Feed on
Posts
Comments

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?

16 Responses to “What I Learned from Co-leading a Workshop on White Privilege: Guest Blog by Associate Dean of the College, Karen Guttentag”

  1. Deirdre Henderson, Parent says:

    Critical whiteness studies seems to be the constructivist genre du jour of the humanities, following the quarter century run of its predecessor, critical race theory, in legal academe. I would prefer to see theories of “white privilege” studied in the classroom, where, hopefully, in the best tradition of scholarship the views of those who critique the analyses and relevance of critical whiteness studies will also be examined. I do not think it appropriate for indoctrinating, self-lacerating “white privilege” seminars to be foisted upon students as part of “institutional diversity” initiatives. The underlying premise of such efforts, which is that to be white is to be “racist,” is deterministic, simplistic, divisive, and insulting. It promotes cheap victimology and mindless guilt. Most institutional diversity programs (as distinguished from actual institutional diversity) seem to reduce individuals to the sum of their group identities and cast them in the role of group representatives, substituting political posturing and negotiation for personally significant conversation. This is antithetical to the spirit and meaning of a liberal arts education.

  2. Dena Simmons says:

    You make a number of interesting points, especially the point about people of color always being put in charge of diversity trainings for mostly white people. What often happens at these diversity trainings is that the person or people of color share with the white attendees all of the injustices they have faced and continue to face on a daily basis and how hard their lives are. Not only that, but also the people of color at diversity trainings tend to have to represent “their people,” completely undermining the diversity of experiences of many people of color.

    Sadly, this type of training on diversity tends to come from one perspective, the perspective of the oppressed people. I have been a part of many of these trainings and have only grown frustrated by the fact that I have to speak up for “my people” and by the antagonistic feelings that develop from misunderstandings and the sometimes naive racist mistakes by all parties involved. While these exchanges are extremely important and while it is necessary for white people to understand what it is to be an oppressed person in our society for them to grasp their own privilege, the white people often leave these diversity trainings feeling guilty and disempowered by what they could do to change and to fight systems of oppression.

    We, people of color, need white people in our movement for equality. The fight against the “isms” needs to be a collective fight, an inclusive fight, in order for it to be a powerful fight. This is why cross-grouping is important, but this has to be done effectively and strategically with an exploration of current systems of oppression and privilege, an openness to people’s making racial mistakes and to asking “silly” questions, a mutual sharing of experiences, and the sensibility and understanding that discussions of race, of oppression, and of privilege are going to be very difficult…

  3. Benjamin says:

    One point about “Diversity Training”. Done correctly, it should include differences of all kinds, not just race. Facilitating from a point of race then disallows all real differences to be discussed and learned from.

    I would say that leaving this discussion for the classroom, especially classrooms with disproportionate numbers of students of color to white students, puts people of color in the position to always have to speak up for “my people”.

    Work towards making those numbers equal, then discussion in the classroom works.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This blog article is awash in a sea of self-loathing and pity. This piece is the kind of overreaction that stifles the achievement of true equality not only on college campuses, but everywhere. Ending racism is approached here as if it is some sort of white man’s burden part two, where as actually stopping racism is the responsibility of all peoples, because every race engages in it.

  5. This discussion is especially interesting for me. I am involved in racial reconciliation programs in my town here in the deep South, Oxford, Mississippi, and also at the University of Misissippi of which I am a graduate. It is a much more complex problem here and recently a group of U of M students held a retreat on this subject.
    I belong to a bi-racial committee of people from the Second Baptist Church which is totally African American ang my church which is Episcopal and totally white except for one Black member and an assistant rector who is Black. Our having an African American rector is a distinct break through and this man is much loved and respected in our community. He involves young people of both races in joint activities with much success which gives hope that the next generation will find things changed and better.
    Your “white privilege” concept is most interesting and something people here in the deep South need to think about long and hard. We have come a long way since separate drinking fountains but we have a ways yet to go. Your work on this problem emphasizes that it is not just a southern problem. I am enriched from having read this article.

  6. agrees with anonymous says:

    I can’t believe these discussions are helpful to anyone. I am raising 4 children in the heart of America. They go to school, play sports and socialize regularly with kids of all colors, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. Not one of these kids would even know what you are talking about when you espouse the idea of “white privilege”. All they know is that if one works hard and is a good friend and citizen good things come one’s way.

    These discussions only promote the notion that people of color are victims and whites should feel ashamed and guilty about the sins of their fathers.

    We are on the brink of witnessing Senator Obama win the Democratic nomination and possibly the White House. The concept of white privilege is not one in which I want my kids mired. Americans ,of all color, need to focus on respect and compassion for others, self-respect, and above all, personal accountablity.

