Essay - White Privilege (Libby Roderick)
Most white people don’t consciously intend to behave in ways that can be experienced by their students or colleagues of color as racist; they simply go along with a system that is already biased in their favor, never noticing the privileges built into their daily lives and institutional structures. This essay introduces the concept of white privilege, using the seminal work of feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh as a basis for exercises designed to help white faculty members quickly grasp the existence and mechanics of institutionalized racism, and their unaware participation within that system.
Associate Director, Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence
University of Alaska Anchorage
...it has frequently been the case that White students enrolled in my class on racial and cultural issues in counseling expect to be taught all about the cultures of people of color, and they are almost always surprised to hear that we will be discussing the White group’s experience. Some students remark that they are not White; they are female, or working- class, or Catholic, or Jewish, but not White. When challenged, they reluctantly admit that they are White, but report that this is the first time they have had to think about what it means for them.
Nobody really likes to talk about racism, oppression, and privilege. These are scary topics that bring up strong feelings of fear, defensiveness, guilt, anger, and grief. Most of us are unprepared to handle strong emotion, in the classroom or outside, and would prefer to avoid these topics if possible. Because of this discomfort, reluctance, and fear—and as many of the Difficult Dialogues projects nationwide have recognized—racism and white privilege are among the most pervasive, charged, and under-addressed difficult dialogues on campuses, in the country, and in the world.
Many of us who are white know that our group exercises unfair power and privilege over other groups. We read about it. We hear about it. In short, we know in theory that we are privileged. However, we don’t bump up against the effects of white privilege as experienced by people of color, so the reality of discrimination is lacking; for us, it’s largely an abstraction, an idea. We feel that our efforts to be fair, caring, just people make things a little better for those who are not privileged, but in fact, they do little to change their everyday experiences of institutionalized racism.
I wanted to at least make people aware of these unacknowledged privileges so that in the class- room we can make a more informed effort to ensure that we are not excluding or silencing others. I approached the topic and exercise with caution and care, deciding to place it smack in the middle of the intensive, when participants had already built some sense of safety and shared community with each other and after they’d had a chance to consider the rich tradition of Western approaches to controversy, including rhetoric and debate.
It has been twenty years since Peggy McIntosh published her working paper called White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies. This article, along with a shorter version called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, introduced the concept of privilege into academic discussions of equity, discussions that had previously focused exclusively on the deficits experienced by marginalized groups. Nearly two decades later, these two pieces remain among the most easily accessible learning tools to help European Americans quickly begin to grasp the realities of institutional racism and white privilege and their own roles within those systems.
The paper contains a list of forty-six ways in which McIntosh, a white professor, benefits from unearned white privilege, enjoying daily, institutional advantages denied her colleagues of color. McIntosh draws parallels between her experience of white privilege and the ways her male colleagues benefit from institutional sexism, and discusses the ways in which white people are systematically trained to ignore the system of privilege from which they benefit. She writes:
As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see the corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage…Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the United States think that racism does not affect them because they are not people of color: they do not see “whiteness” as racial identity…In my class and place, I did not recognize myself as a racist because I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.
I used the McIntosh article as the basis for an exercise in our faculty intensive. I made a list of twenty-three of the privileges McIntosh could take for granted that her colleagues of color could not. Participants sat in a circle and took turns reading the statements aloud. After each statement was read, we paused to allow reflection by the group. The list was then passed to the next participant to read the next statement.
I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
I can be reasonably sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
I did not have to educate our children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
I paired the list-reading exercise with an exercise called The Encircled Circle, adapted from Brookfield and Preskill. In the textbook exercise, a small circle of chairs faces inwards, surrounded by a larger circle of chairs. Volunteers fill the inner circle and begin their discussion with the question “What’s at stake here?” The rest of the participants occupy the outer circle and serve as witnesses to the focused discussion of the inner circle. At the suggestion of one of our participants, however, we added an empty chair to serve as a revolving door to the inner circle; anyone who wished could occupy it briefly, add a short comment, and return to the outer circle. This modification encouraged participation in the inner circle and created fluidity between the two groups.
The discussions were animated. Some people spoke openly of the pain of experiencing institutional and other forms of racism and of watching their children or loved ones suffer from its impacts. Others expressed surprise and dismay at the ways in which they had themselves colluded with racism without thinking about it. A white woman was horrified at the drain on energy, talent, health, and potential that results from racism. An Alaska Native professor observed that the list was missing the most significant challenge he experienced in dealing with racism on a daily basis: handling frequent physical threats and violence. He told stories of Alaska Natives on the receiving end of rough treatment by store security guards, random attacks by complete strangers, and name-calling (often being mistaken for individuals from other ethnic backgrounds, such as people of Arab or Asian descent).
This exercise allowed participants to reflect both emotionally and intellectually on the effects of white privilege and racism on our mutual lives and to begin to consider how such effects might also impact our teaching styles and our students. Stories such as these opened the eyes of others to realities of racism of which they were previously unaware.
There are painfully few opportunities in academia for faculty to wrestle with these critical issues on more than superficial or purely intellectual levels. However, in my experience, even a small bit of awareness on the part of majority professors about the kinds of pressures and systemic barriers facing many of their minority students can make them into far more trustworthy mentors and teachers, which translates into far greater academic, personal, and professional success for the students. Although it seemed to some participants that we were spending too much time on issues irrelevant to their disciplines, I am convinced it was time well spent. If we could change our practices enough so that students no longer experience us as reproducing, reinforcing, or representing an often oppressive society in the classroom, the effort would pay off hugely and in immeasurable ways. One of those ways would be fewer, but more productive, difficult dialogues.
This exercise was adapted from Brookfield and Preskill, who adapted it from the Fetzer Institute.