Privilege, Difference and the Challenge of Creating a “Beloved Community”

The recent Presidential election showed in concrete terms that the demograhics of the United States are shifting quickly.  The old majority of people of European descent (“Caucasians”) is rapidly shrinking to minority status in numerical terms, although white folks retain a lock on the gears of power and privilege so far in this country.

How do white folks continue to maintain dominance?

The key is still education.

When my Eastern European Jewish forebears came to the US through Ellis Island back at the turn of the 20th century, the adults in the family spoke no English, but they were hardworking and ambitious for their children to assimilate and succeed.

One of my great-grandfathers fixed sewing machines on the Lower East Side; another great-grandmother sold fish wrapped in newspaper on the street to support her children.

Within a generation, the children of these immigrants were living the middle-class American dream, and their children did even better, becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers and professionals.

My grandmother, a first-generation American whose mother tongue, before entering kindergarten, was Yiddish, got her B.A. and Masters in biology from Hunter College, and became a high school biology teacher.  Her son, my father, graduated from Oberlin and NYU and became a successful professional.  I followed the pattern and got my Ph.D.

This is what’s known in Americanese as pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

What is too often unacknowledged is how the privilege accorded to whiteness in America has helped families like mine succeed.

It starts with where you are able to live, because property taxes still determine the quality of the primary and secondary education you’ll receive.

In the first half of the 20th century, there were a lot of places in the U.S. where Jews weren’t welcome, including many selective colleges and universities.

But just like the Irish and the Italians, soon enough Jews became “white,” and that was all that mattered—they were welcome in all but the snootiest bastions of American WASP-dom, and their privileges were helped along by the exclusion of others.

The color of one’s skin still matters in this country.  We still live in largely segregated neighborhoods, and thus most of our children attend largely segregated schools.

And they’re not “separate but equal” schools either.  They are, as Jonathan Kozol so eloquently documented, deeply unequal schools, where children with darker skin tones—who are often the most in need of support–are given less, financially and  intellectually.

The fight over “race-blind” college admissions is so fraught because what tends to happen without any affirmative action policy for Americans of color is that the people with the best “grooming” win out, and the best-groomed high school seniors tend to be those from affluent families, living in affluent neighborhoods, going to affluent schools.

As The New York Times noted in a recent editorial, “Those from the top fifth of households in income are at least seven times as likely to go to selective colleges as those in the bottom fifth. The achievement gap between high- and low-income groups is almost twice as wide as between whites and blacks,” and “blacks and Hispanics are also substantially underrepresented at selective colleges and universities. In 2004, they were 14.5 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of those graduating from high schools, but only 3.5 percent and 7 percent of those enrolling in selective colleges and universities. The underrepresentation has gotten worse over the past generation.”

***

All this is on my mind today because of a recent stir at the college where I teach, which has made a strong effort over the past decade to recruit more students from under-represented groups.

We have more people of color on the campus today than we’ve ever had, which should be a cause for celebration.

But this semester has brought some simmering tensions to the surface, showing how difficult it can be to put a group of passionate young people together on a campus and expect them to “just get along.”

The flashpoint this semester was Diversity Day, a day started several years ago by a group of disgruntled students who felt that not enough time was spent during regular classes focusing on issues of social diversity.

Students, staff and faculty organized workshop classes on a range of topics related to the experience of marginalized groups in America, and theories and praxes of social justice.

The day was so successful that it was subsequently institutionalized, with regular classes cancelled and all students required to attend at least three workshops.

This year, an influential group of students decided they were going to “boycott” Diversity Day.  Many of them were the student leaders of workshops, which meant that they were actually sabotaging their own event.

They took this extreme measure because they were angry at what they perceived as a lack of strong response from the college administration to the provocation of a student who questioned not just the value of diversity day, but the value of diversity itself in American society.

This student distributed posters on campus asking students to “Take the Diversity Challenge” by answering the following question: “Name 5 benefits of Diversity (besides ethnic food and music).”

His challenge was taken as a white supremacist assault on students who wear the mantle of diversity with pride, and he did not do much to dispel that perception, according to students who said he also sent them a link to a You-Tube talk by Jared Taylor, the controversial founder of the New Century Foundation and editor of its American Renaissance magazine.

