Guest Post – How Do We Benefit from White Privilege

Over the past few months women from all over the University have participated in Women Reading for Equity And Diversity (R.E.A.D) sponsored by the Women’s Center and the Office of Human Resources. As described on the Women’s Center webpage, Women READ “provides an opportunity for women staff and faculty to develop leadership skills, engage in networking opportunities with other women and increase their ability to make a difference on campus. Participants in R.E.A.D. read and discuss a selected book, select and implement a small climate change project, and reflect and learn from the capstone speaker.” Such a large number of women on campus take part in Women R.E.A.D. that several groups are formed with each having 8-10 participants approximately and 2 facilitators.

This year the book White Privilege: Essential Readings (3rd ed.) by Paula Rothenberg was chosen as the selection. The following is a description of the book on the publisher’s web site:

Studies of racism often focus on its devastating effects on the victims of prejudice. But no discussion of race is complete without exploring the other side—the ways in which some people or groups actually benefit, deliberately or inadvertently, from racial bias. This is the subject of Paula Rothenberg’s groundbreaking anthology, White Privilege.

The new edition of White Privilege once again challenges readers to explore ideas for using the power and the concept of white privilege to help combat racism in their own lives, and includes key essays and articles by Peggy McIntosh, Richard Dyer, bell hooks, Robert Jensen, Allan G. Johnson, and others. Three additional essays add new levels of complexity to our understanding of the paradoxical nature of white privilege and the politics and economics that lie behind the social construction of whiteness, making this edition an even better choice for educators.

The above description alone indicates that this book could evoke complex, provocative and at times, even emotional discussion within a book group and indeed it did in ours. Talking about racism with a group of strangers is not easy for anyone as each member brings her own perspectives, experiences and identities to the group. At times the discussions were tense and people felt defensive. Other times it could be emotional or even too quiet. A few members even chose not to return at all. This is probably common in everyday life as people are uncomfortable talking about such charged topics and even more uncomfortable when they may feel their own behaviors have unwittingly contributed to something they genuinely are certain they are against, such as racism.

The goal of the group and book-reading was not to lay blame or point fingers. It was not about apologizing for past mistakes or taking blame. It was deeper than just a one-time act of goodness. The point was to look deeper into ourselves, our actions and behaviors, and begin to truly recognize how racism still persists today, institutionally and personally, and understand how some of us knowingly or unknowingly, benefit from it. The goal was to open our eyes and see our lives through a different lens where upon we do not dwell in blame but instead recognize our individual responsibility to be aware of our history and not continue to make the same mistakes nor perpetuate those gross mistakes already made. To facilitate this effort a component of the program is to design and participate in a micro-project. The following is ours.

We invite you to join us in thinking about how you, like us, have benefited from white privilege and related forms of privilege and then create a list of some of those benefits. We welcome you to share your list as we will ours.

What is “white privilege,” and how does it operate in our daily lives? Because so many of these benefits, or privileges, are so basic that they are difficult to see, how can we learn to see white privilege, name it, and respond to it?

In her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh sets out to answer these questions by writing a list—a list of the benefits that she, as a white person, receives on a day-to-day basis.

Reading this essay, several of the women in our 2011 Women R.E.A.D. book group were struck by how this list of simple, concrete statements provided a solid basis for understanding and further conversation.

Daily Effects of White Privilege

“I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions:

  • I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  • If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
  • I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
  • I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
  • I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  • I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.”

We were inspired to write our own lists, reflecting on our own experience. To view more of the essay online, with a more complete list of privileges (the ones listed above are a short sampling) as identified by McIntosh, download a copy of the article.

The Women R.E.A.D. 2011 Group 6 welcomes your comments. Want to get in touch directly with Group 6? Contact jcaron@umn.edu.

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2 thoughts on “Guest Post – How Do We Benefit from White Privilege

  1. I participated as a group facilitator for Women READ Group 6. Thanks to all who participated and contributed to the discussion. It was a very valuable experience! Here’s an item I would add to the list: “When I hear the words white, black, or brown in a sentence to describe things other than race, I rarely think about how these words are associated with race.”

  2. I participated in Women’s READ group 6, as well. I’m sorry that it has taken me so long to post my comment! I was impacted by the Northside tornado, and I’ve been thinking about these issues quite a bit, as I know that we will be facing a lot of hard decisions about how our neighborhoods will be rebuilt.

    What I have been thinking about this past week, however, is gratitude. Gratitude can be complicated by previous history with the people and institutions who are helping you, and also if there is a sense that gratitude is something that is expected of you, rather than something you choose to give freely. When I see the city trucks, the police, the volunteers from other parts of the city flocking into our neighborhood to help, I can see myself having a choice to feel uncomplicated gratitude, or to feel gratitude that is contextualized and complicated by previous history. I don’t think all my neighbors have that much leeway. One way that this has shown up in the “We Care Northside” collaboration which some neighbors have organized to promote Northside contractors.

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