Privileged in Pittsford, New York

Growing up I always knew I was privileged. I had two parents with stable, high-income jobs and we lived in a big 3 story house in the affluent Rochester suburb of Pittsford. We had 2 cars, a dog, and took lots of vacations to incredible places across the US and the world. Yet, I could never really put a finger on just what led to that privilege. I never really took the time to think about the other people around me. Were they as privileged as me? Did they have the same opportunities that I had?

The vast majority of students in my school and people in my town were, and still are, white. Yet, even with the modest Asian population they did not seem terribly different from us. I got to know and befriend several kids whose parents were from China, Japan or India and it seemed, from my perspective, that they had all the opportunities that I did.

There was one racial group, however, that I really did not know much about and did not see on a daily basis. I’m talking, of course, about black people. The I vs. Them mentality that is so pervasive in perpetuating racism and discrimination was, I think, bubbling at the surface of my high school, Pittsford-Mendon. You see, of the very few black kids that attended my school, most were bused in from the inner city, a roughly 45 minute drive. Looking back on it now I can kind of see how there was a division between those students and the rest of us (the rich, white privileged). I wish that I had had the forethought and the attentiveness to approach those kids and get to know them better. I wish I had taken the time to learn about their lives, their experiences, and how those experiences had shaped their world view. Most of all, I wish I had taken the time to make them feel more welcome in an environment in which they must have felt incredibly foreign, even unwelcome.

We cannot fully understand the racism or white privilege around us without talking to those who are being discriminated against. It is the only way to really understand the issues involved, and figure out a plan to combat those problems.

 

-Andrew Cooney

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A Culture of Inequality

There exist four pitfalls or “faces of Whiteness” when considering white privilege: “The Torpified,” “The Missionary,” “The Cynic,” and “The Intellectualizer.”

The Torpified experiences guilt and embarrassment about white privilege. This is the person that says they had no idea how powerful and prevalent racism still was. The Missionary is impatient, wanting immediate action in helping people. The Cynic is entirely pessimistic, seeing racism as too big of a problem to address. The Intellectualizer is actively seeking information and is fascinated by it, but fails to consider experiences that relate to their personal life.

Did you find yourself trying to categorize yourself into one of the four? I did. And I’m not even white. I’m a 21-year-old Indian female, born and raised in Virginia. Yet I wanted to check if I fit into one or more of the categories, which made me wonder whether it was because I felt privileged for a reason other than race.

Well, being privileged does not necessarily mean your life is easy. It refers to the things that society rewards people based on characteristics that can’t be controlled, such as gender, race, or sexual orientation. So maybe I feel privileged because I identify as a female or as heterosexual.

It’s difficult to provide a perspective on white privilege or Whiteness. But I can provide a unique perspective based on qualities about myself, as can everyone else. The privilege you have whether it is based on race, gender, or other uncontrollable qualities is part of the reason of the existence of such diverse perspectives and can still cause people to take on those four faces.

But is that who you want to be? The one who feels too guilty to do anything? The one who is impatient and irrationally feels like something must be done immediately to fix the problem? The one who thinks the problem is too big to resolve? Or the one who fails to consider personal experiences and apply themselves?

Perhaps the way to think about this sensitive subject is through a combination of reflection and action, speaking and listening, and guilt and agency. This is what we call the Critical Democrat face — the face of whiteness (or insert another uncontrollable privilege here) that will advance us, as people, toward multicultural understanding.

That’s who I want to be. Don’t you?

— Urvi Patel

A tangible invisible

I was clueless about “white privilege” before last year. And it’s interesting, I was involved in JMU’s InterVarsity which has a team dedicated to learning more about justice and what that can look like in a student’s “every day.” About a year ago, at one of our meetings, we began discussing this idea of white privilege, which coincidentally enough, we had just talked about in my general sociology class earlier that day. All at once, I was getting hit with new material that rocked my very being and challenged me to think critically about not only my race, but how race is so deeply embedded in social norms and systematic barriers. What is noteworthy is that these barriers set in place are the workings of those who have dominion and “power” over other groups of people… they continue to impose divisions between individuals of races different than their own.

I am enrolled in a Genocide & Refugee Advocacy class here at JMU and in just three weeks of classes, my eyes have been opened to many realities facing others globally. This week we are focusing on white privilege and what that means. According to Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” she writes…

Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of White privilege which was similarly denied and protected. As a White person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, White privilege, which puts me at an advantage.

Now, before I get into anything else, I’d like to preface this post by saying that whatever stance people decide to take or whatever mask someone decides to wear while looking at white privilege, it is all fluid and has the ability to change in an instant. People can put on different faces as they choose to believe and act one way at a certain point in time in response to white privilege, but again, they can change as people change. That’s the cool thing about people – they adapt as they learn and this blog post is just intended to skim the surface and provoke thought and discussion.

Going back to the quote – I’d never really thought about it like this before. And, being white myself, I look back and feel like I was made to believe that my race did not put me at an advantage. To me, white privilege was invisible because I didn’t realize it was there and therefore didn’t acknowledge it.

Taking this outside the classroom into service learning experiences, it is important to note differences between individuals and going further, being active in discussion and listening to what a community really needs. **Note: not what we think they need. Service learning is not about providing charity or volunteering or helping others in need. In its design, it is intended to utilize the knowledge gained from the classroom to promote subsequent growth and learning alongside others in the community. We have the ability to teach others just as much as they have the ability to teach us. And the key here is to be open to what we can learn from those who are different from us! It sounds super simple and I think it is, but sometimes it isn’t easy. It requires a step back from the situation to see that we aren’t coming in to provide assistance to others then leaving without a second glance. It takes a step back to see that yes, some people may be inherently more advantaged than others, but this doesn’t mean that those who are magically have so much to give and offer. This is a harmful way of thinking. When we look at service learning as helping those in need or sacrificing our time to make someone else’s situation better, we immediately establish dominance over the individual or group we are working with, simply by the words we use to describe our work. And I’m not saying service learning is bad or going out of your way to help someone is bad, we just have to be aware of how we verbalize what we are doing to promote social justice, rather than injustice. You may notice I keep using the word “alongside.” I’m simply trying to convey that as we take what we learn outside a classroom setting (and we could learn everything to the ends of the earth, but if we don’t personalize it and inwardly reflect what it means for us and how it affects us, there is no point), we must remember that each individual has something to offer and contribute. Although there are racial systematic barriers in place, we get to play an active role in tearing these down and getting to the cornerstone of it all which is that all human beings are valuable and worthy in their own unique way.

The “invisible” refers to the fact that white privilege isn’t something talked about all the time. But once we recognize its existence, we can use it to start seeing tangible results in the way we interact with one another.

Now that I’m aware of this unearned advantage, the choice is mine as to what I will do with it. There are a few options I could take as I go from here today. I could feel guilty and paralyze myself into apathy in response. I could be intellectual about it and informed but distance myself personally. I could be pessimistic about it and simply stay passive by thinking the problem is too big to even make a difference or try. Or I could be so focused on the people I’m working with that I see them as a project, trying to mold them into someone more like “me” and less like “them.” None of these are good though. They continue to make the systematic barriers in place (to disadvantage others while advantaging some), even greater and even more imposed, even if we don’t mean to. And this is simply by the action of one individual. Think of the collective actions of many people working together on this issue. Those who do not take an active role in promoting justice for others merely take part in perpetrating injustice for all. It takes voice and courage to do so, but the victory lies in activism and doing your part, even if it’s small. Just because the part you may play is small, doesn’t make it any less significant. In fact, I think it says a lot about someone’s character to make the choice to participate. My challenge to both myself and those reading this is to first, acknowledge your race and how this may advantage or disadvantage you. Once acknowledged, don’t merely toss it to the side without continuing to recognize it in your every day life. If you are willing to learn about privilege and be cognizant of it, you can be a catalyst in turning the discussion to how we can work alongside our friends, family, neighbors, professors, colleagues, etc. without promoting a significant division rooted in race.

-Ashleigh Stratton

I’m White… Now What?

We arrived at the little village of Masaka, Rwanda at dusk and stumbled into a small, but well-kept house on a rolling plot of land. Nathan Amooti, the Bishop of the Anglican Church of Rwanda and founder of STAR School, welcomed us into the home with a bright smile, a warm hug, and a thurmace of ‘African Tea.’ Over the next forty days, the task assigned to our undertrained and some-what apathetic American team of six was to build an aquaponic fish farm for the boarding school; however, our real purpose and mission went much deeper than a construction project.

After exchanging greetings and sharing travelling stories, Bishop Nathan took on a more serious expression and tone of voice as he reflected on the country and school’s history, which inspired him to invite us to his home. “I wanted you all to come and stay on the school property, so that you can build relationships with these children. I want them to learn that it doesn’t matter if you’re blue, black, purple, or white. But that no matter who you are or what you look like, we all have things in common and we can all learn something from each other. This is what builds up good leaders of a country. This is how you prevent a genocide from happening. You stop pointing out differences and start finding similarities.”

Reading and dwelling on the subject of Whiteness and White privilege has made me reflect on my journey to Rwanda and has forced me to critically analyze my lifestyle and mindset that I possess here in the States. A repeating theme I see that has resonated with me most is that, despite good intentions and even extensive preparation, we as White people often harm instead of help the communities we go into and are apart of and even reinforce our places of power over minority and oppressed people groups. After a full semester of studying, mulling over, and reflecting upon the disturbing subject of White privilege, Professors Danielle Endres and Mary Gould hoped to motivate and provide students a way to put what they learned into action through a week-long service learning project. However, to their dismay, Endres and Gould observed that “the service learning project gave . . . many students a context for performing and recentering White privilege instead of challenging it.” They took on the week as a volunteer project instead of a learning opportunity, missing the whole point of their coursework.

My initial experience was much like that of the students’ described in their article fittingly entitled “‘I Am Also in the Position to Use My Whiteness to Help Them Out’: The Communication of Whiteness in Service Learning.” When I arrived to Rwanda, it was hard not to perpetuate the problem of Whiteness because the people of Rwanda seemed to almost praise the ‘amazungu’ (white people) and embrace the power of the white man themselves. They welcomed us with open arms, offered us their finest foods, and went out of their ways to greet us and make us feel at home. (Talk about a contrast between how we as Americans treat foreigners!) The children would run down the dirt road after our clunky van waving their hands and shouting gleefully “muzungu muzungu muzungu!” However, I quickly realized to my dismay, that their excitement was not necessarily out of a desire to form meaningful relationships with us, but out of a wanting for what we had to offer them. For many children, the only words they knew in English were “give me money.”

kids

Looking into these dirt-covered faces and pleading, innocent eyes broke my heart and immediately sent me into a spiral of guilt. I took on what Warren and Hytten would call the face of ‘The Missionary,’ or what I like to call, ‘ The White Jesus Mentality.’ “The Faces of Whiteness: Pitfalls and the Critical Democrat” explains that “The Missionary, often armed with visions of interracial salvation and the desire to help others, hungers for direct and immediate action.” The problem with this face is that the infuriating realization of Whiteness often leads the outsider to impatient action without considering the possible negative effects or the desires and suggestions of the other. In taking the problem of poverty and White privilege into my own hands and assuming that I knew all the right answers and how to help, I perpetuated the problem. Meeting these children’s immediate physical needs without considering the long-term implications would reinforce the idea that they were dependent upon me, a White person, to get them out of their current state of poverty.

Later on in the trip, I learned how to say the Kinyarwanda phrase, “Oya ‘muzungu.’ Nitwa Rebekah,” which means: “Not ‘white person.’ My name is Rebekah.” I wanted the people in the village of Masaka to know me for more than the color of my skin or the material goods I could offer. Everyday I was there, my unearned and even undeserved privilege smacked me in the face, and I hated it. However, it challenged me to find ways to undermine the social construction of being White. To do this, I first had to shift my own way of thinking. As I worked alongside both my American friends and the Rwandan locals to build the fish farm, my mindset changed from helping ‘these poor, underprivileged people’ in Africa to learning from these hardworking, skillful, and loving people. I constantly became humbled by my inadequacies and how little I truly had to offer, and found myself learning much more from the locals, like how to lay bricks or use a machete to clear a field, then I could ever teach them. Learning the names of each worker and attempting to communicate through their broken English and my extremely limited Kinyarwanda, my work transformed from service to an opportunity to learn and grow.

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Fish Farm at STAR School

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Washing the feet of the workers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Within the first few days, I realized that the Rwandans didn’t need me, or any of us Americans, there to build the farm. However, if we didn’t come, the special bond between our two very different teams would have never been made–and this was the greatest product of the entire project.

I learned that the most impactful way to challenge the system of Whiteness and level the power imbalance is not to use my position of power to help ‘those in need,’ but instead to simply form relationships with people, listen to their stories and concerns, and learn from what they have to offer and say.
Now, the real challenge is to know how to do this and what it looks like in the States. When any issue is blown up in scale, like it was in Rwanda, it is much easier to identify injustices and how to change. However, I continue to struggle to take this lesson and apply it to my everyday life here at a university where almost 80% of my peers are also White but the surrounding area of Harrisonburg is largely populated with multi-ethnic groups. In this context, White privilege is much more hidden and it is much easier to ignore the issue or become passive. How do we go about, as privileged white people, our day to day lives that does not perpetuate the problem? What is the appropriate approach? As many have acknowledged in earlier posts, we are to act as ‘Critical Democrats,’ taking cautious action, making careful reflections, beginning dialogues, and “allowing the passion and energy that produces guilt to be put to a productive use” (Warren & Hytten).

-Rebekah Broughton-

Good intentions aren’t enough.

For someone who has participated in numerous service-driven trips, it is a humbling, shocking, and scary thing to realize that good intentions aren’t enough. A strong desire to make a positive difference in the lives of others motivates many aspects of my life. And when I was introduced to the reality of unintentional harm and white privilege, I started to question many of the things that I perceived to be positive differences.

In their article “I Am Also in the Position to Use My Whiteness to Help Them Out”” The Communication of Whiteness,” Danielle Endres and Mary Gould explore the impact of White privilege on service learning, especially in college-aged students. White privilege is a set of benefits/advantages that are available to white people on a daily basis simply because they are white; an unearned upper hand simply because of skin color. Service learning encourages students to connect with communities through projects and services that help the students learn more about a particular issue and make a (hopefully) positive impact on the community. Endres and Gould recognized that ignorance to White privilege and growing popularity of service learning could be a perfect recipe to inflict unintended harm on communities. They found that regardless of trainings and teaching about White privilege to students, they continued to exemplify White privilege in their service learning projects.

“…students upheld conventions of White privilege because it allowed them to approach working with undeserved and under-resourced community members as privileged Whites who were providing charity, instead of acting as students and allies.”

-Endres & Gould The Communication of Whiteness in Service Learning (419)

Students didn’t pursue these involvements with the intent of hurting others or harming anyone; however, the failure to recognize White privilege creates a divide in the type of conversations we are able to have and the changes we can create. Until the white and privileged recognized that they are white and privileged, authentic conversations about many of the social injustices and issues impacting our world today cannot begin. I think one of the most frightening aspects of this complicated issue of White privilege and service learning is that those most guilty of flaunting their White privilege are those with a large desire to help others.

This ironic phenomenon is described by Warren and Hytten in their article, Faces of Whiteness, as The Missionary posture. According to them, Missionaries have a strong desire to help others (specifically those of color who are under privileged) and prevent other white people from exhibiting racism. However, this mindset doesn’t help the situation. The Missionary is typically impatient, wanting to find answers to complex questions quickly and believing that they could be the “white knight” to come up with an answer that could resolve all of these challenging issues.

So what next.

There are many people who want to make a positive difference. There is a lack of recognition that White privilege exists. In an effort to make a difference in the lives of others, motivated by the purest and greatest of intentions, people unintentionally inflict harm on others.

I definitely don’t have all of the answers for how to navigate through this challenging conundrum, but there are a few things I’ve recognized that I can change.

I can:

Stop trying to provide charity.

Stop trying to serve them.

Stop thinking of solutions to something I’ve never experienced.

Stop ignoring the impact of White privilege.

I can:

Start listening.

Start accepting the role that privilege plays in my life.

Start educating myself on issues from the bottom up.

Start embracing the dissonance.

Hannah Pellegrino

The Road Less Traveled

“Privilege is driving a smooth road and not even knowing it.” – Ampersand

White privilege: always acknowledged, sometimes discussed, never any different.

In today’s world, history is destined to repeat itself. As a nation, we find ourselves struggling to prove ourselves as above racism. But everyday, there is a headline in the news to prove that notion wrong. White privilege is something that most white Americans feel uncomfortable addressing, which is the first problem. As Peggy McIntosh stated in her article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, white Americans often see white privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets which we can count on cashing in each day, but about which we were ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” She goes on to give a list of things we take for granted, the most glaringly noticeable one being: “When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization’, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.” Using our privilege in a constructive way is tough to do when a majority of people don’t even want to acknowledge that it’s there, or downplaying how overwhelming it really is.

Looking at the genocide and refugee crises located around the world with a white privilege lens is deeply troubling. How can we even begin to complain about anything when there are thousands and thousands of people struggling with issues we couldn’t even begin to fathom? The first step in putting privilege aside and etching away at the problems others face is getting educated. Education is one of the most powerful tools we can have.

S. Mei-Yen Hui touches on this in her piece “Difficult Dialogues About Service Learning.” She discusses her experience being enrolled in a service-learning class in college, and how being confronted with the pain and injustice others face while her privilege went unused only brought confusion and anger. I can certainly say I have felt the same way as I sit in our class each week, perplexed by the inaction we discuss and horrified by the images we see.

To whoever is reading this, please do not see this as a lecture. I am just as guilty of ignoring my privilege. I read the news everyday, shocked and dismayed at what I see, but at the end of the day, I remain just as stagnant as everyone else. But that’s what I enrolled in this class. Upon my graduation in May, I’m trying to leave a far less ignorant and far more empowered person than I was when I stepped into our overcrowded class room that first Wednesday evening, sharing that my biggest fear regarding the class was how long it was. The first step is taking the exit off of our nicely paved road and driving into unmarked, bumpy territory.

— Lauren Antilety

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Faces of Whiteness

Over the past week, I have had the opportunity to read more about the idea of Whiteness and White privilege. It has been thought-provoking, emotional, and challenging for me to sift through the ideas of multiple scholars as I wrestle with my own place in this world.

What a privilege it is to be able to sit in a classroom and read about White privilege. People of color must learn about White privilege (and by extension, their own disadvantage) by experiencing it every day of their lives.

Yet, here I am, trying to write something coherent and meaningful on an advocacy blog. What kind of backwards logic is this?

Don’t get me wrong; I think there is value in education about White privilege, and reading about it has been a formative and beneficial experience. I just want to point out that even in having the opportunity to sit and read about Whiteness—in discovering these ideas in my Junior year of college—I am experiencing the benefits of White privilege.


 

My classmates have already posted important and meaningful information about white privilege below: They have discussed their own privilege and described why this is an important step in dismantling it, they have defined White Privilege and discussed its implications, and they have offered encouragement that we can move forward through service learning and an embrace of the messiness of Whiteness.

To add to the discussion, I want to show you what I found the most enlightening in my readings:

 

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This framework from John T. Warren and Kathy Hytten seeks to describe the multiple faces of whiteness. In simple terms, these are the possible ways for someone to respond when they come to understand their own White privilege. It aligns the reactions on two axes: How much you engage with or disengage from your own role in Whiteness and your tendency to seek out more information or rely on your personal understanding. The Critical Democrat, a balance of each, is the most beneficial place to be according to the authors.

This framework is helpful in a few ways. First and foremost, it helps my own reflection and understanding of self. I think that I tend toward a Torpefied face. I like to think, however, that I am not completely immobile. Rather, I struggle greatly with what I have learned, but I still find ways to act anyway (for instance, advocacy through this blog). My natural tendency, however, is certainly to be stunned and appalled at my own involvement in a racist system and not know the best way to fight it.

Secondly, this framework helps me identify and better understand those with whom I am having discussions about race. Anything to better understand the other person in a dialogue is helpful. If I can recognize that someone is coming from the perspective of The Cynic, I can better focus my discussion on the efficacy of action and the benefit of additional information.

Thirdly, this framework gives me a place to work towards. I think that, because my tendency is towards over-engagement with self, the kind of self-reflection required in writing blog posts is an important step for me in moving towards the Critical Democrat.

This, clearly, is just a start in trying to understand the ways to address and dismantle systemic racism and White privilege. However, this is where we must start–with conversation and dialogue. As DeRay McKesson (a founder of Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero) tells Stephen Colbert:

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–R. Chase Dunn