“Talking About Whiteness”: Using Digital Pedagogy to Interrogate Racial Privilege



In this essay, I argue that digital media production can help facilitate critical dialogues about racial privilege that move beyond the paradigm of neoliberal multiculturalism. In an era where racial antagonisms have become manifest in police violence, racial profiling, and the prison industrial complex, it becomes imperative to reinsert the language of race into multicultural education. Using as an example Multicultural America, a theory/practice course that examines the construction of racial and ethnic identities in U.S. visual culture, this essay argues that collaborative digital media assignments can foster engaged peer discussion and critical reflection upon the limits of neoliberal multiculturalism.

As an educational initiative begun in the 1980s, multiculturalism challenged the Eurocentric bias of U.S. history, allowing for the narratives and perspectives of traditionally marginalized subjects to come to the fore. However, while multiculturalism serves as a corrective to Eurocentrism, it does not necessarily challenge neoliberalism. Sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that the neoliberal racial project seeks to “rearticulate the neoconservative and new right racial projects of the Reagan-Bush years in a centrist framework of moderate redistribution and cultural universalism” (Omi and Winant 1994, 147; 148-149). Among the central characteristics of the neoliberal racial project is the refusal to talk about race, which is viewed as divisive and detrimental to social reform. Indeed, multiculturalism focuses on cultural rather than racial differences, thereby avoiding more difficult conversations about racial hierarchies, racism and racial privilege. As Jodi Melamed argues: “Multicultural reference masks the centrality of race and racism to neoliberalism” (Melamed 2006, 1). In addition, under the multiculturalist paradigm, we tend to collapse race and ethnicity, without dismantling the biological/cultural dichotomy these socially constructed categories maintain (Chun 2012, 44).

In order to address the absence of racial discourse in multicultural curricula, a section that specifically addressed racial privilege was added to the Multicultural America course. The inclusion of a section on the construction of whiteness in visual culture allows for what Dr. Gregory Jay and Dr. Sandra Jones call a “critical multiculturalism” that may serve as a corrective to a neoliberal “celebratory multiculturalism” that eschews direct discussions of race, racial hierarchies and inequality (Jay and Jones 2005, 100). More specifically, Whiteness Studies interrogates the political, social, and cultural construction and circulation of “white” as a privileged racial category, both within the specific histories of the Americas and globally as the result of Western European imperialism (Jay and Jones 2005, 100-101). When first teaching sections on whiteness, I noticed that in many ways, the section replicated the racial logic film theorist Richard Dyer identifies in White, his landmark study of whiteness in visual culture, in which we discuss race as an aspect or characteristic of only non-white people (Dyer 1997).

In the first reading for the section, “On the Matter of Whiteness,” Dyer writes: “Indeed, to say that one is interested in race has come to mean that one is interested in any racial imagery other than that of white people” (Dyer 2003, 301). Central to Dyer’s inquiry is how whiteness is produced and reproduced in visual images as a set of “narrative structural positions, rhetorical tropes, and habits of perception” that allow whiteness to signify variety and universality (Dyer 2003, 308). My students weren’t accustomed to speaking about “white” as one racial category among others. Within neoliberal multiculturalism, cultural difference is celebrated, but seldom do we interrogate the intersectionality of race and ethnicity, or how racial privilege has historically informed the socioeconomic mobility of particular ethnic groups. By examining “white” as a racial category, white and non-white students of color begin to understand the work of reading, discussion, and visual analysis as a shared endeavor toward the goal of a more nuanced understanding of race, ethnicity and cultural diversity.

The second reading is Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (1989).” Although published over twenty-five years ago, McIntosh introduces the idea that racism not only harms certain subjects but also is productive of power in the form of privilege that operates most effectively when it remains invisible (McIntosh 1989, 10). As McIntosh argues, white people help dismantle racial privilege by making visible “systems of dominance” (McIntosh 1989, 12).

Not surprisingly, when presenting Dyer and McIntosh in my class, I am often met by the silences of white students who do not want to be accused of being racist and non-white students of color who do not want to bear the burden of representation. As Vicki Callahan notes, “[Race] and gender questions are always difficult to address directly and frequently face-to-face classroom sessions produce silence or highly self-censored discussions as students work to avoid confrontation with their peers” (Callahan 2013, 159). The “Talking About Whiteness” digital project developed out of the “silences” surrounding the topics of race and racial privilege.

The assignment is structured in four parts:

  1. in small groups, students find a location outside of the classroom to discuss the readings;
  2. students record an initial 30 to 45 minute conversation based on the readings;
  3. group members take photographs during the conversation, avoiding direct images of the face and other traditional indicators of identity; and
  4. using the audio recordings, images and additional media elements, the students collectively produce a video on the topic of whiteness and white privilege.

