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.
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.
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.
- Twin Ports coalition launches anti-racism campaign (duluthnewstribune.com)
- Edgy anti-racism posters, billboards debut in Duluth (minnesota.publicradio.org)
- “I wonder if white people even know how lucky they are to be white” (atransparentlife.com)
- Unpacking the invisible knapsack (boingboing.net)
- White Privilege (gameofroles.wordpress.com)
- White people need to acknowledge benefits of unearned privilege by Robert Jensen (indigenist.blogspot.com)