Nearly forty years after student-led movements began to challenge the racism and Eurocentrism of U.S. universities and many campus struggles later, it has become fairly commonplace, though by no means ubiquitous, for universities and colleges to offer majors or minors in fields such as Ethnic Studies. However, the increased visibility and accessibility of these programs has not translated into a less racist university. Instead, institutionalization has brought about its own challenges. Programs are frequently marginalized within the university, and many of us who teach courses about race are called upon to fulfill university mandates such as "diversity" education that are not necessarily in line with our scholarly and teaching goals. In addition, a renewed attack on the presence of students of color in higher education through the dismantling of affirmative action programs has meant that Ethnic Studies scholars often find ourselves teaching Ethnic Studies in segregated classrooms that are structurally off limits to many people of color.
The fact that universities that are frequently hostile to the presence of students of color on their campuses can simultaneously espouse the virtues of teaching racial tolerance or including "diverse" experiences in their curriculum reflects the convergence of colorblindness and multiculturalism as the dominant discourses of racism within university settings. Colorblind discourse asserts that any consideration of race is itself racist. It protects racism by making it invisible, and has been instrumental in the preservation of white privilege within universities through the dismantling of affirmative action in admissions and hiring, the delegitimization of scholarship that interrogates racism, and the marginalization of those of us who need to name the racism that we experience in our everyday lives. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, emphasizes the heightened visibility of difference without a critical analysis of power. In other words, multiculturalism asks us to explore problematically defined cultural differences while evading the question of racial inequality altogether.
Employing the discourses of colorblindness and multiculturalism as a mechanism to reinforce white privilege within the academy is not just the stuff of regents, administrators, admissions officers, and hiring committees. Rather, it is also a strategy that white students, consciously or not, use in classroom discussions about race to deflect challenges to their own positions of privilege. The racial privilege of white students is usually reinforced by institutions that view these students as their primary constituency and by white professors, department heads, and administrators who often identify more strongly with their white students. While many progressive educators strive to create classrooms that are safe havens from racism, sexism, classism and homophobia, it is important to recognize the impossibility of this goal in a society that is organized by inequality. The classroom is not a space outside of society, and students and teachers do not check their histories at the door when they enter it. Rather, the classroom reflects the inequalities in the world around us. In the classroom, just as in the society in which we live, there are no blank slates or level playing fields for any of us.
The invocation of colorblindness works to mask inequalities within the classroom. I once had a class in which the white students literally sat front and center in the classroom. While insisting that race no longer exists, these students did not even seem to notice that they had pushed the students of color in the class to the periphery of the room until I physically rearranged them. Not only do many white students fail to see racial inequality even when it is right in front of their eyes, their ideas of what racial equality would look like are often informed by their investments in white privilege. As Cheryl Harris has noted, whiteness is constructed in such a way that when people of color "trespass" on the privileges of whiteness, whites often feel a sense of racial injustice. …