  7. Lauren Adams, '87 says:

    I am thrilled to read Dean Guttentag’s blog and learn that this kind of hard work is happening at Middlebury College. When I attended the school in the 80’s, a “color blind” affect prevailed (really, you’re black? I never noticed!) and there were only a handful of students of color. I know that the college has been working to rectify the latter ever since.

    We can’t talk honestly about race without acknowledging differences in experience and unearned privilege. Though many uncomfortable feelings will arise during any serious work on racism, shame and self-loathing are hardly the purpose; removing blinders and seeing the realities of our society is. That Senator Obama has a real shot at the presidency is a great cause for celebration, as are communities with organic racial and cultural interaction, such as Agrees with Anonymous describes. But to believe that average hard-working, good citizens of all colors have the same opportunities in this country is sadly false. Study after study shows discrimination in hiring, home-buying, money-lending, etc. Whites, like me, have an advantage every time we walk into a bank or realtor’s office.

    Indeed, active anti-racism must be pursued collectively, and no single group is solely responsible. Interracial and cross-cultural communication is essential. But Dean Guttentag and her “nine intrepid white students” have made an outstanding start in this work at Middlebury, and can only inspire more efforts in a variety of groups and settings.
    Bravo.

  8. Jamie Zug, '08 says:

    I am a student at Middlebury and I took part in the white privilege workshop discussed in this blog entry. While I appreciate the concerns raised by Deirdre Henderson about the “self-lacerating” and “mindless” nature of white privilege initiatives, this hardly describes my experience as a participant. While I did spend time in the workshop asking myself tough questions about my own role in a racist society I did not do so at the expense of my own dignity or self-worth. To the contrary, the workshop empowered me to be honest with myself and to begin developing a positive white ethnic identity. Owning my whiteness in a new way enables me to challenge to the myth that two groups live in the United States: “ethnic” people and “normal” people. Rather, we are all “ethnic” people that carry distinct histories and perspectives that inform our day to day lives and affect the way we are treated in institutions and personal relationships. In response to Anonymous, although I do believe that everyone has a responsibility to fight racism I think that white people today have a special role to play as the primary heirs of economic, political, and social power. To Deirdre Henderson, surely these issues deserve critical attention in the academy, but to shut the issue of white privilege behind classroom doors would be to deny the active role that it plays in other realms of college life. Agree with Anonymous said that the time has come for “personal responsibility,” but personal responsibility begins with me as a white person owning the issue of racism in America.

  9. Joan Ashley says:

    My husband’s granddaughter is married to an African man from Ghana.
    When it came time to have their baby, she came home to the Upper Valley and Dartmouth-Hitchcock. We all were thrilled. The little girl arrived and we all made tender jokes about waiting to see her “color up” This marriage was joyous for all the family and the baby is truly beautiful..When the granddaughter mentioned that they might not always live in Ghana, they might come back and work in D.C.
    Then my racism showed…oh no, I thought. In Washington she will be just one more light-skinned Black. I was horrifird and embarrassed to admit the thought to myself.
    My son is married to a Samoan. When visiting one time in a different village, I rounded a corner and came upon two little sister playing. They screamed when they saw me and ran, screaming. They had to be carried, rigid,to another villsge. They had been taught that white people were evil ghosts.
    Sometimes I feel that wishing for true racial equality is like wishing for Peace. Great idea, but can it ever happen?

  10. On Staff at Midd says:

    I think the best way to get over ones “issues” is to spend time with others outside of their own race. When I went to college 15 years ago I was mortified when I walked into my room and found out I had a black roommate. I was quickly sickened and appalled by my first reaction. I had always had friends of other races but this took things to a new level. It took me about 1 semester to finally get over it all and really realize that we were really one and the same. I am still shocked about how I first felt walking into my new room but I would not trade the experience for anything in the world.

  11. Bob Metz says:

    I recently listened to a BBC interview with a wonderful musician/social activist from Ghana.

    When asked how she manages to be an effective agent of change she said,

    “Make them feel guilty, nothing happens. Empower them with the power of your heart, ah – then change is possible”

    Terminology can turn people away very quickly. Shock value feels good to workshop/committee leaders who feel intensely about injustice and hate. But it clearly offends those who might otherwise be open to thoughtful listening and growth.

  12. Deirdre Henderson, Parent says:

    When considered in the classroom, the “white privilege” metanarrative (also sometimes referred to in the literature as “white skin privilege”) can, we would hope, be considered for what it is, an intellectual construct of “critical whiteness studies” proponents that can be subjected to testing, evaluation and the views of its critics. When considered in the context of a diversity training “white privilege” workshop, its concepts and relevance become “received truth,” and we apparently hear such specious and condescending conclusions, embedded in Karen Guttentag’s guest blog, as: white people are ipso facto racist, and they cannot help but live in a state of ignorance that requires correction by diversity training.

