The weirdest piece of “hate mail” Lee Bebout got this spring after his Arizona State University course on the “problem of whiteness” made national news was about albinos.
“It was a letter from somebody here in Phoenix — they gave me their return address — who wrote to me to tell me I should look to the plight of albinos because that’s the real problem with whiteness,” the ASU professor told TPM in a phone interview last week. “And that I should understand this because black people are really mean to albinos.”
Strange letters about albinos notwithstanding, Bebout plans next semester to teach a revamped version of the course that put him at odds with Fox News and made him a target of white supremacist groups.
Campus Reform, the conservative student news website that first suggested Bebout’s course was targeting white people, was quick to take note of this latest development. In an article last week, the website zeroed in on the change in the course’s title in particular.
“Bebout said he had intended to call the course ‘Disrupting Whiteness,’ but ultimately settled on the more innocuous-sounding ‘Whiteness and Critical Race Theory,’ perhaps reflecting a desire to avoid a repeat of the reaction to the previous course,” the article read.
TPM called up Bebout on Wednesday to talk about why he thought the “problem of whiteness” class elicited such a strong reaction and whether all that hubbub is informing his approach to the latest version of the course. Spoiler alert: he says it’s not.
“I’m hoping there’s maybe less of a headache,” Bebout said of next semester’s class. “But I also know as somebody who’s been a scholar in critical whiteness studies for years that when you’re talking about whiteness, people get their hackles up.”
Below is a transcript of TPM’s conversation with Bebout that has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
TPM: How did you first react to the backlash when your name and your class were suddenly popping up on Fox News and on these white nationalist groups’ radar?
Bebout: I was surprised and I definitely cringed. I’m not somebody who likes media attention. I don’t like hearing my voice. I don’t like seeing my picture on TV. So I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t like this.’ Other than that there were days where I was a bit nervous to see how the university would support me but it all worked out fine. It was a complete headache outside of the classroom but inside the class the students were just awesome. It was one of the best classes I ever taught.
Can you talk a little bit about how it was a headache outside of the classroom?
Well I was going up for tenure at the time. You probably realize, and a lot of the readers will realize, that’s definitely a very stressful time because you’re not sure if you’re gonna have a job the next year. So that’s generally a stressful time. Then add this extra layer. Somebody decides to come to my neighborhood and put leaflets around my neighborhood. So then not only do I not necessarily know where I stand but I’m not sure how safe I should feel in my own neighborhood. Things like that were definitely at play. It caused stress where my wife was definitely worried, and I was. But overall we got through it okay.
Why do you think that, separately, Fox News and then these white nationalist groups reacted that way to your class?
I think Fox News has a tendency to do these types of things. In fact they did this with other people before and they’ve done this with other people afterwards. I do think it’s probably unfair to say this started with Fox News though, it started with Campus Reform.
Right, it started with Campus Reform.
Yeah and it started with Campus Reform. They’re the ones who got the word out. It was a young woman who was never involved in the class, never read any of the books, who was just going at it and trying to articulate a political agenda of her own. One that is saying ‘Oh, campuses are politically biased and white people are being attacked.’ This is kind of in tune with ‘There’s a war on Christmas,’ right? ‘There’s a war on white people.’ So Campus Reform gets this ginned up, then it gets picked up by Fox News and then it gets picked up by white nationalists.
As a scholar who studies white supremacy, as soon as I separate this out from ‘This is happening to me and my family,’ it became immediately fascinating because my graduate students and I actually study some of the white nationalist groups that were doing this. We were noticing that they were citing Campus Reform. They were citing Fox News. So white nationalist groups use these other venues as evidence for attacks on white people. So even though maybe they initially started things a little bit differently, Fox News and Campus Reform became used as credible evidence for white nationalist groups. One of the fascinating things that happened was about a week or two after my story aired, Fox News did something very similar to a high school science teacher up in the Pacific Northwest. Can’t remember his name. They did something on him, boom, within a couple days he started receiving hate mail. Some of the same people who sent him hate mail sent me hate mail. I know this because he wrote me and they were starting to cite their hate mail to me in their hate mail to him.
So it was a whole ripple effect.
Yeah. It was awesome, it’s bizarre, it’s horrifying. If you’re a scholar, then you’re like ‘Wow, this is fascinating.’ If it’s happening to you it’s absolutely horrifying. For me it was both.
Then this happened again with Appalachian State [TPM covered that dustup here]. Fox News did a story on them and then the National Youth Front attacked them. This happened with— I can’t remember her name, I think she’s at Rutgers. Was it Rutgers or Boston University?
Boston University, I remember that [it was Saida Grundy, the professor who tweeted that “white college males” were a “problem population”].
Yeah. So there’s this whole pattern where it gets picked up by Campus Reform. It gets picked up by Fox News. Then white nationalists, white supremacists get involved. In some ways they’re really different groups. In some ways they’re using really similar rhetoric, and it’s the rhetoric or the discourse of white victimhood or a war on whites.
