Last Sunday, during a program at my college about how to create needed social change, I observed a few of the white students tuning out. One fell asleep. Another started texting a friend. Another tried to pay attention, but her eyes kept wandering to the floor, the window and the faces in the room other than the presenter. The students of color, on the other hand, were engaged in the topic. They asked and answered questions and contributed to the discussion.
After this observation, I decided to lead a program on privilege thinking it would be helpful for more of our white students to understand the social, economic, and political advantages they have over people of color. When I shared my idea for the program with one of my more thoughtful white students, though, she told me that her peers were tired of talking about privilege. “It’s everywhere, Teri. Sure, it’s important. But people are just tired of talking about it.” I was grateful for this student’s honesty, but also wondered how I could stoke the fire of this important conversation. I decided to go ahead with my program.
In my planning, I came across Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh (who is white) helpfully unpacks the invisible knapsack of unearned assets she can count on cashing in every day, but about which, she says, “she was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” Because of the color of her skin, McIntosh says she can count on the following:
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
- I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
- I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily protection.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
- I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
This last example helped me better understand the disinterest and weariness of my white students. There are no real consequences for a white person’s apathy, disinterest, or weariness of talking about privilege. In fact, the system of white dominance and white supremacy that our country has been built upon rewards such passivity. If white people remain oblivious to our unearned benefits, then we cannot be expected to share, give them up, or work towards a more equitable system. It’s hard to hold an oblivious person accountable. Thus, the system of white dominance is perpetuated.
Through the programs I lead and the relationships I develop, I hope to keep this conversation going. I hope to keep learning how I can live faithfully with the unearned assets I have inherited and encourage others to do the same. Jesus keeps calling me to the most disadvantaged. Although it’s painful to acknowledge that my unearned advantages play a significant role in keeping others disadvantaged, I’ve got to face that harsh truth to have any hope of righting what is wrong.
[Feature Image: Elias Schewel]