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Berkeley professor says 'to abolish whiteness is to abolish white people'

Zeus Leonardo said, "to abolish whiteness is to abolish white people... That's different from white bodies, right, white bodies will still exist, but we will no longer consider them white people."

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Libby Emmons Brooklyn NY
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Zeus Leonardo, who teaches within Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, has written and spoken at length about the problems with white people. In a talk, he said, "to abolish whiteness is to abolish white people." He told his class in 2007 that this is "very uncomfortable, perhaps, but it asks about our definitions of what race is and what racial justice might mean." He is in the department of Critical Studies of Race, Class, and Gender.

Leonardo writes books and articles on pedagogy, or teaching methods, among other areas of critical race studies. His book Race, Whiteness, and Education is about "reaffirming a critical appreciation of the central role that race and racism still play in schools and society." In other words, the way things are taught is racist. The book offers a "conceptual engagement of race and whiteness asks questions about its origins, its maintenance, and envisages its future." It asks "fundamental questions about whiteness in schools and society."

It's during Leonardo's talk on "Teaching Whiteness in a Multicultural Context and Color-blind Era" that he says "But to, to my understanding, if you sort of undercut the category of whiteness, which the identity of white people depends on, you are, in effect, undercutting the concept of white people."

"And so my recent understanding is that to abolish whiteness is to abolish white people. Okay, now, that's, that's different from white bodies, right, white bodies will still exist, but we will no longer consider them white people," Leonardo continues in largely nonsensical academic-speak.

"I'll get into this a little more," Leonardo promises. "But I'm trying to distinguish between whiteness and ideology, white people and identities and white bodies, which is some kind of literal understanding there that then we graft the meaning of white people onto. Right. But if you undercut whiteness as an ideology, one that a lot of abolitionists suggest is parasitic, right? And it's an ideology that white people really depend on."

While that doesn't actually appear to make any sense, like much of his other work on this topic, he appears to be attempting to dismember the concept of whiteness from white people and from the identities white people have. That's a confusing idea, because he also uses whiteness to identify white people.

Leonardo goes on to suggest that the way to abolish white people is to make them not be white anymore, because white children are taught to be white and they can, in essence, be taught to not be white.

"If we give white people an option out of that, and it's not just sort of words, right? It's sort of structural transformations, then what I'm suggesting is that it also signals the withering away of white people.

"If you can imagine we didn't have white people anyway about, let's say, 600 years ago. So the suggestion by abolitionists is we made white people, so one is not born white. By virtue of having a white Bible, one has to be taught to be white.

"And there are many signals both in our home and in our schools, of how whites are taught as young children to be white. And usually, that means in opposition to the non-white, usually black," Leonardo says, referencing others in this field of "whiteness studies" with whom he agrees.

"Now, it might seem strange to you that white folks may find this quite controversial to suggest not being white anymore. It's ironic and controversial, because in a colorblind era, white folks already don't buy into their whiteness. So why would it be so unsettling to suggest to white folks that you not be white anymore when most white folks go through daily life, assuming they're not white anyway? Right?" He asks.

"Well, I suppose one answer to that is that white people know that they're white. Right?" He goes on. "When we talk as if, and this includes people of color too sometimes, but we talk as if they don't know their way, we talk about ways as being ignorant of race. Okay, not knowledgeable, not having grown up with the discourse in their home.

"Now, this has certain problems about the innocence of whiteness, right? Because we also know just from personal experience, that if a white person took a non-white person home as a date, everything changes. Right?" Leonardo posits this idea from the mid-20th century, one that has long been done away with in America where interracial marriage and families where children and parents frequently do not share the same skin tone are incredibly common, not just in progressive circles, but across the country.

"To bring home a friend who's not white, everything changes," he says as though this is fact and not some pre-Civil Rights Era status quo that has long been eradicated in American civil society.

"So in some, at least lived way, whites already know that they're white and that may explain why there's sort of this defensive reaction towards abolishing whiteness and abolishing white people, because there is an investment here, okay," Leonardo says, as though that could be the only reason that someone who is designated to be part of a given race of people would have feelings about being told that race should be abolished.

"So colorblindness isn't necessarily such a literal process of being blind to color. It's about feigning being blind to color, because in a completely racialized globe, how do you not see race?"

Leonardo's papers, the abstracts for which read like a satire of critical race theory and anti-whiteness as opposed to the thing itself, approach the idea of whiteness as something that must be overcome. Leonardo's research is, in part, in the area of curriculum studies.

One of his papers, from 2004, entitled, "Critical Social Theory and Transformative Knowledge: The Functions of Criticism in Quality Education," has the following description:

"Critical social theory is a multidisciplinary knowledge base with the implicit goal of advancing the emancipatory function of knowledge. It approaches this goal by promoting the role of criticism in the search for quality education. Through critical social theory in education, quality is proportional to the depth of analysis that students have at their disposal. As a critical form of classroom discourse, critical social theory cultivates students’ ability to critique institutional as well as conceptual dilemmas, particularly those that lead to domination or oppression. It also promotes a language of transcendence that complements a language of critique in order to forge alternative and less oppressive social arrangements. A critical social theory-based movement in education highlights the relationship between social systems and people, how they produce each other, and ultimately how critical social theory can contribute to the emancipation of both."

His book, on the founder of "post-colonial studies" Edward Said, "introduces the field of curriculum studies, an area of scholarship that has a long history in the educational literature." It claims that "teachers should cultivate being anti-intellectuals," and argues for the inclusion of "educational criticism" as "a bona fide area with its own discursive community, institutional supports, and traditions."

White people in today's media landscape are told constantly that they are white, and that they must identify as white. They are told that the identity of whiteness is a negative identity, because it brings with it a full ancestry of oppression for which white people, as the descendants of those hate-filled ancestors, are responsible.

They are told that their whiteness has been used to create intricate systems of oppression that are so locked in formation that black people cannot get out of them and are permanently suppressed. And they are told, by professors of education like Leonardo, that they should not be white anymore, and should give up the identity of whiteness, while also not being colorblind and seeing race everywhere.

None of this makes any rational or logical sense, but rationality and logic are simply functions of whiteness anyway, according to the Smithsonian. Yet, it's professors like Leonardo in the Graduate School of Education at one of the nation's most prestigious universities that are teaching the next round of educators and education scholars how to perceive of race and how to conceive of curriculum for a student body that will lead America in the coming decades.

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