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Decentering Whiteness

Maren Oberman is helping rethink our community


“Whiteness relies on never having to speak its name, on never having to own up to the preferences and privileges it entails.”

Maren Oberman
Dr. Maren Oberman

This quote from George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness is central to the foundation of Dr. Maren Oberman’s new course, Exploring Whiteness, which is being offered this fall in the School of Education to a racially diverse group of students. Oberman is a clinical assistant professor whose work focuses on anti-racist pedagogy and educational leadership in the Educational Studies Department. She is the faculty co-implementation lead for dije in the SOE.

The course aims to understand the social construction of Whiteness, to explore the White supremacist structures and cultures embedded in American society, and to support students of all races in deepening their own understanding of Whiteness. “I ask questions and guide students to discuss what Whiteness is and how the concept of Whiteness functions in societal systems, policies, and organizations. We also explore White identity at the personal level,” Oberman says.

Oberman leads conversations with diverse audiences about Whiteness and White identity both in and beyond the School of Education. For example, she co-led, with Dr. Debi Khasnabis, an anti-racism book club with a predominantly White group of teachers. She facilitated a well-attended community conversation in advance of a planned visit to the university by author Robin DiAngelo, whose book White Fragility is sparking conversations about this topic nationally. Moving forward, she will continue to design and lead professional development of K–12 teachers and school leaders.

Her sessions are productive, and their White participants are open about how little they have thought about White identity in the course of their lives. “They are interested in thinking about their identity and understanding how exploring their Whiteness is useful in understanding racism. I see them question what to do after they understand their White privilege and wonder what their White privilege means if they have other areas without privilege,” she explains. Oberman strives to help people puzzle through these questions but also believes it is important to push beyond this level of thinking.

Often, she says, when White people discuss race, they tend to disregard Whiteness. It is common for people to acknowledge in such conversations that they are new to thinking about their White identity. “This is really where we see how the personal piece meets the structural piece. Our whole society is structured so that White people don’t think about being White.” Oberman shares wisdom she has learned from scholar, Beverly Daniel Tatum, who writes:

“While active exploration of what it means to be Black is an almost universal experience for African American adolescents due to the encounters with racism they commonly have, the same is not true for White youth. For White people living in largely White environments, it is possible to live one’s entire life without giving focused attention to what it means to be White.”

By putting Whiteness on the table, Oberman interacts with her audience about the concept of race as a social construct, and she takes the time to unpack what that really means—the idea that race is not a biological reality, but a manmade one. “This can get to peoples’ understandings and assumptions. Some people still resist this idea, but more and more literature has proven this point and shows students why it is important.”

In her new course this fall, Oberman plans to have her students wrestle with the tension of focusing on Whiteness while also striving to decenter it. She admires her students for being astute about these complexities: “They ask me about the pitfalls of focusing so much on White people or the implications of placing attention on the factor that is already given so much dominance in our society.” Oberman believes that to ultimately remove Whiteness as a force of domination, it is useful first to study it up close. Her work allows students to learn the history of how Whiteness came to be a racial designation, how ideas about who counts as White have changed over time, and how Whiteness is often masked with language that is supposed to insinuate normalcy or rightness. Oberman calls for more specific language, since euphemisms can bring more power to current social structures. “This is one place where we might stumble, and we can ask ourselves what we can learn from the use of this language and what we can do about it going forward,” she says.

Oberman argues that White spaces are as racialized as spaces with a majority of People of Color, but they aren’t usually labeled as such. “In a simple way, some of my work involves the basics of naming spaces and practicing awareness,” she says. “I try to normalize this. I consciously started doing it with students knowing that because we are in a predominately White space, it would be easy not to name Whiteness. However, the space is not entirely White, and even if it were, the racial makeup needs to be named and deconstructed.”

Oberman’s work is part of a larger ideal, which is to create learning spaces that engender trust and healthy risk-taking. She models vulnerability with her students. “There is a difference between saying that this is a safe space instead of making it a safe space. I can’t see how I can facilitate a conversation about Whiteness without seeing the ways in which my own Whiteness has been impacting a class. One strategy I use is being more specific and naming what is happening in a given scenario. For instance, if I remain silent on a racial point, I have to notice that and understand what it’s about. Otherwise, through my silence, I reinforce Whiteness. Silence does nothing to decenter Whiteness.”

While much of Oberman’s work is done in predominantly White spaces, she works across race and believes that people of all races have work to do in investigating and decentering Whiteness. Ibram X. Kendi is a scholar Oberman relies on a great deal in her work. She advocated using his book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, as a whole school reading selection this year. As Kendi writes in his prologue, “Racist ideas are ideas. Anyone can produce or consume them….Anyone—Whites, Latina/os, Blacks, Asians, Native Americans.” Oberman also uses Kendi’s definition of racist ideas—“any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way”—to invite a range of people into conversation. At the same time, she insists that White people take up some of this work on their own, as she says, “without further burdening People of Color with tasks of teaching Whites about race and racism, listening to stories of White ignorance and awakening, or reassuring White people that they’re ok.”

Looking forward, Oberman will be working with her students, the community, and the SOE to offer programming as part of the school’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, justice, and equity (dije). “When Dr. Humphrey, Dean Moje, and I talk about dije programming for the year, one of our main aims is to decenter Whiteness. Another purpose is to offer healing spaces, and another is to strive toward liberation and policy change. When I plan these sessions, I can’t predict the dynamics of the group. But what excites me about this work is my purpose: to bring new awareness to participants about their own identities and the ways they interact with others around issues of racism.”

One program that Oberman is especially excited about is an intensive workshop she will offer this winter using the book Me & White Supremacy by Layla Saad. Students, faculty, and staff will be invited to opt in to role-alike groups that will meet four times each between December and March. Facilitated by Oberman, participants will discuss the book and share personal reflections that they keep in a journal. “I know that one way to decenter Whiteness is to get White people to understand what it means to be White, the fact that it is centered, and how we can stop doing that. If we don’t do this work, then we are perpetuating some White supremacist norms.” Oberman does not believe that all anti-racist work can or should be done on the individual and personal level, but she is committed to helping people who want to begin their journeys by looking inward. “Practicing anti-racism is more of a marathon than a sprint, and there is a lot of work we can do by starting with ourselves.”

Recommended Reading & Listening
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
John Biewen, Seeing White podcast
Gene Demby & Shereen Meraji, Code Switch podcast
Nikole Hannah-Jones, 1619 podcast
Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist
Ibram X. Kendi, “The Difference between being ‘Not Racist” and ‘Antiracist’” TED Talk
George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics
Bettina Love, “There is Nothing Fragile about Racism,” Education Week article
Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk about Race
Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And other Conversations about Race

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