Whiteness: History of a Racial Category (SIGNATURE COURSE)

Course Code
HIST 2559/RELG 2559
Jalane Schmidt and
Andrew Kahrl.

The insidious systematic injustices resulting from white supremacy, and the phenomena of “white privilege” and "white fragility" have been recent topics of debate in the U.S., where a resurgent white nationalism has unleashed violent political conflict. This course examines the necessary prior question: what is "whiteness"? Often functioning as an unmarked category of putative racelessness against which raced “Others” were contrasted, whiteness was treated as self-evident and eluded critical examination. Upon closer review, the shifting definitions of whiteness reveal the inherent instability of its boundaries, and the efforts to police them. Through assigned readings, screening of documentary films, guest lectures, and discussion, the course traces the historical processes through which disparate, previously unrelated (and sometimes competing) ethnic groups were welded together into a new racial category known as "white." We will analyze who is categorized as white—by whom and why—by examining how institutions constructed this racial category and what performative practices are deemed constitutive of whiteness.