    Let’s look at some of the kinds of nonsensical functional implications that flow from the “white skin privilege” metanarrative:

    Should the immigrant student who arrived in the US from war-torn Yugoslavia with her penniless family and no knowledge of English, attended a marginal urban school while holding down a part-time job and became an academic star in spite these challenges, feel guilty or less deserving because of her “white skin privilege?”

    Should Jewish students, who succeed academically in disproportionate numbers, and whose recent ancestors enjoyed their “white skin privilege” while residing in the shtetls, ghettos and concentration camps of Eastern Europe and suffering systematic exclusion in the U.S. from many colleges, professions and other economic opportunities, feel less proud of their heritage and accomplishments because of their “white skin privilege?”

    And what do we make of East Asian students, who also succeed in disproportionate numbers? Are they benefiting from—let’s see, it must be– “yellow skin privilege” because they are not black or brown?

    In the end, where does the “white skin privilege” metanarrative get us? Are white students supposed to find ways to oppress themselves to achieve equality?

    At its worst, the white skin privilege metanarrative can lead to truly vicious politics. Please read the letter of Houston Baker, a well-known professor of African-American studies, to the Duke University administration in the spring of 2006 about what turned out to be the Duke lacrosse team rape hoax. http://www.dukenews.duke.edu/mmedia/features/lacrosse_incident/lange_baker.html. Baker’s inflammatory public rant, released before any meaningful investigation of the alleged crime took place and despite the lacrosse team’s profession of innocence, suggested no fewer than five times that the alleged crime had actually taken place, virtually convicted the players apparently on the basis of their “white male privilege,” and called for the entire lacrosse team and their coach to be dismissed. He was a ringleader of the rush-to-judgment mob that fed distorted media coverage, enabled a rogue prosecutor, and publicly pilloried and endangered innocent students at his own university. Baker’s retailing of the white privilege metanarrative trumped the pursuit of truth, the presumption of innocence, and the dispassionate review of evidence. Shamefully, Middlebury welcomed the improvident Baker to campus in late February as a visiting scholar to speak on, ironically, “rape and healing.”

    Call me an old-fashioned liberal, but it seems to me that a more productive approach that might actually achieve the desired result of empathy, understanding, commitment to social justice, and community cohesion is to: (a) reaffirm, clearly and regularly the fundamental values that I daresay most Middlebury students were raised with and that parents certainly hope the college shares: tolerance and respect, condemnation of invidious forms of discrimination, judging people as individuals, and, yes, accepting personal responsibility; and (b) provide as many opportunities as possible (but especially through heterogeneous living arrangements where informal contacts and friendships most readily happen) for one-to-one and small group interactions to occur among Middlebury’s diverse population of students. And for heaven’s sake, let’s stop pushing everyone to “engage difference” and let them discover commonalities. That’s when people really engage with each other. As Bill Clinton urged in his Middlebury commencement address last year, “Our common humanity is more important than our differences.”

  13. Oh Please. says:

    What was the Duke Lacrosse Team doing with strippers at a party? It was fine to have these white privileged athletes hire black strippers for a party in a clear objectification of women.

    That’s were it starts.

    I’m sure you’d feel differently had what happened to Houston Baker and his wife happened to you.

  14. Deirdre Henderson, Parent says:

    Oh my, Oh Please, where to begin. Perhaps with some fact checking. The Duke team did not order up “black” strippers. The escort service they contacted sent two strippers who happened to be black.

    No one condones college parties with strippers. But it is not uncommon at Duke and many other campuses for men—and women—to have such parties. Perhaps we now have equal opportunity objectification. This may be sleazy and sophomoric, and it certainly offends me, but it is not illegal or criminal. (In one of the many hypocrisies in this case, Duke excoriated the lacrosse players for holding a party with strippers, then permitted University funds to be used to bring to campus the “Sex Workers Art Show,” a piece of alleged performance art by sex workers, the details of which I will omit, but it makes the lacrosse team party look like nursery school.) You may be interested to learn that a special committee, chaired by James Coleman, a well-respected Duke law professor and an African American and commissioned by Duke’s president, to look into the behavior and culture of the lacrosse team, concluded, among other things, that there was no evidence that the lacrosse players were either sexist or racist, and much evidence to the contrary.

