Whiteness as default

I’m guessing that a two-minute video produced a student homecoming committee was not meant to appear in The New York Times in this way. And yet, in 2020, here we are again: Still discussing race as it exists in America, and grappling with the realities of our racial condition from one decade to the next.

This isn’t a criticism of the University of Wisconsin or of its actions, simply because I believe that the there’s little left to be said and other people are saying it better than I can. I do believe that everybody involved in the situation had good intentions and acknowledge that missing out all the people of color from a university video celebrating the campus is a terrible, bad, and inaccurate thing to do. (As one commenter on YouTube pointed out, it’s like creating a documentary about D-Day and only including the Canadians.)

Instead, I’m discussing two observations we can draw from the video: First, nobody noticed the whiteness and thought it was a problem until after the video was published and students of color noticed and complained. Second, the university’s follow-up video was a feature on students of color and their achievements on the university.

Nobody noticed it was so white

That the video was published only featuring white students means we can reasonably conclude that nobody thought this was a serious enough problem during the video’s editing and production. (The Times article notes that Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically Black sorority, had been filmed; they simply weren’t included in the final cut.)

It signifies the unfortunate reality of race in America: Whiteness is seen as the default and standard, for the presence of an all-white group of people of any kind does not arise any suspicions or signify any alarm bells.

We would probably not say the same if the video — or theatre casting, or stage performance, or any other media production — were all Black, all Latinx, all Asian American, all South Asian or, more expansively, all people of color; nor would we probably be so insensitive if the characters featured were all visibly masculine or feminine.

This is a sign of the white supremacy that race theorists describe in the United States. White people are not a racial category in and of itself, but rather the default category from where the “other” races are drawn. An all-white video for homecoming arises no suspicions at all. Whiteness is the null value for race in the United States.

The burden of correcting white people’s mistakes… again disproportionally falls upon people of color

When the problems were finally identified and students of color began to speak up, the university’s response was a series of statements acknowledging and apologizing and promising to improve, as well as a video of students of color each stating their achievements and aspirations at the university.

It is difficult to watch because it is such a painful and poignant reminder that the mistakes of white people on race become obligations placed upon people of color. It necessarily becomes the work of people of color: to actually fix these problems, and to resolve the guilt of the white people who committed the source mistakes so that they can get to problem solving.

Neither are ideal or acceptable, but are necessarily evils that many people of color face every day just to move on with their lives. These students are, as the video insists, doctors and researchers and practitioners and musicians and artists and more. But their very presence and the video’s very existence also belies the contradiction and their unalterable identity: They are people of color and they are there, stating their name and work, because we have to continually make the case for our own existence.

We can never be just scholars. We can never be just Badgers, or just Wildcats, or just Americans. We will always be that, and more.