This hasn’t been an easy week for Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) professor Ted Thornhill. Instead of concentrating on a new semester and preparing to educate eager students, the assistant professor of sociology has been deflecting outlandish backlash and criticism for teaching a class titled, “White Racism.”
The reaction was enough to get campus administrators involved who felt it necessary to assign two campus police officers to the building where the class is held. While most of the emails and phone calls Thornhill has received have been in support of his efforts to teach about racial construct in a white supremacist society, several have included death threats flowered with racial slurs and vile and threatening language.
TheGrio.com spoke to Thornhill after his first week of classes to find out why a course in white racism is causing so much outrage.
Q: What is the class about?
Thornhill: It’s about the racial stratification we have in the United States. We started the course by talking about the process of racialization where previously ungrouped individuals are set a part and marked as a distinct group.
The course doesn’t exclusively focus on the Black experience. It’s about all folks of color and the ways in which White folks and their descendants constructed a system to benefit them and to oppress other people and dominate them.
Next week, we’ll discuss different racial ideologies and after that we will progress into how white racism appears in different social institutions looking at people of color in the labor market, housing and residential discrimination, the criminal justice system and law enforcement, politics, voting, incarceration and arrest rates as well as popular culture including film, social media and advertising like what recently happened with H&M.
By the end of the semester, we will explore ways our students can fight back against white racism.
Q: What are you hoping students get out of your class?
Thornhill: I want students of color to be able to steel themselves in the face of white racism that they have already faced and will continue to face for the rest of their lives. For the white students, I want them to become more aware of the unearned advantages that have accrued to them by virtue of being racialized as whites and learn how to speak and think in ways that are more empathetic while they cultivate an anti-racist ethic.
Q: How have the students responded?
Thornhill: I have 50 students who are engaged, raising their hands and seem to be enjoying the course so far. FGCU is a predominately white school, but I would guess about 60 percent of the class is Black. It’s great for these students to be in a safe space where they can talk about these issues.
Q: Do you plan to address recent issues like Charlottesville, the Muslim ban, or Donald Trump’s recent comments on immigrants from African countries, Haiti, and El Salvador?
Thornhill: There will certainly be occasions throughout the semester where we will talk about recent events in our society. What this racist character in the White House just said will be discussed on Tuesday and they have already read a piece on the racialization of Muslims in America.
Q: Why call the class White racism?
Thornhill: There are different types of racism, but none of them begin with the words “Black,” “Latino,” “Asian,” or “Indigenous.” When we are talking about racism, we look at it as a structural phenomenon. People of color can be prejudice, but there is no such thing as Black racism.
People who are frustrated about the title of the course may want to do some reading and educate themselves. This is not an attack on white people. Some are even anti-racist, but not enough. A lot of them think there is this neutral space that they can occupy, but I don’t see it that way. You are either anti -racist or you’re a racist. It’s that simple.
— CNN Tonight (@CNNTonight) January 11, 2018
Q: Why is police protection necessary?
Thornhill: A colleague suggested that I have an officer present given the right-wing furor over the course. Then the emails came with their malicious, hateful, vile, and vulgar messaging. Then two students who were taking the course came to see me and indicated that they had some concerns about safety and security. It changes the dynamic of the class, but everybody has to be safe.
I’m actually getting some good data for the class itself from these emails. I’m planning on putting them together to analyze in class and look for common themes and see how they are consistent what the students are reading.
Q: Have you been supported?
Thornhill: I’ve taught at a number of institutions where the administration says things about diversity, equity and inclusion, but they don’t act on them in a meaningful way. There is a large disjuncture between what they say and instituting the kind of practices that would lead to a more racially egalitarian institution.
FGCU President Mike Martin has been moving in that direction and released a statement to the student body that leaves me encouraged where they walk the walk. There are things that are right and things that are wrong. Institutions of higher education can no longer play in the middle.