POINT: Annenberg mural was meant to make people uncomfortable

Sonali Seth | Daily Trojan

People have a real problem with whiteness — and with the term “whiteness.”

Since the art collective When Women Disrupt placed a mural asking passersby to “Dismantle Whiteness and Misogyny on this Campus” near the Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication, the mural has caught the attention of local news and conservative media outlets. Most of the controversy revolves around that w-word: “whiteness,” what it means and whether it’s an appropriate or accurate word to use on a public art project.

Like many English words, “whiteness” has multiple definitions. While several dictionaries define “whiteness” as having some relationship to “white” as a racial identifier, it’s also quite clear that a sign at an elite research university might refer to the academic definition of “whiteness,” often explored in critical whiteness studies. In a piece called “Dismantling Whiteness in Academe” for Inside Higher Ed, Salvador Vidal-Ortiz clarifies several times that the discussion of whiteness as a structure is inherently different from whiteness as a race.

“Here, I talk about whiteness as a discourse that enables a set of practices, which activates, with its own set of codes, certain responses and actions,” Vidal-Ortiz wrote. “But I am not speaking of white people — whether administrators, colleagues, students — or even whiteness as a race.”

“Whiteness” does not imply white people; it refers to socially constructed systems of power and privilege. And Alison Trope, faculty co-director for the Annenberg Institute for Diversity and Empowerment, has made that clear.

“We’re talking about different lenses or frames we see the world through, when they say [whiteness], that is not directed at individual white people or individual males, it’s about a system, it’s about a culture, it’s about a climate,” Trope told the Daily Trojan.

The creators of this public art project did not imply harm toward white people when they wrote to “dismantle whiteness,” but they did imply that we live in a structural system of whiteness that confers social, cultural and political advantages to white people — to the detriment of people of color. That is the stronger, more salient point, and one which critics fail to see.

Scholarship supporting this reality is vast. A 2015 study from data scientist David Mosenkis found regardless of income level, majority-white schools consistently received more funding than schools with more students of color. John Schmitt, co-author of a 2014 study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, found the evidence of racial discrimination in the labor market “overwhelming,” pointing to studies that sent identical resumes to companies with white and black names, and found that white Americans were hired twice as often as black Americans.

Di Wu | Daily Trojan

Additionally, in interviews, white Americans with criminal histories were more likely to be hired than black Americans without criminal histories. In 2017, a ProPublica investigation found car insurance companies charged customers in white neighborhoods lower rates than those in black neighborhoods, even though the neighborhoods were comparable in risk. The empirical evidence goes on and on: Compared to black Americans, in many situations, white Americans receive a better education, are hired more, paid more, pay less and are killed less by the hands of law enforcement — simply on the basis of race. Hence, “whiteness.”

But why use “whiteness” at all, if it incites so much controversy? In his counterpart to this column, my peer Shauli Bar-On suggests “racism,” or “bigotry,” or “intolerance.” But until we recognize the issue of advantages conferred to white people — yes, on the basis of their race — is systemic, that it is entrenched in our nation’s history and that it has inherently created racialized experiences for everyone, we can’t really begin to dismantle these power structures. It’s not just bigotry or prejudice or intolerance or racism — what we refer to here is this system of “whiteness,” and it is important to call it by its name.

Criticizing conversations about racism by challenging the appropriateness of its tone or the diction is a worn leaf out of a conservative playbook. It’s obvious that “dismantle whiteness” did not refer to actual white people. Rather, “whiteness” incites discomfort because a system that continues to benefit white people at the expense of others is uncomfortable. Racism is uncomfortable. We shouldn’t coddle those who are white by sanitizing or downplaying the forces that we face. Rather, we should challenge them to meet us where we are, so that we can collectively understand each other.

Perhaps replacing “whiteness” with “bigotry” would have resulted in a statement that felt more comfortable for passersby. But public art isn’t supposed to state the obvious — it’s supposed to provoke and stimulate thoughtful dialogue and vigorous debate.

Looks like it’s done its job, then.

Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.