Over the past 30 years, numerous American universities have tried to broaden the cultural diversity of their curricula by establishing "black-studies" programs, as well as courses exploring the heritage of other racial minorities. At least 30 universities, ranging from Princeton in the East to UCLA in the West, have now added controversial programs that specifically focus on whites and white culture.
Designers of these programs say they were set up because whites in America don't think much about their race. They don't need to, the argument goes, because whiteness is the standard against which other racial identities are measured. While a Hispanic-studies program, say, might highlight Hispanic achievements and pride, such awareness wasn't seen as necessary in the dominant white culture.
Arlene Avakian teaches a class that she calls the "social construction of race" at the University of Massachusetts. She says the recent human genome project makes it clear that genetic or biological differences among races are minuscule. So why the racial stratification?
"The goal of the course is for students to understand that whiteness is, indeed, a system that is created by, not all white people, but white people in power in order to keep the system going; and for their benefit, because the system is enormously profitable," she said. "You have this ideology of freedom, and at the same time you have slavery and genocide of Native Americans. So you have an enormous contradiction here. You have to have an ideology developed in order to justify buying and selling of human beings within a democracy and within a country that defines itself as Christian."
That ideology, Professor Avakian said, revolved around the notion of the inherent superiority of the white race. The idea is vividly demonstrated in another whiteness-studies course taught by a colleague at the University of Massachusetts, in which students go on what's called a "privilege walk."
"It asks students a number of questions," she explained, "and they step forward or step backward according to whether they can answer those questions 'yes' or 'no.' So one of the questions might be, 'I can go into a bank and feel fairly certain, if my finances are in order, that I will get a loan at the same mortgage rate as anybody else.' Whites would step forward, and blacks would step back, because it's clear even from studies done in the last couple of years that banks discriminate against blacks. And the thing about whiteness is, and this is true of any privilege, the people who have it don't see it. They think that they're just going to the bank for a loan, and they have everything in order, and of course they get a loan, and it's a fair system."
In her class, Ms. Avakian explains this sense of entitlement with a metaphor. "If you're riding a bike with the wind at your back, you don't notice the wind, and you think that you're just riding really, really well. But when you turn around, and you're going against the wind, then you notice the wind."
Once whites realize that they get unearned power and privilege from their skin color alone, Professor Avakian said, they will be more receptive to the idea of changing the system.
Brandi-Ann Andrade, an African-American from Boston, took Ms. Avakian's course. She said it often pained her, because in defining the privileges of whiteness, blackness is defined as inferior.
"It was disheartening to me as a person of color, because I expected this epiphany [by the whites in the class]. There were some white students who still didn't get it, still denied the fact that as a white person, they had some privileges that I as a person of color don't," she said. "Everything is racialized because our social system is racialized. And it's racialized for white people.
"I don't want white people to feel guilty. I want them to see that they do have an upper hand. That's all. I would hope that they would then see that they need to do action to correct a wrong that has been done for centuries."
Winnie Chen, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, also took Arlene Avakian's course. She said she can never ignore her race, while whites rarely think about theirs.
"I don't think we live in a society right now that is colorblind, that is equitable," she said. "So I think the first thing people have to do in order to alleviate that, to do away with stereotypes and oppression of any kind, is to understand where it comes from."
Felix Poon, who is also Chinese-American and took the whiteness course this past year, said the thrust was an attack on white supremacy, not whites as people.
"Just to mark a parallel with sexism, I'm a male. I examine my own male privilege, yet I don't hate myself at the same time, like I don't demonize myself for being a male," he said. "I sort of think it might be similar with a white person examining his white privilege."
But conservative critics liken this dwelling on Caucasian privilege to a force-fed white "guilt trip." Matthew Spalding, director of the Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, said "whiteness" is code for bashing Western civilization and American cultural institutions.
"At a time when we're trying to reduce racial tensions, these courses are specifically designed to encourage and motivate racial distinctions by making sure that everybody - black, white, and otherwise - are fundamentally categorized by their race," he said. "And that seems to me to be precisely where we ought NOT to be going.
"It takes us in a direction fundamentally away from the great tradition of our civil rights movement and the great tradition of our own founding," he continued. "If you remove the racial overtones of this discussion, one has to wonder the extent to which this is really the most recent manifestation of what we used to call 'Marxist studies.' Much of the argument in these classes is premised on a criticism of society, culture, capitalism, and the rule of law, if you will, in favor of class distinctions. And that really is Marxism."
Even an African-American who has written about the white-supremacy movement is concerned that whiteness studies fly in the face of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s admonition to judge people by the "content of their character" rather than the color of their skin. Vanderbilt law professor Carol Swain's books include The New White Nationalism in America.
"Our nation is too diverse for us to keep pushing this path of identity politics," she said. "We have whiteness studies, black-studies programs, what next? What I would like to see would be for us to move back from that, to realize that it's dividing us unnecessarily and that we can go back to that ideal of an American national identity and be united by common goals and common values. That's not happening with multi-culturalism and identity politics as we know them today."
Vanderbilt's Carol Swain also said she worries that today's whiteness programs, taught by liberals who are dissecting white privilege, could one day be taken over by professors with quite a different agenda, hostile to minorities, and social critic David Horowitz writes that while efforts such as African-American studies programs celebrate blackness, whiteness-studies programs devalue the dominant culture and celebrate nothing.