Photo courtesy of Brittany Wells and Marley Bangert | Staff Writer Brittany Wells jumpstarts her series by taking a critical look at White privilege alongside CDI Director Taj Smith.
This installment of “A White Girl’s Guide to Privilege” explores my experience as a White person examining White privilege. I interviewed the Director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI), Dr. Taj Smith, to explore the Black perspective on White privilege.
According to a 2014 study conducted by the Brookings Institution as a Black man, Smith, would have had a three percent chance of making it from the poorest one-fifth of U.S. families to the top income group by age 40 (compared to a 16 percent chance for White children).
“What about the exceptions? I am the exception,” Smith said. He cited his non-racial privileges, such as a strong family support system and his mother’s connections as how he managed to stay out of trouble. Smith went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism at Rutgers University, a masters in Africana Studies at Cornell University and a doctorate in Education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Is privilege wrong? Privilege is power inherited without request and often without the individual being aware that they carry it to begin with. White privilege is used to describe the societal privileges inherited by people who are perceived as White.
“We all have privilege, and if we accept that, we can move a lot further…Privileged people have a low social self-awareness of how they relate to the world,” Smith said. “Because their value system is based on merit and individuality, it’s hard to see themselves as part of a group…Because of this, White people struggle to see the system and barriers that get in the way for Blacks.
“Difference is not the issue…when difference turns into negative treatment, bias, racism, etc., that’s when it’s a problem.”
Do White people have to give up our privilege, or is there a way for us to use our privilege to help people of color acquire that same privilege?
According to Smith, the best thing for a White person to do to impact the disintegration of racism, especially when it is hidden or systematic, is to bring it into the light: “Talk with other White people about race, racism and White privilege…it’s always more powerful coming from someone who looks like you…what we’re dealing with was not our creation, but we’re responsible for trying to fix it.”
As a White person, it is crucial that I first discover what it means to be White and then explore what it means to be Black. Before asking a Black person what it is like to experience job discrimination, fear of police brutality or to have been forced to attend poorly funded and forgotten school districts, I must first analyze my role in that system and become aware of my privilege. Black people are forced to think about their lack of privilege almost constantly, because at any given moment they must combat systemic expectations.
Many White people ask the question, “Why do all the Black kids sit together in the cafeteria?” According to Smith, “we as a people like to group together, we only have a problem when the Black kids do it.”
I joyfully anticipate the day questioning privilege becomes an aspect of White culture, as it already has in some social circles.
“We as human beings make power what it is…what will you do with it?” Smith said.
Further resources on the topic can be found at the CDI in the Gallagher Student Center. Further reading on the topic can be found in Allan G. Johnson’s novel Privilege, Power, and Difference available online as well as in White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh. Additionally, ASA, BSA and HOLA meetings welcome respectful students of all ethnic backgrounds.
Questions White People are Afraid to Ask
Question: Should I call “Black” people “Black” or “African American”?
Taj’s answer: It’s complicated, and there’s no easy answer, it depends on where they were born. The best thing for people to do is to ask … for me, coming from the North East coast, I identify as Black, but my ethnicity is African American. Race isn’t about biology, it’s about shared political experience.
Author’s takeaway: First of all, not everyone who is black has ancestry that ties them back to Africa, they may identify as African, Haitian, or even as Latinx. This means that, just like pronouns, you should just ask! Also race and ethnicity are two different things. You’re born with your race, and you’re generally defined by the race you look like. Ethnicity is your culture. For example, if you look White in appearance, but are half White and half Latinx, and were raised in a home that celebrated both cultures, your ethnicity might be Latinx even though you may experience White privilege. However, it doesn’t make that person any less Latinx than it does White, and you should ask the person which racial identity they prefer. Moral of the story: celebrate all racial and ethnic identities rather than attempting to be “color blind.”
Brittany Wells is a first-year Montessori education major and staff writer for the Newswire from Cincinnati.