Volume 80 | Issue 5
September 2012

Influence of Whiteness on College Unions

Eric Love & Robert A. Meyer

Earlier this year, the authors participated in a class titled, “Critical Perspectives of Whiteness in Education.” The class readings and discussions led the authors to propose the question: “To what extent, if any, did whiteness influence the formation and expansion of college unions?” This question was a natural curiosity as both authors met at a college unionBSUCC almost 20 years ago. At the time Robert Meyer, an employee of the Boise State University Student Union, and Eric Love, the student president of the university’s Black Student Union, worked to establish the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Celebration program.

This example of individuals working together on a joint program illustrates the role of college unions today at institutions across the United States. But our history also is an example of how some students struggled for inclusion. By understanding the formation of college unions and Black Student Unions—and the role whiteness has played in their development—campus professionals can better implement strategies to build community in the future. To begin, we need to define whiteness. 

Definition of whiteness

Whiteness is different from the term “white people.” As Zeus Leonardo stated in the 2002 Race Ethnicity and Education article “The Souls of White Folk: Critical Pedagogy, Whiteness Studies, and Globalization Discourse,” “‘Whiteness’ is a racial discourse, whereas the category of ‘white people’ represents a socially constructed identity, usually based on skin color.” White peopleBSU2 represent just one category to describe an individual—similar to how one is classified based on religion, gender, or nationality. Whereas, whiteness is a belief system that sets a standard for what is best in society.

Understanding this difference, the authors will use the definition of whiteness developed from the class: “Whiteness is a global ideology that maintains and manages resources through laws and institutions. Whiteness confers privileges and power in the form of social, symbolic, cultural, and economic capital as well as the power of governance to a set of individuals. Historically, whiteness has privileged individuals who are white, male, and protestant, wealthy, heterosexual, and able-bodied. These characteristics establish the norm. Whiteness creates a hierarchy of privilege based on an individual’s perceived proximity to the norm. For those outside of the norm, whiteness induces fear and terror. It perpetuates itself by constantly evolving and adapting.”

To determine if whiteness influenced the development of college unions and Black Student Unions, a review of their histories was conducted. The evidence indicated that social, economic, cultural, and symbolic capital possessed by college unions and Black Student Unions differ and affected their formation. 

College unions

The origin of college unions began at Cambridge University in 1815 and Oxford University in 1823. They were established as private student clubs providing white men the opportunity to practice their oral argument skills in preparation for professional careers in business and parliament. Today, U.S. college unions are active campus centers focused on building community for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the public.

Before there were facilities, college unions in the United States were formed by white male students and interested administrators as a club where campus members from across disciplines could spend their leisure time eating, reading, recreating, and attending concerts, lectures, and dramatic productions. As institutions grew, so too did college unions. In “The Michigan Union 1904–2004,” Jeffrey Rowe wrote there was “a need for a large living room, a library, equipment for billiards and bowling, and bedrooms for distinguished guests and visiting alumni.” As places for relaxation, facilities such as Houston Hall, Hart House, Ohio Union, Michigan Union, and Indiana Memorial Union were constructed and maintained with membership dues, student and alumni donations, regents’ support, state legislation, and student fees. From this foundation, college unions prospered. 

Black Student Unions

In 1966, U.S. historically white colleges and universities were admitting more black students than ever because of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which banned discrimination in education. However, the climate on campus was decidedly inhospitable to the newly arrived black students. Thus, there grew a desire to create a BSU1group that would unite black students in organizing political and social activities. Forty-five years ago, it was the activism of San Francisco State University students that gave birth to the first Black Student Union. This new union gave black students, as Luther McManus indicated in his book “The New Breed – Black Activists,” an identity on campus.

Unlike the institutional support realized by white men for the establishment of social clubs and college unions, black students had to make demands, Ibram Rogers reminded us in his 2006 Black Issues in Higher Education article, “Celebrating 40 Years of Activism.” The list began with the recruitment of more black students, faculty, staff, and athletes. It also included establishing ethnic studies programs and funding to support a growing black student population. From an interview with former Indiana University Dean of Students Michael Gordon, black students did not feel comfortable meeting in the union to establish a Black Student Union. They were afraid that white students would be alarmed at seeing a large group of black students together, so they met at a faculty member’s house. In 2010, Lekan Oguntoyinbo wrote in “Demanding Satisfaction” that Black Student Unions still are making pleas for institutions to hire black faculty and administrators. Additionally, research continues to indicate that black students feel unwelcome at some institutions. With a persistent need for both political and social identity, Black Student Unions continue to be formed. 

A clear difference

In contrasting college unions with Black Student Unions, it is clear there is a difference in capital resources: social, economic, cultural, and symbolic. The disparity of social capital, the benefits one receives from relationships with others, is apparent in both organizations’ history. Whereas Black Student Unions had to make public demands to school administrators for recognition, white men used social capital when suggesting the establishment of college unions. At The Ohio State University, white student Aaron Cohn proposed the idea of a college union in 1908, and at other institutions small groups were formed that often included administrators or the institution’s president.