    We can all sympathize with the Bakers for the horrific experience they suffered when two black men broke into their house in Philadelphia many years ago and committed rape and burglary. This experience does not, however, entitle Houston Baker to throw all concepts of due process to the wind and publicly presume the guilt of his university’s own students for a terrible crime on the basis of nothing more than their supposed “white privilege.” Baker demonstrated in the Duke lacrosse matter that he subverts the pursuit of truth to his destructive identity group politics. That the objects of his perversion of scholarly responsibility were his University’s own students, whom he demonstrably held in contempt because of their race and gender, is morally repugnant.

    And, by the way, the lacrosse players apologized on several occasions to the Duke community, their families and their coach for holding the party. Houston Baker has never apologized for his atrocious behavior.

  15. Nicholas Palmeri, student says:

    To Mrs. Henderson, I am a student who joined Karen Guttentag’s white privelege workshop. Initially, I had the attitude that there are many ways in which I as a white person experience pre-judgement based on my race, racism, and that racism is a two way street. I also felt, when first reading the invitation to the group a sense of disempowerment, and an undermining of my own acheivments at the concept of “white privelege” which I found hurtful. I resigned myself initially to find out what arguments existed as to how white privelege exists, and assumed that none would be compelling enough to change any fo my thinking.

    I find your blog entries to be articulate and compelling, and perhaps mine, followign yours will come across as a student at the peak of my liberal, political fervor, that will someday devolve to apathy, but I hope that as a participant in the group I can offer some insight as to what I gained and how this changed me in a permanent way.

    The purpose of this group was not to identify how white people are innately racist and disadvantage blacks. Instead, it was about noting that being white in America is not “normal” but in fact an expression of a certain history of economic and social forces that shape family styles, speech, social interactions, pursuits such as careers and education, and myriad other expressions of cultural identity. It is not the default “setting” or means of interacting, though it is the dominant form in America. Perhaps you and the other anonymous bloggers who claim that this workshop and these studies are useless were already aware of this perception, or don’t find value in that perception, but this was a new thought for me.

    I often thought as well, and perhaps other whites may relate, that “if only blacks and other minorities could just act like us, and integrate and take part like other immigrants in the states, then they wouldn’t feel this way.” I think some individuals of minority status in America do feel comfortable adopting white values and live their lives according to white norms. That’s fine, and maybe they are happier for it. A counter that inspired thought in me, at least, was the prospect of myself trying to integrate into a community that was not like my own, like the one I was raised, and one in which my skin color was different than that of the majority of people there. I would not be comfortable, and I feel confident saying that no matter how good of an act I could pull, people would notice my race. This is exactly what we demand of blacks when we tell them to act white. A black co-worker or a black classmate who is seen as “acting white” still is black, and everyone knows it. A sad reality is that a person’s outward appearance does color our judgement, and as color blind as we are there are still subconsious ways in which individuals have preconceived notions of others. (I recommend takign the implicit associations test if you don’t beleive me. here’s the link: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/)

    The last thing I’ll say is the workshop did develop for me a sense of individuality as a white person and helped me recognize how my upbringing and cultural values are unique, white and not necessarily normal, an attitude that makes understanding other’s perspectives on race much easier.

    And another note on Houston Baker. I had the privelege of eating lunch with Mr. Baker when he came to the college. I found that we had much to agree upon especially with regards to a shared beleif that sexism and sexual problems are problems for women perpetrated by men. Similarly I beleive that racism is a problem for minorities perpetrated by whites (though I personally beleive that race can be the basis of prejudice in the opposite direction). It makes sense then that minorities are the first to notice racism and to want it acknowledged. I think having a group like the one that Dean Guttentag co-led is a first step towards a remedy for these problems in the minds of whites.

    Thanks for your interest in our group, and I apologize for my long winded entry.

  16. Lily, recent midd grad says:

    Reading these comments is simultaneously frustrating and exciting. The reason we come to Middlebury is to have our minds opened up to new ideas, stretch our intellectual boundaries, and discover who we are and who we aspire to be. As above comments from student participants indicate, I believe the workshop on white privilege opened up many people to an important conversation about the role of race in our contemporary society, what forms racism takes today, and how we personally encounter race in both ourselves and in interpersonal interactions. We must embrace our common humanity while also looking at the historical and social forces that have presented us with a disgraceful imbalance of power in this country. Simply because of the heated dialogue on this website, I deem that bringing up the idea of white privilege on this campus has been successful because it is challenging us all to think about what is important, what we have learned from history, what we take for granted, who we may overlook, and where we can improve our society and ourselves. Everyone has privileges and disadvantages in their lives, and skin color unfortunately dictates some of those characteristics. While recognizing that race is not the only determinant of your place in society – you may be rich, poor, disabled, widowed, gay, uneducated, fat, whatever – exploring the concept of white privilege is important for students who are gearing up to step into a vast, complicated world.

Leave a Reply

Sites DOT Middlebury: the Middlebury site network.