The course has recently adopted cloud-editing software (e.g., WeVideo) to promote more collaborative media production. Students select a production leader to coordinate the WeVideo project and invite group members to collaborate by adding audio and visual elements to the cloud project. After in-class critique, students can re-edit the video based upon instructor and peer feedback. The feedback-editing process speaks to the on-going process of identity formation that students are encouraged to interrogate throughout the course.

While trying to create diverse working groups for the project, non-white students of color are not asked to “speak” for their racial or ethnic groups, nor to bear the burden of “explaining” race and racism to white students. The assignment is designed to foster peer engagement and dialogue about racial privilege using terminology and concepts introduced in the Dyer and McIntosh readings. From the Dyer reading, students understand “white” to be a constructed racial category, and that its ability to signify  “human” is a result of particular histories of Western European nation-state formation and imperial conquest. Once students begin to speak of race as a construct, race is denaturalized: the discussion about whiteness is no longer about an innate characteristic of the individual, but rather, about an unstable racial category that subjects may or may not occupy, even ostensibly “white” people.

However, while “Talking About Whiteness” facilitates conversation about racial identity formation, I acknowledge the limitations of the exercise: Do all group members have an opportunity to speak or are some students made to conform to the majority or silenced altogether? What parts of the original conversation are cut? What remains?

In this example from my spring 2014 “Multicultural America” class, I demonstrate a process of negotiation that subtends the use of digital media to interrogate discourses of whiteness in popular culture at the beginning of the 21st century.

The first part of the video was devoted to the conversation on white privilege. The students (three white European American men and one white Latin American female) framed their discussion of McIntosh through a series of questions: “So what does this mean?” and “How do I get out of this boxed way of thinking?” Recorded at the UWM Libraries, the video consists of images of desks, laptop computers, and the libraries’ large glass windows, often manipulated with a filter to give the common objects an abstract quality in order to speak to the difficult project of dismantling white privilege. The female student, for instance, spoke of a limitation of McIntosh’s argument, noting how the black/white dichotomy doesn’t speak to the ways in which her whiteness is dependent upon national context. As a Latina, she racially identifies as white; however, in the United States, her skin color and nationality do not allow her to fully occupy the white racial category. When reviewing the white privilege checklist (a list of questions devised by McIntosh to demonstrate the advantages of racial privilege, such as not being followed in a store when shopping or being asked to speak for all people of your racial group), students of Eastern or Southern European, Middle Eastern, Asian, Latin and mixed-race heritage speak of an ambivalent relation to whiteness. These students seek ways to speak about contingent, hybridized identities, ones not fully accounted for by neoliberal multiculturalism, but that instead require a consideration of the articulation of racial and ethnic identities in our current era of postindustrial globalization.

In this instance, the students decided to supplement their discussion of the Dyer and McIntosh essays with the song “A Wake” (2012) by rap artists Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. When I asked the students to reconsider the use of the entire song in their video, they objected, stating that Macklemore and Lewis spoke to their generation’s ideas about race relations in the United States. Listening to the song, I acknowledged the significance of its message, including lyrics such as: “This is an issue that you shouldn’t get involved in / Don’t even tweet, R.I.P. Trayvon Martin / Don’t wanna be that white dude, million man marchin’” (Macklemore and Lewis 2012). The students recognized the ways in which the artists spoke to the persistence of racial violence in the “post-racial” era, were critical of their generation’s “hipster” racism, and ambivalent about the impact of social media activism.

However, rather than allow the artists to “speak” for them, I asked the students to enter into conversation with the artists, considering the ways in which Macklemore and Lewis (independently produced and corporately distributed by Warner Music Group) are marketed as “conscious” rap artists who speak to millennial generation political issues, such as postracialism, LGBTQ rights, gentrification, and immigration. Students were also asked to interrogate further the artists’ status as “white rappers” and how the duo speaks to their ambivalent relation to a history of white appropriation of black culture. Eventually, a compromise was struck, allowing for two versions, one with and without the song. When screened for the entire class, the group felt that the version with a song by a popular hip-hop/rap duo would help facilitate a broader discussion about whiteness among their peers.

The students’ use of  “A Wake” in their digital project signaled their awareness of an emergent discourse regarding whiteness in popular culture. Indeed, the release of “A Wake” anticipated director Whitney Dow’s interactive documentary, The Whiteness Project: Inside the White/Caucasian Box (PBS/POV, 2014), a documentary and multimedia archive of over 1,000 people who identify as “white” talking about what it means to occupy this racial category. whitenessproject-500x281While this new awareness of the construction of whiteness is certainly welcomed, I wonder: is this a fundamental shift that will lead to the dismantlement of racial privilege, or are Macklemore and Lewis and transmedia projects such as The Whiteness Project examples of what Dyer calls “the green light”? In other words, is this emergent discourse simplyallowing white people to talk more about themselves and thereby reinforce white privilege? After all, as Dyer states, “The point of looking at whiteness is to dislodge it from its centrality and authority, not to reinstate it” (Dyer 2003, 305).

