The Blissful Ignorance of White Privilege

What I learned last semester about white privilege and oppression.

How many times have you thought about your race over the course of your lifetime; few enough to count on one hand? If you’re like me, you’re a part of the 63% of Americans who are white, and you’ve also probably thought about the fact that you actually have a race less than five times in your life. You see, in our society, white people are not (for the most part) forced to think about their race in the same ways that racial minorities are forced to do so. When we open a magazine, we usually see fit, beautiful, “perfect” white people. When was the last time you opened a magazine where most of the advertisements and images highlighted people of color? What causes the big divide between minorities and privileged people? Is it the micro-aggressions that the privileged don’t even notice? Is it the fact that privileged people are living in blissful ignorance about what the world around them is really like for some people? Based on my experience both with the Beyond Tolerance D.C. field trip and the recent Juniatian article and open forum at Juniata College, I have decided that as a society, we must teach people to think about their dominant identities as much as we force minorities to think about their subordinate identities. We must educate people so they can recognize their privilege. Just the fact that most white people don’t even recognize their privilege is furthering racial oppression. We must begin breaking down the societal norm that white people are on a different level than every other race, and instead start teaching people to think of dominant groups as part of the spectrum, instead of the norm and everyone else being a variation of the norm.

This opinion was formed after experiencing a few hours at Howard University, as well as seeing how hurt our campus community was by a recent article in the campus newspaper. While I didn’t walk away from Howard physically or verbally abused for being white (which is what some people expected to happen), I did walk away with a newfound motivation for seeking out equality and an increased awareness of the world around me. For the first time in my life, someone could look at me and tell I was “out of place”, and a racial minority. There wasn’t a second I spent on campus when I wasn’t thinking about my race. I also experienced a heightened sense of awareness… from people not looking at me directly while walking down the street, to the rude man in the pizza line, I couldn’t tell if people were treating me differently because I was white, or if it was just because we were in a city. Is this what visible minorities go through all the time? Some people might not face these exact experiences, but I know for a fact that all minorities face little micro-aggressions daily that allow levels of frustration to build up over time.

I also wanted to explore this topic because in class one day, we were handed a survey with many questions asking about our heterosexuality. A sample question is “When did you tell your parents you were a heterosexual?” This questionnaire made me realize how little privileged groups are forced to think about their privilege. Suddenly, all heterosexuals in the room realized that they did, in fact, have a sexuality label attached to them. Recognizing the common struggles between oppressed groups, I believe, is a crucial part to dismantling oppression because many of us overlap in different societal groups; you may be a privileged white male who can become an ally for racism. I now am inspired to learn more about how this came to be, and what I can do as an individual to help conquer the seemingly impossible task of dismantling oppression.

Throughout school, we are taught that racism is something that puts others at a disadvantage. We are not, however, taught that the privileged group is at an advantage. We’re not taught to think of ourselves as oppressors, but rather as neutral parties in society. Peggy McIntosh, in White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack says, “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.” The way in which society is currently setup allows for this “blissful ignorance” that so many privileged white people live in each day.

What is it in our value structure and system of norms as U.S. citizens that make us not think about white as a race? It should be to no surprise that powerful white men throughout American history have been contributing to the current state of, and shaping, the society in which we live today. Francis E. Kendall in Understanding White Privilege, said, “white power-holders, acting on behalf of our entire race, have made decisions that have affected white people as a group very differently than groups of color. History is filled with examples of the purposeful construction of a systemic structure that grants privileges to white people and withholds them from others.” From the writing of our constitution (which intentionally not only allowed, but called for the use of Black people as slaves), to the breaking apart of Black families during slavery (sending family members to physically separated locations), to choosing to keep African Americans illiterate so they could not pass-down their culture into American society, to the removing of American Indian children from their homes, decisions have been made that benefit and favor white people. Powerful white men even passed laws to maintain the legal separation and inequality of whites and African Americans (Plessy v. Ferguson). We manipulated immigration laws so that people of color (especially Chinese and Mexican) were less free to immigrate to the U.S. than Europeans. During World War II, we took American citizens… ones who were here legally, and ripped them from their homes and took their land.

These are the parts of American history that the books leave out, or that our teachers skim over. The problem is that these issues aren’t over, things haven’t changed, we’re still carrying-out this systematic oppression even today. We are discriminating against people of color when trying to get loans, housing, health care, education, and in our criminal “justice” system.

White people are held upon a pedestal. We didn’t climb to the top, we didn’t ask to be placed there, that’s just where society has placed us. Jeff Rose and Karen Paisley, in White Privilege in Experiential Education: A Critical Reflection, say, “Whiteness is often presented in terms of social constructions of race and the commensurate privileged social statuses tied to these constructions.” Just by the very social definition of our skin color, we have a privileged social status. However, it’s just that — a privilege. This means that we didn’t take it, and we have the option not to take it by breaking-down the societal institutions that bestow it upon us. In Work Clothes and Leisure Suits: The Class Basis and Bias of the Men’s Movement, Harry Brod shared these words about privilege:

We need to be clear that there is no such thing as giving up one’s privilege to be ‘outside’ the system. One is always in the system. The only question is whether one is part of the system in a way that challenges or strengthens the status quo. Privilege is not something I take and which therefore have the option of not taking. It is something that society gives me, and unless I change the institutions which give it to me, they will continue to give it, and I will continue to have it, however noble and equalitarian my intentions.

Some people are granted rights or opportunities because they work hard for them; others are given a greater chance simply because they belong to one of the dominant, favored groups in society. Although we cannot ignore our privilege, or get rid of it, we can make conscious choices to try understand racism, and spread knowledge about privilege. The sad truth behind this is that, in terms of racism, for white people, understanding this topic is often just an intellectual exercise and is something that we can move on from and go back into our lives of privilege. We have the power to decide whether we listen to the outcries of minorities or not.

So what can we do when so many white privileged people feel like they are removed from the situation, or don’t think they can take on the task of dismantling oppression? Kendall suggests, “What we can and must do is work daily to combat our privilege by bringing to consciousness others’ and our own, the system in which we are living.” We must begin to shift our conversations about race in this country to include the privileged group. How do we do that? McIntosh suggests that “Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.” To dismantle systemic oppression, we need to get the majority to recognize the inequalities of our world. The first step, I believe, begins with you. Educate yourself, take classes, and speak with friends, professors, and community members. Do everything you can to understand the system of oppression in which we live. Next, get involved. Do something meaningful — join an organization where you can use your skills to impact the community around you. Choose a cause, and support it — become an ally.

Now that you have a basis, a ground to stand on, you can begin to reach out to those around you and spread the knowledge you’ve obtained along with your passion. Once you have knowledge, what will you do to lessen discrimination? Simply learning isn’t enough. I think that every white person should strive (or be encouraged) to experience a situation in which they’re a visible minority. Students should be encouraged to study abroad, and institutions should make it affordable and possible for students to surround themselves in an atmosphere that’s completely different than what they’re used to, maybe putting themselves into a situation where they stand out because of their skin color. Personally, I think I got a good amount of insight and had my awareness shifted by spending just a few hours at Howard, imagine how many students would be changed thanks to the immersive nature and long-term experience of studying abroad!

Most of the students at Juniata College are middle-class white kids. Juniata, as an educational institution, has an opportunity to take those privileged, blissfully ignorant students and over four years change their attitude and awareness about the domestic issues around them. Juniata does a great job getting students to be aware of international issues/experience, but seriously lacks in educating students about what’s going on in their own backyard. I would hope that an institution that encourages its students to Think, Evolve, Act, would recognize just how to do that. There’s many ways to start dealing with these issues… we need to start with spreading the word and educating and encouraging the privileged majority to start calling for change.

Works Cited

Brod, Harry. “Work Clothes and Leisure Suits: The Class Basis and Bias of the Men’s Movement,” in Men’s Lives, ed. Michael S. Kimmel and Michael Messner (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 280.

Kendall, Francis. 2002. “Understanding White Privilege.” http://www.cpt.org/files/Undoing %20Racism%20-%20Understanding%20White%20Privilege%20-%20Kendall.pdf.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Independent School, Winter 1990.

Rose, Jeff, and Karen Paisley. 2012. “White Privilege in Experiential Education: A Critical Reflection.” Leisure Sciences 34 (2): 136–54. doi:10.1080/01490400.2012.652505.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History. “Separate But Equal: The Law of the

Land.” http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown/history/1-segregated/separate-but-equal.html