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“Checking Your Privilege 101”: A Social-Justice Movement in Higher Education

By Imagining America | February 15, 2015

Lydia FergusonBy Lydia E. Ferguson, PAGE 2014-15 Fellow

Notre Dame and DePauw Universities have recently come under fire for promoting dialogue on current social issues such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the concept of white privilege, which although it has its critics, is generally an accepted theory in academia. A simple Internet search on white privilege results in a disheartening descent into an unrepentant rabbit hole of bitterness, anger, and intolerance. Ironically, and sadly so, those who rush to defend themselves against what they perceive to be the liberal juggernaut of white privilege theory make the best arguments as to why all college students should be taught a thing or twenty about the social, political, and economic advantages and disadvantages relative to skin color. The standing audience fPAGE pic 1or such indignant cries of “indoctrination” and reverse racism, packaged in blatantly unapologetic racist comments, can themselves be traced to a history of privilege—one where whiteness and maleness automatically made a speaker’s voice and views deemed worthy of public attention and consideration.

Conservatives en masse have been logging in and lashing out against any mention of training in diversity and discussions of white privilege in higher education. Princeton freshman, Tal Fortgang’s April 2nd, 2014 piece for The Princeton Tory titled, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” republished a month later by Time as, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege,” created a national stir, with conservatives praising him and liberals denigrating him. Fortgang unabashedly refers to the concept of white privilege as a “phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung.” Placed at the forefront of Fortgang’s invective, the author’s bias and the aggressive manner in which he presents his political predisposition actually weaken his later claim that his family’s painful history precludes him from having in any way benefitted from his status as a white male.

On the heels of the Fortgang frenzy, The Harvard Crimson ran a story on May 4th, 2014 stating that around 80 students from the Kennedy School of Government had “participated in an exercise to visualize the differences in privilege created by race and gender. The students began in a single line, but as students were asked to step forward or backward based on questions about the social repercussions of their socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and sexual identities, the line became disjointed.” Spearheaded by the group, HKS Speak Out, the demonstration was accompanied by a petition of nearly 300 signatures from students who felt the university should make classrooms a “safe place” for students, and include considerations of race, power, and privilege in discussions of “systemic policy issues.” When unverified stories began circulating that the Kennedy School was instituting an orientation seminar in “power and privilege training,” Bill O’Reilly responded by using the national platform that is his own television show to claim he is exempt from white privilege because as a boy he had to work cutting lawns, etc. When O’Reilly finished listing his boyhood jobs, he demonstrated his position of privilege and power by stating matter-of-factly, “I don’t believe the Kennedy School is going to do this, because now we’re on it and it’s very bad publicity for them to do it.” Thus, members of the conservative media, bloggers, and their followers all rushed to shut down an effort to teach students about alternative worldviews when, according to Harvard’s Associate Director for Media Relations, Doug Gavel, no such plan ever existed. This unwillingness to entertain even the idea of instruction on cultural diversity and privilege is yet another indicator of the necessity of such training for university students entering an increasingly-global workforce and community.

In December 2014, Notre Dame’s Multicultural Student Programs and Services announced they were offering a White Privilege Seminar for students planning to attend the 2016 White Privilege Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. The aim of the seminar and conference is for students to be “more aware of injustices and be better equipped with tools to disrupt personal, institutional and worldwide systems of oppression.” Although there are clearly students who are engaged in and see the value of this type of instruction, the portion of the public who l that higher education is out to vilify white students through such instruction were angered and appalled that the university would dare offer such a class.

In the fall semester of 2014, “faculty at DePauw University voted to suspend classes for a day in light of discussions that were PAGE pic 2occurring on campus surrounding diversity and inclusiveness.” Although the university attempted to make their “Depauw Dialog” mandatory, threats of withholding class registration and the ability to walk at commencement prompted such an outcry from students that the university was forced to retract the mandate. Nonetheless, there were students who took advantage of the day off by choosing to attend the dialog, and who rallied with a #WhyImGoing Twitter response in support of their university’s “understand[ing] that we are in the midst of a national moment”—one that deserves attention PAGE pic 3from all America’s citizens, but especially from the nation’s higher education students, who, whether they are aware of it or not, are in a privileged position to help their communities and their country.

After reading more than my fill of negative comments regarding the subjects of white privilege in academia and those who think it merits university-sanctioned discussion, a friend shared a 2012 piece from Everyday Feminism titled, “How To Talk About Privilege To Someone Who Doesn’t Know What That Is.” The author, Jamie Utt, discusses how his work on white privilege has been met with aggressive opposition and offense in his own life, and he shares his advice on how best to confront people with claims they are not ready to hear, let alone accept. Utt offers the following advice to help people bridge the conversational and ideological gap that is so apparent regarding the concept of white privilege: “Start By Appealing To the Ways In Which They Don’t Have Privilege” and “Stress that Privilege is Relative.” These approaches (amongst others Utt suggests) acknowledge that prejudices based on issues such as sex and low socio-economic status have had enduring and often detrimental effects in our society similar to that of race. Approaching the subject with an open mind as to the difficulties others have endured is what will make dialog possible to those resistant to the idea.

Thousands march through Manhattan to protest police violenceTo discuss the subject of privilege is to acknowledge and be clear about the fact that we all have different world views formed by our respective experiences, and those experiences are in part shaped—through no control of our own—by the world in which we live. Since we accept the storied and difficult histories of subjugated peoples of the world (common university curriculum) it’s clear that there’s precedent for many forms of privilege, and there are bound to be residual effects. This is why, despite the very public backlash against instruction in white privilege and cultural diversity, I believe that in the near future we will see more universities responding to current social justice movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and related countrywide protests by offering their students additional opportunities to participate in diversity instruction…and those who approach it with open minds and hearts will be the better for it.

Postscript: I no sooner finished writing this post than La Tanya Autry shared that Dartmouth’s Geography, African Studies, and African American Studies departments are introducing a course for spring 2016 titled, “10 Weeks, 10 Professors: #BlackLivesMatter,” to be taught by professors “from over 10 academic departments and programs, including anthropology, history, women’s and gender studies, mathematics and English, among others.” Progress is possible.