“My (black) Caribbean students, as a whole, tend to perform much better than my African-American students. Well, consider it — over the years, and particularly during slavery, the best and brightest blacks in this country were weeded out. I don’t believe that blacks are naturally inferior to whites, however, American blacks are the unfortunate end product of an enforced breeding process that has left them at a mental disadvantage.”
– Unnamed Professor
Racism is often conceived as the summation of prejudice plus power. This does not have to do so much with the number of people in any group, but their access to ideological and material resources (including arms). In an American university environment, these ‘arms’ may be found in the shape of grades, scholarships and fellowships, the ability of professors to give or withhold positive reinforcement, and the self-images and convictions the students themselves, both white and minority, bring into this setting. The effects of ‘white privilege’, a little-acknowledged theory that whites enjoy “an invisible package of unearned assets,” resonate silently throughout the university system, deployed as subtle psychological hand grenades. White privilege is harmful not only to the minorities it relegates to the sidelines, but damaging to the whites who are either active or passive participants in this ideology.
Here is my classroom. It is a 100 level sociology course. I am one of two white students in a class of mostly African-American and Caribbean-American students. The other white student and I, and an older African-American woman, are the only students to speak at least once every session. Our professor knows our names and listens attentively when we speak. This (white) professor has made a point of telling the class that she is politically liberal and interested and educated in many minority cultures. Yet, she rolls her eyes at the rough English spoken by one African-American student and glosses over the hesitant comments of others. It would seem, by the students’ tacit and silent acceptance of her behavior, that this is de rigueur, par for the course.
These days, a college degree serves as one of the few tickets into a socially and economically comfortable lifestyle. College itself, ideally, should vastly increase the knowledge, skills, and capacity for critical thinking in its students. However, in this racially imbalanced society, college is the culmination of a white-weighted education, and often ignores its own participation in long-standing racial injustices and inequities. Minority students are expected to jump headlong into white standards of behavior, without regard for the unique circumstances that render that expectation difficult, if not impossible, to meet.
My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us’ (McIntosh, p.31).
Today, this country prides itself on the great strides it has taken to promote racial equality and harmony. Many universities have incorporated diversity training as part of the curriculum. History and literature courses celebrating non-white cultures are prevalent in schools. Additionally, many affirmative action admission policies and scholarship programs are available to minority students. There is no denying that efforts have been made to minimize the gap between white and minority advantages. However, amidst these well-intentioned efforts, white privilege continues to shape the experiences of both white and minority students. Consider the following:
Since an individual’s self-concept is based upon his experiences and since American society has gone to great lengths to teach the black that he is inferior, it has commonly been accepted that the black has somehow internalized this prevailing valuation and made it his own. The result, according to this formulation, is that the black experiences a deficiency in self-esteem (Baughman, p. 38).
This “prevailing valuation” has a significant impact on the minority student. Many minority students have experienced, based on their race, derision, inattentiveness, or inadequate encouragement in both prior school environments and other life experiences. Even those who may not have experienced discrimination directed specifically toward them are aware of the long history of racism in this country and longstanding attitudes and expressions of white supremacy. Minority students are aware that this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.
In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit in turn upon people of color (McIntosh, p. 31).
The following list is the result of a study conducted on minority students in math and science classes. It lists various potential factors that can positively and negatively affect the minority’s school performance.
? Persistence: Those students who are unsuccessful in mathematics and science have not developed the ability to persist. Having the ability to persist in the face of conflict is essentially related to a positive self-concept.
? Utility: Minority students are less likely to understand how the study of mathematics and science is applicable to everyday life, as well as valuable to their future schooling and jobs.
? Influence of Significant Others: Teachers, counselors, parents, and peers have a role in shaping students’ participation in mathematics and science. Without this guidance, students have a more difficult time achieving in the classroom.
? Previous Experiences: Minority students tend to perform best when the content is related to their previous experiences; frequently, curriculum does not relate to their experiences.
? Misuse of Testing and Test Data: The use of standardized test data to predict achievement and to assess ability is detrimental to minority students.
? Teacher Expectations: Educators often perceive minorities as having inferior ability. This perception translates into an expectation of low achievement, which is communicated to and internalized by the minority student (Internet Source)
These factors are not often considered in a university environment. In fact, it may be said, that there is a stigma associated with the idea of instituting programs that address the more profound issues within these social problems. However, it must be realized that the university system in this country is neither removed from nor neutral toward racial concerns. Rather, it is a mainstream institution in this country, founded upon the principles, customs, and history of white Anglo-Saxons. This may be exhibited by something as disturbing as the statement at the top of this document, or by such subtle means as the textbooks that only portray white faces. Again, it is not that there has been no action in resolving this issue, but rather that there are still fundamental imbalances deep within the heart of society that must be made aware of and addressed.
On the other hand, the white student’s school performance is not affected by concerns stemming from his or her race. According to Ruth Frankenberg, white culture is viewed by many whites as ‘no culture” (Frankenberg, p. 176). Whiteness is not so much void, but rather acts as the dominant norm. To the white student, whiteness is the normative ideal precisely because it is unrecognized, unacknowledged and therefore unchallenged. Adrienne Rich’s terminology for this tendency to generalize specifically white cultural practices and perceptions of the world as normal is “white solipsism” (Rich qtd. in Spelman, p. 36). This does not always entail consciously believing that one race is inherently superior to all others; but a “tunnelvision which simply does not see nonwhite experience or existence as precious or significant” (Rich qtd. in Spelman, p. 36). One effect of this is the belief that those values held dear by white, and perhaps middleclass people, are of importance to everyone. It seems that many people do not understand that their worldview is socially constructed, rather than ‘natural’ or ‘normal.’ Another important effect is that in the white and larger mainstream society, whites are seen and judged as individuals based on their own merits or shortcomings, while minority individuals are grouped together and are often seen as anonymous extensions of one negatively viewed body.
“I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability. 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” (McIntosh, p.31)
It forces up to consider the possibility that the self-esteem of the average white is also significantly damaged by his experiences in the social structure of which he is a part. In this regard, we suspect that the black often overestimates the degree of self-satisfaction that resides in his white neighbor. Indeed, the very fact that the white man has found it necessary to push the black man down as inferior suggests the operation of a compensatory mechanism, the goal being to reassure the white of his self-worth. (Baughman, p. 42)
The significance of this quote is the expression that our society, and its inhabitants, is damaged; that is, at least, according to our own dearly held ideologies: peace, justice, freedom, brotherhood.
For people of color, race acts as a filter through which they perceive the world. White people tend not to look at the world through this filter of racial awareness, despite the fact that they also comprise a race. More often than not, white people see those affected by racial oppression as black or other people of color. Yet, it is a sign of privilege to have the freedom not to think about racism or ponder your location in the racial order. But that is a privilege not even whites hold. It is a mistake to assume that challenging racism is solely for the benefit of people of color. Racism also damages whites because it works to keep us separate and distinct from people of color with whom powerful alliances might otherwise be built, alliances operating to our mutual benefit. Division and estrangement between whites and people of color support a system that oppresses the majority of both, for the benefit of relatively few; effectively denying the richness and knowledge we could offer each other.
Baldwin, J. (1984) ‘On Being ‘White’ … And Other Lies.’ Essence. April: 9092.
Banks, James F. et.al. Black Self-Concept. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1972.
Women Race Matters. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1993
McIntosh, Peggy. ‘White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack.’ Independent School. 49: 31.
Morton, Patricia. Disfigured Images. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Women’, Quest: A Feminist Quarterly. 5: 3662.