Instructor Postpones Class on Whiteness After Harassment, Threats

Following a social media outcry, instructor Rebecca Journey rescheduled the course “The Problem of Whiteness” due to safety concerns.


Luke Contreras

The University defended the course, citing the Chicago Principles, a University tradition that upholds a commitment to free speech and the ability to debate controversial ideas.

By Yiwen Lu

After receiving a wave of responses online, Rebecca Journey, instructor of global studies course “The Problem of Whiteness,” postponed the course from winter to spring 2023, according to an announcement on the program website.

The seminar was cross-listed with the Department of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES) and the Department of Anthropology. Journey, a teaching fellow who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from UChicago, wrote in the course description that the seminar intends to “examine the problem of whiteness through an anthropological lens.”

“In recent years, whiteness has resurfaced as a conspicuous problem within liberal political discourse,” the description states.

Since winter quarter courses became available in Week 6, a screenshot of the course listing and its description has circulated widely on Twitter. Second-year Daniel Schmidt first tweeted about the course on November 1, calling it “the most egregious example” of “anti-white hatred” on campus. Multiple right-wing media outlets, including The Daily Caller and The Washington Times, reported on the course offering. The Daily Caller also falsely named Katie Hickerson, assistant instructional professor in the history department, as an instructor of the course based on an incorrect Coursicle listing.

Schmidt was a Viewpoints columnist at The Maroon during fall 2021 and winter 2022. In February, The Maroon terminated Schmidt from his position over harassment of a fellow columnist.

Since the day after Schmidt’s Twitter thread—which included a screenshot of Journey’s bio and email—went public, Journey has received at least 80 harassing emails. “These harassing emails have included death threats, veiled threats, and threats of sexual assault, as well as all kinds of misogynistic, racist, and antisemitic languages,” she told The Maroon. Hickerson also told The Maroon that she was threatened and harassed as a direct result of the Daily Caller story and doxxing that followed.

Because of concerns for the safety of her students and herself, Journey decided to reschedule the class so that the University administration had more time to implement appropriate safety measures. As of Wednesday, November 9, the University has taken steps to protect Journey’s digital identity and develop a personal safety plan.

Journey has no intention to cancel the class. She plans to offer the class in spring with the same title, description, and content.

“I want to just state unequivocally that the class is emphatically not about ‘anti-white hatred,’” Journey said in defense of the course. “This class is about interrogating whiteness as a social construction, not as a biological fact.”

The study of whiteness has a history in the social sciences since the 1990s. Scholars have analyzed the idea of whiteness, including the concept’s multiple meanings, how it emerged from history, and how it functions in society today. The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, for example, published a 12-part series called Seeing White, discussing what it means to be white.

“None of that involves anything remotely close to attuning people who might be thought of or identify as white. It’s not about castigating people at all,” Julian Go, a sociology professor at UChicago, said in explaining the difference between anti-white racism and the study of whiteness in response to the controversy. “That is no more racist than studying how people support a sports team. I mean, they’re completely separate issues.”

The University defended the course, citing the Chicago Principles, a University tradition that upholds a commitment to free speech and the ability to debate controversial ideas. In communications with The Maroon, University spokesperson Gerald McSwiggan added, “The University will continue to defend the right of faculty to establish curricula and courses.”

The anthropology department, Journey’s home department, also condemned the online threats and harassment targeted at faculty members in a statement to The Maroon. “Academic freedom for instructors and students alike cannot flourish in a climate of fear,” department chair Shannon Dawdy wrote.

This is not the first time that colleges and universities have taught courses about similar subjects. Last winter, Journey taught the same class at UChicago and said that she had a “wonderful” experience with “some of the brightest, sharpest students I’ve ever had the pleasure to think with,” she said.

In 2016, the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW–Madison)’s Damon Sajnani offered a course that was also titled “The Problem of Whiteness” as part of the institution’s African Cultural Studies program. Wisconsin State Representative David Murphy (R-Greenville) and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke asked the university to cancel the course, citing racial divisions, according to CNN.

At the time, UW–Madison defended the continuation of the course in a statement released after the backlash. “We believe this course, which is one of the thousands offered at our university, will benefit students who are interested in developing a deeper understanding of race issues. The course is a challenge and response to racism of all kinds,” the university wrote.

This story was updated on Monday, November 14, with a statement from UChicago’s Department of Anthropology and to reflect the harassment against anthropology professor Katie Hickerson.