Pedro Ferbel-Azcarate has studied many race-related issues since he started teaching in 1998, but it was his family that inspired him to delve into the topics further. “My family is multiracial and multicultural, and this has motivated me as a person who is usually defined by society as white to be involved in issues of racism on multiple levels,” Ferbel-Azcarate said.
White Studies class looks to racism
Pedro Ferbel-Azcarate has studied many race-related issues since he started teaching in 1998, but it was his family that inspired him to delve into the topics further.
“My family is multiracial and multicultural, and this has motivated me as a person who is usually defined by society as white to be involved in issues of racism on multiple levels,” Ferbel-Azcarate said.
Last term, Black Studies professor Ferbel-Azcarate created “Topics: White Studies,” PSU’s first-ever white studies class.
The class examines both structuralized and individual racism, he said, and the role of white privilege and control in our nation’s color-based hierarchy. The course was offered again this term, with changes based on feedback from students that took the class last quarter.
“A lot of students [that took the class last term] reported that it was a very eye-opening experience, and how we need to have white people especially, but society in general, engage in conversations about racial power and privilege,” Ferbel-Azcarate said.
“I think it’s a needed course,” said Ethan Johnson, also a professor in black studies. “Portland is considered the largest, whitest city in America. In that context, lots of white people don’t get any information about race and racism.” Johnson said that in Portland, unlike other cities, a person “can’t just go around ignoring the presence of race.”
The course is based around class discussions, with a focus on readings. Last term several films were shown, and this term these films will be on hold in the library for those that want to view them. This is one of many changes that Ferbel-Azcarate has outlined to make that class run more effectively. Discussions will be more guided and based on the day’s assigned reading. W.E.B. Du Bois’ John Brown was added to the reading list, to provide some added history to prop up the theory. Reading that focuses on immigrants’ experiences have also been added.
Out of class, focus groups will be assembled to explore issues further. Ferbel-Azcarate was interested to see if a class with the explicit title, white studies, might draw more white students than other courses in the Black Studies department that discuss racism. Last term’s class looked similar to other classes, he said he teaches with about a 50-50 demographic between white students and students of color.
“The challenge of teaching a class like this,” Ferbel-Azcarate said, “is that you have students from a range of experience and knowledge on the topic.” A key challenge Ferbel-Azcarate said in teaching the class, is educating white students who might be ignorant of the existence of racism in the country without dumbing the class down so much that it is no longer valuable for students of color. Ferbel-Azcarate plans on a general tightening of the curriculum to match a typical 400-level class.
Some of the students that took white studies last term suggested adding a 200-level course to introduce the topic to students with less of a background in the subject, according to Ferbel-Azcarate, and wondered if PSU should make white studies, or another black studies course, a requirement to graduate.
A national-security focused Web site, www.familysecuritymatters.org, recently released its annual “America’s Most Dangerous College Courses” list. Ithaca College’s “Whiteness and Multiculturalism” made the list–a sign, that for some, white studies is still a controversial field.
“I would say it’s a reflection of the society we live in where people continue to deny the importance of racial inequity,” Ferbel-Azcarate said. “Given the racist history of the U.S., I’m not surprised.”