by Mary Sawyer
Eighteen percent. That is approximately how many students at Kenyon are “domestic students of color,” as stated in the “diversity quick facts” on Kenyon’s website. This means that of the Kenyon student body, approximately 82 percent are white. What does it mean then for those students to check the “I identify as white” box on the application? How does one who identifies as white understand her cultural heritage? These are the types of questions Visiting Instructor of Sociology Joseph Ewoodzie wishes to discuss in the project he’s bringing to campus called the Whiteness Project.
With the help of his wife, Assistant Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) Zahida Sherman Ewoodzie, and Director of the ODEI Ivonne García, Joseph hopes to allow Kenyon students to “think about [their] whiteness” such that it is not “just guilt and debilitating.” García elaborated that the project aims to “examine the concept of whiteness and what it means to identify as white.”
Joseph teaches a course called “Race Theory,” which according to Zahida has not been prioritized in the Kenyon curriculum; she hopes that “bringing the Whiteness Project and the discussions it ensues will encourage other offices to provide similar opportunities for students to work through these kinds of identities.”
Zahida hopes the Whiteness Project, a documentary funded by PBS, will spark a greater conversation of race in an inclusive way that engages “the majority [of] students in critical ways.” Being a predominantly white campus, Kenyon has many multicultural programs to include the minorities on campus, yet lacks opportunities to “make white people the center of conversation again,” according to Zahida.
Joseph mentioned that he attended the Jan. 16 screening of Dear White People and was astonished by how packed the theater was; the experience led him to see that students want to converse about “these things in a healthy and inclusive way.” After talking with Zahida, who had seen the Whiteness Project in several locations, not just Kenyon, Joseph thought to bring it to Kenyon. He paired up with University of Connecticut sociology professor Matthew Hughey, who writes about race and culture in America, to bring this project to the Kenyon community.
Joseph mentioned that he believes “you can’t do anything that positive out of something [so] negative.” The result is a desire to push Kenyon students of all races to dig deeper and speak up about their cultural identity, be they a minority or majority. T García shared that the ODEI’s goal is to open up dialogue by “bringing in [many] perspectives” to enlighten students and encourage a different train of thought. Her excitement for this project comes from her wish to see Kenyon students embrace a conversation that “usually only happens in specific classes” and become a part of the co-curricular aspect of campus that Kenyon so often preaches.
A diverse, intellectually curious crowd of students and professors filled Gund Community Foundation Theater on Wednesday night, April 8. As the panel continued, many people filed out of the theater mid-discussion. Ewoodzie commented on his disappointment regarding turnout relative to the crowd present for the screening of Dear White People. First year Alice Cusick said that “it was a good initial discussion, but it is a conversation that needs to continue in different settings on campus”.
The Whiteness Project includes interviews with 1000s of white Americans. Its first installment “Inside the White/Caucasian Box” focuses on white residents of Buffalo, N.Y. A Guardian article said of the project’s Buffalo interviews: “The videos reflect both the ongoing segregation, as well as a general dismissal of white privilege by most (though not all) of Dow’s subjects.”