A Review of
Teaching Race at Historically White Colleges and Universities: Identifying and Dismantling the Walls of Whiteness
“Walls of Whiteness” in Historically White Colleges and Universities Uphold White Supremacy and Require Intentional Institutional Efforts to Deconstruct
Deconstructing walls of whiteness in historically white colleges and universities requires a bold and comprehensive institutional commitment that makes those institutions more responsive to and representative of historically underserved and marginalized communities.
Many white students enter postsecondary education fortified by “walls of whiteness,” or manifestations of racial privilege that shield white students from challenges to white supremacist assumptions about racial disparities and inequality. Those assumptions are reinforced in historically white colleges and universities that are predominately staffed by white male faculty and primarily attended by middle- to upper-class white students.
While these institutions are undergoing demographic changes that marginally disrupt their embedded class and race privileges, institutional symbols and norms continue to act as a “hidden curriculum” that reinforces the institution’s historic ideology and demography. This inconsistency with many universities’ stated missions of promoting critical thinking, diversity, and multiculturalism presents a critical challenge in disrupting these “whitespaces” and making them more responsive to and representative of historically underserved and marginalized communities.
David L. Brunsma is a Professor of Sociology at Virginia Tech, where he studies racial identity, the sociology of culture, critical race theory, and the sociology of education. Eric S. Brown is an Associate Professor at the University of Missouri researching urban sociology, inequality and stratification, and the sociology of social policy. Peggy Placier is a Professor Emerita in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Missouri.
Methods and Findings
Brunsma, et al., provide a comprehensive analysis of the various walls of whiteness that exist in historically white colleges and universities and propose methods for deconstructing them. They classify these walls into three categories: spatial walls, curricular walls, and ideological walls.
- Spatial Walls: Following the white flight era of the 1980s and ‘90s, many white students were socialized in primarily white spaces to adopt common behaviors, beliefs and norms that are accepted by the group as naturally occuring, rather than constructed. In these spaces, contact with people of color is largely limited to non-white low-wage employees, service employees, and impersonal public interactions, contributing to outgroup bias and negative views of racial minorities.
- Curricular Walls: Ignorance of the mechanisms behind and social realities of racial injustice allows white students to accept their privileged social positions without cognitive challenge. Through historically white colleges and universities’ formal academic curriculum, hidden curriculum of norms and values, and null curriculum of actively excluded information, universities fail to provide students with the tools to recognize and deconstruct prior assumptions about and justifications for racial inequities.
- Ideological Walls: Broader ideologies including color-blindness, individualism, and essentialism provide various justifications for racial inequities that obfuscate realities of injustice and oppression. Dismissal of racial inequalities through cultural or biological arguments ultimately serves to legitimize the marginalization of underrepresented groups and minimize the consequences of structural oppression.
The authors present numerous proposals to deconstruct each of these walls of whiteness in historically white colleges and universities. Spatial walls can continue to be challenged through the protection of affirmative action policies. These policies have enhanced the representation of minority students and produced a ‘welcoming’ effect not experienced by some minority students at institutions lacking affirmative action policies. Curricular walls can be deconstructed through semester-long courses on racism and integrating antiracism and historical context of social movements and global ideology into instruction of other relevant subjects. Ideological walls can be assailed by prompting white students to reevaluate their perceptions of society, acknowledge their role in upholding existing structures and institutions, and recognize the ways their actions might reinforce existing racial inequalities.
Deconstructing walls of whiteness in historically white colleges and universities demands a bold and comprehensive institutional commitment. Administration, faculty and staff must take initiative in disrupting these walls within institutions of higher education by introducing practices that prompt white students to critically reexamine their personal perceptions of society and inequality. Failure to make this change will only exacerbate the propensity of some white students to enter American society with little recognition of their privilege and their individual and collective roles in upholding or deconstructing the systems, institutions, and practices that reinforce racial inequality.
Further research may focus on identifying the pedagogical imperatives and methods necessary to significantly address walls of whiteness in historically white colleges and universities.
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