“Because of Whiteness as Property”

MJCongratulations to Dr. Mary Caruso who defended her dissertation this week!  After losing her beloved mother/best friend just weeks before the final defense, she has now crossed the first major threshold in her life without her mother by her side… but her mother has certainly been looking over her!

Dr. Caruso’s dissertation asks us to think deeply about race when we imagine higher education today.  Using a private college that is 66% minority/underrepresented group and 44% white, she highlights the obvious path of an ever browner college student population and how those students understand and live race today.

The very language we use now does not seem to apply.  “Minority” has no meaning here: white students are still the largest population in Dr. Caruso’s study but students of color carry the majority.  The OCR (Office for Civil Rights) and U.S. Department of Education currently has a category, Minority Institution, for colleges like this that serve a majority of students of color via multiple groups (as opposed to one minority group) in its classifications of the many colleges enrolling significant numbers of “minority” students:

These designations have been important in the past because universities become eligible for grants, contracts, or benefit programs; however, even the OCR concedes that its listings are never complete or total.

Given the number of colleges already officially registered in these categories, it becomes baffling as to how and why scholars in composition and writing studies so steadily imagine its college student today as one who is white, middle class, and Christian.  The default position for many white researchers in the field is what Bonilla-Silva has taught us is color-blind racism: this means you simply do not mention students’ ethnic and racial backgrounds in your study at all, which ends up being just another whitening tactic.  When I asked Dr. Caruso why these white practices were still so dominant in the field, she brilliantly referenced Cheryl Harris’s work on whiteness as property and argued that as field/discipline, whiteness is its property.  This means that who the college student is imagined as, which professors get to write/publish about “today’s college students” and their learning and how, and what we offer to college students does not look that much different from white neighborhoods and banks who make sure people of color are not moving in or white professionals who have fled to suburbia’s zoned schools that keep students of color out.

As someone who has only taught a majority of college students of color by CHOICE and DESIGN, most of what I read in the field feels, at best, irrelevant.  It is an honor to get to work with people like Dr. Caruso who do more than chronicle the writings and teaching of students of color (as white researchers often do in voyeuristic, parasitic fashion like the spectacle Holloway describes).  Dr. Caruso knows to interrogate structural racism and institutional racism.   These supra-organizing structures are more than just the theme of first-year courses, as many in the field so stunningly and stupidly proclaim.  Structural racism and institutional racism are the stories that all of us in higher education live in, some of us just choose not to promote those stories.