How do you feel now with several months of distance from all of that?
I’m really ready for the class to start. I’m excited about the class. I feel like it’s gonna be an even better class, although the students were pretty awesome last time. But I feel like the class is gonna be more focused and coherently organized because I was able to give it a full test run. So I’m really looking forward to it. I’m hoping there’s maybe less of a headache. But I also know as somebody who’s been a scholar in critical whiteness studies for years that when you’re talking about whiteness, people get their hackles up. I’ve had that not necessarily in the classroom or obviously with Fox News but I’ve had that when i’ve presented my scholarship before. Sometimes folks can get very uncomfortable talking about whiteness.
Has everything that happened led you to retool your approach for teaching the class next semester in any way?
The stuff that happened outside of the classroom has had little to no impact on what I’m gonna do in the classroom. Except for the fact that I’m gonna offer the class more often.
The course title went from “U.S. Race Theory and the Problem of Whiteness” to “Whiteness and U.S. Race Theory.” Is there anything behind the name change?
Yeah there is, but it’s a little wonky so I’ll kind of give you the history behind the name change. Originally it was “U.S. Race Theory and the Problem of Whiteness” because I was trying to engage both critical race theory and critical whiteness studies. They are not the same thing but they are deeply interrelated. So the first half of the class dealt with critical race theory as a framing for critical whiteness studies.
Then the backlash happened at the end of January. In February I had to submit the schedule because I was also the director of the lit program. I was submitting the thing and I was like okay, let’s take out “problem” for right now. I’m gonna come up with a better title, one that I like more. But I just need to fill in a placeholder. So I put in whatever the current title is now, “Whiteness and U.S. Race Theory” or whatever. So I put that in there thinking, okay, something’s going to change. I don’t know what I’m gonna change with this class but I’m gonna change it. In May, I came up with a different title, one that I liked more called “Disrupting Whiteness.” That one I thought had been completely approved but there was a bit of an email malfunction or somebody didn’t send an email they were supposed to, or read one. It didn’t get approved which was kind of unfortunate. I’m not sure if the university would have approved it anyway. So it was “Disrupting Whiteness” until about a week ago and then they switched it back because they only had a record of one of them being approved. I’m hoping that next year I can call it something different, something more focused on whiteness studies. That’s why I wanted to pull out “U.S. Race Theory” because I’m gonna have them talk about critical race theory but I’m not gonna have them read critical race theory texts per se. It’s gonna be a class that’s more dedicated to critical whiteness classes.
Do you think that the ASU administration responded appropriately to the protests against the class earlier this year?
I don’t know. I feel really mixed and I probably should just leave it at that.
Do you feel like you have the support of the administration as you offer the class again?
Yes. I feel like I have the support of the administration to offer the class. I’ve been assured several times that they do not want to get in the way of the academic freedom, that they believe in what I do and that they trust me as an educator and a scholar. I appreciate that.
Have you learned anything from went down? Do you have a new lease on life?
I learned some things about the interconnectedness of white supremacy that I guess I suspected before.
The interconnectedness of it in what way?
The ways in which Campus Reform and the white nationalist groups may be very different but they’re actually not completely separate. They use each other. I think that was really interesting to me.
As far as a new lease on life, sometimes before I had a rough class period where my students didn’t read or something. Now it’s a completely different perspective.
So now you won’t yell at a student who hasn’t done the readings?
No, I will shame them. I will shame students for not reading or for showing up late. I’m pretty rigorous with class. Shame them in a humorous way, I hope. But I won’t leave the class feeling nearly as bad because if the neo-Nazis aren’t out to get you then you’re probably doing okay. You’re probably having a better day.
I think my wife and I tried to take this very seriously. It was very serious because it sucked. But because we’re nerds, geeks, whatever, we really dealt with some of it through laughter. So even though there were moments we were scared there were also moments where we were like ‘Here honey, here’s your valentine, I love you more than the white supremacists hate you.” Things like that.
You got a lot of hate mail, but you got one very weird letter in particular [it was this cryptic “murder” letter].
Yeah that one was weird. But I’ve got weirder.
What’s the weirdest piece of hate mail that you got out of all of this?
As somebody who comes from Texas, that didn’t seem like hate to me as much as Texas to me. No, that’s not fair. It just seemed a little off-kilter. The weirdest ones that I’ve gotten—I’ve got a couple of them on my desk right now. One of them, it’s not hate mail per se, but it’s just awesome and hilarious because this person either wants to completely avoid the conversation or they’re not getting it or they’re using this to hate black people even more. I don’t know. But it was a letter from somebody here in Phoenix — they gave me their return address — who wrote to me to tell me I should look to the plight of albinos because that’s the real problem with whiteness, and that I should understand this because black people are really mean to albinos. So when you talk about handwritten letters and the fact that this one was in those block letters—I don’t know. Creepy. Weird. With my sense of humor, I’m keeping it.
Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.