We are parents and educators committed to a just and equitable society. This blog is a forum to share ideas and resources to help us teach our children and ourselves about social equity issues.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How to talk about privilege

Colleagues in parenting and teaching,
I have found the process of explaining the concept of white privilege to white adults to be a tricky business. Have you found this to be true?
With children it has been easier for me. It was my children who first expressed the concept of white privilege to me by noting that if people with dark skin were discriminated against, our family was lucky to have light skin. I remember my alertness at that moment, and the thought of, "We're not supposed to talk about that!" So I have felt myself the reluctance and the sense that if white privilege is acknowledged, the whole house of cards will fall down.
I have found that other forms of privilege are far more acceptable to talk about with white people, class privilege and education privilege being the favorites that are brought up to redirect the conversation away from the uncomfortable topic of racial identity hierarchy and the privilege attached to whiteness. I have found the topic of white skin privilege, as opposed to discussion of other privileges, to be particularly provocative and that it often engenders not just resistance but active rebuke.
There are several reasons for this difference I think. To admit to being the recipient of class and education privilege is a way to modestly brag about one's accomplishments. People tend to believe they have earned the privileges that come with being at the top of the class and education hierarchy. Since white culture values the ideas of meritocracy, Protestant work ethic, and individual competition and attainment, and middle class white Americans have a fair amount of anxiety about how far we and our children will climb in the class/education hierarchy, it is deeply disturbing to be reminded that whiteness is an unearned advantage. Perhaps people think, "I'm struggling here to get my piece of the pie. Now I have to look out for other people too?" and feel overwhelmed and angry. Lastly, discussing white skin privilege or any racial issue raises the fear for white people that they will fulfill the dreaded stereotype that "all white people are racist."
So what to do? Recently I had the pleasure of attending a terrific workshop led by Dr. Steve Jones at the White Privilege Conference. Here is a paper he wrote which discusses privilege and uses the easier-to-access model of right and left handedness to explain it. I send this out as another tool that can be used to facilitate conversation and negotiate resistance. 

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