I was not introduced to an open and honest conversation about race and racial relations until my senior year of college. I enrolled in the class specifically because “Race and Ethnic Relations” was the only class offered at my school that explicitly emphasized race. The first day, my professor told us to outline different stereotypes of people based on their race. She then asked us to consider the stereotypes of white people, which evoked a squirming in chairs and the shuffling of papers by my majority white classmates. We were not used to considering ourselves as people who fit into stereotypes. She then had us read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” That was the first time I was asked to discuss and explore white privilege.
The professor taught us to converse about some of the most taboo subjects in our society; subjects that had gone untouched my entire life. After a semester, many of us in the class felt like the earth had been moved off its axis, as though we had this information that everyone should know. Yet, outside of the classroom remained a pervasive and oppressive silence about skin privilege. What does this silence mean then for not only a small private liberal arts college (with only 11% of its students identifying as non-white), but for the wider society?
Discussions of privilege are not mandated in the curriculum of elementary schools, middle schools, high school, or even college and graduate schools. The discussion of our racial history is always without mention of the current racial climate within our society. With the absence of these conversations, white people are growing up ignorant of their own benefit from a system of injustice. Race is only ever mentioned in terms of people of color, without mention of white people. The very foundations for discussions on race echo existing racial hierarchies and are often one of the largest tools used to perpetuate racial privilege. The policies and structures that systematically advantage white people over people of color continue to thrive. White individuals must begin to recognize that we have a racial identity and begin to face our discomfort with the idea of our privilege.
We must actively work to dismantle this racially unjust system, or else it will be perpetuated, and the issue of white privilege will fall out of the discussion forever.
Today there is little exploration or public awareness of how the racial caste system has evolved to criminalize the black individual of this country. There is also little investigation that goes into how educational and employment opportunities are still severely limited for people of color. A study published in the American Economic Review reports that applicants with black-sounding names received 50% fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding names (“Race and Class: Blacks Still Taking the Hit”).
The absence of meaningful conversations which explore why these inequalities exist is an unconscious perpetuation of persecution of entire populations of people. Untrained professionals, teachers, and individuals who have a nagging suspicion that there is something unjust happening in society today are left without the language to express it. It then becomes very difficult for people of color to connect with white people who refuse to acknowledge that they are privileged in a system based on the exploitation of the other.
Are we doomed to pass down this distortion of American history, which perpetuates white privilege to our children? Will people of color continue to be pushed aside and dismissed as “playing the race card” whenever they bring up these taboo subjects or claim discrimination? As I have become more self-aware and aware of the systems of privilege that surround me, I cannot but hope for a different outcome. I have attended several conversations where the intent of the organizers was to address white privilege.
The first, put on by the MLK society at my college, changed the name of the program because they were worried no white students would show up. Instead of addressing white privilege, they addressed words used to harm others. In an effort to engage their mostly white audience, they tried to avoid making us feel uncomfortable, but raised awareness of the issues of stereotypes and how these stereotypes of people are harmful to the individual and diminish the opportunities for interracial communications. Although I was disappointed in the content of the conversation, I understood that had they started with talking about white privilege, many of the audience members would have shut down.
The problem with acknowledging white privilege is that it demands an action. The next step must be to fight the system that unfairly and systematically advantages them over others. This does not mean that they do not want their privilege; it simply means that they want everyone else to enjoy the same privileges as they do. These privileges include being hired for a job they are qualified for, not being followed around in a store, or stopped and frisked on the side of a street. Simple things like being shown every house or apartment without restriction, being given the benefit of the doubt and let go with a warning after being pulled over, and finding makeup and Band-Aids that match their skin tone. Any decent person would find it difficult to not try and act out against these issues. Therefore ignorance is integral for allowing moderate white America to continue business as usual.
The next conversation I attended was orchestrated by Kyle Silliman-Smith, one of the coordinators at the Peace & Justice Center. She is a white woman that recognizes white privilege and works to educate herself and others about the implications of the unjust advantages that white people receive based on their skin color. The conversation took place in a UVM pre-med class. The professor invited her to speak about white privilege as an opener to the course which would later invite many other speakers of different racial backgrounds to explain their experiences in the medical field. Kyle started by asking the students different questions about their experiences and by explaining some her own experiences and what led her to recognize her own white privilege.
The conversation became derailed when students started mentioning reverse racism and people of color unfairly using their “race card.” They implied that these singular negative comments toward white people were enough to undo two hundred years of oppression. These arguments allow them to use one example to distance themselves from the realities of racial inequality. There was an inability for the students of this class to recognize how their privilege had contributed to their seats in this classroom, or how affirmative action policies do not allow unqualified students of color in. These “special advantages” that white students were attacking completely ignored the vast number of white students who were admitted to college because their parents had gone to the same college, an advantage almost completely exclusive to white students.
The conversation was disheartening, but the effort was being made to raise mindfulness, and at the very least these future medical professionals had to confront something that made them uncomfortable. Regardless of whether the conversation is going as planned or being derailed, the most important aspect remains that the conversation about white privilege is being conducted. At no point is any effort to raise awareness about skin privilege a waste of time. There is no one action that will create a complete cognizance about white privilege, but with each conversation, training or workshop that is held, there will be an unavoidable increase in people talking about race.
One thing I have gained from these interactions has been a sense that the process of learning and awareness is continuous. Each day is a new chance to become more alert to the systems of privilege in place, and how as an individual I am operating within those systems. I will never have all the answers or be completely competent in my racial justice endeavors, but I am aware of the injustice, and I am no longer blind to my own complicity in this system. Each day, the conversation evolves.
By Amanda Sanderson, PJC Intern