I have long wanted to generate more campus conversation about the concept of white privilege, the system of unearned societal benefits that white people enjoy solely on the basis of our skin color. After years of reading independently, participating in workshops and attending lectures, I decided to lead a workshop this January. I invited a colleague from Burlington, Facilitator/Trainer Lisa Bedinger, to join me.
The experience of designing and co-leading a workshop for nine intrepid white students was intense, provocative, and frustrating. Our goals for the workshop were to discuss how racism is taught, learned, and manifested; to consider how our identities develop as white people; to examine how white privilege operates daily and affects us personally; and to explore ways to eliminate racism. We advised our students at the outset that if we were doing our work effectively, they would emerge with more questions than answers, and so it was for me as well.
I did, however, gain some insights, and although they are too numerous to include here, I will share three of them:
1. Seriously engaging racism inevitably involves making racist mistakes. I believe that most white people did not choose to learn racism, yet as products of a racist society, we cannot avoid unconsciously internalizing racist messages. The fear of making mistakes keeps many of us from connecting in meaningful ways with people of color or participating in community dialogues about race and privilege, which stunts our growth and prolongs our ignorance. I have made and will continue to make racist mistakes in this work, some of which I am aware of and try to rectify, others of which, unfortunately, I am not. I hate knowing that my lack of insight may hurt others and reinforce oppressive systems, and that my own knowledge may come at the expense of others. I also know that if I let my fear of making mistakes influence my willingness to deeply engage the topic of racism, I will never progress.
2. Dismantling white privilege involves both intragroup and cross-group dialogue. After deep consideration, Lisa and I designed this workshop solely for white students. There is a history of white people looking to people of color to be our educators on our own racism, and this can be exploitative and painful for people of color. Both groups also approach this topic from very different vantage points and bring different needs to the conversation. We chose to focus our efforts on helping white people to recognize and acknowledge our privilege and to begin to understand how it is in our own best interest to fight our own and others’ racism. Given the pain and shame that can characterize the exploration of our own internalized bigotry, we felt this goal would be best achieved in an all-white group. It is clear, however, that both white students and students of color are eager, even desperate, for opportunities for cross-group dialogue about race and privilege, and Dean Shirley Ramirez and I are working to develop more venues for them to take place. And although intragroup work is important for white people and can prepare us to be more effective allies to people of color, it should never be used as a substitute for cross-group communication.
3. Understanding racism requires both the head and the heart. Some of us were more interested in reading articles and considering facts about how white privilege operates. Others preferred group exercises that required reexamination of our own upbringings and experiences through this new lens. I believe it is essential to understand white privilege both intellectually, so we can recognize it in the systems that structure our communities, and individually, so we can recognize it within ourselves.
Please share your thoughts on white privilege and cross-group communication at Middlebury. What do you think supports or stifles substantive conversation about race and privilege at Middlebury? What can students do to advance this conversation?