Editorials

A Missouri university wants to talk about racism. One problem: Only whites are welcome

Mizzou leaders putting money toward diversifying faculty

University of Missouri leaders spoke on Tuesday, September 13, 2016, about their efforts to move forward after unrest on the campus last year. One effort is to double the percentage of underrepresented faculty by the year 2020.
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University of Missouri leaders spoke on Tuesday, September 13, 2016, about their efforts to move forward after unrest on the campus last year. One effort is to double the percentage of underrepresented faculty by the year 2020.

Webster University wants to have a frank conversation about racism with the Missouri school’s faculty and staff.

Just one problem: Only white people are welcome.

University officials want to bring Witnessing Whiteness, a seminar on race exclusively for white people, to their campus just outside of St. Louis. While the school’s decision has not been finalized, the race-conscious training could be offered on a voluntary basis for faculty and staff next fall.

Officials at the private institution in Webster Groves, Missouri, are likely well-intentioned in their desire to tackle diversity issues on campus. But creating a silo for white people to talk about racism and white privilege without input from those most affected by discrimination and hate is a wrong-headed approach.

Constructive and substantive conversations about racism don’t exclude anyone. Webster University officials should abandon their whites-only plan and consider other, more inclusive strategies for confronting bias and racial injustices.

Since 2011, the YWCA of Metro St. Louis has been sponsoring Witnessing Whiteness groups as part of its mission to eliminate racism, according to the organization. The program, which is designed for individuals who identify as white, is based on the book “Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It” by Shelly Tochluk.

Vincent C. Flewellen, Webster University’s chief diversity officer, defended the YWCA-sponsored program.

Proponents of the course, including Flewellen, say white people would not be as forthcoming if they were in a diverse group. They suggest that white people would be afraid of being called racist or offending someone if they’re not in a safe, whites-only space.

“Conversations on race are challenging,” said Flewellen, who is African American. “White folks are less willing to open up in the same space as people of color. They don’t feel comfortable. Sharing their feelings in a space with other white folks is less awkward and challenging. They are likely to be more open.”

Indeed, conversations about race can be tough and somewhat uncomfortable. But if white people can’t have honest conversations in a group that doesn’t look like them, are they really interested in eradicating racism or understanding the injustices that people of color routinely encounter? How can people learn from others if they continue to isolate themselves in safe, homogeneous places?

The optics of a whites-only space, no matter the motivation behind it, are terrible. The term “whites only” dredges up our not-too-distant history, which included Jim Crow laws that inflicted state-sanctioned segregation and myriad other injustices on minorities in our country.

Workshops that explore topics of white privilege and white fragility have become more popular recently, said Susan B. Wilson, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Having a safe place to learn about these issues is important, she said. But excluding individuals from attending diversity workshops is not recommended, Wilson added.

UMKC hosts an annual Women of Color Leadership Conference, but the seminar is open to all.

“Exclusion is the opposite of inclusion and sends the wrong message,” Wilson said.

Webster University should scrap its plan to introduce the Witnessing Whiteness program and continue the work it has done on campus to address issues affecting minority, LGBTQ and other marginalized students on campus.

Offer faculty and staff a seminar focused on race that includes people of all colors — and nix the idea of whites-only spaces.

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