The anti-discrimination watchdog organization Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps tabs on Taylor, says that he “regularly publishes proponents of eugenics and blatant anti-black and anti-Latino racists,” and also “hosts a conference every other year where racist intellectuals rub shoulders with Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.”

In the video link shared on our campus, Taylor argues that because there is often friction when you put different social groups into close proximity (and he’s especially attentive to different racial groups)—say, in neighborhoods or schools or college campuses—the better thing to do is to back away and re-segregate, thereby eliminating the sources of tension.

This attitude is wrong on so many levels that I find it hard to know where to start.

Besides the obvious truth that race is just an illusion, as far as a real biological marker of human difference, it’s also true that ghetto-izing certain individuals, for whatever reason, has never been a good social strategy in the past, and it won’t work now.

We don’t want a balkanized, fearful, hateful America any more than we want a bland, homogenized America.

We want a society where, as Audre Lorde put it, “difference [is] not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.”

In her famous essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde continued: “Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being” (Sister Outsider, 111-12).

***

Audre Lorde

At my college, we like to say that we teach “critical thinking skills,” by which we mean that we encourage students to question authority and think for themselves.

We shouldn’t be surprised or upset, then, when they do just that by questioning our own institutional authority.

The students who organized the Diversity Day boycott this year—many of them women of color–were angry that a student advocating white supremacy was allowed to remain in our campus community.

While the administration deliberated over whether this student presented any danger to the community, and whether his words had crossed the line into hate speech, they said, they felt unsafe and unheard.

So they staged a protest, quite in keeping with Audre Lorde’s injunction to “transform silence into language and action.”

“I have come to believe,” Lorde says, “that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”  She urges her readers to ask themselves “What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? ….We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid” of speaking out.

But, she continues, “We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us….

“It is not difference that immobilizes us, but silence.  And there are so many silences to be broken” (“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Sister Outsider, 4144).

On our campus, Diversity Day originated as an attempt to break the silences between different social groups, including students, faculty and administration, in the cause of mutual understanding and communication.

But this year, it was the boycott that spoke loudest, and what it said, loud and clear, was that there are still so many silences to be broken.

Speaking as a faculty member who teaches classes in human rights and social justice, and who has organized many Diversity Day workshops over the years, the problem is that it’s often too little, too late.

By the time Diversity Day rolls around in November, tensions between social groups on campus have often already come to the fore, and the workshops provide opportunities to let off steam that can end up sparking further conflagrations that take place in the dorms or on social media sites, without the mediating influence of faculty and staff present to help channel discussions productively.

One day out of the school year is not enough to create the social bonds necessary to establish a cohesive, harmonious diverse student body.

We are going to have to try harder, to do better.

***

An opening has been created for us by the students this year. From my perspective as a faculty member, this is a prime teachable moment, an opportunity to advance our ideals of social justice and strengthen the ties of community on our campus.

Those with more privilege, on whatever grounds, must stand as firm allies with the less privileged.

Every class, every conversation, every interaction is an opportunity for respectful communication that encourages the breaking of the deep-seated silences that separate us.

The truth is that every college campus is a microcosm of the larger society from which our students are drawn.  In the small, sheltered community we create—a kind of Beloved Community, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s terms—we have an opportunity to envision and manifest new frameworks and understandings that our students will then carry with them out into the broader world.

In this struggle, as in all others, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and the time for thoughtful action is now.

Responding to Racism or Sexism: The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Again and Again

I shouldn’t be surprised that once again the ugly specter of racism and unacknowledged privilege is raising its head on my own little campus community.

It happens almost every year like clockwork, generally in the fall semester around this time, and usually involving freshmen who are still in the process of adjusting to the new, often more racially/ethnically/socially diverse culture in which they have suddenly landed.

Understandably, people of color who have had to put up with racism and white privilege all their lives get angry when it turns up, in all its crude arrogance, here in our campus home as well.

One angry response leads to another angry retort, onlookers begin to take sides, and before you know it the campus is in an uproar, with some calling for apologies, others calling for calm, and the majority just plain mad and not willing to take it anymore.

I want to talk about anger.