For college unions, the economic capital is revealed in the way state governments, alumni, membership dues, and student fees amassed enough support to fund programs and later build union facilities. In comparison, Black Student Unions’ early funding was solely from member dues. Today there is institutional support for academic programs and staff, but some can argue not at the same extent.

Cultural capital is evident when one realizes there is a white culture and a black culture within the United States. For college unions, the obvious example is that unions were initially for white men. The early college union activities were dominated by white male culture: playing billiards and cards, listening to sporting events on the radio, and discussing politics. So too there became a black culture; but before it was prevalent on campuses, students needed to challenge the existing white culture—hence the demand for Black Student Unions.

Finally, there is symbolic capital. This is the true testament of how whiteness influenced the formation of college unions. The symbol is the physical union facility. The symbolic capital from Black Student Unions is evident in the establishment of Black Student Unions at institutions beyond San Francisco State University, the development of African American studies departments, and for some campuses the creation of multicultural centers or separate black student centers.

After the efforts of integrating first women and then students of color into the college union, it is clear that many unions continue to reflect their whiteness history. If this is not true, then why is there a need for separate black student centers, Asian student centers, or other identity centers on campuses? Do college unions serve all students? Yes, they do, but history continues to influence the programs, amenities, and services provided.  

Moving forward

While the historical development of college unions and Black Student Unions is different, one hopes that 45 years after the founding of the first Black Student Union interracial relations and interaction on campuses would have tremendously increased. However, at many institutions there is still an absence of cross-cultural interaction. Self-segregation, perhaps based on a historical precedent, is still the norm on many campuses. College unions and Black Student Unions can move forward, together, in addressing these issues by applying the tactics that follow.

Diversity, inclusion, and multicultural competency training
College unions need to make an intentional effort to transform the culture of the institution so that all students, including black students, feel welcome and sense of ownership in the college union. Training all college union staff (professional, support, customer service, custodial, etc.) can foster the inclusive environment desired for more integration. Multicultural competency training will assist staff to become more skilled and comfortable working with diverse populations. Reminders of common courtesy for customer service staff can make students feel welcome and valued.
Art too is part of our intentional training. Artwork in the college union should reflect the diversity found in the current student populations. Viewing portrait after portrait of important white men on the walls conveys a message that nonwhite students do not belong. Campus professionals should not take this to mean they must remove historical portraits of prominent men. Rather, they can include representation of people of color or culturally relevant art for all students to identify. This hasBSU3 been done successfully at various institutions (e.g., the Cesar Chavez Student Center murals at San Francisco State University).

Specifically contacting the Black Student Union with a letter of invitation to use the services available in the college union would be a welcomed gesture. Invite the organization officers to meet with staff personally and discuss ways in which the college union can be of service. One cannot assume that all students feel they are welcomed; staff also need to tell them. Additionally, actively seek applicants from the Black Student Union to apply for student positions in the college union. Student workers are excellent college union ambassadors.

Share historical and current relevance
College unions and Black Student Unions should take time to share their histories with each other. Understanding the climate when each organization was founded can provide insight and mutual respect between the two groups. Also, sharing the current mission and relevance of each group can assist in opening doors for possible collaborations.

Cooperative sponsorships
College union professionals can learn about the programs the Black Student Union annually sponsors and then find ways to assist with the event or offer to co-sponsor. Often only black students attend events sponsored by the Black Student Union. With cooperative sponsorships and marketing, college unions can be effective at reaching a diverse audience. Furthermore, sponsorships could lead to college union staff offering mentoring opportunities to Black Student Union members. This is how the authors met decades ago.

Event planning
Many of the best activities on campus are successful because of student input and implementation. No matter how insightful staff members are to student needs, current students generally know their peers better. They know what their classmates are interested in, what they will attend and not attend. To increase the presence and participation of black students at events, include black students in the planning. This includes homecoming themes, comedians, concerts, and cultural events. Sometimes, well-intentioned programming can go wrong because a black speaker brought on campus to appeal to black students has a perspective that actually is counter to that
student population. 


To a great extent, whiteness influenced the development of early college unions and the need for a black voice on campus gave rise to Black Student Unions. The result of these two different forms of unions is told in the social, economic, cultural, and symbolic capital possessed by the respective organizations. With staff training, intentional outreach, cooperative sponsorships, and collaborative event planning, the gap between college unions and Black Student Unions can be eliminated. This is the purpose of unions—to be the community center of the college, for all the members. 

Contributor biographies

LoveEric Love, director of diversity education at Indiana University–Bloomington, advises student organizations and provides diversity and multicultural competency training to students, faculty, and staff. As an undergraduate at Boise State University, Love served as the first African American student body president before moving on to earn a master’s degree from Idaho State University in counseling.

MeyerRobert A. Meyer, Ph.D., joined the Indiana University–Bloomington staff in 2008 as the Indiana Memorial Union’s assistant director for activities and events. Prior to this appointment, Meyer worked at Boise State University and North Dakota State University. His responsibilities include advising IU’s Union Board, supervising both outdoor and indoor recreation staffs, and serving as an associate instructor for the School of Education.