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Aug 22, 2008

White Privilege

This week, we had a diversity workshop for college faculty on white privilege. By all accounts, it was very well done. The conversation was meaningful, and it felt right. The presenter Linda Black used a framework that originates with Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege concept. Most of us, college professors either knew the concept before, and if not, had no trouble grasping it. What remains unanswered though is what to do about it. One can say that as college faculty, we have an obligation to teach the White privilege to our students, so they understand how it works. However, it simply pushes the question one level down: once we manage to explain our students how the privilege works, what then? They will ask us what THEY should do about it.

The real problem is not with understanding that there exists the invisible privilege associated with one's race, class, sexual orientation, etc., but with what to do about it. This is a relatively new historical phenomenon. In the past, privilege was explicitly claimed by specific dress, language, behavior, or other visible markers. Now much of privilege exists by the means of not marking itself, and instead by marking everyone else. He is an African-American writer, we say, but she is simply a writer. These guys are Islamic terrorists, but Timothy McVeigh in is simply a terrorist. I do not wear "I am straight" sign on my forehead, but will silently assume we all know I am straight. Because the power is manifested by being "normal," buy being non-exotic, how do you refuse to exercise it? In other words, how does a White guy refuses to exercise the privilege, if it is exercised by doing nothing? How do you not do nothing?

One way to do control one's privilege is by watching one's behavior and language. His is what I and many of my colleagues do. It is surely important, and can be learned. However, let us be honest, these measure are not too effective. Just by bringing my White face into a conversation, I may change the power dynamics of a conversation. The same goes for gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. We can control our behavior and language to some degree, but cannot control our skin color, gender, and sexual orientation. There is bias by behavior and bias by being; the former can be somewhat changed, the latter – I am not so sure.

What makes it more complicated, is that the White privilege is always contested, and sometimes very successfully. In certain settings and situations, women, and minorities will claim their own privileges. A small example: let's say the conversation changed to childbirth. Most (but not all) women will immediately reverse the power equation to imply that only they can produce any valid judgment about it, and men's opinions are not taken seriously. We all do that code switching hundreds of times a day; we manipulate contexts of social interactions to claim and exercise power. We claim many kinds of authority and privilege over each other, unconsciously. In these games, it is very difficult to distinguish the systemic kinds of privilege McIntosh is taking about, from other, less systemic, and more contextual power plays. I'd risk claiming that most people are incapable of making these distinctions on the go. A regular White guy who feels momentarily powerless will generalize this feeling into the entire issue of White privilege. The absolute majority of men, Whites, upper class, straight people – you name it – do not feel very powerful, and thus have a hard time recognizing the concept of the invisible privilege, even when they have a good intellectual grasp on it.

I am just trying to outline the real difficulty that anti-bias project faces. The solution seems to lie with some process of de-normalizing Whiteness, maleness and heterosexuality. While there is a lot of good thinking about these issues going on in scholarly communities, I don't think we are really there yet. In other words, the issue is not only with lack of efforts, but also with the lack of practical, manageable solutions. How do you make the normal questionable? Can there be no norm at all?

I imagine there could be a way to systematically analyze our institutional policies, documents, and practices for normativity or privilege (I am sorry for the jargon; not sure how else to say it without writing a long essay). But I don't know if such a process exists, or if there are instruments helping to do that. I am sure anyone can find a few examples where, for example the choice of textbooks or T&P documents, or illustrations may reinforce certain group privileges. Any social practice can be examined: who is likely to benefit? Who is likely to be left out? However, I am not sure if there is a more holistic and systematic way of assessing our institutional practices. Does anyone know? And if it does not exist, can we try to develop it? Something practical, manageable, with lists, criteria, ratings, that would allow to focus on the most important things, and be done in a reasonable time with reasonable effort? Not too complex to invite faking?

My hope is that our College Diversity committee would try to do something like that. We can always use more workshops; let's also focus on sensible self-examination.

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