As a woman, albeit a white woman, I know something about how members of subordinate groups are not supposed to respond with anger to actions by members of dominant groups.  We are supposed to keep our cool, to turn the other cheek, seek the higher ground, not stoop to their level.

So we pretend we didn’t hear that cutting remark, muttered just loud enough to be audible.  We pretend we didn’t want to go to that party anyway—the one to which our invitation somehow got lost in the mail. Above all, we don’t respond directly to provocation, because that will just give them an excuse to keep going, and make the whole situation worse—not for them, but for us.

So the anger, unexpressed, gnaws at us, sitting in the pit of our stomachs as unmetabolized bitterness that threatens to choke us when, at unexpected moments, its bile rises into our throats.

Audre Lorde

As a woman, I have felt this bitter resentment.  And yet as a white woman, I have also felt the other side, the ignorant innocence of privilege.  Growing up in a racist society, I did, as Audre Lorde famously put it, accept racism “as an immutable given in the fabric of [our] society, like eveningtime or the common cold” (“The Uses of Anger,” Sister Outsider, 128).

I didn’t think to question why there were no African American families living in my apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan—other than, of course, the live-in maids who could be seen going in and out of the service entrance or trundling laundry down the service elevator. None of the doormen or elevator men were people of color either—most were Irish, like our superintendent, or perhaps German or Scandinavian.

I didn’t think to question why there were hardly any African Americans or Latinos in my public elementary school, or in the selective public high school I attended, Hunter College High School.  When I got to college, it was the same, and again, I was incurious, complacent.

When you grow up this way, in an insular environment of privilege, it is possible to be deluded into thinking that this is just the way the world is.  No one in my whole upbringing encouraged me to ask the kinds of questions that might have made me see the how the fabric of my existence was shot through with deep-seated, longstanding racism.  No one talked about it.  It just was, and since for me that privileged life was very comfortable, I had no incentive to rebel against it.

It was reading that eventually opened my eyes to how the other half (or, globally speaking, two-thirds) lives.

When I happened upon Lorde’s autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and read about how she too had gone to Hunter College High School, the only Black girl in a sea of white, and how hard that was for her in so many ways, I began to see my experience there through her outsider’s eyes.  I began to question the way I had lived in a vacuum of privileged blindness for so long.

Lorde’s essay on “The Uses of Anger” is one I go back to again and again.  The sentence that continues to resonate powerfully with me is this:

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own” (132).

Listening to Audre Lorde with an open heart, I understood why she was angry at the racist structures into which she was born and bred.  I knew I was not responsible for creating those structures, into which I too had been born and bred, but I did have the power to question them, and to ally myself with those who were working to change them.

When it comes to racism and other forms of identity-based oppression, it really is true that ‘you’re either with us or against us.”  There’s no way to hide behind a façade of neutrality.  To say nothing when someone drops a racial slur or pinches a woman’s behind is to become an accomplice to that act.  In these situations, silence is itself a form of tacit consent.

Audre wrote about that too, in an essay called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.”

I often reread these lines when I am feeling fearful of speaking out on an issue I care about:

“We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid….We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us….it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence.  And there are so many silences to be broken” (42-44).

As an ally with some measure of privilege, one of the best things I can do to advance the goal of a just society is to speak up when I see racism or sexism or any other form of discrimination taking place.  And not just speaking to my friends, but speaking up in public, inviting and sometimes even provoking a sustained conversation, with the aim of promoting greater awareness and understanding.

The flashpoint for the current unrest on my campus was a white male student challenging the validity of the school holding a campus-wide teach-in known as “Diversity Day,” in which students, staff and faculty organize workshops around issues related to the politics of identity.  Originally, Diversity Day was entirely a student-organized event, held on an extracurricular basis to compensate for a perceived lack of attention to non-white-western-male culture and experience in the curriculum.  The founding students lobbied hard, and ultimately successfully, to have their effort institutionalized by having classes cancelled, with all students required to attend at least two workshops during the day.

Whenever a revolutionary gesture becomes institutionalized, it loses some of its spark, and maybe this is an event that needs to continue to evolve.

