Decentering Whiteness: Dismantling privilege in the interest of racial justice

We were having a lively debate with a colleague the other day about whether systems of oppression continue to thrive because of individuals with malintent or if there is something beyond the individual at play- a more insidious normalcy and embeddedness that essentially sustains systems of oppression with or without individual action. We were arguing the latter. Let’s examine one system.

We believe that, for example, the system of White privilege, goes on everyday, thriving in fact, whether or not White folks get out of bed in the morning. With or without any specific actions they take to promote or encourage their privilege. That is to say, we believe that White privilege has become the norm, embedded in the fabric of society and its institutions. University of Minnesota Law Professor, John A. Powell, cites Professor Stephanie Wildman who “defines privilege as a ‘systemic conferral of benefit and advantage’ triggered not by merit but by ‘affiliation, conscious or not and chosen or not, to the dominant side of a power system” (1999). So, White folks are afforded privilege whether or not they want it, whether or not they choose it, and with or without any actions on their part. The reward is unearned and solely based on their skin color.

Professor Wildman points out expected behavior in the workplace is “White and male, from social behavior between employees to collective behavior.” (1996). Hence, women have to ask for accommodations to pick up their kids or breast feed. And committees have to be formed to promote diversity in hiring because the default hiring reverts to predominantly White male or White female (think of professions like education or professorships at university).

The nuance of our argument is that- although we believe systems of oppression such as the system of White privilege thrive without the dedication of any individual actors- we believe dismantling these systems requires the action and commitment of individuals who form communities dedicated to confronting and challenging inequity. It is easy for White folks to think they hold no responsibility with this system of privilege. After all “privilege does not require the conscious participation of Whites” (Powell, 1999), therefore what responsibility could they hold in dismantling it? Furthermore, this system has done nothing but benefit them so relinquishing it means relinquishing positive advantages they have enjoyed all their lives. Referring to fear of the White majority about growing diversity in United States, Gloria Steinem writes their sentiment is something along the lines of “What if I am treated as I have treated others?” Specifically, Whites have likely not spent a whole lot of time thinking about the privileges they have been afforded because of their skin color and have likely spent even less considering the disadvantages that burden people of color. Powell writes, “the confrontation of privilege also requires an exposure and problematization of a legacy of values that have constituted privilege holders.” (1999).

Decentering Whiteness requires dismantling a system that has become the status quo. Engrained. Embedded. It can be so perfectly illustrated with this excerpt below from Gary Howard’s book, We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools:

Racism for Whites has been like a crazy uncle who has been locked away for generations in the hidden attic of our collective social reality. This old relative has been a part of the family for a long time. Everyone knows he’s living with us, because we bring him food and water occasionally, but nobody wants to take him out in public. He is an embarrassment and a pain to deal with, yet our little family secret is that he is rich and the rest of us are living, either consciously or unconsciously, off the wealth and power he accumulated in his heyday. Even though many of us may disapprove of the tactics he used to gain his fortune, few of us want to be written out of his will. The legacy of racism, which has been fueled and legitimized by our assumption of rightness, has haunted the house of collective White identity for centuries.” (2006).

How then do we expose our uncle racism? He has become a part of the way we do things around here. His exposure as the menace that he truly is will shake up our world. It will prompt Whites to reimagine the lens through which they have grown comfortable approaching life. It requires all of us let go of systems and norms that have become inevitable. Facially neutral systems and norms that are insidiously grounded in racism and inequity. It will require White educators to interrogate how cultural forces infiltrate classrooms and explore steps they can take to challenge and transform the stubborn, central narrative that culturally and linguistically diverse students are regularly exposed to, and psychologically harmed by. It will require they actively seek out and employ pedagogy in their classrooms that counters biased and deficitizing narratives and replaces them with literacies that promote social justice and equity.

“One inhibitor to confrontation on the part of privilege holders is their denial and search for other explanations for their status” (Wildman, 1996). Hard work and meritocracy! Recently, Fusion.net reported that at the Iowa Black and Brown Forum, 2016 Presidential Candidate Secretary Hillary Clinton was asked point blank by a Drake University student to say what white privilege means to her, and to ‘give an example from your life or career when you think you’ve benefited from’ white privilege.” Her reply was,  “I was born white, middle-class, in the middle of America,” the former Secretary of State said. “I went to good public schools. I had a very strong, supportive family. I had a lot of great experiences growing up. I went to a wonderful college. I went to law school.” Read between the lines here. The implication is her family worked hard to earn their wealth and provide for her strength, support, great experiences, great schooling, and an advanced degree. The old myth of the American dream. These notions and justifications for unearned privilege only further perpetuate hegemonic narratives about marginalized groups that they are somehow individually responsible for the systemic oppressions to which they have been subjected. The underlying implication of her understanding of White privilege being that non-White families don’t provide the same things. It denies that she has received benefits solely because of her skin color, benefits that no one had to work for. It also opens the door for deficitizing Black and Brown families who do not have the accumulated wealth she has or who do not have access to high-quality schools. This reaction to the smart question posed by this Drake University student demonstrates a common misunderstanding of White privilege that feeds into negative stereotypes about Black and Brown folks and fails to acknowledge the systemic impact of racism in society.

A common reaction to exposure of privilege is White folks saying they don’t even see color; they treat everyone the same. The argument goes something like this… “To treat people the same who are in fact different would be to give them special treatment, thereby violating the requirement of equality that is fundamental to the logic” (Powell, 1999). In actuality, to treat people the same who are, in fact, different, is tantamount to racial erasure. Denial of past and present oppressions. Failure to honor parts of an individual’s identity that make him or her who he or she is. Our world is centered on middle to upper class, White heteronormative, English-speaking standards. Everyone else is Other-ed. This standard is then applied to how we expect colleagues, students, and parents to communicate, behave, and engage with schools. This is problematic and exclusionary. Note this anecdote we heard from a principal the other day:

A teacher came up to me the other day and told me she was having an issue with a student in class. It was happening often, she had met with him, and had seen no progress. I asked her if she had spoken to his parents. She said, “Oh no. Not worth calling. Those parents are not involved.” I said, “Really? Well, did you know his dad is a doctor and works long hours?” The teacher seemed surprised and said she did not know that and she would definitely try to contact them…..A few days later the teacher came up to me and said, “You know, Principal Smith, I did speak to his parents and actually things are getting better now. We had a meeting where we all sat down and talked a bit. You know what though- his dad is not a doctor.” To which I replied, “I know. But, I also knew you wouldn’t have tried calling had I not told you that. Am I right?” She looked down and replied, “ You’re right. I probably wouldn’t have.”
Why is this the case? Why are we more inclined to reach out to the parent we think will be more involved because of who they are or who they appear to be? Why is it that we make assumptions about the families of our students and our students themselves based on preconceptions, misconceptions, and stereotypes? We think it’s because we live in a world centered around Whiteness. There are Whites and then there is everyone else. Robin Morgan writes “Hate generalizes, love specifies.” We believe in order to dismantle an oppressive system like that of white privilege we need a revolutionary love of others, more specifically of those we have Other-ed. We need to go beyond exposure and acknowledgment of privilege, to disavowing this type of inequitable system. In order to do this, we believe we need brave individuals who form communities to disavow inequity and racism in their respective worlds- Home. Work. Daily life. These critically conscious individuals effect transformational change in partnership with other equity conscious individuals, serving as a community committed to social justice. These individuals and communities serve as transformational agents for social change by actively shifting the power structure, elevating the assets, strengths, and passions of all people, privileging none over another.

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