Un-Fair is Un-Wise – White Privilege Campaign

This post is the perspective of one individual. My views do not represent those of The College of Saint Scholastica or the Sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery.

I am proud of our College today. It took the difficult stance not to participate in a local campaign against racism – and I think they made the right choice.

Un-Fair Campaign image

A consortium of local agencies, and most colleges & universities in the area, are supporting an anti-racism campaign in the region. We need it: Duluth is an unrelentingly white city (90%). People of color report that it’s not very friendly to them – and that white people are oblivious to the problem.

But how do you design a campaign to make people aware of privilege? This is different than the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which focused on public policies as well as bias incidents. It tries to generate a change of awareness, a change of heart.  Delicate business, making people aware of their privilege.

Peggy McIntosh‘s article “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” inspired the campaign. I use her article often in my sociology classes, teaching about white privilege in a classroom where most students are white and middle class.  I know just how tough it is to get the conversation going in a way that’s effective. This campaign isn’t it.

Racism: Engage the Head and the Heart

Any time race is the topic, the heart – the emotions – are engaged. Feelings can swamp cognitive processing – people don’t even take in the information. If the first message is received as “You’re a racist!” it’s likely to evoke defensiveness, not introspection. The  image of photos defaced with writing evokes strong negative emotions. But not emotions in the service of inclusiveness and awareness.

The genius of Peggy McIntosh’s article – and her talk at UMD a decade ago – is her personal journey. She was unaware of white privilege: she was aware of male privilege in the English department where she taught.  A colleague – a person of color – pointed out that she also had privilege based on her white skin.

Her first reaction was to say, “No, that’s not true.”

But then she went home and thought about it, and made a list of 50 forms of her own white privilege. Some of them state a subtle aspect of cross-racial interaction. Some of them are very factual statements “I can buy Band-aids that, to some extent, match the color of my flesh.”

In my sociology class, we read the list aloud, each person reading one item slowly and pensively. Then we talk about them.  The setting, the conversation, the mixture of messages provide an opening to consider the reality.  Students recognize the concrete reality of some of the items, and usually relate them to times when they experienced discrimination for being young. Awareness opens slowly and in dialogue with others.

But what can I do about it?

This class session is uncomfortable and unsettling. Students complain that they end up feeling guilty but they didn’t ask for the privilege – how can they be guilty? We shift our gaze to the future:  Can we be aware of who was before us in line and make sure they are served first? Can our understanding of white privilege be the platform for equalizing voice or access with people who experience the downside of privilege? Can we refrain from exercising privilege even when the structure of a situation gives it to us? What would that look like?

This is a conversion of the heart and the head: awareness and willingness to change. It is slow. It is painful. It is never complete. New awareness springs up all the time, and with awareness comes new hunger for justice or compassion. Having a campaign is a good idea. But not this one.

The Undefended Stance

Dialogue that brings about change is most likely to occur when people are undefended and open.  If a campaign causes discomfort immediately – as Mayor Ness predicts it will – it will be hard to get to that place of openness when the defensive barriers come down.  People do not open their minds or their hearts when they feel criticized, berated, or attacked.

Someone told me that the Un-Fair campaign was designed to be “white people talking to white people about white privilege” and thus would not raise defensiveness.  Just because the message comes to a white person from a white person doesn’t reduce its power or ability to elicit defensiveness.

For a real conversation to happen around the topic of white privilege, people – of all points of view – need to be able to listen to each other openly and in an undefended way.  So far, that’s not what I’ve seen as the result of this campaign.

Privilege Happens in Relationship, Not in Isolation

The flyers and posters show only white people – it’s amazing how even the discussion of white privilege is determined largely by white people.

Distributed Graduate Seminar at National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

The Un-Fair campaign lists the impacts, but doesn’t show them. The scribbles on the white person’s face simply deface it.

The same lines – with different photos – might open a conversation.  Imagine the talk-bubbles that could contrast what a white person and a person of color might be thinking in a group like the one above.  Then find a catchy – even edgy – thought bubble to portray it.

Privilege and Racism – Next Steps

Is the College of St. Scholastica dropping out of the discussion about privilege and racism? Not at all! But they made the choice – the wise choice – not to let the tone and tenor be set by a campaign that is, after all, designed largely (but not exclusively) by white people.*  There are other ways to have the conversation, and our College hopes to find them.