But only someone who was ignorant of the extent to which discrimination and structural identity-based limitations continue to affect women and people of color in this country could argue in good faith that it was not worthwhile to spend some time discussing these issues one day out of the school year.

Of course, many students will take classes in sociology, anthropology, gender studies or ethnic studies and go a lot deeper. But those are often the students who already have an inkling that all is not well for subordinate groups.

It is the most privileged who are often the least aware of how systems of privilege operate, and therefore the least likely to elect to take classes in these topics.  These are the students who are most likely to benefit from being required to attend two eye-opening workshops on Diversity Day.

At many of these workshops, people of privilege will be asked to confront W.E.B. Dubois’s famous question in The Souls of Black Folk, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen, one of the finest anti-racist, anti-sexist writers and educators I know, says that in the 21st century, “the new White People’s Burden is to understand that we are the problem, to come to terms with what that really means, and act based on that understanding.  Our burden is to do something that doesn’t seem to come naturally to people in positions of unearned power and privilege: Look in the mirror honestly and concede that we live in an unjust society and have no right to some of what we have” (Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, 92).

The next step, he says, is to “commit to dismantling white supremacy as an ideology and a lived reality”—not because it’s hurting other people, but because, as Lorde recognized, “none of us is free while some of us are still shackled.”

Or, as Alice Walker put it, “We care because we know this: The life we save is our own.”

The minefield of unearned privilege: tread carefully!

It was not surprising when in a discussion of privilege in class the other day, we spent more time talking about affirmative action in higher education than we did about, say, white or male privilege.

When I paused the conversation to point this out, some students suggested it might be due to their firsthand knowledge of the inequities of the affirmative action system.  Many in the room had conflicted feelings and ideas about the question of merit vs. need-based scholarships.  Why should a student who can afford to pay for college, they asked, be granted a scholarship on the basis of merit, thus denying a place and funds to a student who may be less well-prepared, but is far more needy?

One can argue these issues for a long time without coming anywhere near the deeper issues that lie buried under the surface, like mines just waiting to go off.

Why are white students more likely to be both better-prepared and less needy than students of color?

WHITE PRIVILEGE.  It’s the elephant in the room that no one really wants to deal with, because it doesn’t feel good to admit that if your skin is pinkish beige in color, it’s given you systematic unearned advantages your whole life long.

There are also students—generally white male–who will complain that women now get unfair preferential treatment in higher education admissions.  This may have been true a decade ago, but in fact what’s happened of late is that affirmative action for women has been so successful that now it is men, especially men of color but white men too, who are sought after by college recruiters.

Does this mean that MALE PRVILEGE is all over and done with?  Hell no.  Men still earn at least 20% more than women doing the same job, whether blue collar, white collar or CEO.  Women still have a tougher time rising to leadership positions, and are judged much more harshly if and when they do succeed.  Women still have disproportionate responsibility for keeping the home fires burning and the children taken care of, even when they’re happily married and earning the same as or more than their husbands.

Male privilege is alive and well—but no one really wants to talk about it, not even women.

At least at the college level, students seem more comfortable talking about HETEROSEXUAL PRIVILEGE than about race/class/gender privilege.  It seems trendy to be aware of how queer folk are bullied and discriminated against, and to be sympathetic about it.  But there’s a lot less sympathy when it comes to women who point to male privilege, or people of color pointing to white privilege, or poor folks pointing to elite privilege.

Why is that?

For one thing, if the complaint comes from someone who belongs to the subordinate group, there is an immediate perception that they are speaking in self-interest, and overt action on behalf of one’s self-interest is never well-received by dominant groups when it comes from subordinates, particularly from women.  It’s labeled as “strident” or “whining.”

All the while, dominant groups–say, men, or white people–may be acting in their own self-interest, but it’s just accepted as normal striving, part of the great American way.

For people in subordinate groups and their allies, it can be a difficult challenge to raise the issue of dominant groups’ unearned privilege without setting off all kinds of defensive reactions or tricky deflections, as when a whole class is spent talking about affirmative action instead of about unearned privilege.

If I knew the answer to this conundrum, I would be a much better teacher than I am.  All I can do is keep trying to pull students’ attention back to that minefield of privilege and oppression, and tread carefully–but without turning back.

%d bloggers like this: