Hey, White People, Pt 3: White Privilege Means We Have to Shut Up
We the Whites cannot and should not be leaders in radical change work. Our job is to help, not to be visible.
I got coffee a little over a week ago with a fellow rock climber. We had never spent time together one-on-one before, but in the midst of the multi-week provincial lockdown, the opportunity arose to do so. Read: neither of us had COVID-19, and we were both some of the few people either of us knew who were willing to go for an outdoor walk in Ontario in January. So I suited up in my finest half-a-closet-at-a-time Canadian midwinter attire, and set out for some scheduled, negative-two-degrees-Fahrenheit socializing with fellow climber guy, whom I’ll call G.
G and I procured our drinks, then wandered for an hour or so. For awhile there, it was pretty manageable; it was cold, but we were moving, and while I did not know much about this man, we were on a similar enough political wavelength for chatter to move along. And if nothing else, he was game to answer whatever questions I threw his way. As someone whose social battery life has gotten very unpredictable over the course of the pandemic, I was relieved to realize early in our conversation that I could switch over to mostly listening if I needed to. Which, to be fair, I sometimes hate— sometimes, the fact that your companion wishes only to talk at you makes everything terrible (something I’m also guilty of. Naturally.). But flip side: sometimes, especially when dealing with relative strangers during the pandemic, someone’s willingness to do the talking can be a godsend.
We ended up walking through one of the parks in the area with an excellent tobogganing hill; it takes up a city block, and is shaped like an oblong bowl, one side free of trees (the sledding paradise) but the other three crowded with them. It was as we were crunching across the frozen ground at the base of the bowl, towards one of the park’s exits, that G asked, “so, are you gonna try to be a professor, you think? Like, after you’ve gotten your Masters?”
“I really don’t think so,” I answered, leaning into the incline as the path angled upwards. “I mean, I might become one, you never know. But I honestly don't think that the academy needs another straight, white woman in there, teaching, you know?”
G snorted a little. “Wow. That’s pretty white privilege-y of you.”
My eyebrows furrowed so deeply, my forehead (already fairly angry about the cold, despite the hat I had pulled down over it) hurt. I shook my head for a half-second, then looked over at G who, consequently, was (presumably still is) as white as I am. “Why?” I asked. “How come that’s white privilege-y of me?”
“Oh, because, you’re, you know, avoiding doing the work, you know? Like, must be nice.”
My eyebrows knitted even more tightly. Did I want to have this conversation, whatever version thereof it would end up being? Was it important that I do the work of having said conversation?
It’s almost definitely not important, Conklin, one voice in my head announced.
Another, however, was quick to chime in: sure, maybe it’s not capital-I important, but it’s decently important for you to practice saying what you believe is true without feeling like you have to defend it, or get into an argument; simply saying your piece.
Second voice had a fair point. I have historically struggled with just saying, “well, I happen to think this way, based on X, Y, and Z,” without launching into an attack, getting defensive, or giving in to impatience and going full scorched earth.
Then, my second head voice added, but also, fuck this guy. Tell him he’s wrong and then let’s go home. It’s cold.
So. You know.
“I don’t think it’s too white privilege-y of me, honestly,” I eventually said. We were still walking, but had slowed down as we crested the hill out of the park. I felt G looking at me, but I let myself stay buried in the deep hood of my parka. “Academia was invented by white people,” I went on. “Academia is a violent space for non-white people. Intentionally made to be violent for people of color, not made to serve them. So if it’s going to be reimagined, I don’t think anyone needs white imaginations doing that re-imagining. We have to find ways of supporting that work as white people, sure, but I don’t think that continuing to staff university faculties with whites who claim to know things is the way to make any change actually happen.” We got to the top of the hill. “So I don’t necessarily think I have any business being a professor.”
I think there’s a good chance that G conceded my point, at least in his head; certainly not out loud. He said some “well, um, I guess that’s fairs,” and “oh, hmms” as we turned onto the sidewalk and headed back towards the major intersection close by, and then he promptly changed the subject. I let him. I wasn’t looking for a fight. I was still sort of stunned, honestly, by what he’d said. The moment we got to the intersection, I excused myself, telling him I had used up my social abilities for the day. Which was not a lie— in those last ten minutes, my battery had absolutely been depleted to zero. The cold didn’t help. I hustled back to my apartment, stuck a heating pad in the microwave, then curled up with it under a blanket and waited for all of my nerve endings to come back online. I didn’t revisit G’s comments on my being white-privilege-y until several hours later.
What does white privilege even mean, really? Depending on who you ask, and how defensively white they’re feeling that day, you’ll get a slew of answers:
-G seemed to conceptualize privilege as any sort of non-action or non-leadership on the part of white people in the face of social change or responsibility.
-X University in Toronto (formerly Ryerson University, legally still Ryerson University, should never have been called Ryerson University for reasons of Indigenous genocide) defines white privilege on its White Privilege Global Conference website as, "a socio-political system that distributes power, privilege and benefits unequally among groups in societies and countries in our world.” (Lord knows what a marketplace for ideas about white privilege is supposed to do about social change).
-Educator and writer Cory Collins argues, in a piece for Issue 60 of Learning for Justice, that, “having white privilege and recognizing it is not racist. But white privilege exists because of historic, enduring racism and biases.” Then he goes on to break white privilege down into three categories: “the power of normal,” “the power of the benefit of the doubt," and “the power of accumulated power.” (Collins, 2018)
-Christine Emba of the Washington Post delineates some of the baseline realities of white privilege in white lives in an op-ed from 2016:
Taking it for granted that when you’re shopping alone, you probably won’t be followed or harassed.
Knowing that if you ask to speak to “the person in charge,” you’ll almost certainly be facing someone of your own race.
Being able to think about different social, political or professional options without asking whether someone of your race would be accepted or allowed to do what you want to do.
Assuming that if you buy a house in a nice neighborhood, your neighbors will be pleasant or neutral toward you.
Feeling welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social. (Emba, 2016)
-And Peggy McIntosh wrote in her seminal 1989 paper on the knapsack that:
“I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks. (McIntosh, p. 10)
In short, there are many, many ways to talk about white privilege, because it is a many-faceted entity. The very fact that white privilege exists plays a huge role in that, too— how white privilege is discussed varies widely, because of the spectrum of white discomfort with self-examination (case in point: X University’s definition of white privilege doesn’t focus on whiteness until well after its spiel about systems of unequal distribution). Plus, understanding white privilege demands a longevity of commitment to personal reflection, change, and discomfort that most white people wish to avoid. We’d probably prefer for there to be a stop on the proverbial learning subway at which we disembark, learn about white privilege, then hop back on and travel to the next stop (where we learn how to properly season a stir fry or talk about funerals with our children).
The problem, there, is that whiteness, racism, and what dismantling it all might look like cannot happen in one take. To do so takes lifetimes, because these entities have been shaping generations and running countries and fueling economies for lifetimes. White privilege is something far more nuanced than “oh, look at that.” And the labor required in order to understand, acknowledge, and take apart that nuance is far from appealing to the majority of the white world.
I think that when I told G I didn’t want to be a professor because I didn’t think another white woman needed to be in academia, what he heard was “Abby doesn’t want to be there.” Which, if we extrapolate, could be interpreted as “Abby is unwilling to do the labor of contributing to change work in the academy.” If this was, indeed, his read, then I think that my counter argument did stand a chance of landing with him. But if his read was more along the lines of, “white people need to be involved in everything in order to make change happen, and Abby is skipping out on that,” then my counterargument meant peanuts. Such an interpretation as that would mean that his take on white privilege was one of white privilege— the short-sighted, get-in get-out perspective— and one conversation had on a bone-numbing Saturday afternoon in winter was never going to make a dent in it.
White privilege means never having to say you’re sorry. Or mean it if you do say it. Never having question whether you have a right to something— to being present somewhere, to being safe somewhere, to having something, to being someone. So if you’re a white person who’s not questioning whether you have a right to participate in a particular act of change making, or if you’re not questioning where you are or how you’re positioning yourself within a change making effort, you’re most likely doing the exact opposite of what you think you’re doing. You’re probably actually white privileging your way through spaces that ostensibly seek to dismantle white privilege, and leaving more damage in your wake than there was when you arrived.
A friend and fellow white female education professional once told me, “I try to be part of making change happen in my classroom every day. But I go to demonstrations so that I can be a body that is present for the movement.” It’s been years since she said that, and I still reference it regularly. Her daily practice as a teacher is one of pursuing change through how she engages with her students and their learning. But she also acknowledges that an essential part of being white and wanting to be part of change making is the decision to participate without centering herself.
The power that whiteness and white privilege have in Western society are needed as part of the effort to dismantle said society, because they are so necessary to its preservation. But where it gets tricky for a lot of folks is the how of deploying their whiteness. G’s comments (I thought) captured this puzzle very neatly. There’s a prevalence of “straightforward" takes on using one’s whiteness amongst white people, all generally along the “get in there, use your white powers, make people listen” lines. But the reality of what is needed, and what is at stake, demands much greater intention than such methods.
Get in there, sure, but focus on getting to the front door. Get the door unlocked, so that folks who are not white, who are not highly privileged by our society, can get into the rooms that whiteness has kept locked. Use what you have as a white person, sure, but use it so that others can be safe, have the supplies needed, have the support needed once they are in the formerly locked “room.” Make people listen, sure, by elevating the voices of non-white people, clearing the decks and bringing other whites’ attention to what non-white communities and leaders are saying. Want a Hamilton reference for this? Sure. Get the door to the room where it happens unlocked and open, white people, but do not assume that you will be the first one to walk through the door and to speak to the powers that be. That’s the way things have always happened. The whole point of social change is to empower alternatives to that centuries-old, oppressive norm. Imagine something(s) new.
And speaking of imagining, here’s the other trick to We the Whites’ participating in social change work: we have no idea what to do. The world as it exists right now exists for us: it was made to not only serve our interests, but to keep us and our interests at the top of the social food chain. We’ve never had to live in current society experiencing fear, systemic suppression, and genocidal government behavior. A peer of mine last semester once commented, “listen, white people cannot imagine what a decolonized future looks like. But those of us who are Indigenous can. And we do. We know what this could be.” And that makes sense, does it not? If Person A burns a building down, you do not turn to Person A and say, “how do you think we can help the survivors of this fire whose lives have been forever rewritten because of you?” You approach the survivors and say, “we would like to help you. We have food and water and shelter. What else do you need? Let’s go together.” Whiteness got us here. It’s not going to get us out.
I still don't think that I want to be a professor in future. But then again, I spent much of my adolescence insisting that I would never wear a dress again, only to find fifteen years later that I now put one on every other year or so. This is a poor comparison for any number of reasons, I know. But the point is: humans change. I know that there’s a chance I’ll come to realize down the road that I dearly want to teach undergrad students about radical pedagogy and what it means to decentralize power in a classroom. Who knows! But even then, there’s no guarantee that I would then act on that desire.
Becoming a full-time academic means committing to receiving pay from, doing research for, and teaching in accordance with, an institution that is rooted in white supremacy. Organized education as we know it is rooted in white supremacy. So if I were to actually go that route, I would have to commit to pulling up a chair to my privilege and position on a regular basis, not just as a white individual but as someone charged with not guiding students, GRADING them— determining GPAs and futures in this society as it exists right now— in exchange for a paycheck. It’s bad enough that I’m participating in the whole apparatus as a grad student currently. If I can’t figure out how to hold the door open and help support the folks who are pushing through it in order to dismantle society as it stands right now, as a student, I have no business getting called “professor.” I am not here to lead the imagining and the rebuilding. I am here to work. There’s a difference.