It is a stereotypical misconception that the authors of books on racism must be minorities. Whitworth psychology professor James Waller punches a great big hole in that assumption with his book Prejudice Across America, which he'll be reading from next week.
"As a white American, I wanted to speak to white America about the problem of race and the role they play in it," Waller says. Born and raised in Georgia, he attributes growing up in a racially divided southern state as the main trigger for his interest in racism.
"I was old enough to remember the colored drinking fountains and segregated facilities," Waller says. "I never understood why they were necessary."
But his book, which was published in October, is not a detached theoretical lecture on what went wrong between the whites and the rest of the population in the U.S. It's more like a travellogue detailing a 1998 tour Waller and his (mainly white) students embarked upon to understand the effects of racism on minorities in America.
Inspired by Douglas Brinkley's book, The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey, Waller takes a class on a monthlong trek across the United States every two years. He and his students visit Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, Birmingham, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., in an effort to better understand and empathize with minorities.
"I want [my students] to get an increased awareness of many of the problems facing Americans today. With an increased awareness comes an increased sense of responsibility," says Waller, "I want them to take responsibility and make a difference."
He likens the crusade to biting off a piece of an elephant, instead of attempting to devour the entire beast — you may not get full, but you at least get a taste for what it's like.
As a social psychologist, Waller studies the area of human relations and group dynamics.
"It's the impact of other people on how we think, feel and behave," says Waller. Social psychology pertains to areas of normal human relations, but he is more interested in human mis-relations and ultimately their reconciliation. But to him, reconciliation means that minorities should sustain their heritage.
"Minorities have had the greatest loss, but white Americans have given up part of their heritage as well," Waller says. "No one should give up that piece of who they are." While he doesn't believe in a colorblind nation — the melting pot — he would like to see individual identities based on gender, religion, race and ethnicity coexist in one large, mixed salad.
In his book, Waller also writes of the necessity for minorities to express their anger toward white Americans. In one incident, he is disappointed after attending a reading by Nathan McCall, a prominent black author. Waller writes, "I wish he had yelled at us more tonight."
In an effort to keep his students engaged in learning, Waller does what he can to have them meet challenging people. It is sobering for the students to hear the resentment of people whose lives have been altered due to prejudice and racism, he says. And he readily admits to purposefully seeking out aggressive and outspoken minorities.
"The best learning occurs when people are out of their comfort zone and are being challenged," Waller says.
The only thing he would do differently is that he wishes he had the opportunity to go back and talk to the students about their experiences a year later, something he believes would have made his book and tour feel more complete.
Still, he is encouraged by what he's seen, and Waller plans on doing the tours until he retires. Actually, he believes the tours are his most important course.
"If I had a choice between the tours and a classroom setting, I would choose the tours," Waller says. "They're a great learning experience."
James Waller will read from his book on Thursday, Feb. 22, at 7 pm at the NorthTown Barnes & amp; Nobles and on Tuesday, February 27, at 7:30 pm at Auntie's Bookstore.