As the above example demonstrates, college students are cognizant of the continuation of former racial hierarchies in the “post-racial” moment. The objective of the “Talking about Whiteness” assignment is ultimately to denaturalize race, to challenge neoliberal narratives of race and racism, and to provide students the terminology, conceptual frameworks, and digital tools to articulate new racial paradigms. In this sense, “Talking About Whiteness” is only the first step towards moving beyond neoliberal multiculturalism.  By (re) constructing narratives of race with digital media, we hope to break silences and make visible omissions that maintain systems of oppression.


The limits of this essay do not allow for a thorough discussion of the various definitions of race. For the purposes of this essay I rely on Gregory Jay’s definition adopted for the “Multicultural America” course from his “Terms for Multicultural Studies” as an “arbitrary and disputed classification of modern humans, usually based on a combination of various physical characteristics such as skin color, facial form, hair, or eye shape, and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups.” 1n the course section on whiteness, I also introduce Richard Dyer’s definition of race as “a means of categorizing different types of human bodies which reproduce themselves” (Dyer 1997, 20).


I would like to thank Dr. Vicki Callahan, Associate Professor at the University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts, Division of Media Arts + Practice, for her groundbreaking work in the use of digital media technologies to foster theory/practice pedagogy, as well as for her initial development of the Multicultural America syllabi in the UWM Departments of Film and Art and Design. I also thank Dr. Gregory Jay, Professor of English and Dr. Sandra Jones, Assistant Professor of Africology, for their scholarship in the field of Whiteness Studies and curricular support as co-founders of the UWM Cultures and Communities certificate program.

Works Cited

Callahan, Vicki. “Towards Networked Feminist Scholarship: Mindful Media, Participatory Learning, and Distributed Authorship in the Digital Economy,” In Focus section of Cinema Journal “Gender and Labor in Twenty-First Century Media and Scholarship.” 53.1 (Fall 2013): 156-163.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyoung. “Race and/as Technology or How to Do Things to Race.” Race After the Internet. Eds. Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White. New York and London: Routledge. 2012. 38-60.

Dyer, Richard. “On the Matter of Whiteness.” Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self. Eds. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis. New York, NY: International Center of Photography, New York / Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2003. 301-311.

___________. White: Essays on Race and Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

Jay, Gregory and Sandra Elaine Jones. “Whiteness Studies and the Multicultural Literature Classroom.” MELUS. 30.2 (Summer 2005): 99 – 121.

Jay, Gregory. “Terms for Multicultural Studies: Defining “Race,” “Ethnicity,” and “Nationality.” Accessed April 4, 2015. https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/gjay/.

__________. “What is Multiculturalism?” Accessed April 4, 2015. https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/gjay/www/Multicult/whatismc.pdf.

__________. Whiteness Studies: Deconstructing (the) Race. Accessed April 4, 2015. https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/gjay/www/Whiteness/.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. “A Wake.” The Heist. 2012 by Macklemore LLC and Warner Music Group.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom Magazine. July/August (1989): 10-12.

Melamed, Jodi. “The Spirit of Neoliberalism: From Racial Liberalism to Neoliberal Multiculturalism.” Social Text 89. 24.4 (Winter 2006): 1-23.

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. 2nd Edition. New York and London: Routledge, 1994.

The Whiteness Project: Inside the White/Caucasian Box. Accessed April 20, 2015. http://www.whitenessproject.org.

Buzelli, Antonio, Brandon Dey, Marisol Genett, and Marshal Stich. “Whiteness.” Video, 7.09 minutes. ART 150: Multicultural America, Spring 2014.


Shelleen Greene is an associate professor in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her research interests include Italian film, race and representation, Black European studies, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and globalization and visual culture. Her book, Equivocal Subjects: Between Italy and Africa – Constructions of Racial and National Identity in the Italian Cinema (Continuum/Bloomsbury Press, 2012) examines the representation of mixed-race subjects of Italian and African descent in the Italian cinema. Her work has also been published in Postcolonial Italy: Challenging National Homogeneity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and in the forthcoming volume Future Texts: Subversive Performance and Feminist Bodies (eds. Virginia Kuhn and Vicki Callahan, Parlor Press, 2015).

This entry was posted in Creative Projects, Digital Media/Video Games/Technology, Group Projects, Media Examples for the Classroom, Media Production, Media Studies, General, Readings for Undergraduates, Social Media, Teaching Dossiers and Collections, Teaching with Technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply