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


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