The Seattle University kids are right that most schooling is dominated by dead white dudes. But it’s not something we live white dudes have to get all defensive about.
When the kids at Seattle University protested that their schooling is too dominated by “dead white dudes,” this was sure to be inflammatory. Not to mention get them pilloried on right wing radio.
But the students did something much more powerful that barely got noticed. Instead of solely complaining about the whiteness of their class reading lists, they brought in a slew of titles not being taught to them. They made a shrine out of these books at their protest.
The student group, the Matteo Ricci College Student Coalition, has since released the full list of 77 titles in this “alternative altar.” I highly recommend checking it out if you’re a fan of reading, or maybe have just been wondering why college campuses seem so worked up lately about the very foundations of what they’re learning.
The list is eye-opening to me because I’ve barely read any of it (only five of the 77 books). I’m a card-carrying live white dude. And many of the authors on the list I’ve never heard of.
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I think it’s a mistake the students called their dean a racist. I bet later in life they will regret saying that. But their larger point about how bias, conscious or not, has created course content across generations with “too many dead white dudes” seems right on.
I have been part of a rolling experiment for the past two decades in how ingrained, and invisible, such bias can be. It also involves a reading list. For the past 23 years I’ve been part of the same all-male book club.
Male book clubs are such a novelty they just got written up in The New York Times. Ours meets once a month to debate fiction like most book clubs. Across 23 years we have read everything from classics to Oprah books to authors from India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Nigeria and all over the world.
What’s interesting is that about 20 years in, we made a discovery that ought to have been blindingly obvious: Almost all the books we choose are written by men. Out of 250 books we have read in almost a quarter century, 82 percent happen to have been written by men.
“We’ve got to be the most sexist book club in the history of book clubs!” I wrote to another member when we totaled it all up.
Now, college curricula are not the same as book club lists (I can only hope Seattle University chooses its books more rationally than we do). But the students’ critique is that, over time, roomfuls of white dudes are likely to build curricula or reading lists that look startlingly like themselves. Even when they’re trying not to.
How did my book club pick a list across 23 years that was so gender tilted, without even realizing it? Well, we’re men for starters, so we’re oblivious. But clearly we have been engaged in a group act of unconscious bias. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, as it arose organically from who we are. But the fact that it took us two decades to even notice shows the subtle power of unconscious bias.
That’s why I salute the students for releasing their “alternative altar” list of who Seattle University might study instead. It’s got authors like Chela Sandoval, Paulo Freire, Lois Beardslee, Shailja Patel, Rigoberta Menchu and Seattle’s own pioneering black science fiction writer, Octavia Butler. How many of those have you read? Me: Nada.
The students are teaching the lesson now: It’s past time to mix it up. Check out their list and ask yourself: What would school be like if it had been influenced by, say, generations of dead black dudes as well? Or Latina women? It would still feature the likes of Plato and Chaucer. But the list suggests parts of it would be radically different.
Student protests like this are easy to mock if you want (I’m guessing their call to reorder the university curriculum to fight against “global white supremacy” is a non-starter). I also think it’s wrong they are personally maligning Dean Jodi Kelly.
But what they’re protesting is no less real because it’s subtle. Here the bias is so ingrained the school doesn’t even seem aware it’s built on a foundation of dead white dudes.