*A colleague gave me better information than I had initially; there seem to have been several people of color involved in the planning group.

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  1. Will you publish my comments, Sister? I hope you will.

    A Catholic Nun teaching Critical Race Theory?

    What other forms of Cultural Marxism are taught in the Catholic Universities of the Upper Midwest, I wonder? Is it meant to propel the students towards acceptance of a sort of Conflict Theory Cathechism?

    Liberation Theology is, to me, evidence of the influence of the Secta nefaria (and, by extension, the still-living remnants of Cultural Marxism) intellectually and politically on a Church that is doing so much to further White Genocide worldwide. I hope you’ll consider the source of what you teach, how you came by it and what it means for your Faith and the faithful.


    Thank You and God Bless You. Really.

    • What a leap of assumptions, to think that teaching students to make careful observations about how social systems operate to the conclusion that one is teaching all of Critical Race Theory! By that measure, whenever I teach about the forces that bind the family together and make it an important institution of society, I’m teaching all of structural functionalism – bad and good together. One cannot decide about the truth and usefulness of a concept simply from the context in which it came into being.

      An example: Modern statistics. Most of the things you will use or do today have, somewhere, the use of statistics. Finding this blog to comment on the article probably involved a search engine: statistics. If you take a medicine or treatment, drive a vehicle or ride an elevator, you’re trusting your life to statistical testing that predicts you have a high chance of being safe – and helped. Traffic control, business decisions – all grounded in statistics. But most people know nothing about the ideological framework in which they were developed. Karl Pearson, the founder of modern statistics (many of which bear his name, like the Pearson correlation coefficient), was a believer in eugenics. He himself was a Marxist socialist, but his eugenics beliefs – promoting the use of sterilization and the development of contraception to prevent the “unfit” from populating the earth – were picked up as foundational by the National Socialist (Nazi) movement. Our modern methods of hypothesis testing and the like have just about the worst ideological pedigree one can imagine.

      But it would certainly be foolish and wrong for me to refuse to teach these methods to the many health profession students in my class – to keep them from being able to determine whether one or another treatment is more effective or the likelihood that a particular patient will have a negative reaction. I wouldn’t want to drive across a bridge that wasn’t built using statistics to compute its ability to hold a particular load in particular weather conditions. I’m even reluctant to give up the luxury of weather forecasts.

      The Church has long recognized the existence of social inequalities and of privilege that perpetuates itself through social structures. Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate is clear – and draws on centuries of Catholic teaching – in delineating the structures that generate inequality, with privilege for some and poverty for others. The Holy Father makes the argument – as have the Popes before him – against purely secular ideologies like Marxism as a source of change. He makes the argument against other secular ideologies – including unregulated free market capitalism – for failing to carry out Christ’s mandate to care for the poor and vulnerable. He quotes a surprising number of social scientists – left and right – not to adopt their viewpoints wholesale, but to glean from them the wisdom that corresponds with the teaching of the Church.

      So teaching students about inequality and about the mechanisms and structures through which it is perpetuated is providing them with the foundation they need in order to read and understand the teachings of the Church. In fact, when I had the students in an upper-level sociology course read all of Caritas in Veritate to experience a theoretical perspective that did not sign on to either a socialist or a capitalist agenda, they were skeptical that it would be interesting to them. It was not easy going – they are not as well-versed in philosophy as Pope Benedict – but, in the end, they took away a very different perspective. And this in a class where the majority of students were not Catholic.

      Do I consider what I teach in light of the Faith? Certainly. A major practice of the Catholic intellectual tradition, from St. Augustine to the present, has been its willingness, even eagerness, to use consider and use the results of secular philosophies – but not to adopt those philosophies wholesale.

      Thank you for your comment, and for the link to your longer work.

  2. If you don’t approve my comments, then you are a reality-ignoring coward.

    • I haven’t been to Camden.

      Detroit is 82% Black inside the city limits – still 10% less mono-racial than Duluth – but much more multi-racial in its metropolitan area, which is 22% Black. Thousands of people of lots of races and cultures commute all over the region. It’s not “unrelenting” because many people will encounter folks of other races where they work, shop, or go for recreation.

      In contrast, the towns around Duluth that constitute the metropolitan region are even more White than Duluth (except for the Fond du Lac band’s lands). It is “unrelentingly” White because one has to travel more than 2 hours by car to find any kind of multi-racial location.

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