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


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