary ideas of whiteness came to be and how such ideas are a product of a long history.

  7. Nancy Ross says:

    Thanks for all of these!

  8. BGC says:

    White Awake by Daniel Hill
    What does it Mean to be White by Robin DiAngelo (articles on White Fragility also)
    Waking Up White By Debby Irving
    Different perspectives but thought provoking nevertheless

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